Addison, Joseph

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Encyclopedia Entry

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Publication Title

The Encyclopedia of British Literature, 1660-1789


Over the course of a career that spanned three decades, Joseph Addison (1672-1719) made influential contributions to an enormous range of literary and print genres. During his early years as a student and fellow at Oxford he made a name for himself as a poet in both Latin and English. His travel narrative, Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (1705), provided a model for generations of British tourists and travel writers. Addison's greatest achievement, his periodical papers in the Tatler and Spectator (1709-11 and 1711-14) were celebrated throughout the century as the summit of elegant English prose style. These periodicals, managed by Addison's friend and collaborator Richard Steele with heavy input from Addison himself, were printed on a single large sheet of paper several times a week, sold for a penny or two, and provided subscribers and coffeehouse readers with a mixture of news, moral instruction, light satire, short fiction, literary criticism, advertisements, and miscellaneous observations on everyday life. Frequently reprinted in volumes after their original publication, they were avidly read for both pleasure and instruction throughout the following century. Samuel Johnson's famous assessment, published in 1781, testifies to their deep influence: "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" (Johnson 2010, 22.678).


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