Joseph Addison

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 196

Joseph Addison wrote in almost every genre flourishing in British literature during the reigns of William III and Queen Anne. In addition to his three plays, Addison wrote verse in Latin and in English, a travel book, a scholarly account of ancient Roman coins, political pamphlets, and hundreds of essays for The Tatler, The Spectator, and other periodicals. This variety reflects the active literary culture of the time, Addison’s own wide learning, and his search for his proper niche.

Because of Addison’s varied canon, there has yet to be a satisfactory complete edition. The first attempt, by Thomas Tickell in 1721, omitted some embarrassing early works and many of the periodical essays. Another collected edition a century later restored some early works and offered a fuller selection of essays. Two good modern critical editions cover most of Addison’s corpus: A. C. Guthkelch’s The Miscellaneous Works (1914) includes the plays as well as the poetry and nonperiodical prose works, and Donald Bond’s The Spectator (1965) covers Addison’s essays for the most famous periodical to which he contributed. Essays written for other journals await modern editions. Addison’s Letters, an unrevealing collection, was published in 1941.

Achievements

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Joseph Addison’s literary reputation has risen and fallen cyclically for reasons that have little to do with his artistic achievement. His contemporaries and the next generation praised Addison highly for expressing not only Whig political principles but also classical qualities that gave English literature a dignity it previously lacked. Readers and writers in the Romantic age, however, found Addison unoriginal and conventional. The Victorians restored Addison to the pedestal because he spoke well of virtue and painted the portrait of the Christian gentleman. Twentieth century critics often treat his work as a reflection of the values of the ascendant bourgeoisie; many dislike the man for accommodating himself to the class structure of eighteenth century England.

Although such judgments affect how often Addison is reprinted and how much he is read, his place in literary history rests firmly on two achievements: his role in the development of the periodical essay and his prose style. Through his collaboration with Richard Steele on The Tatler (1709-1711), The Spectator (1711-1712, 1714), and The Guardian (1713), Addison helped establish the periodical essay as a literary form. Seemingly informal and natural yet shaped by conscious art, Addison’s prose style became for the next two centuries a model for novice writers: Stylists as diverse as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Hardy began by imitating Addison. Samuel Johnson defined Addison’s style in an immortal assessment: “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.”

If Addison’s primary achievement was in periodical prose, his plays rank second, his scholarly prose third, and his poetry last. His plays do not have all the virtues of successful drama but do show that two qualities of his prose—a light comic touch and a skill at putting the best words in the best order—were partially transferable to another genre. There is a consistency to Addison’s drama: All three plays are quite competent and worth reading. Historically, the plays received varied reactions: Rosamond was a disaster, Cato was a huge success, and The Drummer was hardly noticed. The reactions to Rosamond and Cato had little to do with their literary merit, a fate common to other imaginative works in Augustan London, where politics, authorial popularity, and prejudice were often decisive.

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Joseph Addison first gained a literary reputation as a poet, writing at Oxford imitation classical poems in Latin and, later, heroic verse in praise of the English war against Louis XIV. His patriotic verse brought him to the attention of the Whig politicians and writers of the Kit-Cat Club. The politicians helped Addison’s career in government, and the writers, especially Richard Steele, helped Addison’s literary career by introducing him to the theater, political pamphleteering, and periodical journalism. His modern reputation rests mainly on essays he contributed to The Tatler, The Spectator, and other periodical papers.

Achievements

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Although he was a powerful man of letters and of politics in his own era, Joseph Addison is known more as a journalist and popularizer of neoclassical moral and philosophical trends. His conversational prose style, mild wit, and humor influenced the development of the informal essay. His poetry has been overshadowed by his collaboration with Richard Steele in the establishment of periodical literature for the new middle-class reading public, and these ventures also served in developing his reputation as a literary critic. His vivid portrayals of London life and his focus on middle-class mores were deliberate attempts to inculcate moral values in his audience, and they led in the direction of social commentary. Some judgments of his interest in the imagination and the natural world have designated him a pre-Romantic, while others have found in his promotion of upper-middle-class values a foreshadowing of the Victorians. A seat in Parliament, patronage, and political appointments secured him enough public presence to gain attention even for his less successful literary works, such as an opera that failed and a neoclassical tragedy that was popular in his lifetime but remains primarily a literary curiosity.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 214

Joseph Addison wrote in almost every genre common in British literature during the reigns of William III and Queen Anne. Besides poetry in Latin and English, Addison composed an opera, a tragedy, a comedy, a travel book, a scholarly account of ancient Roman coins, political pamphlets, and hundreds of essays contributed to The Tatler (1709-1711), The Spectator (1711-1712, 1714), and other periodicals. The variety of works he attempted is a reflection of the active literary culture of the time, a reflection of Addison’s wide learning, and the story of a writer in search of his proper niche. The numbers show that he found it in periodical journalism.

Because of Addison’s varied canon, there has yet to be a satisfactory complete edition. The first collection, edited by Thomas Tickell in 1721, omitted some embarrassing early works and many of the periodical essays. A new collected edition a century later restored some early works and offered a fuller selection of essays. Two good modern critical editions cover most of Addison’s corpus: The Miscellaneous Works (1914) includes everything but the essays, and Donald Bond’s The Spectator (1965) covers the most famous periodical to which Addison contributed. The other papers for which he wrote await modern editions. The Letters of Joseph Addison, an unrevealing collection, was published in 1941.

