The evolving critical reputation of Richard Steele's role in the Tatler
This study is an attempt to describe the critical reputation of Richard Steele's role in the Tatler as it has evolved through three centuries, from Steele's own time to 1965. The study provides for the first time a considerable and representative sampling of critical comment from the eighteenth century through the twentieth century, determines significant trends in the criticism, observes how earlier commentary affects later statements, and evaluates in some measure the validity of critical opinion.The student who seeks a full and accurate understanding of Steele's role in and contribution to the Tatler encounters particular difficulty because critical opinion has differed widely from Steele's own age to the present, and many commentaries fail to describe these differences fully or accurately. Critical opinion through the years has varied from unbridled praise of Steele to conscious deprecation of his abilities. Some writers credit Steele with very little responsibility for the success of the Tatler, yet some cite him as the major architect of the paper. Some critics view the Tatler, as merely a more undeveloped precursor of the Spectator, less perfect in plan or purpose, while others consider the earlier periodical superior to the later one. To add to the confusion, commentators have occasionally embroiled themselves in controversy over the relative literary merits and abilities of Steele and Addison, and some have gone even farther afield, diverting attention from both writers' literary merits by discussing individual character traits or personal habits. These differences of opinion and irrelevancies have resulted in a somewhat confused view of Steele and his contributions to the Tatler, leaving the student with no clear statement which summarizes adequately the variety of opinions which exists.What emerges from this study of the critical reputation of Steele's role in the Tatler is that Steele has been variously and inconsistently described by the writers of three centuries. His early reputation as an expert prose stylist gave way to descriptions of his neglect and carelessness in his writing, aggravated by attacks on his character and personal habits. Early descriptions of the Tatler as a journal of morals and manners and as a reformer of society obscured other features of the paper, and the exalting of Addison's role in the periodical obscured the importance and nature of Steele's contributions.The idea that the Tatler was essentially an imperfect predecessor of the spectator, obscured Steele's efforts to give it both variety and unity, and diverted attention from detailed study of the periodical. Generalizations about the various features of the paper such as its alleged avoidance of politics or its gallant treatment of women similarly obscured accurate descriptions of Steele's writing.The studies of modern scholars suggest that Steele was not only a competent writer, but a journalist of extraordinary ability who planned his periodical carefully and tailored it to the interests and tastes of his readers. These studies also suggest that the reforming influence of Steele and the Tatler has been exaggerated and that Steele was more likely only reflecting the changing standards of the times. Modern scholars recognize Steele as the originator of, responsible editor of, and chief contributor to the Tatler, and while many of the devices used in the earlier periodical were also used in the Spectator, the Tatler has its own unique and distinguishing features.Thus, a synthesis of critical opinion on Steele's role in the Tatler places Steele in a newer and clearer perspective while indicating the main interests, methods, and approaches of literary criticism in English over a period of the past 250 years.