A Political Biography of Richard Steele

A Political Biography of Richard Steele

A Political Biography of Richard Steele

A Political Biography of Richard Steele

Synopsis

Richard Steele is famous as an early writer of sentimental drama and as half of the writing team, Addison and Steele. He is notable both for the indirect propaganda he developed with Addison and for the open partisanship of his own periodicals. He wrote extensively about responsible economics but was famously irresponsible in his own affairs.

Excerpt

A political biography of an author, as I think of it, overlaps considerably with both literary biography and personal biography, but it differs from both. Its defining characteristic seems to me its concern for the ways in which a particular author with a distinct personality uses writing as a way of understanding and influencing the political history of his time. A political biography will not be blind to its subject’s love-life, marriage, children, friendships and places of residence, but, however much they serve to define the subject as a person, they will not be matters of major concern. But political ideas, influences, contacts, friendships and specific activities will be primary. While other biographies are characteristically tied to chronology, sometimes at the expense of narrative coherence, a political biography can be thematic, tracing the development of particular ideas and topics, elucidated historical contexts, and listening to active dialogues. This is the kind of limited biography I have tried to write here without seriously distorting Richard Steele in the process, either by neglecting his evident personality or by exaggerating his political originality. Steele was the subject of major biographies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. George Aitken’s two-volume Life of Richard Steele is particularly useful in the documentary evidence it supplies and in the detail with which it looks at Steele’s personal life and political contacts. Its careful attention to Steele’s chaotic financial situation will never be duplicated, but it pays relatively little attention to his writings. Calhoun Winton’s two books on Steele’s life correct Aitken’s occasional errors, provide important new material and give a fuller picture of his life and work. I think of the present study as a supplement to Winton’s work that places Steele within the political discourse of his very political age.

Steele is a particularly appropriate subject for this approach. Known primarily as a sentimental dramatist and as half of the essay-writing team of Addison and Steele, he participated in the political world in a number of ways – as soldier, as Gazetteer, as dramatist, as essayist, as party propagandist, as Member of Parliament, and as writer on economics. He was expelled from Parliament in 1713 for seditious libel but, a year later, was knighted for the same propaganda. He came at a time when authorship was just developing as a profession and when . . .

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