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History Magazine cover
The 1650s
Victoria L. King examines a decade of civil unrest and enlightenment in Europe.

Birth of the Boardwalk: A Sandy History
Russell Roberts looks at the illustrious beginning of the "walk of boards".

Gutta-Purcha
David A. Norris looks at the plastic of the Victorian Age.

The Battle of Cannae
Nicky Nielsen tells the story of the ancient battle between Hannibal Barcas and his sworn enemy, Rome..

Barter and Trade in Colonial America
Joanne Liu looks at the early history of Colonial America where currency as we know it was scarce.

Chroniclers & Scribes — Medieval Historical Writers
William Stroock chronicles some of the great medieval documents that have survived.

The Pedigree of Platinum
Steve Voynick relates the fascinating history of the "other" precious metal.

Pyramids and the Occult — Fact or Fiction?
Pamela D. Toller chronicles the search for the magical meaningn of the pyramids.

The Early Days of Radio
From the book With Amusement For All: A History Of American Popular Culture Since 1930, author LeRoy Ashby looks at the early programs that made radio so popular.

"The Storm": Killer Hurricane Devastates Galveston, Texas
Joanna Bostwick Backman tells the story of a killer hurricane.

Fire Below! The Devastating Reality of Coal Bunker Fires
Patrick McSherry chronicles the dirty and dangerous history of coal bunker fires and the men that fought them.

The Timeless Appeal of Clocks
Phill Jones chronicles the history of timekeeping and its impact on history.

Lizzie Borden and the Fall River Axe Murders
Daniel M. Hoenig describes the enduring interest in this case of murder most foul.


"To Enliven Morality with Wit": The Spectator

Jamie Pratt looks at a journal that influenced its age.

Joseph Addison was an immensely popular and influential figure in his day.

"And Addison, perhaps, will be read with pleasure, when Locke shall be entirely forgotten."

THIS WAS THE OPINION of the great Scottish philosopher, historian and man of letters, David Hume (1711-76). As it turns out Hume was wrong, for while most of us know that the "Locke" referred to was the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), many of us have no idea as to the identity of "Addison". This is a pity, for as Hume's words indicate, Joseph Addison (1672-1719) was an immensely popular and influential figure in his day. Most of this influence was exercised through his collaboration with Richard Steele (1672-1729) on a daily paper called The Spectator.

The Spectator had an effect on English society and literature quite out of proportion to its brief run of less than two years. It appeared daily - except Sundays - for 555 issues, from 1 March 1711 to 6 December 1712, with a brief revival of 80 issues in 1714. Each issue consisted of one long essay, printed on a single sheet of foolscap in double columns on both sides. This turned out to be the right format to appeal to the taste of a relatively new affluent class with an appetite for literature, but without the inclination to read lengthy books on the subjects treated in The Spectator.

The Spectator was narrated by the voice of a character calling himself "Mr. Spectator", a man who describes himself as taciturn, a poor conversationalist who would rather observe and report than get involved in the scenes that he relates. As Mr. Spectator himself explains, "I have often been told by my Friends that it is Pity so many useful Discoveries which I have made, should be in the Possession of a Silent Man. For this Reason therefore, I shall publish a Sheet-full of Thoughts every Morning, for the benefit of my Contemporaries." Through him we are introduced to his small circle of friends, each of whom is a kind of social-type writ small. Among these are Sir Roger de Coverley, the country squire and Tory foxhunter; Will Honeycomb, the gallant man-about-town; Sir Andrew Freeport, merchant and man of affairs; and finally there is Captain Sentry, the retired soldier.

What was so different about The Spectator? It was certainly not the first paper to appear in England. It was not even the first to appear by these two authors: in 1709 Steele had published a paper called The Tatler, with contributions from Addison. The Tatler consisted of pieces of news, criticism and a little politics, with each paper being a self-contained whole. By contrast, The Spectator would devote an entire paper or even series of papers to a single theme or subject, treating it exhaustively. Another quality that set The Spectator apart was its intent. It set out not only to entertain and inform, but also to edify and instruct morally and aesthetically. Addison and Steele's stated goal was to "enliven Morality with Wit, and to temper Wit with Morality."

It is difficult for people in our time to understand the appeal of such a work. It is easy to think that moral instruction could quickly become boring and pedantic, but in the early years of the 18th century there was a demand for just this sort of work - provided of course that the authors had a light touch. No one had a lighter touch than Addison and Steele.

