Eighteenth Century Periodical Essay

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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.

In this article I discuss three early essays by Jonathan Swift.

I argue that Swift resisted Addison’s Whig journalism precisely because of its confidence in speaking about and on behalf of people’s personal, individuated selves.

The periodical essay, like all serial publication, is part of the evolution of the professional writer from his or her role as a creature of the court or parliament to his or her reliance on publishers and, through them, on the reading public.” Addison and Steele valorized the interior lives of their readers while locating the individual subject as part of a community, and they authorized subjective experience as a source of valuable collective knowledge.

Their essays conjured a vision of thinking subjects living in benignly self-regulating, consensual communities as the ideal basis on which to build a progressive modern state.

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.

There were personal essays written before 1700, of course, most significantly by Montaigne, Bacon, and Browne.

Eighteenth-century periodical essays were influenced by these seventeenth-century models and used the authority of personal opinion both to reflect and to influence the supposed sensibilities of a large group of readers.


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