Blogging in the Eighteenth Century

This project is born of two bits of research that, initially, had nothing to do with each other. Several months ago, as part of a literature class, I found myself reading issues of the Spectator from the early 1700's. I was examining the fictional mask that the editors of the Spectator wrote behind; they never revealed their names in the paper. At the same time I was reading widely on the Internet for another class. For a paper in that course I was looking closely at several blogs. On two of the blogs I was reading, "Big Giant Tampon Commercial," and "I Blame the Patriarchy," the authors write in semi-fictional personas. And it struck me: the Spectator is, in essence, a blog.

(Links to the Spectator paper and the BGTC paper are at left. If you don't see the links, click here to redraw this page.)

Fictional personas are only the beginning of the comparison - many authors have adopted pen names and personas over the years, and their writing is not comparable to blogging. In the case of the Spectator, though, the publication's style and function are parallel to blogs' style and function.

Like nearly all blog entries, each issue of the Spectator was brief enough to read in a matter of minutes. The Spectator had a strong, central voice that directed the conversation. That author was (at least partly) fictional. The Spectator's readers, like blog readers, were welcome to become writers and join the discussion; many issues of the periodical were a happy jumble of essay, letters and quotations - some real, some fictional. The Spectator was often self-referential; like so many blogs, it often carried a conversational topic through many issues. Although the Spectator's intended audience was rather narrow by definition - the members of the "reading public" who frequented London's coffeehouses - the Spectator's taste and topics were eclectic. And finally, like so many blogs, the Spectator was didactic.

Overlooking Richard Steele

When scholars write about the Spectator they usually focus on Joseph Addison. It was Addison who carried the literary essay to new heights, and who served as a model for several generations of writers. Samuel Johnson, in his Lives of the English Poets , writes that "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" (444). Johnson and other eighteenth century writers saw in Addison the "perfection of English style" (Bond, xcix).

Addison's partner, Richard Steele, wins respect for his wit, and for being the driving force behind the Spectator 's important predecessor, the Tatler, but Steele's writing is seldom cited. In terms of writing, to critics and scholars, Joseph Addison is the Spectator. But it is time for a reassessment. With the rise of the Internet, and particularly of blogs, it is the writing style of Richard Steele that seems ahead of its time. Richard Steele might be the model writer for the New Media age.

Constructed identity

Steele and Addison, and their occasional coauthors, wrote in the voice of the fictional Mr. Spectator. Steele and Addison each wrote 251 issues (Bond, xlv). The periodical came out six days a week, so on average Steele and Addison each wrote and edited three issues per week under Mr. Spectator's name. Most of Addison's contributions were carefully-crafted, single-topic essays of twelve hundred to fourteen hundred words. In contrast, Steele usually included letters or submissions from other writers - often written by Steele himself under an assumed name - and only a third of his Spectator issues were made up of a single essay (Bond, lix).  

One reason, perhaps, that Addison could produce complete, substantial essays at such an impressive pace is that some of his contributions were adaptations of pieces he had already written. Robert D. Chambers explains that Addison came to the Spectator with a considerable stockpile of essays he had written over the course of several years, and Addison merely edited them for the new periodical. It appears that Steele, on the other hand, was writing his material from scratch (145).

Steele the proto-blogger

Steele does not have the polish of Addison, nor the command of classical literature, nor the finely-honed ability to turn a phrase, but he is a charming and quirky writer, and creative in his use of fabricated letters to set up a discussion that allows him to make his point. Read Steele alongside twenty-first century blogs and the comparison between them is unavoidable.

As an example, consider Steele's series of Spectator issues dealing with the "Ugly Club." The six issues appeared in the spring on 1711, spread out over fourteen weeks. In this series Mr. Spectator tells his readers about the Ugly Club, a group in Oxford that admits only men who are distinctly unattractive. In No. 17,   Mr. Spectator describes the group and presents a letter he has received from one of its members. The six issues that deal with the Ugly Club (Nos. 17, 32, 48, 52, 78 and 87) repeatedly refer to previous letters and previous comments by Mr. Spectator that were published in the periodical. Steele would have been well served by hypertext links. (The Spectator in blog form offers ample evidence; I have tried to include some of the links that Steele no doubt would have inserted if he could have.)

Mr. Spectator and Twisty Faster - a brief comparison

Mr. Spectator is a refined scold. He wants readers to do things his way. Throughout the run of the Spectator, Mr. Spectator has a great deal to say about manners, ways of speech, behavior in church and at the theater, and fashion. Consider one example. In the Ugly Club series he makes many mentions of fashion, and the culture of beauty. He is not a fan of either. In No. 87 he has some sharp words for "Beauties," both male and female, going so far as to say "one would be apt to wish there were no such Creatures." There is no doubt here what Mr. Spectator thinks about the pursuit of fashion.

