Joseph Addison Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

ph_0111206484-Addison.jpgJoseph Addison Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: With Richard Steele, Addison wrote The Tatler and The Spectator, whose combination of literature and journalism established the magazine as an important medium of cultural expression.

Early Life

Joseph Addison was born May 1, 1672, in the English village of Milston, to Jane Gulston and Lancelot Addison. His father was rector of the local Anglican parish. Little is known about Addison’s youth except that his father’s promotion to the deanery at Lichfield Cathedral moved the family in 1683. Addison, probably intending to enter Holy Orders, enrolled in Lancelot’s alma mater, Queen’s College at Oxford University, in 1687.

A year later, Addison, like England itself, headed in a more secular direction. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 ended the line of Stuart kings who ruled by Divine Right and began a line of monarchs who ruled by parliamentary invitation. Addison, who enthusiastically welcomed the Revolution, transferred to Magdalen College in 1689 on the strength of his reputation as a Latin scholar. Addison’s interests in ancient and modern literature brought him into contact with writers and publishers anxious to bring classical texts to English readers through easy translations. In 1693 and 1694, Addison published several original English poems as well as translations.

This modest literary success brought Addison to the notice of important Whig politicians such as John Somers and Charles Montagu. In the highly partisan world of postrevolutionary London, successful politicians needed skillful writers who could defend party policies with intelligence and wit. In the mid-1690’s, Addison seems to have decided on a career in politics rather than in religion. In 1699, he accepted a government grant to make the Grand Tour of the Continent and study rival European cultures. Addison was abroad for four years, keeping in regular touch with his political patrons by writing witty letters of commentary on his travels. He peppered his account with clever metaphors and humorous turns of phrase: “The French,” he wrote in a typical passage, “sing, laugh and starve.” His patrons wanted protégés who could be entertaining as well as useful.

A portrait of Addison painted before he left Oxford shows a handsome young man with a broad forehead, alert eyes, and a fine, aquiline nose. He is dressed like a stylish young gentleman in a long wig of cascading curls, and over a plain dark coat is a long scarf, knotted and tossed rakishly to the side.

Addison soon proved useful to Somers and Montagu. The Whig Party needed a poet to celebrate in serious verse the victory of their general, the Duke of Marlborough, at Blenheim. Addison’s mini-epic The Campaign (1705) fit their needs exactly. The poem was widely read, and Addison was handsomely rewarded with a political appointment. For the next five years Addison held a series of increasingly important posts, even as he kept busy with literature, writing a book of his travels, a comic opera, and several pamphlets on topical issues.

Life’s Work

On April 12, 1709, the first issue of The Tatler appeared. It was the product of Richard Steele, another writer allied with the Whig Party. Steele planned to shape the political opinions and influence the social manners of London’s middle and upper classes by a thrice-weekly broadsheet that dispensed news about foreign affairs, city happenings, and theatrical or literary trends. The job proved to be more than Steele could handle alone; by issue 24 Steele was incorporating material supplied by Addison, an acquaintance from Charter School (which both had attended before the university) and the Kit-Kat Club (a clique of Whig politicians, poets, and publishers).

During its successful run, Addison authored about a fifth of the 271 issues of The Tatler. Steele noted the distinctive contributions of his friend in his farewell to his readers, praising Addison for “noble discourses” on learned topics such as the immortality of the soul and for the “finest strokes of wit and humour.” Addison’s contributions were limited because of his duties as chief secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The Tatler ceased publication when the Whigs lost control of the government to their rivals, the Tories.

With their party out of power, Addison and Steele tried to repeat The Tatler’s success. On March 1, 1711, they published the first issue of The Spectator. More ambitious than The Tatler, The Spectator appeared daily except Sunday, eschewed explicit political propagandizing, and sought to interest its readers in high culture. The Spectator was spectacularly popular for its time, with a daily readership estimated at twenty thousand. It lasted for 555 issues, until December 6, 1712. Addison and Steele contributed equally—251 issues apiece—and used contributions from friends for the remaining fifty-three issues.

