Periodical Essay Definition and Examples

Joseph Addison portrait, black and white drawing.

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A periodical essay is an essay (that is, a short work of nonfiction) published in a magazine or journal--in particular, an essay that appears as part of a series.

The 18th century is considered the great age of the periodical essay in English. Notable periodical essayists of the 18th century include Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Samuel Johnson, and Oliver Goldsmith.

Observations on the Periodical Essay

"The periodical essay in Samuel Johnson's view presented general knowledge appropriate for circulation in common talk. This accomplishment had only rarely been achieved in an earlier time and now was to contribute to political harmony by introducing 'subjects to which faction had produced no diversity of sentiment such as literature, morality and family life.'" (Marvin B. Becker, The Emergence of Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. Indiana University Press, 1994)

The Expanded Reading Public and the Rise of the Periodical Essay

"The largely middle-class readership did not require a university education to get through the contents of periodicals and pamphlets written in a middle style and offering instruction to people with rising social expectations. Early eighteenth-century publishers and editors recognized the existence of such an audience and found the means for satisfying its taste. . . . [A] host of periodical writers, Addison and Sir Richard Steele outstanding among them, shaped their styles and contents to satisfy these readers' tastes and interests. Magazines--those medleys of borrowed and original material and open-invitations to reader participation in publication--struck what modern critics would term a distinctly middlebrow note in literature.
"The most pronounced features of the magazine were its brevity of individual items and the variety of its contents. Consequently, the essay played a significant role in such periodicals, presenting commentary on politics, religion, and social matters among its many topics." (Robert Donald Spector, Samuel Johnson and the Essay. Greenwood, 1997)

Characteristics of the 18th-Century Periodical Essay

"The formal properties of the periodical essay were largely defined through the practice of Joseph Addison and Steele in their two most widely read series, the "Tatler" (1709-1711) and the "Spectator" (1711-1712; 1714). Many characteristics of these two papers--the fictitious nominal proprietor, the group of fictitious contributors who offer advice and observations from their special viewpoints, the miscellaneous and constantly changing fields of discourse, the use of exemplary character sketches, letters to the editor from fictitious correspondents, and various other typical features--existed before Addison and Steele set to work, but these two wrote with such effectiveness and cultivated such attention in their readers that the writing in the Tatler and Spectator served as the models for periodical writing in the next seven or eight decades." (James R. Kuist, "Periodical Essay." The Encyclopedia of the Essay, edited by Tracy Chevalier. Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997)

The Evolution of the Periodical Essay in the 19th Century

"By 1800 the single-essay periodical had virtually disappeared, replaced by the serial essay published in magazines and journals. Yet in many respects, the work of the early-19th-century 'familiar essayists' reinvigorated the Addisonian essay tradition, though emphasizing eclecticism, flexibility, and experientiality. Charles Lamb, in his serial Essays of Elia (published in the London Magazine during the 1820s), intensified the self-expressiveness of the experientialist essayistic voice. Thomas De Quincey's periodical essays blended autobiography and literary criticism, and William Hazlitt sought in his periodical essays to combine 'the literary and the conversational.'" (Kathryn Shevelow, "Essay." Britain in the Hanoverian Age, 1714-1837, ed. by Gerald Newman and Leslie Ellen Brown. Taylor & Francis, 1997)

Columnists and Contemporary Periodical Essays

"Writers of the popular periodical essay have in common both brevity and regularity; their essays are generally intended to fill a specific space in their publications, be it so many column inches on a feature or op-ed page or a page or two in a predictable location in a magazine. Unlike freelance essayists who can shape the article to serve the subject matter, the columnist more often shapes the subject matter to fit the restrictions of the column. In some ways this is inhibiting because it forces the writer to limit and omit material; in other ways, it is liberating, because it frees the writer from the need to worry about finding a form and lets him or her concentrate on the development of ideas." (Robert L. Root, Jr., Working at Writing: Columnists and Critics Composing. SIU Press, 1991)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Periodical Essay Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Periodical Essay Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Periodical Essay Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).