Periodical Essay Examples

Preconditions for the Periodical Essay

The Spectator genre owed its development in England to the political and cultural events of the late 17th century. In the reigns of William III of Orange (1650–1702) and his successor Queen Anne Stuart (1665–1714), new forms of democratic sensibility emerged that diverged from absolutist models and laid the foundation for the genesis and promotion of public communication. England had long since set its own course, one that was critically opposed to the traditional social forms of the European continent. Work in Parliament laid the foundation for English law, and new public structures arose; both processes were closely connected to the development of medial communication. The reigning moral code became that of the sober and pragmatic Protestant worldview, which underlay the national stereotype of the "practical Englishman".

The philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), the founder of modern epistemology and the critique of knowledge, gladly returned to England after William ascended the throne (1688). With his works An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) he contributed decisively to both the reflection on the process of social renewal and the communication of knowledge in the modern sense. The time was slowly arriving for the successful English model to be exported to the European continent.

Philosophy was joined by freedom of the press, introduced in 1695, in promoting the notion of fairness and tolerance. This brought with it a trend towards liberalization that strengthened the middle class's sense of itself, giving rise to an appreciable feeling that change was in the air. At that time the gentry set the tone in English society, and its ideal of the gentleman served as the model for the emerging bourgeoisie, especially in the capital city of London. Critical observers, however, found fault with this code of behaviour, claiming that it was otiose, morally nonchalant and constituted a playing field for the increasing depravity of culture. At the turn of the century, numerous cries were heard for the comprehensive reform of morals and behavioural patterns.1

Men of letters fruitfully joined forces with journalists at the inauguration of this "Augustan Age" (1700–1780). Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), Joseph Addison (1672–1719)[] and Richard Steele (1672–1729)[] were active as both magazine authors and literary writers. Parallel to the advent of new journalistic forms, the coffee house took on an important role, acting more and more as the setting for the public exchange of ideas and aiding the development of its visitors' facility for discussion. Examples are Will's Coffee House (1671–1712) and Button's Coffee House (1713–ca. 1750).

The literary roots of the periodical essays can be found partly in French culture, which at the time still served as the model for wide social circles in Europe. Nicolas Boileau's (1636–1711) writings provided access to discussions about the reception of the hegemonic textual forms of Greek and Roman antiquity. In the foreground of this transfer stood literary forms like satire, the character portraits of Jean de la Bruyère (1645–1696), and the dramas of Pierre Corneille (1606–1684). Michel de Montaigne's (1533–1592)Essais (1580) also influenced the development of the Spectators, although the latter departed from the authentic first-person narrator of the French model and vanish behind the mask of a fictional narrator.

Cultural forerunners of the periodical essay can also be found in the literary forms of the Italian classics and the Spanish Golden Age, the Siglo de Oro (16th/17th century), which had had an early influence on English literature. One thinks, among the many possible examples, of Giovanni Boccaccio's (1313–1375) novellas, of the narrative forms of the Spanish picaresque novel, of the romance and its transcendence through Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's (1547–1616)El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605/1615), of the dream narratives of a Francisco Quevedo (1580–1645), and of the masque, which spread to Spain by way of Italian culture.

"Spectatorial" Prototypes

The Tatler (1709–1711)

This was the background for the journalistic enterprise of the Whig Richard Steele, who launched The Tatler. By Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq. on 12 April 1709.2 After the first issues had appeared, Steele was joined by his longtime friend and confidant Joseph Addison. The paper ran on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, the days on which mail was delivered in the countryside. The rhythm suggested by the term "weekly" had not yet been established. It would first come into use in continental imitations, especially in connection with German papers. Thus a genre was created that in the course of the century would spread all over Europe in hundreds of different periodicals. The distinctive feature of this model lay in the fact that it did not just engage in the didactic moralism typical of Anglican devotional literature but rather presented moral considerations in a new, playful and informal way.

