Joseph Addison Biography


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

ph_0111206484-Addison.jpg Joseph 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...

(The entire section is 2177 words.)