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Reviving the Periodical Essay

Awhile back I asked for suggestions from readers in finding 'eclectic' blogs, and was pleased to receive some. With hindsight I should have asked for 'modern periodical essays'. Periodical essays were popular in the 1700's. (The link to Quotidiana in the right hand margin contains personal essays.) A couple of the best known series were those of Addison & Steele and those by Samuel Johnson, Diderot, etc. The modern internet blogosphere should be rife with periodical essays. It is an enormous opportunity that is being missed.

Let's characterize a periodical essay as the short work of an observer and thinker who is 'grazing on the open range' of personal experience and human history. Typically the periodical essay begins with an observation that seemed odd enough to stimulate curiosity. The train of thought then broadens to the general, with some historical perspective.

I am reading the first series by Addison & Steele, "The Tatler", written about 1710 AD. (And 'CE' be damned.) Although the English novel didn't quite exist then, newspapers did, and the "The Tatler" offered a popular alternative to newspapers.  A modern reader, reading Addison & Steele for the first time, will be surprised to find the prose style remarkably modern. In fact, they helped to create the modern prose style.  A generation later, Benjamin Franklin imitated the style of Addison & Steele in his program of self-education.

Why are these essays so appealing? Partially it is their brevity. It is so salubrious to read for a few minutes, as a break from more physical activity; and the shortness of the time in the chair prevents the reader from becoming sullen.

Secondly, starting the essay from personal experiences or observations keeps the essay's feet on the ground. It lends honesty and authenticity to the train of thought, rather than the author regurgitating something read in another book. It also avoids the endless circle of wordplay by philosophers or meta-physicians.

Let's look at an example from The Tatler, vol 3 (from Gutenberg). The essays frequently grew out of conversations  in coffee houses or chocolate shops. A rather argumentative fellow named 'Minucio' was carrying on once:
But Minucio replied with great vehemence, and seemed so much to have the better of the dispute, that this adversary quitted the field...

I sat till I saw the table almost all vanished, where, for want of discourse, Minucio asked me, how I did? To which I answered, "Very well." "That's very much," said he; "I assure you, you look paler than ordinary." "Nay," thought I, "if he won't allow me to know whether I am well or not, there is no staying for me neither." 

Upon which I took my leave, pondering as I went home at this strange poverty of imagination, which makes men run into the fault of giving contradiction. They want in their minds entertainment for themselves or their company, and therefore build all they speak upon what is started by others; and since they cannot improve that foundation, they strive to destroy it.
Sigh. If only an essayist have given me some advice, when I was young, about the vicious habit of contradiction. And if only I had taken it! The essays are full of sound advice about the conduct of life, but not the aphorisms or issues that you might pickup in the Bible or ancient philosophy. In theory, a novelist could do an even better job at treating the conduct of life because they might be more likely to persuade the reader, since the reader is emotionally involved with the characters of the novel.