This special issue of The Tatler is devoted to the British periodical essayists from the eighteenth century who produced the first literary journal of note under the title, The Tatler, and who invented the form of writing known as literary criticism.
One Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., a fictional elderly gentleman, served as the original mouthpiece for the paper, which ran thrice weekly, from April 12, 1709 through January 2, 1711. William Hazlitt, a later writer in the tradition, looked back fondly on this genial persona as “a gentleman and a scholar, a humourist and a man of the world; with a great deal of nice easy naîvité about him. If he walks out and is caught in a shower of rain, he makes us amends for this unlucky accident, by a criticism on the shower in Virgil, and concludes with a burlesque copy of verses on a city-shower.” Swashbuckling Sir Richard Steele and his partner Joseph Addison were the men behind the mask of Bickerstaff, and together they vividly portrayed life in London during the reign of Queen Anne: an age of full-bottomed periwigs, rustling hoops, and paste shoe buckles, in which the middle classes were scrambling for socioeconomic power and the arts were beginning to flourish after years of political unrest. Dr. Samuel Johnson, who entered the English periodical essay tradition at mid-century under various pseudoymns (The Rambler, The Idler, and The Adventurer), looked back on the early essayists and remarked, “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.”
The authors featured in this electronic issue of The Tatler have given their days and nights not only to Addison, but also to Steele, Johnson, and Hazlitt, and other lesser-known essayists, from Eliza Haywood to Henry Fielding, William Cowper, Oliver Goldsmith, James Boswell, Henry Mackenzie, Leigh Hunt, Charles Lamb, and Thomas De Quincey. Several of these names may stick out as famous, but for literary endeavors other than the essay. William Cowper and Henry Fielding, for instance, whose styles inspired the majority of essays featured here, we know mainly as a mad poet and a novelist. William Cowper is distinguished for his long poem, The Task (1785), whose conversational style became a model for Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge. Henry Fielding is best known as the author of Tom Jones (1749), a comic novel about a loveable rascal’s mishaps and adventures. Yet it is also the case that both Cowper and Fielding wrote essays in the tradition of The Tatler. Cowper published several pieces in The Connoisseur, which ran weekly from 1754 through 1756, and which was edited by his friends George Colman and Bonnell Thornton, themselves satirists and playwrights. Fielding edited his own paper, The Covent Garden Journal (1752), in which he satirized various constitutents of the Republic of Letters. The first five essays here (by Esther Yu, Josephine Valenzuela, Katie Peterson, Rachel Hamburg, and Christine Chung) were inspired by the style of these eighteenth-century periodical writers. The final essay, by Eliza Fox, is in the style of Thomas De Quincey, known mainly for his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, first published in The London Magazine in 1821. In addition to being an opium addict, De Quincey was a member of the circle of familiar Romantic essayists that included included Hunt, Hazlitt, and Lamb.
We shall conclude our introduction to the following examples of wit and merit with an observation from Richard Steele, who in the original number of The Tatler wisely stated, “this globe is not trodden upon by mere drudges of business only, but … men [and women!!] of spirit and genius are justly to be esteemed as considerable agents in it.”
April 2, 2009
Professor Denise Gigante
In the style of Henry Fielding:
Rachel Hamburg, “On the Practical Benefits of Impractical Pursuits”
Christine Chung, “The Stanford Patois”
In the style of Thomas De Quincey:
Eliza Fox, “Confessions of an American Television Watcher”