English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3     




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Syllabus & Schedule





1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam




***   23. Reading Papers   ***



All the News (fit or not)
Vol. 1C pages 2437-2498 from Longman 3rd ed 
"Daniel Defoe" and "Reading Papers"


The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.  See General instructions on Journaling for this course. For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.


Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Make notes you will find useful on the final essay. Some other journaling ideas for today include:

Describe the personality of Mr. Spectator, or the Female Spectator, or Isaac Bickerstaff or any of the other "periodical personae" of the early papers. Compare or contrast this personality with a noted "news reporter" or media "talking head" today.

In which of today's readings are fact and fiction separated clearly? In which are the lines between fact and fiction blurred or hard to know? How truthful do you think they are?

Which article in this section  did you find most entertaining? Do its entertaining qualities support or undermine its informative value or persuasive force?


Adapted by Dr. G from David Damrosch, et al.,
Teaching British Literature
(New York: Longman, 2003)

The 17th and 18th centuries saw the rise in Britain of such familiar forms of journalism as the breaking news bulletin, the news digest, the advice column, the editorial, and the letter to the editor. Reading this old news can help us attain perspective on perennial basic issues of news writing:

  • To what extent do journalists mirror the community they address--and to what extent do they try to lead, mislead or otherwise influence that community?

  • Do journalists distinguish clearly between objective fact and subjective opinion? Do they mix information and entertainment? How reliable are they?

  • How do journalists develop customers? How do they hook readers into seeing themselves as smart, well informed, stylish, cool people who must keep reading the paper in order to stay in line with the group?





"The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.” Thomas Jefferson

The Papers

Bias is evident in government-sponsored papers that during the Restoration were often the only print-news sources legally available. Here, the important thing about January 30 is that is it is the anniversary of the martyrdom of King Charles I (see Mercurius Publicus 24 January 1661 in Damrosch 2654); the great fire of London, which otherwise might be seen as a gross failure of government planning and emergency response, is chiefly interesting for the heroic efforts of the royal brothers to douse the flames (see London Gazette 11 September 1666 in Damrosch 2455).

So, from beginnings in court flattery, how did reading papers evolve their great popularity in the Enlightenment?  Many journalists steered away from controversial political and religious subjects, but this was not the sole strategy for a journalist's survival. Some political writers wrote anonymously (see, e.g., Daniel Defoe below). Others wrote about politics in veiled terms using parables or allegories (see "Vampires in Britain" The Craftsman  No. 30, 12 May 1732 in Damrosch 2459). Many used masks: the reporter often became a fictional character like Steele's Bickerstaff or Addison's Mr. Spectator. The legally protected free press would not develop until the end of the 18th century, but reporting prior to that revolution is intriguing for its various mixtures of fact and fiction.

The Athenian Mercury: This innovative paper seems to have invented the correspondent system in which the subscribers were the journalists--an interactive system subsequently used by major news organizations until recent times when the blogosphere superseded it.  Mercury the messenger god is an apt presiding spirit in that the paper seems to be in many places at the same time gathering news from the wide world of its readership.

This paper was also the birthplace of another enduring form of interactivity, the advice column where readers request information from authoritative writers. Compare current columns of advice: what do audiences want from their columnists (Ann Landers, Cecil Adams, Doctor Ruth, etc.) and how are these needs successfully met?

Review of the State of the British Nation: Martin Marprelate might disagree, but the first media celebrity in England often is said to be Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). He was a champion of commerce, which he claimed to know well from personal engagements in a variety of private businesses. Once his writings had achieved notoriety, Defoe was seen by politicians as a valuable propagandist and partisan, and he served as an undercover hired gun in a succession of governments under William and Mary and Anne.

Defoe had written anonymously for The Athenian Mercury, but in The Review of the State of the British Nation he devised the least anonymous of all periodical personae, a readily recognizable version of himself: beset, pugnacious, exasperated, and undaunted. More than any subsequent paper, The Review presented the ongoing story of a single journalist vehemently engaged with breaking news.

However, this image was less than true.  The paper's secret sponsor was Robert Harley, Queen Anne's chief minister of state (Damrosch 2457). The public was deceived, if it took The Review at face value, as presenting the independent views of a self-supporting dissenter. Having failed to censor or control the press, the more subtle government at this time was attempting to infiltrate it and undermine its fledgling independence. Defoe's famous pillorying and imprisonment may have been staged by the government to set up Defoe's phony public image as a critic of the royal state.

