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The Great Age of the English Essay

The Great Age of the English Essay: An Anthology

EDITED BY Denise Gigante
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 464
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  • Book Info
    The Great Age of the English Essay
    Book Description:

    From the pens of spectators, ramblers, idlers, tattlers, hypochondriacs, connoisseurs, and loungers, a new literary genre emerged in eighteenth-century England: the periodical essay. Situated between classical rhetoric and the novel, the English essay challenged the borders between fiction and nonfiction prose and helped forge the tastes and values of an emerging middle class.

    This authoritative anthology is the first to gather in one volume the consummate periodical essays of the period. Included are theSpectatorcofounders Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, literary lion Samuel Johnson, and Romantic recluse Thomas De Quincey, addressing a wide variety of topics from the oddities of virtuosos to the private lives of parrots and the fantastic horrors of opium dreams.

    In a lively and informative introduction, Denise Gigante situates the essayists in the context of the contemporary Republic of Letters and highlights the stylistic innovations and conventions that distinguish the periodical essay as a literary form. Critical notes on the essays, a chronology, descriptions and a map of key London sites, and a glossary of eighteenth-century English terms complete the anthology-a uniquely pleasurable survey of the golden era of British essays.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15181-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Note on the Text
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xxxiii)

    THE GREAT AGE OF THE ENGLISH ESSAYoffers a vibrant gallery of personae speaking in a multiplicity of voices, from the confessional to the critical, the familiar to the parodic, the picturesque to the grotesque. As developed from the popular broadsides of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, the periodical essay tradition afforded a peculiar opportunity for an author to create a character—more nearly, a pose or persona—who participated directly in the public sphere, thereby becoming something more than a fictional character. Steele’s Tatler thus gossiped about current events and scandal, Addison’s Spectator observed real-life rogues and politicians, Samuel...

  6. Map of Eighteenth-Century London
    (pp. xxxiv-xxxvi)
  7. ONE Richard Steele (1672–1729)
    (pp. 1-22)

    SWASHBUCKLING SIR RICHARD STEELE was the man behind the mask of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., a fictional elderly gentleman with a propensity for moralizing who served as the mouthpiece for the first of the great English literary periodicals,The Tatler.The paper ran three times weekly as a folio-sized broadside from 12 April 1709 through 2 January 1711. The penname Bickerstaff was taken from Jonathan Swift, who adopted it in his satires on his contemporary, the astronomer John Partridge. Steele, having abandoned a career in the British Army, took up the name for the first of his literary poses. In “The...

  8. TWO Joseph Addison (1672–1719)
    (pp. 23-84)

    IF RICHARD STEELE WAS THE DOMINANT personality behindThe Tatler,Joseph Addison set the tone forThe Spectator,which became the model for English periodical writing for more than a century. As Samuel Johnson remarked in hisLives of the English Poets,“His prose is the model of the middle style; on grave subjects not formal, on light occasions not groveling; pure without scrupulosity, and exact without apparent elaboration. . . . 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.” Unlike...

  9. THREE Eliza Haywood (c. 1693–1756)
    (pp. 85-105)

    ACTRESS, PLAYWRIGHT, POET, translator, and novelist, Eliza Haywood (née Fowler) navigated the troubled waters of London literary life, supporting herself and her two children through her professional talents. In the persona of the “Female Spectator,” she claimed to have received an education “more liberal than is ordinarily allowed to Persons of my Sex,” and indeed she became an important voice in the English periodical essay tradition. “An unfortunate marriage has reduc’d me to the melancholly necessity of depending on my Pen for the support of my self and two children,” she wrote. Alexander Pope parodied her inThe Dunciad(1728)...

  10. FOUR Samuel Johnson (1709–84)
    (pp. 106-161)

    THE SON OF A PROVINCIAL bookseller from Litchfield, Samuel Johnson rose to London literary fame as a poet, an essayist, a biographer, the first lexicographer of the English language, and a critical canonizer of English literary history. In addition to his periodical papers forThe Rambler(1750–52) andThe Adventurer(1752–54), and “The Idler” series inThe Universal Chronicle(1758–60), he published poems, including “London” (1738) and “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749), a satirical novel (Rasselas,1759), a critical edition of Shakespeare (1765), a travel narrative (A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland,1775), and...

  11. FIVE Henry Fielding (1707–54)
    (pp. 162-178)

    HENRY FIELDING, BEST REMEMBERED as a novelist and dramatist, entered the periodical essay tradition at the peak of his career withThe Covent Garden Journal(1752). Unlike his earlier journalistic ventures (The Champion, The Patriot, The Jacobite Journal), hisCovent Garden Journalwas intended as a cultural rather than a political forum. It carried on the effort to reform the manners and morals of the age, if with more satiric bite than had been seen previously in periodical essays. The Covent Garden section of London was a rough-and-tumble medley of entertainment spots, which in addition to Covent Garden Theatre included...