In his first "Spectatorial" enterprise Steele used the persona of Isaac Bickerstaff, a fictional character originally contrived by Jonathan Swift. This imaginary figure was well known in England and especially in London, and thus this first observer of contemporary society was in a certain sense "trustworthy." Steele created a fictional frame for Bickerstaff and used this perspective to observe the mercantile society of London. Many contemporaries might have guessed that Steele was behind the mask, but only in the final issue of the newspaper did the true author identify himself.3 With issue 271 on 2 January 1711, the author brought his Tatler, in which Addison had come to play an increasingly important role, to an end. Nevertheless, in a letter to the editor Bickerstaff was prompted to continue his intellectual game. A sequel to the project was thus to be expected.

The Spectator (1711–1714)

Indeed, a few weeks later, on 1 March 1711, the next journal appeared. It was entitled Spectatorand was much more sophisticated and complex than its predecessor. The Spectator acted as an anonymous, omnipresent observer who carefully examined conditions in the country. He was supported by a streetwise social club whose debates and raisonnements fascinated contemporary readers. With its shrewd style, elegant argumentation, and subtle humour, this new paper, on which Steele was again joined by Joseph Addison, exceeded all expectations. The extensive inclusion of numerous letters to the editor was part of the Spectator's basic design. The objectivity and sober-mindedness of its main characters, along with its high capacity for abstraction, would make the Spectator with its 635 issues a prototype for the genre of the moral weeklies.4

The Guardian (1713)

The third and last journalistic prototype was the short-lived magazine The Guardian, which first appeared on 12 March 1713 and reached 175 issues.5 The narrator was now Nestor Ironside, a retired tutor living in the circle of his host family, whose patriarch had died. The septuagenarian Ironside possessed the necessary distance to the individual members of the family to portray their moral character and to interpret their conversations accordingly. Here, too, piety and virtue played a central role, as did the rational upbringing of youth and the observation of private discourse.

Characteristics of the Genre

Periodical Publication and Reissues

The periodical essays were characterized by their entertaining portrayal of moralizing contents. They were published in regular intervals, and after a certain period of time the folios were often collected and reissued in book form. Depending on the journal, they could appear in several editions over decades, sometimes even being printed in different cities. Thanks to their particular entertaining streak, these volumes tended to enjoy high sales. The economic factor could not be separated from "Spectatorial" enterprises. Thus it often happened that the economic success was reflected upon in the writings themselves or that reader reception was explicitly measured.

The valorisation of public communication brought with it the vitality that was essential to early liberal societies. Since reader expectations were always maintained, the regularly appearing issues became an event unto themselves and facilitated a kind of communication that was closely coupled (in Luhmann's terms) with the differentiation of functional social systems. This dynamic was all the more idiosyncratic, as the weeklies did not deal with issues of everyday politics but rather with life's basic moral-philosophical questions (and thus the same themes tended to recur). Repetition was one of the central traits of the papers, whose articles were self-contained and – with very few exceptions – could be exchanged with one another at will. The articles' timelessness is the reason that the papers could appear years later in anthologies and continue to be of interest to the inquiring readers of the evolving middle class.

Translations and Adaptations

The moralizing journalism pioneered by Steele was quick to win an audience and to give rise to adaptive imitations and translations. This type of reception occurred as early as regarding the Tatler itself. Soon after the journal's appearance several related titles hit the market.6 Thus on 8 July 1709 – i.e. about three months later – a competing enterprise appeared in the dress of a cooperative union: The Female Tatler. By Mrs. Crackenthorpe, a Lady that knows every thing. The fictional editor Mrs. Crackenthorpe claimed to be a colleague of Bickerstaff and to operate her periodical as a complement to his. The true author of this paper, which ended on 31 March 1710 after 115 issues, has still not been identified.7

Female Audience

As this example shows, the periodical essays and the later weeklies displayed another core trait: they were often aimed at a female audience, such that the first women's magazines on a larger scale can be found in this genre.8 Gender roles were critically called into question, and problems dealing with the reigning order of the sexes were discussed. The impact could be more or less appreciable depending on the cultural context in which the journal appeared, such as in Italy or Spain. Female voices were often a disguise for male authors, some of whom were Catholic priests. This was the case in the weekly La Pensadora Gaditana (1763/1764)9 which appeared under the pseudonym Beatriz Cienfuegos.

