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What Is Periodical Essay

The Form of the Periodical Essay

Student guest page by Anne Woodrum, University of Massachusetts Boston


The periodical essay was a new literary form that emerged during the early part of the eighteenth century. Periodical essays typically appeared in affordable publications that came out regularly, usually two or three times a week, and were only one or two pages in length. Unlike other publications of the time that consisted of a medley of information and news, essay periodicals were comprised of a single essay on a specific topic or theme, usually having to do with the conduct or manners. They were often narrated by a persona or a group of personas, commonly referred to as a “club.” (DeMaria 529)

For the most part, readers of the periodical essay were the educated middle class individuals who held learning in high esteem but were not scholars or intellectuals. Women were a growing part of this audience and periodical editors often tried to appeal to them in their publications. (Shevelow 27-29)

The Tatler (1709-1711) and The Spectator (1711-1712) were the most successful and influential single-essay periodicals of the eighteenth century but there are other periodicals that helped shape this literary genre.

The Beginnings of the Periodical Essay:

While the periodical essay emerged during the eighteenth century and reached its peak in publications like the Tatler and the Spectator, its roots can be traced back to the late seventeenth century. An important forerunner to the Spectator is John Dunton’s Athenian Mercury, which played a key role in the development of the periodical essay. (DeMaria 529-530)

The Athenian Mercury began publication in 1691 with the purpose of ‘resolving weekly all the most nice and curious questions propos’d by the ingenious.’ It did not publish essays. Instead it followed a question and answer or “advice column” format and is one of the first periodicals to solicit questions from its audience. Readers submitted questions anonymously and their candid inquiries were answered by a collection of “experts” known as the Athenian Society or simply the “Athenians.” (Graham 19) Dunton hinted that the Athenian Society was made up of a group of learned individuals, but in reality the society only consisted of three people who were not necessarily “authorities.” Their identities remained a secret, however, and this is one of the first instances of a periodical using a fictional social group or club to answer questions or narrate. (Hunter 13-15)

Each issue of the Athenian Mercury would answer anywhere from eight to fifteen questions on topics ranging from love, marriage and relationships to medicine, superstitions and the paranormal. Dunton received so many questions from female readers that he decided to devote the first Tuesday of every month to questions from women. (Berry 18-19) Examples of the questions submitted to the Athenians include:

Why the Sea is salt? (Athenian Gazette vol. 1 no.2), Whence proceeds weeping and laughing from the same cause? (Athenian Gazette vol.1 no.3) Whether most Persons do not Marry too young? (Athenian Gazette vol. 1, no. 13) and Whether it be proper for Women to be Learned? (Athenian Gazette vol. 1, no. 18)

As these sample questions demonstrate, the Athenian Mercury was focused on the social and cultural concerns of individuals. These subjects tapped into the reading public’s desire for knowledge, instructive information, and for something new and as a result, the Athenian Mercury was a huge success. (Hunter 14-15) Several features of the Athenian Mercury, such as its epistolary format and its creation of a fictional club, would be continued by another influential periodical published during the eighteenth century, Daniel Defoe’s The Review. (DeMaria 529-531)

Originally known as A Weekly Review of the Affairs of France; Purg’d from the Errors and Partiality of Newswritters and Petty Statesmen of All sides, the Review began publication in 1704 as an eight page weekly. The title, length and frequency of the periodical changed in subsequent issues until it eventually became a triweekly periodical entitled the Review. (Defoe, Secord xvii-xviii)

Most issues of the Review consisted of a single essay, usually covering a political topic, which was followed by questions-and-answers section called the Mercure Scandal: or Advice from the Scandal Club, translated out of French. Defoe eventually replaced the translated out of French with A Weekly History of Nonsense, Impertinency, Vice and Debauchery. (DeMaria 531) In this section, a fictional group known as the “Scandal Club” answered readers’ questions on a variety of subjects including drinking, gambling, love and the treatment of women. The advice column component of the Review was so popular among readers that Defoe began publishing a twenty-eight page monthly supplement devoted entirely to readers’ questions. By May 1705 Defoe dropped the Advice from the Scandal Club from the Review and began publishing the questions-and-answers separately in a publication entitled the Little Review. (Graham 48-49)