Achievements

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 354

Joseph Addison’s literary reputation has risen and fallen periodically, for reasons which have had little to do with his artistic achievement. His contemporaries and the next generation praised Addison highly for expressing not only Whig political principles but also classical qualities that gave English literature a dignity it had previously lacked. Readers and writers in the Romantic Age, however, found Addison unoriginal and conventional. The Victorians restored Addison to his pedestal because he spoke well of virtue and painted the picture of the Christian gentleman. Twentieth century critics often assail his work as only a historical reflection of growing bourgeois society; many personally dislike the man for accommodating himself to the class structure of eighteenth century England.

Although such judgments affect how often Addison is reprinted and how much he is read, his place in literary history rests firmly on two achievements: his role in the development of the periodical essay and his prose style. Through his collaboration with Sir Richard Steele on The Tatler, The Spectator, and The Guardian (1713), Addison helped establish the periodical essay as a permanent part of literature. These periodicals made the twin activities of reading and thinking about literary topics part of an educated person’s daily life. Although ostensibly essays, Addison’s and Steele’s works really constitute a fascinating variety of stories, sketches, sermons, and lectures. What won readers to the periodical essay was its resourcefulness and flexibility in both form and content.

Addison’s second lasting achievement was his prose style, seemingly informal and natural yet rhetorical and artistic, capable of handling a wide range of topics. Addison was one of several writers (including John Dryden and Jonathan Swift) whose innovations enabled prose to rival poetry as a fit medium for literary expression. For the next two centuries, writers literally went to school with Addison; stylists as diverse as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Hardy began by imitating Addison. Samuel Johnson defined Addison’s achievement in an immortal assessment: “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.”

Bibliography

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Addison, Joseph. The Letters of Joseph Addison. Edited by Walter Graham. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1941. Reprint. St. Clair Shores, Mich.: Scholarly Press, 1976. About seven hundred of Addison’s letters are represented here, covering a twenty-year period from 1699 to 1719. Among the addressees are William Congreve, Jonathan Swift, and the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Forty letters to Addison are included.

Addison, Joseph, et al. The Spectator. Edited by Donald F. Bond. 5 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. This standard edition includes ample introductory material and notes that will not intrude on the reading process.

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.

Carritt, E. F. “Addison, Kant, and Wordsworth.” Essays and Studies 22 (1937): 26-36. This landmark study reveals Addison’s anticipation of the succeeding era of poets. Shows how Immanuel Kant, often connected with the first Romantic generation in England, was influenced by Addison and how Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the catalyst between Kant and William Wordsworth.

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.

Damrosch, Leopold, Jr. “The Significance of Addison’s Criticism.” Studies in English Literature 19 (1979): 421-430. Shows Addison’s humanistic viewpoint and concentrates on Addison’s own view of the critic as aid to the reader for purposes of clarification, rather than the deviser of meaning for a text.

Elioseff, Lee Andrew. The Cultural Milieu of Addison’s Literary Criticism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963. Addison’s development of a critical posture and his critical interests are revealed in their historical setting. His interest in theory as well as in individual judgments of writers and of works is discussed, with an emphasis on his attempts at innovative approaches to genres, such as recognizing the ballad’s appeal, psychological problems, as well as political and even cosmological issues.

Ellison, Julie. Cato’s Tears and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Taking issue with what Ellison sees as a dominantly Americanist criticism that has studied sentiment as a female, and specifically domestic, possession, Ellison instead theorizes sentiment as a widely circulating and historically contingent discourse in canonical and lesser-known Anglo-American literature of the eighteenth century. Such a critical position produces an intense discursive exploration of the changing literary trope of the sentimental man.

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.

Gay, Peter. “The Spectator as Actor: Addison in Perspective.” In The Augustan Age: Approaches to Literature, Life, and Thought, edited by Ian Watt. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1968. Gay reviews Donald F. Bond’s edition of The Spectator and includes a survey of critical views of Addison’s thought as well as style. In seeing Addison as a journalist with the public audience in mind, Gay does not denigrate Addison’s didactic purpose but points out the writer’s dramatic sense of himself and his mission.

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. “Addison.” In Lives of the English Poets, edited by George Birkbeck Hill. Vol. 2. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1905. Reprint. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms, 1968. This fine edition is replete with helpful notes. Johnson’s praise is high: “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.”

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.

Knight, Charles A. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele: A Reference Guide, 1730-1991. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Contains history, criticism, and bibliographies to the two writers.

Knight, Charles A. “The Spectator’s Moral Economy.” Modern Philology 91 (November, 1993): 161-179. Examines principles of moral economy presented by Addison and Sir Richard Steele in The Spectator to control dreams of endless financial gains. Argues that Addison and Steele found in the economic order a secular basis for moral behavior that emphasized the common good over individual gain. Suggests that they connected commercial values to values of politeness and restraint.

Nablow, Ralph Arthur. The Addisonian Tradition in France: Passion and Objectivity in Social Observation.Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. Examines Addison’s influence on French writers. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

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.

Varney, Andrew. “The Lascivious Nightingale: Mild Impropriety in The Spectator.” Notes and Queries 41 (June, 1994): 189-191. Discusses a passage in the sequence of papers on the “Pleasures of the Imagination” in The Spectator, in which Addison argues that physical beauty arouses the sexual passion in order to assure reproduction and survival.

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