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA
No. 81.            Saturday, June 2, 1711

ABOUT the middle of last Winter I went to see an Opera at the Theatre in the Hay-Market, where I could not but take notice of two Parties of very fine Women, that had placed themselves in the opposite Side-Boxes, and seemed drawn up in a kind of Battle-Array one against another. After a short Survey of them, I found they were Patched differently; the Faces, on one hand, being Spotted on the Right Side of the Forehead, and those upon the other on the Left. I quickly perceived that they cast Hostile Glances upon one another; and that their Patches were placed in those different Situations, as Party-Signals to distinguish Friends from Foes. In the Middle-Boxes, between these two opposite Bodies, were several Ladies who Patched indifferently on both sides of their Faces, and seemed to sit there with no other Intention but to see the Opera. Upon Enquiry I found, that the Body of Amazons on my Right Hand, were Whigs; and those on my Left, Tories; and that those who had placed themselves in the Middle-Boxes were a Neutral Party, whose Faces had not yet declared themselves. These last, however, as I afterwards found, diminished daily, and took their Party with one Side or the other; insomuch that I observed in several of them, the Patches which were before dispersed equally, are now all gone over to the Whig or Tory Side of the Face. The Censorious say. that the Patches turn to the Right or to the Left, according to the Principles of the Man who is most in favour. But whatever may be the Motives of a few Fantastical Coquets, who do not Patch for the Publick Good, so much as for their own Private Advantage; it is certain, that there are several Women of Honour who Patch out of Principle, and with an Eye to the Interest of their Country. Nay, I am informed, that some of them adhere so steadfastly to their Party, and are so far from Sacrificing their Zeal for the Publick to their Passion for any particular Person, that in a late Draught of Marriage-Articles a Lady has stipulated with her Husband, That, whatever his Opinions are, she shall be at Liberty to patch on which side she pleases..
Addison and Steele

Joseph Addison was born in Milston, Wiltshire, England. At 14 years of age Addison began attending the renowned Charterhouse School, whose alumni include John Wesley and the novelist William Thackeray. It was at Charterhouse that Addison first made the acquaintance of Richard Steele. From there he went on to Oxford, where he completed his M.A. in 1693.

In 1695 Addison wrote A Poem to his Majesty, William III. This brought him to the attention of influential politicians, who saw much potential in the young scholar. He was granted a pension of 300, enabling him to travel on the Continent.

On his return to London Addison fell in with the Kit-Cat Club, an association of political and literary figures whose members included Richard Steele, playwright William Congreve, architect Sir John Vanbrugh and future prime minister Sir Robert Walpole.

In 1708 Addison was elected to Parliament. The same year he became the equivalent of Secretary of State for Irish Affairs. While in Ireland he began contributing to Steele's paper The Tatler. The last Tatler appeared on 2 January 1711, by which time Addison had authored 40 of 271 issues. Two months later he and Steele launched The Spectator. Addison continued to write essays, poetry and an acclaimed tragic play, Cato.

After marrying well, to the dowager Countess of Warwick, Addison died on 17 June 1719 at 48 years of age. He is interred in Westminster Abbey.

Richard Steele (later Sir Richard) was born in Dublin, Ireland. His father, an attorney, died when he was five. His uncle paid for his education, sending him to Charterhouse in 1684. From there he went to Oxford, but left without taking a degree to pursue a career in the army. He attained the rank of captain before leaving the army in 1705.

Steele had begun to write while he was still in the army. In 1701 he penned a spiritual work called The Christian Hero. He then wrote an immensely popular play, The Conscious Lovers. Over the course of his career he wrote several plays, periodicals and political pamphlets.

Steele's personality could best be described as that of a "Good Time Charlie". He was convivial, generous to a fault, and a lover of food and drink. His dissolute lifestyle led him into debt on more than one occasion. Partly for this reason he married a wealthy widow named Margaret Stretch in 1705. In 1714 Steele was named Governor of the Drury Lane Theatre, and was knighted the following year.

Steele's health deteriorated as a result of his intemperate habits. He died on 1 September 1729, aged 58 years.

England's Augustan Age

The advent of the 1700s saw a rebirth of literary culture in England after a perceived slump during the previous century. During the 1600s, English letters seemed to have taken a bad turn. The English Civil War (1642-49) was followed by the closing of the playhouses during the Puritan period. The settling of events with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 did not seem to improve things. A tendency towards crude behavior and dissoluteness seemed to pass from Charles II's court into English public life generally. However, by the end of the 1600s things began to look up, and especially later during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14). The English saw themselves as experiencing a cultural flowering comparable to Rome's Golden Age during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. Thus, this period was dubbed England's "Augustan Age". It was in this context that Alexander Pope dared to compare Addison to the Roman poet Virgil in the lines: "Then future ages with delight shall see / How Plato's, Bacon's, Newton's looks agree; / Or in fair series laurell'd Bards be shown, / A Virgil there, and here an Addison."

"Grub Street": The Expansion of Publishing and Readership

It was fine to say that England was experiencing a literary golden age, but only a privileged few had the education or leisure to participate in this high Augustan culture. All this enlightenment had yet to reach the common people. This role was filled admirably by The Spectator. Part of its success in this lay in the fact that the common people wanted to be enlightened.

