Trawling erratically for material on the cultural background to the “bearing arms” clause of the 1688 Bill of Rights (I’ll post if I get anywhere), I landed on Addison and Steele’s Spectator of 1711. And do you know, it reads more like a blog than a modern magazine.
The Spectator and its 1709 progenitor The Tatler were short, printed on a single folio sheet, and issued about three times a week. What they contain is a very personal take on more or less anything: plays, the war with France, the evils of duelling, and so on, held together by a loose frame of imaginary characters who inhabit London café society.
This extract from the index to the Gutenberg online collection gives the flavour:
* Abbey, Westminster
* Abel Drugger, Ben Jonson’s
* Abigails (male) for ladies [in case you are wondering, manservants]
– in love
– of mind
* Academy for Politics
* Acasto, the agreeable man
* Accounts, keeping
* Acetus’s raillery
* Acosta’s defence of Jewish ceremonies
– of Deformity for the Ugly Club
– of Uniformity, Toleration, Settlement
For 300-year-old ephemera, it’s remarkably good stuff. Some extracts at the end.
English periodicals evolved during the eighteenth century to a longer format. The first number of the Edinburgh Review in 1802 for instance had 30 pages. These magazines included multiple signed contributions, serialised novels and short stories, typically provided as today by professional authors and journalists.
Contrast the early work of Addison and Steele:
- Amateurism – Addison and Steele did not earn a living from journalism but from court sinecures and patronage. Far be it from me to suggest that university teaching isn’t a full-time job, but very few bloggers earn a living from their posts. The peak circulation of the Spectator, sold for a penny (a workman’s daily wage), was 3,000. £30 would just about have covered their costs. They were in it for cultural influence more than personal status or money.
- Immediacy – the very frequent cycle meant that their comment was fresh.
- Idiosyncrasy – see above. There was no pretence of neutrality; the papers convey strongly flavoured individual points of view. That doesn’t change because the authors were amiable political centrists, who had a considerable and positive influence on the emergence of a particularly English style of civility.
- Wit – to catch the reader’s attention, wit was essential. But theirs is a gentle, bonding wit; it’s not part of a zero-sum struggle for status, as at the French court of the excellent film Ridicule, or the brutally misanthropic satire of Swift. See Spectator 422 for an attack on cruel wit.
- Network effects – the readership was multiplied by the availability of the papers in coffee-houses, like newspapers in Viennese cafés (Addison very optimistically claimed a readership of 60,000.) This is turn made coffee-houses more popular: you didn’t have to think of something clever to say before going, you could rely on the latest Spectator, Tatler and their many imitators for ready-made topics of conversation. In turn, the growth of café society provided writers with more material.
- Independence from the court – apart from the partial economic dependence on patronage, the culture the papers nourished was an urban one, based in the City of London not Westminster.
Al these remind me strongly of the 2008 blogosphere at its best, or at any rate its nicest.
Tatler No 1 (Steele): the mission statement – plus ça change!
Though the other papers which are published for the use of the good people of England have certainly very wholesome effects, and are laudable in their particular kinds, yet they do not seem to come up to the main design of such narrations, which, I humbly presume, should be principally intended for the use of politic persons, who are so public spirited as to neglect their own affairs to look into transactions of State. Now these gentlemen, for the most part, being men of strong zeal and weak intellects, it is both a charitable and necessary work to offer something, whereby such worthy and well-affected members of the commonwealth may be instructed, after their reading, what to think; which shall be the end and purpose of this my paper: wherein I shall from time to time report and consider all matters of what kind soever that shall occur to me, and publish such my advices and reflections every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday in the week for the convenience of the post.
Spectator No. 84 (Addison), on obsessional readers like me:
It is the Custom of the Mahometans, if they see any printed or written Paper upon the Ground, to take it up and lay it aside carefully, as not knowing but it may contain some Piece of their Alcoran. I must confess I have so much of the Mussulman in me, That I cannot forbear looking into every printed Paper which comes in my Way, under whatsoever despicable Circumstances it may appear; for as no mortal Author, in the ordinary Fate and Vicissitude of Things, knows to what Use his Works may, some time or other, be applied, a Man may often meet with very celebrated Names in a Paper of Tobacco. I have lighted my Pipe more than once with the Writings of a Prelate; and know a Friend of mine, who, for these several Years, has converted the Essays of a Man of Quality into a kind of Fringe for his Candlesticks.
Spectator No. 99 (Addison) – an ev. psych. take on honour:
The great Point of Honour in Men is Courage, and in Women Chastity. If a Man loses his Honour in one Rencounter, it is not impossible for him to regain it in another; a Slip in a Woman’s Honour is irrecoverable. I can give no Reason for fixing the Point of Honour to these two Qualities, unless it be that each Sex sets the greatest Value on the Qualification which renders them the most amiable in the Eyes of the contrary Sex. Had Men chosen for themselves, without Regard to the Opinions of the Fair Sex, I should believe the Choice would have fallen on Wisdom or Virtue; or had Women determined their own Point of Honour, it is probable that Wit or Good-Nature would have carried it against Chastity.