Eighteenth Century Periodical Essay

The essay, like the novel, was experimenting with the representation of people’s intellectual and emotional lives, and like the novel the essay’s ability to achieve access to interiority helped to transform what the experience of one’s inner life was actually like.

Early eighteenth-century essays were precocious, ahead of novels, in describing sympathetic identification and enabling it to develop among people who were increasingly attuned to their private selves and wanted to find a way to share these solitary recesses of knowledge and feeling with others.

I suggest, moreover, that ambivalence and anxiety about describing selfhood and the life of the mind were preoccupations even among progressive eighteenth-century Whig essayists, and indeed an important concern of almost all literary writing in the period.

The first issue of the Tatler appeared on April 12, 1709, and the paper continued until January 1711.

This is the paradox that Jonathan Swift addresses in his early essays.

My argument is that Swift’s stylistic dissimilarity to Addison’s and Steele’s essays of the same period should alert us to the fact that the essays of Swift, Addison, and Steele were in self-conscious debate about the nature of interiority and its relation to the essay form.

there are no Fashionable Touches of Infidelity, no obscene Ideas, no Satyrs upon Priesthood, Marriage and the like popular Topicks of Ridicule; no private Scandal, nor any Thing that may tend to the Defamation of particular Persons, Families, or Societies.” Addison wanted to replace the public’s appetite for reading about famous people they didn’t know with a newly awakened desire to read about a contemporary, urban selfhood they could recognize.

In this article I examine the contribution that early eighteenth-century essays made to the evolving history of eighteenth-century interiority—the turn towards writing about private, interior experience.

Adopting a similar position to Croll’s (though not citing him), Stanley Fish’s 1971 article subtitled “The Experience of Bacon’s Essays” complicates the argument by suggesting that Bacon’s prose style reflects an attempt to understand, and thereby resist, the thinking mind’s tendency to ensnare itself in false logic.

The terse aphoristic style and seemingly fragmentary arguments of Bacon’s Essays reflects his “awareness of the individual mind’s limitations and of the provisionality of all stages preliminary to the final one.” Here we see the paradox of the familiar essay as it enters the eighteenth century: on the one hand, its seductive promise of providing individual minds with access to their own interior states and those of others and, on the other hand, the discovery of the mind’s internal tumult and need for repair.


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