The Role of Fictional Authors and Editors

One of the most important traits of the genre was the introduction of fictional authors and editors. Relying on a masked, anonymous authority like Bickerstaff, Spectator or Ironside allowed the periodical essays to achieve a high degree of aesthetic appeal and to communicate moral arguments and observations. The observers were able to capture and comment on all the communication in their environment unnoticed and could therefore construct a moral code that accommodated bourgeois interests. Such characters, finally, provided the audience with innovative possibilities for self-identification. A game was developed with the readers, who felt that their own lifestyle was continually being addressed and that they were themselves being challenged. Many weeklies would later adopt this method, an excellent example of which can be seen in the introduction to the Spectator:

I have observed, that a Reader seldom peruses a Book with Pleasure 'till he knows whether the Writer of it be a black or a fair Man, of a mild or cholerick Disposition, Married or a Batchelor, with other Particulars of the like nature, that conduce very much to the right Understanding of an Author. To gratify this Curiosity, which is so natural to a Reader…10

This clearly shows the significance of the communicative process between author and reader, in which the author's hidden identity increases the work's playful character. A complex interplay is developed between various types of observers, with opposite types mirroring and adroitly paired with each other, thus creating a reflexive composition of viewpoints. In this way, the anonymity and the mask produced a disjunction in the interaction between writer and reader, as it made it impossible for either one to ascribe anything to any specific individual. The advantage to this novel means of communicating information lay in the way it reduced prejudice to a minimum in the exchange of opinions. For it deactivated the influence that a specific author's name, age, appearance, and so forth might otherwise have on the reader. A similar technique would make its appearance in literature somewhat later in the works of Laurence Sterne (1713–1768) and Denis Diderot (1713–1748). On the one hand this game between author and reader became typical of the communicative processes being developed in London at the time. On the other it served the transmission of moral teachings in the traditional sense.

These methods made their way into numerous translations and imitations in other European cultural spheres. As linguistic studies of some individual journals have already described in more detail, the fictional first-person narrator of the weeklies was given great importance everywhere.11 At the same time, the personal narrative style of the disguised authors, which was based on the communicative form of the written letter and carried it forward in a new dress, also became evident. An example of the application of this style in the German context is provided by the introduction to the weekly Hypochondrist (Hypochondriac, 1762). Here the fictional narrator Zaccharias Jernstrupp sketches his hypochondriac symptoms as follows:

Ich würde vielleicht nicht einmal auf den Einfall gekommen seyn, ein Wochenblatt zu schreiben, wenn ich dieser Krankheit entbehren müsste, dass sie mir zu einem schönen Titel für meine Blätter verholfen hat. Ich habe nun alles, was zu einem wöchentlichen Autor erfordert wird. Ich bin eigensinnig, mürrisch, ein bischen eitel, eine Art von Philosoph…12

The Staging of Sociability

The introduction of a fictional author was not the only prominent innovation of the weeklies; another was the involvement of readers in the genesis of the journal. It was common for many weeklies to invite readers to participate in discussions via letters to the editor and thus to transmit their texts to the editor or fictional author. This staging of sociability on the model of pragmatic communication strategies was probably one of the factors that contributed to the great success of such publications in the English metropolis.

The question just how much these letters, which were revised by the "fictional" editor, can still be ascribed to their "real", original authors provides a further difficulty for the reception and interpretation of such texts. Whether the letters were made up from the very beginning in order to get the communication process going, or whether they reflect what readers actually wrote, will remain a mystery for many weeklies and is a part of the hybridization that characterizes the genre. The tie to the readers is also strengthened by the original titles of the journals, which generally described their respective fictional observers. The broad spectrum spanned from the Matrone ("Matron" – 1728–1729),13 the Braut ("Bride" – 1740)14 and the Jüngling ("Youth" – 1747),15 to the Vernünfftler ("Rationalist" – 1713/1714)16 and the Patriot ("Patriot" – 1724–1726),17 down to the Einsiedler ("Hermit" – 1740/1741),18 the Duende ("Goblin"– 1787/1788),19 the Misanthrope (1711/1712)20 and even the Scannabue ("Oxen Butcher"– 1763–1765),21 to name only a few. French scholarship has examined the entire collection of titles with the aim of elaborating a functional classification valid for all the journals. This research found five functional categories for the genre: réflexion, regard, bavardage, folie and collecte.22