Addison and Steele’s contemporary John Gay remarked how different The Spectator was from any daily paper before it. He praised its “Prodigious Run of Wit and Learning.” Skillfully Addison and Steele varied the paper’s tone and content: one day a humorous account of the...

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Joseph Addison Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Joseph Addison might easily have followed in his father’s footsteps: attending Oxford University, becoming a minister of the Anglican Church, pursuing a series of increasingly important ecclesiastical posts, and supporting the divine right of Stuart kings. Addison, however, took a different path.

Two revolutionary currents swept up Addison while he was at Oxford. The first was an enthusiasm for the “New Philosophy,” the scientific method that was challenging the supremacy of classical philosophy; the second was the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which brought William III to the throne in place of James II and established the principle that Parliament’s choice for a king weighed equally with God’s anointing of his earthly representative. Addison followed the traditional classical curriculum at Oxford (where he achieved his first literary reputation for Latin poetry), but with the idea of supporting a new English culture and political order. Based on the Roman concept of an educated citizenry, this new order, Addison and like-minded revolutionaries hoped, would be the greatest civilization England had yet known: A literate and cultured populace would sensibly cooperate in their own government to develop a thriving commercial economy at home and to achieve leadership among European nations.

While at Oxford, Addison expressed his enthusiasm for this new concept of England in poems that brought him to the attention of leading Whig politicians. In 1699, Lord Somers and Lord Halifax secured for Addison a grant from William III, allowing Addison to travel throughout the Continent in preparation for government service. Addison remained abroad until late 1703, when William’s death ended the pension. He produced little for the next year until, at the request of two of Queen Anne’s ministers, he wrote The Campaign to celebrate the military victories of the duke of Marlborough against the French. This successful poem, which was published in 1705, won for Addison a position as commissioner of appeals.

This post placed Addison in a circle of Whig politicians and writers called the Kit-Kat Club. The powerful politicians supported the writers by patronage; the writers...

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Joseph Addison Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

As the son of an Anglican clergyman, Joseph Addison received a good education, beginning in Lichfield and continuing at the Charterhouse School, where he first met his longtime friend and collaborator, Richard Steele.

After attending Magdalen College, Oxford, Addison determined on a career in public service. Thanks to influential politicians, he received a pension which enabled him to tour Europe (1699-1703) and learn at first hand about the countries with which he might one day have to deal as a diplomat. After the success of his poem “The Campaign,” celebrating the victory at Blenheim over the French, Addison was appointed a Commissioner of Appeals. He held a series of increasingly important secretaryships until...

(The entire section is 211 words.)

Joseph Addison Biography (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Joseph Addison might easily have followed in his father’s footsteps: attending Oxford University, becoming a minister of the Anglican Church, pursuing a series of increasingly important ecclesiastical posts, and supporting the divine right of the Stuart kings. However, Addison, like many other sons, took a different path.

Two revolutionary currents swept up Addison while he was at Oxford. The first was an enthusiasm for the “New Philosophy,” the scientific method that was challenging the supremacy of classical learning. The second was the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which brought William III to the throne in place of James II and established the principle that Parliament’s choice of a king weighed equally with...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

Joseph Addison Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Joseph Addison is perhaps best remembered today as the journalistic partner of Richard Steele and as the creator of that quaint and fascinating country gentleman Sir Roger de Coverley. To his contemporaries, however—his friends, the fellow members of the Kit-Cat Club, and even his political and literary enemies, among whom, eventually, were both Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope—and to the generation following his, he was considerably more. In the opinion of the eighteenth century reading public he was an outstanding poet, a penetrating critic, a major playwright, and a consummate master of style. He was, in short, one of the brilliant literary figures of his time, quite in keeping with the spirit of an age that produced a...

(The entire section is 886 words.)