Twisty Faster is a harsher scold. She also has harsh words for followers of fashion. Her blog is called "I Blame the Patriarchy," and like Mr. Spectator, she frequently assails fashion and the culture of beauty. Twisty Faster is the blog persona of Jill Posey-Smith, a former newspaper food writer who lives in Austin, Texas. Her verbal attacks are less genteel, perhaps, than Mr. Spectator's. On September 30, 2005 she posted acerbic comments about "tiny handbags" in her "Fashion Week" entry.   She concludes: "If the tiny handbag is not a misogynist conspiracy, I don't know what is."

Twisty Faster has written many times on the subject of fashionable but painful shoes. One of her most recent footwear philippics appeared on November 25, 2006. She has written at times about the physical dangers of high heeled shoes, and - as she does here - she has compared high heels to torture devices. In short, she says the shoes are silly, and a tool for the oppression of women.

Mr. Spectator also takes on shoes. Interestingly, he addresses the dangers of men wearing physically debilitating shoes in No. 48. He includes a letter, probably written by Richard Steele, from an "old Fellow" who wears fashionable "high-heel'd" shoes to catch the eye of women at a party.

Topical, eclectic, and at least a little autobiographical

Twisty Faster, like so many bloggers, draws inspiration from chance encounters, newspapers, email from correspondents, and from other blogs. (On the subject of fashionable shoes, one of Twisty Faster's early blog posts, January 28, 2005, is a critique of other blogs that are devoted entirely to shoes.) The central theme of her blog, clear from its title, is feminist social criticism, but she covers a variety of subjects: where to find a empanada in Austin, Texas; photos and anecdotes about her dog; a multi-episode personal narrative of her fight with breast cancer; essays about the portrayal of women in the media.

Mr. Spectator's writing is similarly varied - especially in the issues that Steele produced. Even within the single issue, Spectator No. 48, Steele and Mr. Spectator seem to be scrambling to fill space, much like a blogger scraping for something to write about in order to keep the blog fresh and up-to-date. The letters Mr. Spectator chooses to include - perhaps from real correspondents, but more likely written by Steele - address matters related to the topic of the Ugly Club, but No. 48 is far from being a unified, polished essay. It reads very much like a twenty-first century blog. It has a loose, central theme. It includes some musings and connecting material from Mr. Spectator, the "blogger," and it includes letters - much like "comments" on a blog - that might be from anyone, including Richard Steele.

In the section of her blog called, "The Twisty Way," the last sentence reads: "Twisty Faster is a fictional character." Yet Twisty Faster the blogger appears to write about real events that occur in the real life of Jill Posey-Smith. It is impossible to be sure precisely what is fact and what is fiction. Mr. Spectator writes about the coffeehouses he has visited and the plays he has seen. Plainly, it was Steele and Addison who attended the plays and patronized the coffeehouses.

A new, old model

Both Richard Steele and Joseph Addison aimed to mold thier readers' behavior. Addison models scholarly behavior with his style; that is his strategy. Steele tries to control behavior by putting on a show. Steele's issues of the Spectator are performances. Steele tries to generate insights in his readers by means of a puppet show; that is his strategy.

In periods when echoing scholarly style is at a premium, Addison's reputation ascends. In times of contextual "spin" – times of flying onto aircraft carriers and posing before "Mission Accomplished" signs, of didactic television shows like "SuperNanny" and "Wife Swap" which are reality/morality plays – in times likes these, when people seem less-than-sure what is "true" and "real," Steele's style gains admirers.

Richard Steele's Mr. Spectator would have been at home in the blogosphere. He would cherish the anonymity and he would thrive on the interactivity – the ability to create correspondence, as well as create the very correspondents. Steele's Mr. Spectator, like Twisty Faster, would find fellow bloggers an endless source of material to comment on. The blog format would allow Mr. Spectator to present a longer, unified essay when time allowed him to write one, and it would happily accommodate his more common short musings.

Joseph Addison remains much-revered by scholars, but Richard Steele provides a more useful model for modern new media writers. Steele's issues of the Spectator, his collections of didactic but entertaining intellectual bric-a-brac, have more in common with blogs, and more to teach today's blog writers.  

Chris Julin
University of Minnesota Duluth
January 2007

Works Cited

Chambers, Robert D. "Addison at Work on the Spectator. " Modern Philology 56.3 (1959): 145-153.

Johnson, Samuel. Lives of the English Poets . New York: Octagon Books, 1967.

The Spectator . Ed. Donald F. Bond. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.