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THE SHORT-STORY ESSAY
NE of the reasons why the essay, as a periodic production, was led aside into the realm of fiction may
have been that it was dangerous to deal with vital topics, and to write the ungarnished truth concerning contemporary men and manners, in a day when libel had a very liberal interpretation-a lesson which Daniel Defoe learnt to his cost on more than one occasion. It was safer and wiser to take a nom-de-plume and to invent your own characters in the early eighteenth century. A second reason may be found in the natural instinct of
when writing or talking freely, to drift into the narration of anecdote, for the genius for story-telling is as old as speech itself, it has found expression in every form of written utterance which in any way allows of it, in poetry, theology, history, and private correspondence.
It has been seen that Francis Bacon derived his method largely from Montaigne, Machiavelli, and Philip de Comines, who derived theirs from the Greek and Latin authors. His essays often read like excerpts from reflections upon men and nations wherewith the classic historian was accustomed to interlard his relation of incidents. It was inevitable that the essay, when once it had freed itself from the Baconian restraint, should one day evolve itself into fiction; and what day was more fitting for this development than a time when it was rapidly becoming the most popular form of current literature through its attachment to the
newspaper? Sir William Temple (1628–1699) was one of the earliest to foreshadow the evolution, of which his essay on Health and Long Life, wherein he draws upon his memory for facts and incidents which he himself has experienced, is a proof and illustration. But to Daniel Defoe is due the credit for first introducing in popular form the short-story essay, often through the medium of the letteressay-a practice which was continued by many of his successors. It is not too much to say that he struck the new note chiefly because he was unhampered by a knowledge of the classics-wherewith his predecessors had been overladen. He was a modern type--the irrepressible journalist, keen and unscrupulous in his pursuit of copy. There is a spice of adventure about the man and inquisitiveness concerning the ways of life of all classes of society, which make him robust and refreshing. With the lower orders he is most at his ease; but he can also gossip about lords and ladies, though, it is true, very much in the hushed tones of a butler repeating scandal, which he had overheard in the dining-hall, to the serving-maid in the kitchen. His most vital characteristic is that he has a point of view from which, no matter what he relates, he watches life curiously. On this account he stands out in marked contrast to the many shallow and tired gentlemen of his age, who seem to have written their books in bed, babbling insincerely of the country while they gazed on a city thoroughfare; and even then to have written only to pass the time of day, because it did not happen to be the fashionable hour for going to the coffee-tavern, where they could sit with others of their kind, interminably discussing pedantries. Defoe was a trifle vulgar, perhaps; but vulgarity in him meant realism, and was an outstanding virtue, for the tendency of the Restoration had been to emasculate literature with overelegance. And even before that period Bacon had been
careful to tell his readers, as if it were a convincing claim to worthiness, that his essays were not vulgar. It was just this taint of the common people which writers of the seventeenth century lacked, and most required to make themselves comprehensible to the great majority of their fellow-men. Their absence of sturdiness and limitation of range is largely to be accounted for by the fact that they despised all men of classes lower than themselves. Though he often hated, Defoe despised no man who dwelt within the boundaries of his own land. Yet, because he was reputed vulgar, a mere Grub Street hack, he received no applause or recognition from his contemporaries. Alexander Pope could see nothing admirable in him. Referring to the occasion when he was pilloried for the libel contained in The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, he numbers him among the foolish ones and pillories him a second time in his Dunciad with the line, “Earless on high stood unabashed Defoe." Shut out from clubland and the coffee-tavern, because of his imperfect gentility, quite out of touch with the cultured and literary communities of his day, lacking a patron and never certain of a friend, harassed throughout life by political enemies, encountering repeated failures, with his religion for a jeer and a drawback, coming out of Newgate haunted by the fear that he would soon go in again, he went courageously on his way, doing his work, unsustained by any sense of greatness or heroism, still spiritful and unashamed. He is in many respects the bravest figure in all our English literature.
Sir William Temple tells us of himself that he “never wrote anything for the public without the intention of some public good.” Defoe's purpose is different, as we might expect from a man the first copies of whose Review were issued from a prison-house. His real purpose was to make a livelihood, and to do this by literature, since he was no
scholar, he was forced to interest the populace. Primarily the object of the Review was political, but it soon occurred to him that the inclusion of society scandal might increase its sale; to this end he added the “Mercure Scandale”; or, Advices from the Scandalous Club. It was probably from this venture of Defoe that Steele borrowed the idea of using club-life as a background for his essays. Defoe himself declares his intention as a man of letters, and it may be taken as the highest moral aim of any of his literary endeavours, when he writes, "and thus we wheedle them into the knowledge of the world, who, rather than take more pains, would be content with their ignorance, and search into nothing." One of the easiest ways of wheedling the simple or the obstinate into a knowledge of something concerning which they are not naturally curious is to tell them tales; this Defoe does in his short-story essays, which he often writes in letter form. Thus, when it is his desire to wheedle the public out of a belief in quack medicines, he sits down and feigns to write an unsolicited letter to Nathaniel Mist's Journal, descriptive of one such impostor whom he pretends to have seen “the other day” dispensing his wares in a little village through which he happened to be passing. The result is a short story essay.
Steele, in his dedication of the first collected volume of the Tatler, states frankly his ambition. He resolved, he says, “to publish a paper which should observe upon the manners of the pleasurable, as well as the busy part of mankind.” He did not propose to instruct, nor even to wheedle, but simply to observe and report to the world the results of his observation. Such reports consisted of news interwoven with reflection; they partook of the wide charity of Defoe in so far as they observed upon not only the pleasurable classes of society, but also upon the busy part of mankind. The Tatler was started on April 12, 1709, at the first mainly as a "letter of intelligence.” At this time, as during the two previous years, Steele held the position of gazetteer, which made him the only authorised dispenser of government news. In 1711 the Tatler was abandoned and the Spectator commenced its career. In the Tatler the separate papers had borne slight relation one to another, the little continuity which the work as a whole possessed being derived from the personality of the supposed author, who styled himself Isaac Bickerstaff. The Spectator was an attempt to give unity to the miscellaneous daily issues of the paper; for this purpose Defoe's idea of the club was taken as a basis, and characters were invented who, as members of the club, were available to appear in every essay. If Defoe by his training was not a purely literary man, neither was Steele. Defoe in his time had served as a soldier in the Duke of Monmouth's insurrection, had been a hosier, tile-maker, and woollen-merchant, and in his boyhood had been trained for the dissenting ministry. Steele had been sent to Oxford, and almost before his university career was begun had enlisted in the Horse Guards. While still in the army, he had “commenced author" and, having turned dramatist, was in 1707 appointed to the post of gazetteer. He was always much more of a man about town than of letters. Hence he brought to his task, as did Defoe, a thorough knowledge of men, which made him charitable; with him also literature was very much an affair of livelihood, as the following story will prove, which Johnson relates of him in his Life of Savage :