With their advice column elements, the Advice from the Scandal Club and the Little Review were obvious imitators of the Athenian Mercury. However, the questions and answers in Defoe’s periodicals were longer and mostly written as letters and this type of prose writing would eventually evolve into the single essay format of the Tatler and Spectator. (Graham 50) Like other periodicals of the time, the Advice from the Scandal Club and the Little Review addressed questions of behavior and conduct but Defoe’s tone was more satirical and he would often mock the stuffiness of the Athenian Mercury in his essays. Defoe’s periodicals were also less mannerly and he often placed ads for products like remedies for venereal disease within their pages. (DeMaria 532)

The Tatler (1709-1711) and The Spectator (1711-1712)

The single-essay made its first appearance in The Tatler, which began publication in 1709. Created by Richard Steele, the purpose of The Tatler was to “offer something, whereby such worth members of the public may be instructed, after their reading, what to think..” and to “have something of which may be of entertainment to the fair sex..” (Tatler, April 12, 1709) Steele was the creator but other significant writers of the time, including Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift, were also contributors.

The Tatler was a single-sheet paper that came out three times a week and in the beginning, consisted of short paragraphs on topics related to domestic, foreign and financial events, literature, theater and gossip. Each topic fell under the heading of a specific place, such as a coffee house, where that discussion was most likely to take place. (Mackie 15) Isaac Bickerstaff, the sixty-something fictional editor, narrated The Tatler and his thoughts on miscellaneous subjects were included under the heading “From my own Apartment.” As The Tatler progressed, these popular entries began taking up more and more space until the first issue consisting of a single, “From my own Apartment” essay appeared on July 30, 1709. (DeMaria 534) In an attempt to appeal to his female audience, Steele introduced the character Jenny Distaff, Isaac Bickerstaff’s half sister, and she narrated some of the essays later in the periodical’s run. (Italia 37)

The last issue of The Tatler appeared in January 1711 and by the following March, Steele launched a new periodical, The Spectator, with Joseph Addison. The Spectator was published daily and consisted of a single essay on a topic usually having to do with conduct or public behavior and contained no political news. The Spectator was narrated by the fictional persona, Mr. Spectator, with some help from the six members Spectator Club.

While The Tatler introduced the form of the periodical essay, “The Spectator perfected it” and firmly established it as a literary genre. The Spectator remained influential even after it ceased publication in 1712. Other eighteenth century periodicals, including Samuel Johnson’s The Idler and The Rambler, copied the periodical essay format. Issues of The Tatler and The Spectator were published in book form and continued to sell for the rest of the century. The popularity of the periodical essay eventually started to wane, however, and essays began appearing more often in periodicals that included other material. By the mid-eighteenth century, periodicals comprised of a single essay eventually disappeared altogether from the market. (Graham 68-69)


Berry, Helen. Gender, Society, and Print Culture in Late Stuart England : The Cultural World of the Athenian Mercury. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003. Print.

Defoe, Daniel, Arthur Wellesley Secord, and ed. Defoe’s Review. New York: Published for the Facsimile Text Society by Columbia University Press, 1938. Print.

DeMaria, Robert, Jr. “The Eighteenth-Century Periodical Essay.” The Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660-1780. Ed. Richetti, John. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2005. 527-48. Print.

Graham, Walter James. The Beginnings of English Literary Periodicals; a Study of Periodical Literature, 1665-1715. New York: Octagon Books, 1972. Print.

Hunter, J. Paul. Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction. New York: Norton, 1990. Print.

Italia, Iona. The Rise of Literary Journalism in the Eighteenth Century : Anxious Employment. London; New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Mackie, Erin Skye. The Commerce of Everyday Life: Selections from the Tatler and the Spectator. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998. Print.

