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Hazlitt the neglected

Hazlitt the neglected

The tides of literary posterity crash in unpredictable ways, and the vagaries of what makes an author feted in one age, ignored in the next are often mysterious. Near namesakes Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair were considered the greatest American novelists of the early twentieth century, but are little read these days. It’s diverting to ponder which contemporary author will be read with regularity 50 years from now. I wager Irvine Welsh will last longer than Ian McEwan, spring the results of that one on me in the nursing home.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of all concerns that of William Hazlitt. By my side are two ragged, moth eaten selections from his Collected Works, each printed over a hundred years ago, precious gems salvaged from Ken Spellman’s bookshop in York for £4 each. I was lucky. A fairly flimsy copy of his Collected Essays by Oxford World Classics is the only book readily available on Amazon, itself dating from 1991. Three studies by Tom Paulin, Duncan Wu and AC Grayling made a bold stand in favour of his recognition in the past two decades, but are themselves not exactly bestsellers. Yet during the man’s lifetime everyone in literary England had a view on Hazlitt, adoration and loathing in equal measure. The name caused heartbeats to skip, whether from ardour or horror, but it certainly wasn’t ignored. So just why is the finest essayist of the early nineteenth century now so little read?

Search for the answer, search for the man. Who was William Hazlitt? To embark on this discovery is to wander a labyrinth. Essayist, critic, wit, maverick, man-about-town, journalist, parliamentary sketch-writer, pamphleteer, portrait artist, philosopher, eternal rebel. A thinker and man of action, who used writing as a rod to brain his enemies and a whetstone to hone his own thought.

This man so neglected in our time was the progenitor of much of what is read today, a forgotten godfather. Hazlitt was smashing the boundaries between styles of writing and species of prose, of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture a century and a half before the Modern Review got in on the game. Hazlitt’s writings explored the most erudite philosophical concepts of what forms the basis of rational self-interest, and also his enjoyment at watching Indian jugglers. The most insightful critic ever on Shakespeare and Milton, Titian and Poussin, fervent and precise in his rapturous capture of the beauties of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, he was just at much at home in describing the visceral thrill of a boxing match. He was one of the first English writers to find beauty and significance in what his contemporaries haughtily dismissed as distasteful plebeian trash. In his essays on actors such as his favourite contemporary Edmund Keane  – expertly teasing out every fine nuance in their performance, and realising this was just as vital as the text they were performing – he set the template for all further modern drama criticism. In his pen portraits of political and artistic figures in the “Spirit of the Age” columns he displayed preternatural powers of perception, and set both the form and the highest standard of the newspaper or magazine “profile”. And in his witty examination of frivolous “society” figures such as Beau Brummel, sardonic, but not unappreciative, he practically invented “celebrity” journalism too, scorn though he might most of his descendants.

Guying the censors, scabrous in his vicious assaults on the political and literary establishment alike, he could write with equal flair and fluidity on the aesthetic and the political, a balancing act which sees most writers fall to one side or the other. Hazlitt proclaimed “it is better to be able neither to read nor to write than to be able to do nothing else” and sought to square the circle of being both an objective commentator on the world, at the same time as throwing himself body and soul into an all consuming battle against the forces of tyranny and reaction: both observer and warrior. George Orwell, Ernest Hemmingway, Norman Mailer, Christopher Hitchens – all swagger in his shadow. Orwell is perhaps the closest descendant in many ways, sharing as they did the perfection of a mercurial, polemical, empirical essayist style, as well as sharing both the nose for commonplace cant, and the feel for popular culture. But Orwell’s spare, common sense prose meant he could never achieve the individual moments of spectacular beauty that sprang from Hazlitt, sprang again and again.

So Hazlitt was very much the modern man. Yet even without his iconoclasm, originality and insight, an important fact would still remain. As a prose stylist, one whose writing can dazzle and excite on any subject whatsoever, he is unparalleled. He was the most thrilling prose writer of his time, and remains among the best of all time. He may be out of print, but dozens of his epigrams shine forth from books of quotations, where his cache is up there with Shaw and Wilde:

“Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.”

“Wit is the salt of conversation, not the food.”

“The art of life is to know how to enjoy a little and to endure much.”

The brief epigram certainly flit easily from his pen. But so too did analytic philosophical observations which retained their bewitching cadences over a longer distance. Take just one, from his essay on Mind and Motive, on the importance of not letting yourself be usurped by the mediocrity of the world:

Happy are they that live in the dream of their own existence, and see all things in the light of their own minds; who walk by faith and hope; to whom the guiding star of their youth still shines from afar, and into whom the spirit of the world has not entered!… The world has no hold on them. They are in it, not of it, and a dream and a glory is ever around them!”

Beautiful as that is, what is exceptional about it is how unexceptional it is in his writing. Open practically any essay, on any subject, and you are as likely to find something quite so vivid, so perfectly formed. These are not one-offs, but the mainstay of his observations. Take just one more, his recalling of his earlier friendship with Coleridge, which had already gone sour by the time of writing. 

