Are Addison and Steele still Dead?: Ambiguity, Accessibility and the Fate of the Literary Canon

Twenty-five years after Brian McCrea observed that “Addison and Steele are dead” I want to see if his prophesies came true, and perhaps you can help!

Are Addison and Steele still taught? Did ambiguity and obscurity beat accessibility? And what was the fate of non-fiction prose?


Addison Funeral

Addison and Steele are Dead!

Are Addison and Steele still dead? Well, yes, of course they are.

Joseph Addison died on the 17th June 1719, shortly after marrying Charlotte, Dowager Countess of Warwick and finally ascending to the highly coveted role of Secretary of State. Famously, in his dying moments he gifted his future biographers an extraordinary closing anecdote by allegedly calling his beloved step-son to his bedside “so that he might see how a Christian can die.”

Richard Steele’s death was an altogether quieter affair which saw him retreating with his wife to the Welsh town of Carmerthen, where he was later buried in St Peter’s Churchyard on the 1st September 1729. (Incidentally, Steele didn’t remain buried there. In a ghoulish and unfortunate turn of events Steele’s skull was later discovered during a restoration of the church in 2000, having been accidentally disinterred during the 1870s).

So clearly, both Addison and Steele are no longer with us, having each shuffled off this mortal coil almost three centuries ago.

The death I wish to investigate is one more a kin to that suffered by the figure of the author at the cool hands of Barthes, Foucault, Wimsatt, Beardsley and that army of anti-intentionalist assassins whose total eradication of the author-god helped define literary criticism from the 21st century, likely all for the better.

I don’t want to trouble the mortal remains of Addison and Steele (Steele in particular has suffered enough of that already!) but to return to a second passing, first marked by Brian McCrea at the end of the 1980s.

Addison and Steele’s Turbulent Afterlives

In 1990 McCrea mounted an erudite, barnstorming, polemic and frankly inspirational challenge to the emergent practices of the academy at the end of the 1980s. Significantly he did this in a monograph titled Addison and Steele Are Dead: The English Department, Its Canon, and the Professionalization of Literary Criticism.

That McCrea sounded the death knell for two figures whose reputations in the 19th century had reached Isaac Newton-esque proportions is both astonishing and curiously fitting.

Joseph Addison: A literary celebrity throughout the 19th century!

Joseph Addison: A literary celebrity throughout the 19th century!

Addison’s posthumous reputation in particular is one of extraordinary extremes; always cast either as a saint or a monster, praised for his diplomacy or castigated for his guardedness, charged either with distorting the literary canon or banished from it entirely. In the works of Nathan Drake, Thomas Macaulay and W. J. Courthorpe he is treated as a deity, whilst for Bonomy Dobrée he is a cartoon of villainy. C. S. Lewis even went as far as to claim that ‘if he is not at present the most hated of our writers, that can only be because he is so little read.’ A shocking thing to say about a writer who was not long since commended by William Thackery for his ‘life, prosperous and beautiful – a calm death – [and] immense fame and affection afterwards for his happy and spotless name…”

By 1990 McCrea had detected the gradual expulsion of Addison and Steele from the university syllabus, masterfully using this observation to critique the academy’s sudden championing of ‘ambiguity’ above all else.

The Rejection of Public Discourse and the Quest for Ambiguity

Twenty-five years ago, McCrea posited the following observation:

“I think we can learn much about the institutional situation and the social role of English professors by considering their neglect of Addison and Steele. Once standard authors, today the two enter the canon of eighteenth-century literature by the back door, meriting only an occasional comparison to a member of the Scriblerus Club. Pope, Swift, and Gay – today these are the standard early eighteenth-authors. Addison and Steele have been demoted from the high place they held up until World War II, demoted not as the result of a direct attack, but as the result of a quiet, but nonetheless effective benign neglect. Articles on them are ever rarer, and, as school editions of their work go out of print, I suspect they are taught less and less” (McCrea, p. 11)

Does ambiguity reign amidst the cloisters of the academy?

Does ambiguity reign amidst the cloisters of the academy?

Over two decades later I can confirm much of McCrea’s prophecy. On the undergraduate eighteenth-century modules I have been fortunate enough to teach on Addison and Steele did indeed ‘enter through the back door’, more as illustrations of the public sphere and the culture of the coffee house than writers in their own right. As for their works going out of print, I actually wrote my PhD thesis on Addison’s The Freeholder largely with the help of an out-of-press Clarendon Press edition from 1979 (and even that noted in the introduction that ‘no one would argue that the whole periodical deserves a new edition for its literary merit’ – prompting me to challenge, extensively, the editor’s definitions of ‘literary’ and ‘merit’ for the best part of three years).

The worst part of all this is that Addison and Steele’s absence is so systemic that it wasn’t until I read McCrea’s book (a considerable way into my PhD studies) that I even noticed they were missing. For me, an undergraduate of the 2000s, they’d never been a central part of my university education so it wasn’t obvious to note their absence from it.

But as McCrea illustrates very eloquently, and extensively, they did used to be there!