The expansion of England's economy resulted in an increasingly affluent but non-aristocratic middle class. This class seemed to have a voracious appetite for reading material. In previous centuries those who could read tended do so intensively; in other words they read only a few works (mainly religious ones) repeatedly. During the 1700s people began to read extensively, reading many different works. In France, where new books needed to be licensed, there were some 300 legally authorized books published in 1750. By the 1780s that number had jumped to around 1,600. Britain had about 25 periodicals being published in 1700. By 1780 there were 158.

For the first time it was possible for writers to make a living solely from their quills, without having to rely on a wealthy patron for support. The quality of the work that this new army of writers produced varied from high poetry to low pornography. Many writers were literary hacks, grubbing for a living, and thus they labored under the pejorative new collective term "Grub Street". The term had connotations comparable to today's term "paparazzi".

The Politics of Whig versus Tory

Political labels were as misleading in the early 1700s as they are today. However, broadly speaking, there were two political allegiances in England during the brief run of The Spectator. The archetypical Tory was someone whose wealth was in land, who was a supporter of the High Anglican Church, a believer in firm government and a strong monarchy. Their base of support was usually in the country. The Tories mainly had the upper hand in politics until 1714, which marked the beginning of the Whig ascendancy.

The Whigs were more mercantile, free-market liberals who distrusted meddling by the government in private affairs. They were supporters of the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 that removed James II from the throne in favor of his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange.

To understand the role that The Spectator played in these affairs, it must be understood that Tories tended to look down on Whigs as crass, unmannered and unlettered. In this atmosphere it was natural for Whigs to want to prove that they too were educated, cultured and fit material for government. Two works in particular served as guidebooks in the process of forming the Whigs as a cultured party. They were Lord Shaftesbury's 1711 Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, and of course The Spectator. The Spectator was not overtly political, but part of its success was rooted in its natural appeal to the growing power and influence of the Whigs.

The Spectator debuted to an eager public on 1 March 1711.

The Spectator and "The Fair Sex"

The Spectator was one of the first literary endeavors to make a deliberate effort to appeal to a female readership. As Addison remarked in the issue of 12 March 1711, "there are none to whom this Paper will be more useful, than to the Female World. I have often thought there has not been sufficient Pains taken in finding out proper Employments and Diversions for the Fair ones." It was part of The Spectator's mission to remedy this neglect. In his 1779 Life of Addison, Dr. Samuel Johnson noted that "that general knowledge which now circulates in common talk was in [Addison's] day rarely to be found. and in the female world any acquaintance with books was distinguished only to be censured." Whole papers of The Spectator were devoted to reading recommendations for women or advice on proper comportment. There were also lampoons on the extravagance of women's fashion, including a hilarious satire on the elaborate and absurd etiquette of women's fans (27 June 1711), and another on the proliferation of facial beauty marks (2 June 1711).

Much of this attention to women took the form of a paternalistic moralism that would be little appreciated today. Nonetheless, the women of 1711 were flattered simply to be noticed by a literary culture that had hitherto been content to completely ignore them or treat them as mere objects of male desire.

Spread of the "Spectator Style"

On 12 March 1711, Joseph Addison wrote in The Spectator: "It is with much Satisfaction that I hear this great City inquiring Day by Day after these my Papers, and receiving my Morning Lectures with a becoming Seriousness and Attention. My Publisher tells me, that there are already Three thousand of them distributed every Day: So that if I allow Twenty Readers to every Paper. I may reckon about Threescore thousand Disciples in London and Westminster, who I hope will take care to distinguish themselves from the thoughtless Herd of their ignorant and unattentive Brethren."

Twenty readers to each paper is easy to believe if one realizes that much of this reading took place in one of the many coffeehouses that were all the rage in London, where the papers were complimentary to patrons. At its height, circulation reached 14,000 copies every day.

Credit for The Spectator's popularity must also go to the beautiful prose of Addison and Steele. Gentle wit and a polished style made even the difficult ideas of Locke and Newton accessible to a reader of average education. Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) admitted in his Autobiography that The Spectator was his model for stylish writing.

The Spectator was a major agent in the spread of Enlightenment ideas. Historian Isser Woloch points out that as the Enlightenment spread across Europe towards the East, "the first rays of literary culture to penetrate were usually in the form of Spectator-like periodicals." The same applied in the westward direction: Benjamin Franklin reprinted several essays from The Spectator in the American colonies, even though by then they were at least 50 years old. The standard for English prose style was set by Addison and Steele. This is all the more reason why it is such a shame that The Spectator is now generally unread. We ought to envy an age that could boast a "lifestyle magazine" of such quality.

This article originally appeared in our October/November 2001 issue.


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