“His genius at that time had angelic wings, and fed on manna. He talked on for ever; and you wished him to talk on forever. His thoughts did not seem to come with labour and effort, but as if borne on the gusts of genius, and as if the wings of his imagination lifted him from his feet. His voice rolled on the ear like the pealing organ, and its sound alone was the music of thought. His mind was clothed with wings; and raised on them, he lifted philosophy to heaven.” 

How marvellous!

Hazlitt coined the critical term “gusto”, still used today, to describe that quality in art which brings a sense of vibrancy, of vitality, of overall life, the “sensing of power on the eye” as seen in Titian’s colouring and the contours of Michaelangelo’s statues. It was this the same quality which Hazlitt brought to his own writing. Muscular, tough, yet sprightly and nimble at once (“every word a punch” as he said) , perfectly phrased yet conversational and relaxed, sardonic yet graceful, with a sense of both organic naturalism and the dynamism of the emerging machine age for which he was a harbinger.

Tom Paulin has noted that the imagery of science, the shining light of the Enlightenment recurs in Hazlitt’s work, which, ironically for an agnostic such as himself, was drawn from the phraseology of the Unitarian faith of his Irish Protestant preacher father. Unitarianism was probably the most progressive religious force in England at that time, and its struggle against persecution and for toleration clearly left its mark. But while he was rapturous in his praise of poets who could capture the cadences and harmonies of nature, and while his essay “On going a journey” is perhaps one of the most subtle and beautiful evocations of the joys of rural walks – Hazlitt’s was an essentially urban style – anarchic, democratic, hybrid-mongrel, insurrectionary, hectic, irreverent, multitudinous, finding its chief artistic mirror in Hogarth, whom he admired immensely. Hazlitt was in turn admired by Dickens, another writer who started as a Parliamentary reporter, and the same dizzying Metropolitan dynamism is alive in them both. Tragic though it is that Hazlitt died penniless, that his final resting place was in the dingy Bohemian glamour of the streets of seedy Soho was truly fitting.

His writing was rich in allusion, the Greeks, the Bible, Milton, Shakespeare, dozens of contemporary poets - yet a knowledge of these forbears is, crucially, far from necessary to obtain the joyous stimulation of his prose. To catch the reference takes the appreciation to different levels, but the beauteous effect is quite sufficient in itself without it; it lives and flourishes unaided. Hazlitt damned overly mannered prose, such as that he saw in Dr Samuel Johnson (whom he accused of “writing on stilts.”) Before he was a journalist, he was a philosopher, exploring the thesis that the mind strives to a simultaneous love of both self and others rather than narrow self-interest expounded by other thinkers at the time. Even delving into the realms of existential abstraction, Hazlitt expounded his ideas of what forms the basis of human self-interest in the form of a humorous dialogue with his friend Charles Lamb, making the academic infinitely more accessible. Wonderment in plain sight. As a critic Hazlitt shone immaculate illumination on everything he explored, not just passing comments and observations, but facilitating a deeper, more expansive enjoyment and understanding for the reader, achieving a true symbiotic relationship with his subjects. In many cases the torch outshines its subject. Hazlitt is usually more of a delight to read than whatever he is discussing, a heresy for the critic perhaps, but here is a happy heretic. His literary lectures which grew great and admiring crowds, you imagine he would have made perhaps the most inspiring schoolteacher of all time too, if he had been so inclined.

Hazlitt was eternally struck by the contrast between poetry and prose, passion and reason, the Gothic and the classical. The former of these he considered aristocratic in tendency, the latter democratic. While his mind, morality and the impassioned crusades of his life championed democracy and egalitarianism, his heart still craved the passion for poetry which he classed as autocratic, hence his tortured relationship with Burke, a man who he exalted for his writing just as he despised his politics. It was in entwining the two that Hazlitt creating the alchemic transcendence of his own writing. This is a comparative rarity in vibrant, thrilling prose writing from this period. Consider Nietzsche and Carlyle, writing that excites the senses and sparks the soul, but whose unyielding essence is inextricably entwined with an elitist misanthropy which damns great swathes of humanity. Hazlitt combines humanity with his vitality, an elitist virtuosity with a democratic heart. This is the secret of his greatness, or at least a great part of that secret. He saw no contradiction in being attached to the highest elements of classical culture, while realising that succumbing to contempt for those lower than you on the social scale, is, ultimately, a failure of the imagination – and that was one failure he could never countenance.

If the neglect Hazlitt has fallen into is an absurd loss to the general reader, it is a still greater loss to the cause of the progressive Left, who have in effect lazily mislaid one of their most eloquent standard-bearers. Of course Hazlitt did not have anything like the systematic rigour nor direct appeal to action of Thomas Paine in the generation before him, or Karl Marx in the generation after. But he is a far more vivid, more enthralling, more readable writer than either of them. Hazlitt was not methodical, and was neither expounding a political manifesto like Paine, nor a social and economic treatise like Marx.His appeals were less rarely made to the general populace as with his fellow insurrectionary William Cobbett, champion him though he often did . Nonetheless the cause of liberty and equality are the lifeblood of his writing. Hazlitt claimed his true date of birth was when he was 11 – the year of the French Revolution.