Shevelow, Kathryn. Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical. London; New York: Routledge, 1989. Print.



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The periodical essay and the novel are the two important gifts of "our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century" to English literature. The latter was destined to have a long and variegated career over the centuries, but the former was fated to be born with the eighteenth century and to die with it.

This shows how it was a true mirror of the age. A. R. Humphrey observes in this connection: "If any literary form is the particular creation and the particular mirror of the Augustan Age in England, it is the periodical essay." Generally speaking, it is very difficult to date precisely the appearance of a new literary genre. For example, nobody can say with perfect certainty as to when the first novel, or the first comedy or the first short story came to be written in England or elsewhere. We often talk of "fathers" in literature: for instance, Fielding is called the father of English novel, Chaucer the father of English poetry, and so forth. But that is done, more often than not in a loose and very unprecise sense. This difficulty in dating a genre, however, does not arise in a few cases-that of the periodical essay included. The periodical essay was literally invented by Steele on April 12, 1709, the day he launched his Taller. Before The Taller there had been periodicals and there had been essays, but there had been no periodical essays. The example of The Taller was followed by a large number of writers of the eighteenth century till its very end, when with the change of sensibility, the periodical essay disappeared along with numerous other accompaniments of the age. Throughout the century there was a deluge of periodical essays. The periodical essay remained the most popular, if not the dominant, literary form. Men as different as Pope, Swift, Dr. Johnson, and Goldsmith found the periodical essay an eligible medium. As a matter of fact it was, unlike the novel for example, the only literary form which was patronised without exception by all the major writers of the century. It is hard to name a single first-rate writer of the century who did.not write something for a periodical paper. Mrs. Jane H. Jack says: "From the days of Queen Anne-who had The Spectator taken in with her breakfast-to the time of the French Revolution and even beyond, periodical essays on the lines laid down by Steele and Addison flooded the country and met the eye in every bookseller's shop and coffee-house." Before tracing the history of the periodical essay in the eighteenth century and assigning causes for its phenomenal popularity, let us consider what exactly a periodical essay is.

What is a Periodical Essay?

What is called the periodical essay was first of all given by Steele as The Taller. Nothing of this type had before him been attempted in or even elsewhere. However, to attempt a definition of the periodical essay is neither easy nor helpful. George Sherburn in A Literary History of England, edited by Albert C. Baugh, avers in this connexion: "Rigorous definition of this peculiarly eighteenth century type of publication is not very heIpful...The periodical essay has been aptly described as dealing with morals and manners,1 but it might in fact deal with anything that pleased its author. It covered usually not more than the two sides (in two columns) of a folipjialf-sheet: normally it was shorter than that. It might be published independent of other material, as was The Spectator, except for advertising; or it might be the leading article in a newspaper."

Reasons for the Popularity:

The periodical essay found a spectacular response in the eighteenth century on account of various reasons. Fundamentally this new genre was in perfect harmony with the spirit of the age. It sensitively combined the tastes of the different classes of readers with the result that it appealed to ail-though particularly to the resurgent middle classes. In the eighteenth century there was a phenomenal spurt in literacy, which expanded widely the circle of readers. They welcomed the periodical essay as it was "light" literature. The brevity of the periodical essay, its common sense approach, and its tendency to dilute morality and philosophy for popular consumption paid rich dividends. To a great extent, the periodical essayist assumed the office of the clergyman and taught the masses the lesson of elegance and refinement, though not of morality of the psalm-singing kind. The periodical paper was particularly welcome as it was not a dry, high-brown, or hoity-toity affair like the professional sermon, in spite of being highly instructive in nature. In most cases the periodical essayist did not "speak from the clouds" but communicated with the reader with an almost buttonholing familiarity. The avoidance of politics (though not by all the periodical essayists yet by a good many of them) also contributed towards their popularity. Again, the periodical essayists made it a point to cater for the female taste and give due consideration to the female point of view. That won for them many female readers too. All these factors were responsible for the universal acceptance of the periodical essay in eighteenth-century England:

The History of the Periodical Essay

"The Tatler":

It was Steele's Tatler which began the deluge of the periodical essays which followed. The first issue of The Tatler appeared on . At that time . Steele's bosom friend, was functioning as Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of , in that country. Steele had not informed Addison of his design, but if he desired to write in secret he was not lucky; a single month detected him. and 's first contribution appeared on May 26. Though Addison contributed to The Tatler much less than Steele, yet he soon overshadowed his friend. Of the 271 numbers, 188 are Steele's and 42 Addison's; 36 of them were written by both jointly. The rest were penned by others like Tickell and Budgell. Steele spoke of himself as "a distressed prince who calls in a powerful neighbour to his aid," and added: "I was undone by my auxiliary [Addison]: when I had once called him in, I could not subsist without him"'The Tatler appeared thrice a week-on Tuesdays. Thursdays, and Saturdays, that isythe days on which the post went to the country. As regards the aim of the paper, we may quote the words of Steele in the dedication to the first collected volume (1710): "The general purpose of this paper is to expose the false arts of life, to pull off the disguises of cunning, vanity, affectation, and recommend a general simplicity in our dress, our discourse and our behaviour." All the material of The Taller was purported by Steele to be based upon discussions in the four famous coffee-houses, and was divided as follows:

(i)         "All accounts of gallantry, pleasure and entertainment"-White's Chocolate-house.

(ii)        Poetry-Will's Coffee-house.

(iii)       Learning-the Grecian.

(iv)       Foreign and domestic news-St. James' Coffee-house.

(v)        "What else I shall on any other subject offer"-"My own apartment"

The chief importance of The Toiler lies in its social and moral criticism which had a tangibly salubrious effect on the times. Both Addison and Steele did good work each in his own way. Addison was a much more refined and correct writer than Steele whom Macaulay aptly calls "a scholar among rakes and a rake among scholars." Addison's prose is, according to Dr. Johnson, a model of "the middle style." And this is his famous suggestion: "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." Steele, on the contrary, was a thing of moods and moments. His writing has a look of spontaneity and human warmth which Addison's lacks. Comparing Steele and Addison, George Sherburn maintains "Steele's prose never attained the elegant ease and correctness of Addison's, and yet it is probable that his tendency to warm to a subject and to write intimately and personally, as the reader's friend, contributed much to the success of the paper. Addison's best essays are the result of his slightly chilly insight into the typical mental attitudes of his day." Later critics are apt to place Steele higher than Addison. Thus Leigh-Hunt, for instance, affirms that he prefers "Steele with all his faults" to "Addison with all his essays."

"The Spectator":

Without any warning to his readers, Steele suddenly wound up The Taller on January 2, 1711. But two months later-on March 1,171 \-The Spectator began its memorable career of 555 numbers up to . Whereas The Tatler had appeared only three times a week. The Spectator appeared daily, excepting Sundays. The new paper became tremendously popular among English men and women belonging to all walks of life. The best of all the periodical essays, it is an important human document concerning the morals and manners, thoughts and ideas, of the English society of the age of Queen Anne. Addison's fame chiefly rests on The Spectator papers. As A. R. Humphreys puts it: "Were it not for his essays, Addison's literary reputation would be insignificant; into them, diluted and sweetened for popular consumption, went his classical and modern reading, his study of philosophy and natural science, reflections culled from French critics, and indeed] anything that might make learning "polite"'. A particularly happy feature of The Spectator was its envisagement of a club consisting of representatives from diverse walks of life. Among them Sir Roger de Coverley, and eccentric but thoroughly lovable Tory baronet, is one of the immortal creations of English literature. The Spectator drew a large female readership as many of the papers were for and about women. Though both Addison and Steele were Whigs, yet in The Spectator they kept up a fairly neutral political poise and, in fact, did their best to expose the error of the political fanaticism of both the Tories and Whigs. Further, The Spectator evinced much interest in trade and, consequently, endeared itself to the up-and-coming trading community which had its representative in The Spectator Club-4he rich Sir Andrew Freeport. However, much of the charm of The Spectator lay in its style-­humorous, ironical, but elegant and polished. The chief importance of The Spectator for the modern reader lies in its humour. As A. R. Humphrey reminds us, The Spectator papers are important much more historically than aesthetically. The modern reader, "if led to expect more than a charming humour and vivacity, is likely to feel cheated."