Literary Forms

Another innovation is the essayistic, narrative treatment of everyday life. The "Tatler", like his much more famous successor, the "Spectator", acts as a reflection of the social discourse in which he participates as well, integrating everything he sees and hears into his texts. It is not only his self-portrayal that is important but also the way he depicts others together with the accompanying stories, conversations, and reports. The poetics of Horace (65–8 B.C.) with its dictum "prodesse et delectare" is the inspiration here. Many other elements of the periodical essays are likewise influenced by classical literature. Letters, dream narratives and allegories, fables and satirical portrayals, all relying on Greek and Roman models, shaped the perception of the genre. Exemplary quotations appear as mottos throughout the texts, aphoristically formulating the points they communicate.

The Netherlands, Portal to the Continent

It did not take long for the periodical essays to make their way to continental Europe. The most important point of transfer for the genre was the Protestant Netherlands, especially Amsterdam and The Hague. A large group of emigrants moved north and settled in the area after the Edict of Nantes had been repealed (1685), contributing decisively to book production in French. English was also more used in this cultural context than in other parts of the continent.

For the Spectator's entry into the rest of Europe, the earliest French adaptations and translations were especially important. Since English was barely understood even in urban centres; French was the lingua franca. Two texts contributed significantly to the diffusion of the new genre. The first was the weekly Le Misanthrope23 by the Dutchman Justus van Effen (1684–1735)[], which appeared as early as 1711 and can be considered the most inventive adaptation of the Tatler and the Spectator. It would be the model for many European journals. The second example for future weekly authors was the translation of the Spectator. In the first translated version of the journal, which was published in Amsterdam between 1714 and 1726, the enlightening intention was announced in the expanded title: Le Spectateur, ou le Socrate moderne, Où l'on voit un Portrait naïf des Mœurs de ce Siècle. Traduit de l'anglois ("The Spectator, or The Modern Socrates, which contains a Candid Portrait of the Morals of the Age. Translated from the English").24 The true author of the translation is still unknown.

Justus van Effen, the author of the Misanthrope, was born in Utrecht and played an important role in bringing English literature to Holland. He is known above all for his translations of the novel Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe, 1719) and of texts by Jonathan Swift and Bernard de Mandeville (1670–1733). His Misanthrope was published every Monday in The Hague. In a liberal adaptation of its English model, it successfully discussed moral questions of contemporary society. That two further editions25 followed – in 1726 and 1742 – testifies to the auspicious reception of the enterprise.

In 1713 the Dutch author produced an abridged translation of The Guardian under the title Le Mentor Moderne.26 Of the 175 discourses found in the English edition, 29 were not translated, as they dealt with local political issues or with English political parties and were thus of less interest in other cultural milieus. Other weeklies followed, such as La Bagatelle,27 the Nouveau Spectateur François28 and the successful Hollandsche Spectator.29

Justus van Effen was the essential link in the transfer and further development of the genre on the continent. He initiated a communication process through which the texts, in the form of adaptations and translations, went from England to Holland and partly even to France. In the years following, the journals were exported to the rest of Europe via francophone connections. Van Effen was quick to recognize the journalistic and literary potential of the English prototypes and to provide for their brisk adaptation to other cultural contexts. He took clever advantage of the resulting dynamic for his own enterprise, and he might even have managed to have an indirect impact on the ongoing development of the Spectator. Likewise he exercised a dialogic influence on later French productions.

