Study Guide

The Spectator

by Joseph Addison, Richard Steele

The Spectator Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s The Spectator was among the most popular and influential literary periodicals in England in the eighteenth century. Begun on March 1, 1711, this one-page essay sheet was published six days a week, Monday through Saturday, and reached 555 issues by its last issue on December 6, 1712. Each issue was numbered, the articles were unsigned, and many had mottoes from classical authors. The Spectator’s end was brought about by a combination of the other interests of its authors and by a rate increase in the taxes that were levied on paper. In 1714, The Spectator was revived from June through December by Addison and two other writers, who had occasionally contributed to the original publication. Reading The Spectator yields a vivid portrait of London life in the first decades of the eighteenth century.

The Spectator, like its equally famous predecessor, The Tatler (1709 to 1712), was the creation of Sir Richard Steele, who combined a life of politics with a writing career as a poet, a playwright, and a literary journalist. Steele became a member of Parliament, was knighted by King George I in 1715, and achieved success as a dramatist with his play The Conscious Lovers in 1722. Using the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff, Steele provided lively stories and reports on London society through The Tatler, which attracted male and female readers. Addison, already popular as poet, was also a playwright and a writer on miscellaneous topics who held a series of government appointments. He contributed material to The Tatler and then formed a collaborative relationship with Steele to write for The Spectator. While The Tatler featured both news and short essays on topical matters, The Spectator, with the established readers of The Tatler as its primary buyers, was composed of one long essay on the social scene or a group of fictive letters to the editor that gave Addison and Steele a forum for moral or intellectual commentary. This was presented in the periodical by the specially created, fictional social observer, “Mr. Spectator.”

To give the essays structure, Steele created the Spectator Club and presented the character of Sir Roger De Coverly, a fifty-six-year-old bachelor and country gentleman, as its central spokesman. Other members of this fictional group included a merchant, Sir Andrew Freeport, a lawyer, a soldier, a clergyman, and a socialite, Will Honeycomb, who contributed gossip and interesting examples of social behavior to Mr. Spectator. Although Steele ultimately did not use the Spectator Club as a device as often as he apparently anticipated, the De Coverly essays were the best recognized and most popular section of The Spectator. In later literature of the century, characters similar to those created by Steele for the club appeared in novels and political periodicals. Through De Coverly and Freeport, Addison and Steele are able to contrast the political views of the Tory and Whig parties and, through Honeycomb, to satirize the ill effects of an overly social life on personal morality and good judgment.

The first number of The Spectator begins with Addison’s general introduction of Mr. Spectator to his readers. As Mr. Spectator explains, readers want to know something about an author, even if the information is general: Thus I live in the World, rather as a Spectator of Mankind, than as one of the Species . . . as a Looker-on, which is the Character I intend to preserve in this Paper.

As for keeping some personal details to himself, Mr. Spectator notes that knowing his real name, his age, and his place of residence would spoil his ability to act as a nonpartisan observer. By issue 10 (written by Addison), Mr. Spectator reports to his readers that the periodical has a daily circulation of three thousand papers, and, by its height in 1712, nine thousand issues of it are sold daily in London. In addition to essays on a single theme, some issues used letters from readers (written by friends of Addison and Steele), which created the impression of a widespread circulation while offering a means for Mr. Spectator to address specific social problems. Issue 20, for example, written by Steele, is based on a young lady’s note about men who stare at women in church. Mr. Spectator gives a detailed and courteous reply that contrasts “male impudence,” as he labels it, among the English, the Irish, and the Scots. Several subsequent issues, such as 48 and 53, are composed entirely of these sorts of letters, which become a typical way for the authors to discuss male and female social behavior and, usually, female fashion. The importance of conversation in society is profiled in issue 49, also by Steele, on the role of the coffeehouse as “the Place of Rendezvous to all that live near it, who are thus turned to relish calm and ordinary...

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The Spectator Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Bloom, Edward, and Lillian Bloom. Educating the Audience: Addison, Steele, and Eighteenth-Century Culture. Los Angeles: William Clark Andrews Memorial Library, University of California, 1984. A study of The Spectator providing a detailed perspective on the readers of the periodical and how the authors appealed to them.

Bond, Richmond P., ed. Studies in the Early English Periodical. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1957. This indispensable history of the eighteenth century periodical provides the terminology currently in use to describe literary essays and magazines.

Dammer, Richard H. Richard Steele. Boston: Twayne, 1982. This biography in the Twayne’s English Authors series argues that Steele used themes from an earlier moral tract, The Christian Hero (1701), as a unifying feature in his essays for The Spectator.

Ketcham, Michael D. Transparent Designs: Reading, Performance, and Form in “The Spectator” Papers. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. A significant and careful study of Addison’s and Steele’s literary styles.

Mackie, Erin Skye. Market à la Mode: Fashion, Commodity, and Gender in the “Tatler” and the “Spectator.” Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Mackie examines both of the periodicals edited by Addison and Steele, focusing on how they covered fashion in their role as arbiters of eighteenth century English taste. Places the periodicals within the commercial context of publishing and describes how their fashion reportage expressed contemporary ideas about gender identity and cultural standards.

Newman, Donald J., ed. “The Spectator”: Emerging Discourses. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005. Examines how The Spectator served as a manual to help the emerging middle class organize its life. The essays discuss the periodical’s ideas about children, literature, education, femininity, death, and other topics.

Winton, Calhoun. Captain Steele: The Early Career of Richard Steele. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1964. The first of Winton’s two-book biography of Steele, covering his early career between 1690 and 1714. Half of this volume is on Steele’s periodical journalism and The Spectator.