Updated August 7, 2022
Could you guess as why periodical essay came into being as special genre of prose writing? If not, let me overstate that these essays were an elegant piece of writing to appeal middle class of England in 18th Century. These periodical articles for journals aimed changes in social conduct and reformation in larger context. Precisely, Periodical essays were first social documents of modern writing.
Although, the literary history terms entire 18th century as the Age of Pope but the Age of Queen Anne (1665-1714) is remarkable for the growth and development of prose literature. This age witnessed the flowering of the periodical essay in the hands of great writers like Addison and Steele. The beginning of prose fiction has also its root in this age.
The Periodical Essay and Journal
The periodical Essay forms a special branch of the 18th century English prose. In fact, it was entirely a new kind of development in the field of prose writing. In this regard, it is imperative to know why was the term ‘Periodical Essay’ used for this genre of writing. It is called ‘periodical’ because these essays appeared in journals and magazines which were published periodically in those days. These essays were different in contents and style from other prose writings.
Moreover, these are regarded as the social documents on the 18th century England. The object of these essays was to bring about social reformation. It is interesting to note that these essays were of the middle classes, for the middle classes and by the middle classes. These essays became highly popular the moment they were published.
The reasons of their popularity had to do with their brevity, precision, a wider appeal, larger coverage, simple and chaste English and elegant style. These essays provided amusement as well as improvement in social behavior. The writers of this age wrote many periodical essays and journal which portrays the then middle classes and deprived classes.
Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) and Joseph Addison (1662-1719) as Founding Father of Periodical Essay
Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison were the real founders of periodical essays. Steele was the founder of “The Tatler” (1709). It appeared three times a week. He used to write under the pseudonym of Mr. Isaac Bickerstaff and recommended truth, innocence, honour and virtue as the chief ornaments of life.
Later Addison and some other prose writers started contributing to it. “The Tatler” became very popular but lasted less than two years. But within two months Steele launched “The Spectator” in collaboration with Addison. But it was not simply “The Tatler” revised. It was different in the sense that it avoided the political affairs and in place of several short essays, it consisted of a single long essay. It used to appear daily.
“The Spectator” had two principal aims- the first was to present in the essays a true and faithful picture of the 18th century life and the second was to bring about a moral and social reform in the conditions of the time. Steele and Addison combated the social evil of the time through their periodical essays.
Simply put, both the writers commented on the gay fopperies, the ball dances, the club sittings, the cock-hunting, the violence of political and religious strife and the ugliness of the society. In fact, they were the voices of a new and civilized urban life. Both these writers worked as the great educators of the 18th century. They established “essay” as an important branch of English literature.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) as Profound Contributor to Periodical Essay
Jonathan Swift of “Gulliver’s Travels” fame also contributed to periodical essays. But his contributions to “The Tatler”, “The Spectator” and also to “Intelligencer” were meager. His “journal to Stella” is an outstanding description of the contemporary characters and political events. His genius, however, was best revealed in his work fiction.
Daniel Defoe (1661-1731) as Pioneer of Periodical Essays
Daniel Defoe is said to be the pioneer of periodical essays. His important essays are found in “The Review”. Later “The Little Review” appeared in which he contributed essays on the vices and follies of the society. He also contributed to “Mist’s Journal” and “Applebee Journal”.
On top, Daniel Defoe has also written other prose and novels. His semi-fictional work “Robinson Crusoe” made him famous. Later he wrote successful works like “Moll Flanders”, “Colonel Jacque” and “The Unfortunate Mistress” or “Roxana”. All these works are closer to being novels.
Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) As Reviver Of Periodicals
He was also a great prose writer of the 18th century. Though he is famous for his monumental work “The Dictionary of the English Language “, he contributed to “The Gentleman magazine” and his own periodical “The rambler”. His essays were full of deep thought and minute observation. “The Rambler” is credited with re-establishing the periodical essay when it was in the danger of being overtaken by the daily newspapers.
Oliver Goldsmith (1728- 1774) as Mighty Periodical Writer
Oliver Goldsmith contributed to “The Morality Review”. He also contributed to several other periodicals and enriched the genre. His essays reveal his extraordinary power, boldness, tenderness and originality of thoughts. They are also remarkable for the minute observation of man and manners. “The Traveller”, and “The Deserted Village” are the prominent writing of the Oliver Goldsmith.
The periodical essays and journals were immensely popular during the 18th century. One of the reasons was their avoidance of heated religious and political controversies. These essays generally maintained the middle path. Unfortunately, this form of literature died in the same century in which it flourished.