Joseph Addison

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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...

(This entire section contains 2177 words.)

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of the 271 issues ofThe 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 latest fad, the next day a discourse on the appeal of epic poetry, on the third day a rational argument for belief in a supreme being. Addison and Steele’s purpose, to delight their readers even as they instructed them, was expressed in an early issue: “It was said of Socrates, that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven, to inhabit among men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy . . . to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables, and in Coffee-Houses.” To give unity to the varied topics, they created the editorial persona of Mr. Spectator, an eccentric, friendly gentleman insatiably curious about London life.

Three months after The Spectator’s cessation, Steele began The Guardian (1713), a paper directed at the domestic household rather than London society. Addison took over the editorship after ninety-six issues and continued the project until October, 1713. Within a year, Addison revived The Spectator but after two months had to give up writing in order to attend to another crisis. After Queen Anne’s death, the British Parliament invited George, the Elector of Hanover, to sit upon the English throne. Addison participated in the transition government that supervised George I’s accession.

A year later, Addison found occasion for a new periodical. He began The Freeholder on December 23, 1715, in support of George I, whose rule was then being challenged by a rebellion in Scotland on behalf of the Stuart line exiled in 1688. All the persuasive skills and good humor Addison had developed in previous journals were employed in the effort to keep Englishmen happy with their German king. The Freeholder offered itself as the thinking man’s guide to sensible, civilized, conservative politics amid the excesses of rebellion.

The Hanover monarchy survived, and Addison tasted the rewards of both political success and literary eminence. In 1715, he was appointed a commissioner of trade and two years later a secretary of state. He married the widowed Countess of Warwick in 1716. He wrote a comedy, The Drummer: Or, The Haunted House (1716), that had a mildly successful run. His last venture in periodical journalism occurred under ironic circumstances. Addison once more called upon his learning and wit in The Old Whig (1719) to defend his party’s Peerage Bill before Parliament; sadly, his opponent in this pamphlet war was his former ally, Richard Steele. Two months later Addison died peacefully in his bed.


Addison and Steele’s The Tatler, The Spectator, and The Guardian are literary achievements of the first rank. They are verbal mosaics of literary criticism, lighthearted social commentary, short fiction, and advice about manners. They use the resources of art on topics previously regarded as too ephemeral or practical for literature. Their mixture of journalism and art immortalized an age. The pages of these journals provide an unparalleled insight into the life of London’s leisured classes at the start of the eighteenth century.

The literary consequences of Addison and Steele’s journalism were profound. They established periodical journals and magazines as artifacts in literary culture, both as mediums of criticism and of imaginative, often experimental, writing. For more than two centuries the conventions of their periodicals have reappeared in publication after publication: the use of departments, the creation of a persona, and the mix of informative and entertaining articles in the same issue.

Addison’s special contributions to these periodicals were his learning, his wit, and his prose style. His knowledge of classical and contemporary literature enabled him to write accessible, intelligent literary criticism. His The Spectator papers on the “pleasures of the imaginations,” for example, are a landmark in criticism, often regarded as the starting point of a Romantic sensibility in English literature. Addison’s wit is gentle in comparison to the slashing repartee of Restoration writers; its subtlety and good-naturedness became synonymous with the British sense of humor.

Most important, Addison revolutionized English prose style. By cultivating a middle style that combined the self-conscious artistry of the high style with the conversational immediacy of the low style, Addison perfected a prose that was literate yet easy to read. Addison’s style invites the reader’s participation in the writer’s imaginative act. It was the style that underlay the explosion of literature (the novel, the familiar essay, the travel book) in the later eighteenth century. Samuel Johnson, the most knowledgeable critic of the time, summed up Addison’s importance thus: “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.”


Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom. Addison and Steele: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980. This invaluable collection reprints critical estimates of the authors and their journals from the early 1700’s onward. It contains many of the famous as well as hard-to-find evaluations by eighteenth century commentators. These entries help the student trace the rise and fall of Addison and Steele’s reputation.

Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom. Joseph Addison’s Sociable Animal: In the Market Place, on the Hustings, in the Pulpit. Providence: Brown University Press, 1971. The lengthiest study of Addison’s contribution to the worldview of the emerging British middle class. By connecting ideas scattered throughout the periodical essays, the Blooms systematize Addison’s economic, political, and religious thinking.

Bond, Richmond P. The Tatler: The Making of a Journal. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971. Bond investigates the day-to-day problems involved with writing, composing, printing, and selling a journal in early eighteenth century London. The book is a salutary reminder of the pressures that literary enterprises face in a commercial era.

Dammers, Richard H. Richard Steele. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981. Dammers takes seriously Steele’s efforts to reform manners through literature and to promote a general philosophy of benevolence. In his discussion of the journals, Dammers pays special attention to Steele’s attitudes toward men and women in the married state.

Evans, James E., and John N. Wall, Jr. A Guide to Prose Fiction in the “Tatler” and the “Spectator.” New York: Garland Publishers, 1977. The authors provide a number-by-number summary of both journals. The general reader will find the guide useful for tracing themes or topics among the 826 issues. The literary student will discover how much these periodical essays relied upon fictional devices and conventions.

Goldgar, Bertrand. The Curse of Party: Swift’s Relations with Addison and Steele. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961. This book focuses on the complications caused by the political affiliations of writers in Augustan London. In the case of Jonathan Swift, Addison, and Steele, political differences created personal as well as professional enmity among writers who shared important cultural ideals, a vision of literature’s importance, and a willingness to experiment with traditional genres.

Johnson, Samuel. “Life of Addison.” In Lives of English Poets. London, 1781. Frequently reprinted in editions of Johnson’s work, this classic study appreciates Addison’s importance to subsequent periodical literature. Johnson, whose Idler and Rambler papers imitated Addison and Steele’s journals, realized the problems of achieving commercial success while maintaining quality in content and presentation.

Ketcham, Michael G. Transparent Designs: Reading, Performance, and Form in the “Spectator” Papers. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. The author argues that The Spectator reshaped the eighteenth century vision of society—in which public activity and private life were radically separated—into a social vision which blended the public and private spheres. He concludes that this new vision shaped not only the explosion of periodical journalism in the century but the rise of the novel as well.

Otten, Robert M. Joseph Addison. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982. This study appreciates Addison’s achievement as a writer who constantly adapted to the changing demands of audience and circumstance. It discusses Addison’s inventiveness in approaching familiar topics or repeated themes through a variety of techniques and perspectives.

Smithers, Peter. The Life of Joseph Addison. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968. Smithers is Addison’s most comprehensive, sympathetic, and judicious biographer. Smithers appreciates that Addison’s vision of citizenship underlies both his own career and his effort to bring “Philosophy into Clubs and Assemblies.” The book is especially good at placing Addison’s literary works in their historical context.