At least some readers knew of Defoe's connections to the crown, and they tried to expose him, but Defoe continued to lie about the matter. This is apparent for instance in The Review of 29 March 1707, "The New Union" celebrating England's annexation of Scotland: "Those that have charged me with missions and commissions from neither they nor I know who[m], shall blush at their rashness, and be ashamed for reflecting on a man come hither [to Scotland] on purpose to do them good . . ." (Damrosch 2458).

After the succession of Hanoverian George I in 1714, the mystery of Defoe's career reaches full flower. He appears to have lost favor, perhaps because his cover was blown, but he may have continued to be engaged by the government as a spy. In retirement from the news business he wrote Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and A Journal of the Plague Year, but were these great novels merely cover for his real job?



 Left: the prolific Daniel Defoe in 1703 was pilloried and briefly  imprisoned by the last of the Stuarts, Queen Anne, for his criticism of the Anglican establishment, and yet the public punishment seems likely to have been a ruse to confuse the public since Defoe began writing secretly for Anne's government immediately after the episode.


The Tatler Richard Steele

Published 1709-1711 but revived and remaining in publication today, this paper began a broad movement of periodicals away from the sparring of "coffeehouse politicians" into entertainment and cultivation of lifestyle, appealing to women as well as men. Defoe's stringency was replaced in The Tatler by the gregariousness of Isaac Bickerstaff, humorous pen name for Richard Steele (1672-1729). Bickerstaff bickered several days each week in print as a genial, self-styled "Censor of Great Britain."

The anonymous reporter behind the mask could read and respond to letters from his readers, as earlier journalists had done, but the mask enabled him to tattle freely on conversations that he heard in the coffee houses and other public places around London. This city now had grown too big and too diverse for any individual to experience personally. What made London a community any longer--its political and religious institutions having been discredited for so many of its citizens?

The Tatler attempted to address this public identity crisis. Its nominal subject was the city,  but its real subject was its own audience: what members in good standing in the community of readers should say, what they should not say:  "what to think . . . shall be the end and purpose of this my paper" (Tatler 1, 12 April 1709 in Damrosch 2463). If you did not follow his advice, Mr. Bickerstaff might tattle on you.

Faithfully as church-goers attend services, Steele's readers were persuaded to return to his paper with each issue to learn what good people in the community were saying and doing. Steele is tongue-in-cheek, at times very funny, but his work teaches how journalism can develop a cult following to sustain itself. One imagines that he would be at home at The New York Times today: here is the journalist as arbiter of belief, style and taste.




Left: Richard Steele, founder of the Tatler and the Spectator


The Spectator: The most successful paper of the era in terms of circulation and run time was The Spectator, a daily founded by Steele with his friend Joseph Addison. It was "in everyone's hands and a constant topic for our morning conversation at tea tables and coffeehouses" (John Gay, quoted in Damrosch 2465).

This was a knockoff of The Tatler, but in contrast to Bickerstaff, Mr. Spectator mimicked silence. He portrayed himself as a “silent man,” having no original opinions of his own, but observing everything around him only then to print himself out in the form of a “sheet-full of thoughts every morning.” Multiplying himself daily, he imprinted his observations not only on paper but in the minds of many readers.

Readers occupied Mr. Spectator both as objects of his attention and as presences in his paper: writers of letters, performers of actions, recipients of counsel. He became their eyes or way of seeing: he offered them the “secret satisfaction” that arises from the precise observation of self and others. He was still a diarist, a distinct personality and an eccentric one, and yet he formed public opinion, binding a cult of followers under the pretense that he was an impartial reporter of truth. This is the model from which objective modern journalism derives.


and Joseph Addison, co-founder of the Spectator, author of the tragedy Cato, which inspired George Washington and the American Revolution

The Craftsman: Much of The Craftsman’s craft consists in pointedly alienating its readers from their political predicaments, by Sir Robert Walpoletransposing their circumstances into an alien milieu, so that Walpole becomes a foreign “vampyre” (Craftsman No 307 20 May 1732 in Damrosch 2459) and South Sea stock becomes a comically potent set of nonsense syllables that produce frenzy in the hearer (see image below). Only by careful deflection, and by outright lying, could Amhurst and colleagues tell the truth as they saw it.

