Joseph Addison is not a household name – but three hundred years ago, he was a fairly influential man of letters kicking around the Restoration. He wrote a few poems, a few plays, held a few political offices, but what he is remembered for by those who do remember him is his collaborations with Richard Steele on The Tatler and The Spectator; which are probably not household names either. They were magazines, effectively, something like The New Yorker, Atlantic, or Rolling Stone of today, containing more commentary than raw unprocessed news information. I picked up a kind of Greatest Hits when I was studying the Restoration while Reading English as an undergraduate. They weren’t on, or anywhere near, the syllabus, but I’ve never had too much trouble convincing myself to buy and read a book on the off-chance it might be useful to me later. And so these last ten years I’ve been carrying around in my head an impression of a man of letters, waiting for some concrete use, the way I periodically think I should liven some of my writing with inserts from Pope’s Essay on Criticism. I have been starting to feel lately, particularly when reading the likes of Matt Taibbi, that time may be coming.
The Restoration has always been one of my favourite periods of English literature because it was a time when writing was the battleground in which matters of politics and morality were fought; a battle that’s not too hard to discern in our current media, in which reportage often has the whiff of a political press release. John Dryden, my favourite Restoration poet, wasn’t merely a Poet Laureate, he was a powerful foot-soldier in a political war. Addison was a partisan in that fighting, but half a generation later, Samuel Johnson wants to cast him not in that light, but as one who rose above the fray. In his Life of Addison, Johnson portrays a man who brought a sharp mind to the problems of the day, and intervened as an arbiter of taste, the perfect neoclassical mind, which is I think how many people subsequently view Johnson himself. But aside from this big-picture impression of a mind in an era, I have to admit to not really knowing that much detail. While on holiday in Oamaru, I stumbled across a biography of Addison and it was not too hard to convince myself to spent the $3. The edition I bought was the 1909 “Pocket Edition” of the 1884 “English Men of Letters” volume on Addison. A millennial reading a Victorian about a Neo-classicist seemed like the perfect level of distance to get a proper perspective on everything.
Courthope’s writing is clear, sprightly, and precise: it’s a genuine pleasure to read. I buzz-sawed through the 170 pages of 6-pt font in just a few hours. It’s obvious though, that the immediate details of Restoration political history were expected to be at the Victorian Gentleman’s fingertips, as Courthope is perfectly happy to allude to people and events without any context. He’s offering context and analysis, not raw biographical information. It’s plain that he expects the reader to be passingly familiar with Addison, Pope, Samuel Johnson, and the modes and mores of the period generally. What’s striking about his critical passages, compared to a modern prevaricating postmodernist, is that he’s absolutely prepared to make clear-cut judgments of literary value: this is good, this is okay, this is bad. These judgments are made with complete assurance that they aren’t going to be questioned or subject to modification. I expect they’re largely on the money too, inasmuch as we should be judging at all.
Addison, like many politically-aware people of this day grappled with the issue of party politics, and the conclusion he came to was this:
There cannot, a greater judgment befall a country than such a dreadful spirit of division as rends a government into two distinct people and makes them greater strangers and more averse to one another than if they were actually two different nations. The effects of such a division are pernicious to the last degree, not only with regard to those advantages which they give to the common enemy, but to those private evils which they produce in the heart of every particular person. This influence is very fatal both to men’s morals and to their understandings; it sinks the virtue of a nation, and only so, but destroys even common sense. Spectator #507
This is nothing more or less than an answer to the value of an arts education. You think you’re reading a series of satires on the common condition of 18th century man [sic] while in fact there’s a fairly complete political education bundled along for free. I think this is one of my other favourite aspects of the Restoration: there were surely genius specialists, but those engaging in writing pursuits tackled many fronts. Courthope’s argument is that while Addison was a Whig, he was motivated not by party loyalty but by sensing that they were the lesser of two evils:
But he would have repudiated as vigorously as Burke the … stupid and ferocious spirit, generated by party, which would deny to opponents even the appearance of virtue and intelligence. Addison, 169
Reading a life of Addison at this spectacularly dysfunctional moment in democracy is a panacea: as broken as world democracy is right now, it surely can’t be worse than during the Restoration, and men like Addison found a way to reconnect vehemently held opposing views in art and in politics. This balancing act seems to be what’s necessary today. We’ve become so partisan and dogmatic that the very basis of agreed facts is in pretty shabby shape. A book like this isn’t going to change the world, but it’s a window into the life of someone who played their part in that endeavour.