"The Guardian" and Other Papers before Dr. Johnson:

The tremendous popularity of The Toiler and The Spectator prompted many imitations. Among them may be mentioned The Tory Taller, The Female Tatler, Tit for Tatt, and The North Taller. The best of all was Steele's own Guardian which had a run of 175 numbers, from March 12 to . It was, like The Spectator, a daily. "If," says George Sherburn, "The Spectator had not existed, The Guardian might outrank all periodicals of this kind, but it is shaded by its predecessor, and the fact that Addison—busy with his tragedy Cato-had no part in the early numbers certainly diminished its interest." Another factor which diminished its interest was its open indulgence in political affairs. Apart from Steele and Addison it included contributions from Berkeley and Gay. The Englishmen, the successor of The Guardian, was even more politically biased. Steele's Lover (40 numbers) and Addison's Freeholder (55 numbers) followed The Englishman. Even to name the works of other periodical essayists would be difficult, so large is their number. "None of them," to quote Sherburn, "approached with any consistency the excellency of these (the periodical papers produced by Steele and Addison)."

Dr. Johnson, Goldsmith, and Others:

In the second half of the eighteenth century the periodical essay showed a tendency to cease as an independent publication and to get incorporated into the newspaper as just another feature. The series of about a hundred papers of Dr. Johnson, called The Idler, for example, was contributed to newspaper, The Universal Chronicler, and appeared between April 15, 1758 and April 5, 1760. These papers are lighter and shorter than those published in the periodical paper The Rambler. The Rambler appeared twice a week, between and , and ran to 208 numbers. Dr. Johnson as a periodical essayist was much more serious in purpose than Steele and Addison had been. His lack of humour and unrelived gravity coupled with his ponderous English make his Rambler papers quite heavy reading. The lack of popularity of The Rambler can easily be ascribed to this very fact.

Among the papers that followed The Rambler may be mentioned Edward Moore's World (209 numbers) and the novelist Henry Mackenzie's Mirror and The Lounger. A significant development was the creation of the "magazine" or what we call "digest" today. It was an anthology of the interesting material which had already appeared in recent newspapers orpenodicals. The first magazine was 's monthly, The Gentleman's Magazine, founded i,. 1731. The vogue of the magazine caught on and many magazines including The magazines of Magazines (1750-51), appeared and disappeared. Along with the magazine may be mentioned the initiation of the critical review devoted to the criticism of books. The first such periodical was Ralph Griffith's Monthly Review.

In the end, let us consider the work of Oliver Goldsmith who from 1757 to 1772 contributed to no fewer than ten periodicals, including The Monthly Review. His own Bee (1759) ran to only eight weekly numbers. The Citizen of the World (1762)—Goldsmith his best work—is a collection of essays which originally appeared in The Public Ledger as "Chinese Letters" (1760-61). Goldsmith's essays are rich in human details, a quivering sentimentalism, and candidness of spirit. His prose style is, likewise, quite attractive; he avoids bitterness, coarseness, pedantry, and stiff wit. His style, in the words of George Sherburn, "lacks the boldness of the aristocratic manner, and it escapes the tendency of his generation to follow Johnson into excessive heaviness of diction and balanced formality of sentence structure...It is precisely for this lack of formality and for his graceful and sensitive ease, fluency, and vividness that we value his style."

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