(By the way, the bloody corpses of the 18th century, thought by some to be vampires, were perfectly natural. Gas released by decay typically plumps up a decomposing corpse and forces blood through the mouth, nose, ears and wherever else it can escape. This gas is released forever by a stake through the heart--which you might be too squeamish to administer unless you really believe in vampires!)


Left: Sir Robert Walpole, perhaps the most successful prime minister in British history, was mercilessly satirized by Tory propagandists Pope, Swift, Fielding, Gay and others. He got even with the stage licensing act of 1737, a censorship law that remained on the books until 1968!


South Sea Bubble

Above: The South-Sea Bubble, engraved by James Carter after a painting by Edward Matthew, shows widows, orphans and other unsophisticated investors lining up to be cheated out of their money by agents of the British government. The South Sea Company was one of the gross materialistic excesses of the period, as the company derived much of its revenue from slave traffic in the New World, and the government sold shares in the company at inflated prices in order to refinance the debts it had amassed.  The ruinous collapse of the company's share price in 1720 has become famous in the history of speculative stock market bubbles, but subjects of this kind were difficult for journalists writing prior to the development of freedom of the press.



The fiction of the journalists tended to be realist or rationalist, like the advice columnists' practical masks. Addison, Steele, and Defoe claimed to write in order to remedy the newly speculative culture’s fixation on the fictitious future (where stocks will rise, debts will be paid, and profits accrue) by prescribing a prudent focus on the present.

The Female Spectator: Eliza Haywood’s approach differed from those of her male predecessors. They proposed to teach their readers from a position of patriarchal authority and innate rightness, whether grounded in learning (the Athenians), savvy (Review), sociability (Tatler), or inborn, enlightened eccentricity (Spectator). The Female Spectator, by contrast, undertook to teach from her mistakes. “Hers is the voice of error rather than propriety, experience rather than innocence . . . [S]he has been guilty herself of the conduct she is to criticize.” As one critic puts it, “basing her persona’s claims to authority upon her experienced culpability rather than her naive superiority, Haywood rewrote the moral essay.” She also relied heavily on collaborators. How would this mask have helped overcome common prejudices of the public against women?

The subordinate relation of women to male spokespersons is loud and clear in British society prior to the initiation of the women's movement in Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Bickerstaff for instance describes his sister’s moral progress after marriage in terms that plainly sketch the kind of influence that this confirmed bachelor hopes to wield over female readers: “upon talking with her on several subjects, I could not but fancy that I saw a great deal of her husband’s way and manner in her remarks, her phrases, the tone of her voice, and the very air of her countenance. This gave me an unspeakable satisfaction . . .

The Female Spectator’s tale of Seomanthe, by contrast, quietly ironizes the authority of its female narrator, who writes to show the danger “of laying young people under too great a restraint,” only to discern that she is exerting too little restraint over her own “expatiating” argument; she promptly seeks to redress the discursive balance. The episode performs wisdom more as process than as pronouncement. 
















Left: from an engraving of Eliza Heywood in the British Museum.

Female Spectator  

The Bubbler's Medley
Thomas Bowles' 1720 engraving "The Bubbler's Medley," the frontispiece to our book (IC page 2120 and below), shows a prisoner behind a quasi-scrapbook of printed papers casually strewn across the opening to his cell. In these scraps Bowles crams into a space much too small for them many of the culture’s most pressing concerns: with money, trade, and empire; with miscellany; with evanescence; with “memorial.” This confused  anthology blocks off most of the prisoner's view outside his cage. Is our vision enhanced or obstructed with the development of media?




Joseph Addison at Bartleby.  The Spectator at Project Gutenberg. Cato: A Tragedy at Project Gutenberg

Daniel Defoe's works at Literature Network.  Daniel Defoe at Bartleby. Daniel Defoe at Luminarium. Daniel Defoe on the education of women.

Samuel Johnson, Life of Addison from Bartleby.

Richard Steele at Bartleby. The Tatler Volume 1 at Bartleby.

The Female Tatler from University of Michigan.



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Copyright 2008-2013 by Gary Homer Gutchess