Addison, Joseph

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Addison, Joseph (1672-1719): English writer.

Joseph Addison was a highly influential eighteenth-century English author. The son of an outspoken clergyman, Addison did not follow his father into the church or in the belief that all knowledge was found in the scriptures. More secular in his thinking, Addison devoted his life to politics and literature. However, he did share his father’s desire to instruct his contemporaries in social behavior, literary appreciation, and political outlook.

Addison attended Queen’s College, Oxford in 1687 and became a fellow of Magdalen College in 1689, where he gained the reputation as an elegant classicist. After publishing Latin poems praising the Glorious Revolution and the advent of King William, Addison attracted the attention of Whig party leaders. His association with the Whigs would shape his career and writing. He supported Whig policies and causes in pamphlets and in articles published in political journals (such as the Whig Examiner and The Freeholder), was elected to the renowned Kit Kat Club (a political and literary society comprised of prominent Whig writers and politicians), and held several government posts in Whig administrations (such as commissioner of excise appeals and commissioner of trade). Addison was also elected to Parliament in 1708 and served as Secretary of State in 1717.

Interwoven with this substantial political activity are Addison’s literary achievements. His first major work, Remarks upon Several Parts of Italy (1705) became one of the century’s most popular travel books, serving as an aesthetic and educational guide for generations of young Englishmen on the Grand Tour. His forays into the theater were also significant. Though his opera Rosamond (1707) and his comedy The Drummer (1716) had only short runs, his tragedy Cato (1713), which articulates Addison’s ideal of citizenship, became an international success. Luminaries such as Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de and George Washington lauded the play and were inspired by it.

Addison’s finest, most lasting contributions to literature are the essays he wrote for the Tatler (1709-11) and the Spectator (1711-14), innovative periodicals he produced with Steele, Richard. The Spectator, considered the superior of the two, differs from the Tatler in that it came out six days a week rather than three, uses a different fictional author-editor (“Mr. Spectator”) situated within a club whose fictional members write about life from their perspectives, and uses a wider range of literary devices (such as the Oriental Tale, the series discussion, Sunday Sermon).

Like the Tatler, the Spectator reached a very large audience, making it one of the most influential works of the period. Not only was the Spectator praised for its prose style and seen as a model of elegant writing, but it was also valued for its “learning.” In addition to treating topics that made its predecessor a hit – manners, trends, fashion – the Spectator addressed weightier matters. Addison engaged his readers in discussions of philosophical and scientific concepts, literary criticism, religious beliefs, and moral issues. He also introduced readers to the best classical authors (Horace, Virgil, Juvenal) and modern thinkers (Locke, Newton, Pascal).

Although Addison conceived the Spectator as a didactic undertaking, it is a mistake to see the work merely as a dispenser of moral precepts and information. The Spectator’s deeper achievement is that it involved readers (a large portion of whom were women) in a thoughtful revaluation of the key cultural, social, and economic terms – such as “gentleman,” “taste,” “politeness,” “credit” – by which they collectively understood themselves, conducted their lives, and functioned as a society. In this respect, the Spectator provided crucial guidance as England made its way out of the political turmoil of the seventeenth century and developed into an advanced commercial society that was founded on new financial institutions, emerging institutions of sociability, and a revised set of cultural principles.

By engaging readers in broad, on-going discussions about themselves and their world, the Spectator, the Tatler, and other journals inspired by them, helped create the bourgeois public sphere. Seen as a major development of the Enlightenment, the public sphere enabled private people from different walks of life to come together to use their reason publicly to reflect on issues of general concern. This public, which was primarily a reading public, evolved as an entity that would contest the authority of the state and the traditional institutions that regulated society, the court and the church. As much any other writer, Addison played a critical role in molding the public sphere in England and in shaping the views of its members.


Further Reading Michael G. Ketchum, Transparent Designs: Reading, Performance, and Form in the Spectator Papers, 1985.

Robert M. Otten, Joseph Addison, 1982.

Terence Bowers

College of Charleston

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