His impact can be measured in yet another way. On the one hand, he – like many subsequent European authors, especially in Romance areas – established translations of original texts as the authoritative means for replicating the English prototype. This can be seen in his treatment of the Guardian. On the other hand, from the very beginning he also promoted liberal imitation and thus the adaptation of the canon and relevant moralizing issues to suit specific national and regional characteristics. Typical features of his work were multilingualism, the promotion of cultural transposition, and his many insights into the various processes of national development, which especially helped him to contribute decisively to national adaptations of the prototype – for example in the Hollandsche Spectator. His rationalistic arguments in the interest of bettering the morals of a nation became models for many contemporaries.

Furthermore, he was especially dedicated to the weekly rhythm of publication, such that he became associated not only with the Spectator genre but also with that of the moral weeklies in general. It is thus no wonder, for example, that the first such Spanish journal, El Duende especulativo (1761),30 was based no longer on the Tatler or Spectator of Steele and Addison but rather on Van Effen's Misanthrope.

The circulation of the English prototypes was exaggerated on the continent from the get-go, the idea clearly being to underline the economic attractiveness of this journalistic enterprise. In one of the first letters accompanying the Misanthrope, the Dutch bookdealer responsible for its publication claimed that 12,000 to 15,000 copies of the Tatler were printed daily – a technical impossibility for a small press.31 In the foreword to the Spanish Filósofo a la moda ("The Fashionable Philosopher"), the circulation of the first issues was, in imitation of its Dutch model, even placed at 20,000.32 All in all, the most important weeklies in Europe, depending on region, probably had an average circulation of between a few hundred (Italy, Spain, etc.) and two or three thousand (England, Germany, France, etc.) copies.

The Emergence of a European Network

Further diffusion of the journals in Europe ensued rapidly, although the respective cultural milieus reacted differently. The journals' clearly formulated Protestant values determined their reception, and the genre initially enjoyed greater success in the North than in the South. Urban centres, in which bourgeois values were already more strongly developed, were more favourable than rural areas.

The first German-language journals began in Hamburg and in various Swiss cities.33 The very first weekly was supposedly Johann Mattheson's (1681–1764)[]Vernünfftler ("The Rationalist" – 1713–1714), which was both a translation and an adaptation of the Tatler and the Spectator.34 It was followed by, among others, Discourse der Mahlern ("Painters' Conversations" – 1721)35 in Switzerland and Pierre de Marivaux's (1688–1763)[]Le Spectateur français (1721–1724)36 in France; both were based on the Spectateur from Amsterdam, although they only had a functional connection with their model. Greater diffusion than the regionally based Vernünfftler was enjoyed by the Patriot (1724–1726), a more sophisticated journal that was read throughout German lands. The paper initially foresaw a circulation of 400 copies, but by issue 36 it is said to have reached 5,000.37 In the Patriot's incipit, the medial universalization of the narrator in the sense of the global village can be observed: "Ich bin ein Mensch, der zwar in Ober-Sachsen gebohren, und in Hamburg erzogen worden, der aber die gantze Welt als sein Vaterland, ja als eine eintzige Stadt, und sich selbst als einen Verwandten oder Mit-Bürger jedes andern, Menschen ansiehet."38 Finally, Johann Christoph Gottsched's (1700–1766)[]Die Vernünfftigen Tadlerinnen ("The Rational Female Criticisers" – 1725–1727)39 should be mentioned, a weekly that departed widely from the original.

Although the weeklies blossomed in northern Lutheran lands, a few decades were necessary for the genre to develop in the Catholic South. In Romance areas, the Holland-based Spectateur was probably the most influential model.

Apart from a free, abridged translation of the Spectateur that appeared in Venice as early as 1728 under the title Il Filosofo alla Moda ("The Fashionable Philosopher"),40 the genre did not make its way to Italy until the second half of the century. In 1752 La Spettatrice ("The Female Spectator")41 appeared; it was followed closely by the Gazzetta Veneta ("Venetian Gazette" –1760/1761),42 the Osservatore Veneto ("Venetian Observer" – 1761/1762)43 (later Gli Osservatori Veneti ["The Venetian Observers"]), La Frusta Letteraria di Aristarco Scannabue ("The Literary Whip of Aristarcus the Oxen Butcher" – 1763–1765) and Il Caffè ("The Café" – 1764–1766).44

