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 Sewanee Review
Description: Having never missed an issue in more than a century, the Sewanee Review is the oldest continuously published literary quarterly in the country. Begun in 1892 at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, the Review is devoted to American and British fiction, poetry, and reviews – as well as essays in criticism and reminiscence. In this venerable journal you'll find the direct literary line to Flannery O'Connor, Robert Penn Warren, Hart Crane, Anne Sexton, Harry Crews, and Fred Chappell – not to mention Andre Dubus and Cormac McCarthy, whose first stories were published in the Sewanee Review. Each issue is a brilliant seminar, an unforgettable dinner party, an all-night swap of stories and passionate stances.
Coverage: 1892-2012 (Vol. 1, No. 1 - Vol. 120, No. 4)
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