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· An English Style, Familiar But Not Coarse ·

You may recognize Samuel Johnson's famous phrase on the prose style of Joseph Addison. From the final paragraphs of his Life of Addison, it marks the spirit of Addisonian prose — a style of the "middle" sort, Johnson claims, one might say one of the middle class, too:

 · Joseph Addison ·

His prose is the model of the middle style; on grave subjects not formal, on light occasions not groveling; pure without scrupulosity, and exact without apparent elaboration; always equable, and always easy, without glowing words or pointed sentences. Addison never deviates from his track to snatch a grace; he seeks no ambitious ornaments, and tries no hazardous innovations. His page is always luminous, but never blazes in unexpected splendour. . . .  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.

Though Johnson's is hardly Addison's style, it marks the clear shape of the man's happy achievement. Together with Richard Steele, Addison of course virtually invented the daily journal essay. His Tatler and Spectator essays from 1709 to 1712 led readers through London coffee houses with "Starbuckian Wit" — to city wags, wits, and Whigs of interest. I've particular fondness for one Tatler piece, #158. Bookish Tom Folio therein abuses "those who talk of the fineness of style, and the justness of thought, or describe the brightness of any particular passages; nay, though they write themselves in the genius and spirit of the author they admire, Tom looks upon them as men of superficial learning, and flashy parts." There's nothing like getting to the nub of things fast.

To read Addison's Tatler-Spectator essays, you can find complete sets at The Spectator Project. Tatler requires the DjVu download, but you will be up and running soon. Check out #155 (v. 3, p. 221) for an early version of InstaPundit. Addison's Upholsterer always prompts a laugh.


For an alternate view, read Peter Riis's recent posting at The New Companion, Memoirs of cabinet ministers.

Given word of Police Chief Charles Moose's noted literary ambitions, perhaps consider retitling it Memoirs of chiefs of police.

Judge for yourself, of course, whether Chief Moose is a direct literary decendant of Joseph Addison.

Posted by Styles on April 17, 2003 04:42 PM

Thank you so much for noticing my piece. I quoted Connolly on Addison with some mixed feelings — I think, in the end, his assessment is too harsh. Are you familiar with Connolly's Enemies of Promise? The first section, on the mandarin vs. the plain style, is fascinating, and particularly apposite to the subject matter of your wonderful site. Today the spectrum is shifted so far towards the plain style that you couldn't even have the same discussion. People like Walter Pater and late Henry James are, by today's standards, in the far ultra-violet. It makes writers like Nicholson Baker, who is an amazing stylist and mandarin (at least in spirit) that much more precious.

Now as for Inspector Moose — well, Richard Steele was some sort of Captain of the Guard, wasn't he? Maybe if Chief Moose wins his battle to make his voice heard, we'll all be pleasantly surprised.

Posted by Pete on May 4, 2003 09:30 PM

Thanks for your kind note. Yes, Enemies of Promise is familiar, but Connolly's distinction may be off: Henry James's style — especially in dialogue — is often more plain than mandarin. But you are right: Connolly's distinction is mostly lost on us today.

As for Inspector Moose, like his Oxford counterpart Chief Inspector Morse, we may see him yet take a stoll down Addison's Walk — though we must "Steele" ourselves, of course, for a brief pub stop.

Posted by Styles on May 5, 2003 02:40 PM

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