  12. SIX William Cowper (1731–1800)
    (pp. 179-196)

    THE SON OF A RECTOR FROM Hertfordshire, William Cowper attended Westminster School from 1742 to 1749 with the satirists George Colman and Bonnell Thornton and the poets Charles Churchill and Robert Lloyd. Later he became a barrister, but, bored by the tediousness of his profession, he preferred lounging in coffeehouses with his former schoolfellows and discussing literary and cultural affairs. Together they formed the “Nonsense Club,” whose weekly periodical,The Connoisseur,ran for 140 numbers from 1754 to 1756 as a sprightly offspring ofThe Spectator.The year it ended, Cowper fell in love with his cousin, but their parents refused...

  13. SEVEN Oliver Goldsmith (c. 1730–74)
    (pp. 197-209)

    BORN INTO GENTEEL POVERTY in rural isolation, Oliver Goldsmith led a reckless life in literary London, earning his living by his pen and practicing the arts of good living and conversation. His path to the publishing world was circuitous, including detours to Edinburgh to study medicine; to Leyden to continue his studies; and to Flanders, France, Switzerland, and northern Italy, where he rambled on foot, earning his keep by playing the flute. He returned penniless to London in 1756 and began churning out translations, voluminous histories of England, Rome, and the planet, children’s literature, reviews, and other articles for the...

  14. EIGHT James Boswell (1740–95)
    (pp. 210-230)

    JAMES BOSWELL, BORN TO THE hereditary position of ninth Laird of Auchinleck in Scotland, spent his adult life struggling against a paternal mandate to practice law. Having been foiled in his teenage attempt to convert to Catholicism and become a monk, he escaped from the University of Glasgow to London, where he abandoned himself to libertinism. His father intervened, and he returned to Edinburgh, enrolling in the university and passing his law exams in 1762. Allowed at last to return to London, he met Samuel Johnson in May the following year and began a relationship that changed the tenor of...

  15. NINE Henry Mackenzie (1745–1831)
    (pp. 231-253)

    KNOWN AS “THE SCOTTISH ADDISON,” Henry Mackenzie derives his literary reputation from his brief sentimental novelThe Man of Feeling(1771). Yet he was also a master and innovator of the periodical essay form. Educated at the University of Edinburgh, he became an attorney and founded the “Mirror Club,” a group of belletristically inclined young men who met in an Edinburgh pub to drink claret and readThe Spectatoraloud. Members included the poet and dramatist John Home, the judges Alexander Abercromby and William Macleod Bannatyne, and the physician William Cullen. Their own periodical inSpectatorstyle,The Mirror,ran...

  16. TEN Leigh Hunt (1784–1859)
    (pp. 254-286)

    A CLOSE FRIEND OF THE ROMANTIC essayists William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb and the poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, James Henry Leigh Hunt strove like a knight of his own imaginary Round Table to defend the value of aesthetics in a growing commercial and industrial society. In the intellectual vanguard of his time, he voiced political cries for liberty as well as cultural opinions in the periodicals he founded and ran with his brothers. These included the liberal weeklyThe Examiner(1808–21) andThe Reflector(1810–11). In December 1812, he and his brother John, convicted of...

  17. ELEVEN William Hazlitt (1778–1830)
    (pp. 287-335)

    WILLIAM HAZLITT, A MULTIFACETED, much maligned man who was attacked by the conservative press ostensibly for his “vulgarisms and broken English” but really on account of his political and social criticism, made himself into a master of the familiar essay. As the son of an Irish Unitarian clergyman he trained for the ministry, but he lost his taste for the profession while in London. Instead, through the intervention of another Unitarian in training, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he joined a literary coterie consisting of Leigh Hunt, Charles Lamb, and the poets Wordsworth, Shelley, Robert Southey, and Lord Byron. He explored an...

  18. TWELVE Charles Lamb (1775–1834)
    (pp. 336-392)

    CHARLES LAMB WAS A FRIEND OF the “Lake poets” Wordsworth and Coleridge, though he identified with city tastes and occupations. His first essay inThe London Magazinewas signed “The Londoner” (1802), though he achieved almost mythic status with his essays published under the pseudonym “Elia” from 1820 through 1825. Behind the humor and metaphorical whimsy of the essays, however, lay a terrible buried truth: the brutal murder of his mother by his beloved sister Mary, who in a fit of insanity grabbed a kitchen knife and turned the afternoon of 22 September 1796 into Lamb’s never-ending “day of horrors...

  19. THIRTEEN Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859)
    (pp. 393-412)

    THOMAS DE QUINCEY, A MEMBER of the triumvirate of Romantic essayists in the familiar style that also includes Hazlitt and Lamb, was a shy, sensitive, romantically minded youth who could write and speak Greek fluently by the age of fifteen. In 1802 he ran away from Manchester Grammar School for a four-month walking tour of Wales, surviving on an allowance of a guinea a week from his uncle. After the uncle became frustrated with De Quincey’s lack of communication, he withdrew the stipend, and De Quincy borrowed money to travel to London, where he lived near starvation on the streets...

  20. Chronology
    (pp. 413-418)
  21. Glossary of Places
    (pp. 419-422)
  22. Glossary of Terms
    (pp. 423-427)