McCrea’s explanation for where they went is achieved through a stunning juxtaposition of the criticism of eighteenth-century men of letters, like Addison and Steele, and criticism produced by the academic professional at the dawn of the 1990s. McCrea argues that ‘as public men, Addison and Steele always sought broad appeal. Their precipitous (since World War II) drop out of the canon of professional academic critics reveals the a-public nature of English department criticism and theory’ (McCrea, p. 14).

Did Universities abandon the public at the of the 1980s?

Did Universities abandon the public at the end of the 1980s?

McCrea notes that the academy, in 1990, had abandoned any attempt to court public discourse: ‘to achieve autonomy, professional groups forfeit their public role, their influence outside the professional group’ (McCrea, p. 12). In a moment which now reads as deeply unfashionable and not un-problematic, McCrea troubles the abandonment of the literary canon as a professional method of eluding public scrutiny and retaining exclusivity:

‘The basic point here is that any professional group seeks to avoid defending the values of what it does; the group assumes the value of what it does and succeeds insofar as it gets the larger society to do the same. English professors achieve this end by refusing to discuss the literary canon’ (McCrea, p. 12).

According to McCrea the academy abandoned public opinion to the provinces of journalism and media whilst concerning itself instead with the ambiguous and the inaccessible. Addison and Steele are out, apparently, because they courted that very public audience and wrote in clear prose style.

‘Obscurity Mongers’ and ‘Straightforward’ Non-Fiction Prose

Writing in 1991 Kevin Cope goes even further in his review of McCrea’s study:

‘Academic professionals care little for education, research, or social justice. Rather they adore ambiguity. Ambiguous texts encourage the writing of ambiguous essays, the resulting inflationary spiral being the shortest route to advancement. Entrenching obscurity offers an asylum in a painfully simple world. Friends and neighbours stand by dumbstruck as young scholars assume isolated posts as acolytes in the lucrative academic priesthood. The cost for this faultless “autonomy” is the abandonment of any emotional, personal, family, or [m]oral bond with literature. The quest for ambiguity encourages the cultivation of impenetrable theories as well parasitic journals. Obscurity-mongering depresses the reputation of clear, public, and straightforward writers such as Addison and Steele’ (Cope, 151).

As an authority on a partisan periodical published in 1715-1716 I am likely one of the wonderfully dubbed ‘obscurity-mongers’ mentioned here (and I am sorry to note that two decades later the plight of the ‘young scholar’ in ‘academic priesthood’ is anything but ‘lucrative’). That said the only real complication I would offer would be to the description of Addison and Steele as ‘straightforward writers’, an easy statement which perhaps accidentally robs McCrae’s assertion that they were ‘public writers’ of some nuance.

I suspect there’s a deeper, even more systemic equation happening here, which isn’t touched on by McCrae but might actually have further aided his central argument, and that is the assumption that prose, non-fiction prose in particular, is easily accessible.

If McCrae’s assertion that the academy always peruses the ambiguous is right then it makes sense that the syllabus favours Swift over Steele, but rather than being a question of reputation and canonicity it is one of poetry over prose.

But what do we lose if we stop reading non-fiction prose? Well, we stop interrogating the most prolific form of literature, the writing we read all of the time, the writing we read when we’re not studying literature – precisely the literature that most urgently demands the most thorough interrogation.

What are we reading now? What shall we read next?

What are we reading now? What shall we read next?

But is this still the case?

McCrae marked the death of Addison and Steele twenty-five years ago. What has happened since? Over the next six months I want to find out if Addison and Steele are still dead, but I’ll need your help.

I’ve started researching the state of play in the UK but I’m much too close to this. My perspective is skewed by my own Addisonian interests and my student corpus is spoiled by my constant insistence that they read more Addison and Steele. If you can help me, get in touch with the details below. Any help will be very much appreciated, and I’ll look forward to letting you know what I find out.

  • Do you teach Addison and Steele?
  • Have you been taught Addison and Steele?
  • How and where to Addison and Steele feature in your curriculum?

Contact me by email: adamjsmith18c@gmail.com or by Twitter @elementaladam


Further Reading

Addison, Joseph, The Freeholder, ed. by James Lehay (London: Clarendon Press, 1979)

Cope, Kevin, ‘Review of Addison and Steele Are Dead by Brian McCrea’, South Atlantic Review, 56.3 (1991) pp. 148-151

Courthorpe, W. J., Addison, ed. by John Morley (London: Macmillan and Co., 1889)

Dobrée, Bonomy, English Literature in the Early Eighteenth-Century 1700-1740 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959)

Drake, Nathan, Essays, Biographical, Critical and Historical, Illustrative of the Tatler, Spectator and Guardian (1805)

Lewis, C. S., ‘Addison’, in Eighteenth Century English Literature: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. by James L. Clifford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), pp. 144-157

Macaulay, Thomas Barbington, The Life and Writings of Addison, ed. by R.F. Winch (London: Macmilan and Co Ltd., 1898)

Brian McCrea, Addison and Steele Are Dead: The English Department, Its Canon, and the Professionalization of Literary Criticism (Newark: Delware University Press, 1989)

Thackeray, William Makepeace, ‘The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century’ (1853) in Addison and Steele: The Critical Heritage, ed. by Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1980) pp. 442-451