The weekly model made its way to Spain both in the form of the English original and via French translations and adaptations. Italian versions probably also influenced Spanish journals from time to time. The most prominent example of the Spanish Espectadores is José Clavijo y Fajardo's (1726–1806) weekly El Pensador (The Thinker), which was published in Madrid from 1762 to 1767 and put 86 Pensamientos ("Thoughts") into circulation.45 After El Pensador, interest in this particular journalistic form dropped sharply before experiencing a fulminating rebirth twenty years later with El Censor (1781–1788).46 Still, circulation lay at best at around 500 copies per issue. On the other hand, the Spanish weeklies probably had an audience ten times larger than their modest circulation suggests, as the papers were eagerly passed around and were read aloud in literary discussion groups. The ban of the press in February 1791 brought an end to the production of weeklies in Spain.

Characteristics of the Genre's Transnational Transfer

In its transfer from the English context via Dutch-French mediation to other cultural milieus, the weekly genre took on national characteristics that could also show hints of local colour. Although the journals only seldom discussed events of the day, they were nevertheless integrated in narrative forms and modes of representing sociality that varied from nation to nation. It was common for internal matters of English politics, literature and culture to be left out of continental translations and adaptations or to be replaced or supplemented with issues relevant to the target culture. The fictional author or editor was usually given a local hue or was at least open to discussing cultural issues from his own milieu. Similar strategies were employed when French-language weeklies were adapted by authors of a different provenance. In this way French, German, Italian and Spanish authors enriched their writings with local characteristics and thus contributed to the development of a transnational network.

Journalistic and literary debates were often ignited by the question whether a given weekly was shaped by local cultural conditions or rather an import from the English, Dutch, French or German cultural sphere. A related question was to what extent Protestant ethics were being implanted in Catholic culture or, similarly, how much the liberal tendencies of a given weekly were responsible for bringing modernity to a given cultural milieu. It was, however, also possible for the defenders of a specific tradition to use the weekly as a means of combating the genre itself and the liberalisation it conveyed, as was the purpose behind the Spanish El Escritor sin título ("The Untitled Author", 1763).47 In such cases, the author's true intention was usually kept hidden behind the weekly's satirical tone, and conflicts of interpretation were still highly likely.

The End of the  Periodical Essays

From the very beginning the  periodical essays were destined to be ephemeral. They faded more quickly in Protestant areas, giving way to the novel, whereas in the Catholic South, for example in cities like Vienna and Madrid, their moralizing conversational tone helped some to persevere into the nineteenth century. They also stayed alive in the form of supplements to informational bulletins like Justus Möser's (1720–1794)Wöchentliche Osnabrückische Intelligenzblätter ("Weekly Osnabrück Bulletins"). Their traces can also be found in many narrative works. Wolfgang Martens (1924–2000), a scholar of German weeklies, has described their end quite aptly:

Die Wochenschrift alten Schlages, die die Verfasserfiktion beibehält und zugleich nach wie vor Vernunft und Tugend zum Zwecke der bürgerlichen Glückseligkeit zu fördern bestrebt ist, ist nach 1770 in den nördlichen Breiten selten geworden. Der Roman der Hermes, La Roche und Miller macht ihr das Publikum abspenstig. Sturm und Drang und der Hochsubjektivismus der Empfindsamkeit sind für die Nachfahren der Gattung kein gedeihliches Klima mehr. Das stärkere politische Interesse, das sich seit den 70er Jahren in Deutschland bemerkbar macht, ist ihr fremd, die Aufregungen der Französischen Revolution vollends verschlagen ihr die Rede und der Geist der Romantik ist ihrer bürgerlich-lehrhaften Haltung gänzlich fern. Stoffe, Themen, Motive, erbaulicher Sinn und redliche Absichten leben fort im bürgerlichen Unterhaltungsblatt des 19. Jahrhunderts ….48

Klaus-Dieter Ertler, Graz


Databases [06/01/2012].

Susan Fitzmaurice

(University of Sheffield)

Received: July 2006, published March 2007 (HSL/SHL 7)








    able 2: Frequencies of first person subject stance verbs (per 100,000 words)

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