The Reading Room
Looking at The Spectator
Before denizens of the web could pass hours wandering down rabbit holes like McSweeney’s Internet Tendency or The Onion, what did well-read, culturally au currant folks do for amusement?
One of their options in the 1710s was the growing number of serial publications like The Tatler (1709-1711) or The Spectator (1711-1712, 1714). Both publications were what the kids today would call collabs between Whig partisans Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, and both employ a fictional persona to comment on current social trends. The Tatler presented Isaac Bickerstaff as a self-ironizing narrative persona, while The Spectator featured that peak eighteenth century gathering, a Club, headed by Mr. Spectator. The Spectator in particular was wildly successful, remaining constantly in print until well into the nineteenth century. It was prized both as a moral guide and as a style model. Today I’d like to introduce you to the members of the Club and highlight some of the Spectators that might be of particular interest. (If you do not have access to a research library, modern editions can be hard to come by. This link will take you to The Spectator Project run by Rutgers; page citations below correspond to this online edition.*)
The leader of the club, Mr. Spectator, introduces himself – fittingly – in the first issue. He establishes his bona fides by telling us that his family has resided on the same estate since the Norman invasion. Because the size of the family property has remained constant for nearly 700 years, we know a) they have been careful stewards, never mortgaging or selling off bits of their estate and b) they have never been ambitious, trying to expand and absorb neighboring land. They are, in a word, conservative. Among other details of his gestation (yes, really) and childhood Mr. Spectator establishes himself, with considerable irony, as a watcher rather than a doer. He tells us
I am very well versed in the Theory of an Husband, or a Father, and can discern the Errors in the Oeconomy, Business, and Diversion of others, better than those who are engaged in them; as Standers-by discover Blots [exposed pieces in backgammon], which are apt to escape those who are in the Game (9).
Clearly, we had armchair quarterbacks before we had quarterbacks.
And who has Mr. Spectator gathered around himself for his endeavors?
Addison and Steele design the members of their Club with equal attention to irony. Pride of place goes to Sir Roger de Coverly. Sir Roger is presented as an aging representative of the best of the Tory party. He’s associated with the wit and scandal of the Restoration court, but has remained a bachelor because of an early romantic disappointment (for those tracking symbolism, this means the Tory party is dwindling without reproducing). Sir Roger is balanced by Sir Andrew Freeport, “a General Trader of good Sense” and an idealized Whig (13). The club is rounded out by a law student who spends all of his time at the theatre; Captain Sentry, who lacks the skill at self-promotion to make his way in the army; Will Honeycomb, an aging dandy; and a nameless clergyman with weak health. These details about the club members all carry ironic significance; the military is not recognizing people based on merit and the Church is not as robust as it might be.
What do these august members discuss? Their primary focus concerns the social, economic, and cultural goings on in the capital – from coffee house culture to Italian opera to proper gender roles to debt and extravagance. The papers seek to shape “Taste” – an all encompassing term that gives them license to discuss everything from commerce to culture.
In the third issue, the first to address something other than the club members, Addison recounts Mr. Spectator’s visit to the Bank of England and the dream it inspires, in which he envisions an allegorical figure: Lady Credit. Initially appearing as “a beautiful Virgin, seated on a Throne of Gold,” Lady Credit’s health is unpredictable(16). She is
subject to such Momentary Consupmptions, that in the twinkling of an Eye, she would fall away from the most florid Complexion, and the most healthful State of Body, and wither intoa Skeleton. Her Recoveries were often as sudden as her Decays, insomuch that she would revive in a Moment out of a wasting Distemper, into a Habit of the highest Health and Vigor (17)
She is rescued from what seems irreversible decay by the entrance of pairs of dancers: Liberty leads in Monarchy, and Moderation leads in Religion. At Lady Credit’s return to health, Mr. Spectator is “so transported with Joy” that he wakes himself up (19). Subtle? No. But humorous? Yes. Addison dips into allegory again in Number 55 to discuss Luxury and Avarice (206).
Steele is somewhat less fanciful in his treatment of economic issues, limiting himself to personae rather than indulging in allegory. For example, Number 174 presents a debate between Sir Roger de Coverly and Sir Andrew Freeport, in which Sir Andrew refutes Sir Roger’s insinuation that traders have no honor because they care about nothing but gain (593). Sir Andrew maintains that gentlemen and traders must exercise the same virtues of calculation and accuracy to maintain either their estates or their commerce. The bourgeois virtues avant McCloskey’s lettre.
This is just a peek at a handful of the over 500 essays in The Spectator. Throughout, Mr. Spectator and his club use humor and whimsy to inculcate good taste and moderation among the newly literate and worryingly mobile “middling sort” getting rich off the increase in global trade and resulting consumer markets. Each essay in the series is just a few pages long, making for the perfect quick read, much like McSweeney’s.
*note: the Rutgers Spectator Project has grown to include the full text of The Female Spectator (1744-46) by Eliza Haywood, Samuel Johnson’s The Rambler (1750-52), and other 18th century periodical essays. No more doom-scrolling for you! A wealth of entertainment and moral improvement awaits!