Hazlitt’s more direct paens to the cause of liberty are things of great beauty, but is in his bombast against its enemies where he finds his mightiest voice. He accuses the defenders of kings against the people...

“You would tear out the mighty heart of a nation, and lay it bare and bleeding at the foot of despotism, you would slay the mind of a country to fill up the dreary, aching void with the old, obscene, drivelling prejudices of superstition and tyranny, you would tread out the Eye of Liberty (the light of nations) like a vile jelly that mankind may be led about darkling to its endless drudgery...”

Hazlitt is never content to make airy abstract appeals to the rights of man. He was rather cruelly withering in his criticism of the early socialist Robert Owen, whose factory in New Lanark was run on co-operative lines, for thinking he good argue other factory owners to agreeing with him. 

“Neither the great nor the good of the world care anything about New Lanark... but let the good which Mr Owen says he has done in one poor village be in danger becoming general and be likely to be put into practice... then his dreams of elevated patronage will perish.” 

He knows that the ruling powers will do all they can to trample these ideas down, that fighting them is not merely a philosophical debate – but a practical war.

He is always ready to fly at his enemies, an itchy trigger finger on his artful arquebus. Whichever ignoramus decided ‘sarcasm is the lowest form of wit’ had clearly paid no heed to Hazlitt, who used the tool to stir his venomous vitriol with, to use his own word, gusto. His arch-foe, the tyrannous Home Secretary Lord Castlereagh, (indirect overseer of the Peterloo Massacre) is described as “a Great Man, in the sense of the philosophical historian, that is to say, a man who has a very great regard for himself, and a very great contempt for the feelings of others.” His enemies are the monarchy (especially in its most hated guise of ‘legitimism’, the Divine Right of Kings only partially disguised), superstition, Tories, the whole plutocracy of the hybrid aristocratic-bourgeois monolith. He is sometimes described as a Whig due to his engaging defence of that faction’s most radical leader Charles James Fox, but his egalitarianism was every bit as opposed to the Whig oligarchies of Earl Grey and Melbourne as it to was Tory reactionaries such as Wellington, “ a despiser of the merely rich and great” as proclaimed on his tombstone.

The modern Right, especially in America, sometimes attempt to reclaim Tom Paine for their own, arguing he was opposed to monarchy and inherited wealth, rather than the capitalist class. No one could try this trick with Hazlitt. Crucially, he was prophetic in his critique of commerce, and of the narrow, selfish spirit of laissez faire individualism which it generates. Libertarian to the core in the true sense of this much-abused word, he saw straight through the gossamer thin arguments of those who use the word to defend big business, the lie that economic liberty for the rich few results in true liberty for society. Speaking on capitalists: 

“A commercial spirit is a very weak as well as a dangerous substitute for a spirit of freedom: a sense of self interest, of mere mercenary advantage, can ill but supply the place of principle... Liberty is in their eyes a coarse, homely figure, but for the jewels that sparkle in her hair, and the rings on her fingers.”

He could never be classed working-class, despite his descent into poverty later in life. Yet he was unambiguous in his Rousseau-ite view of the virtue of the people against the patricians, “The patience of the lower classes, in submitting to privations and insults, is only surpassed by the callousness of their betters in witnessing them.” Frequently castigating the ivory tower world of the intellectual “poring over lines and syllables that excite little more idea or interest than if they were characters of a foreign tongue”, he was instinctively averse to that branch of the middle-class who are ostensibly “progressive” yet in actuality far-removed from the genuine interests of workers, and had a contempt for the dry aridity of the “reformers” of the day, hence his jibe at Jeremy Bentham: “he has been translated into French, perhaps he should be translated into English too.” 

His was the democratic spirit that excited heirs such as Orwell and Michael Foot, themselves not workers either, but who did not fall into the blind alleys that more uniform thinkers drifted.That Hazlitt’s beloved favourite actor Edmund Keane, came from a genuinely impoverished background he no doubt saw as true artistic justice, the common people sharing in and triumphing through their nation’s greatest cultural heritage.

If Hazlitt has all the great virtues of the Left, he does sadly have one of its latterday vices too. Hazlitt was obsessed with Napoleon, besotted even (he drank himself into a stupor for weeks after Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo, after which he never drank again.) In his lifelong idolisation, we can perhaps see the tendency of so many to latch on to what they see as the progressive champion of the day while ignoring the crimes they bring in their wake, the blind eye turned by too many on the Left to the crimes of Stalin and his latterday Communist acolytes . Such a blind spot should be placed in the context of the allied powers grim triumphalism as they beat the French, re-installing old-style reactionary legitimist tyrants on the thrones of Europe. In many ways the rule of Napoleon was indeed far preferable to what had come before, displacement of fetid old royal family fossils, fairer codes of law, the emancipation of the Jews. But ultimately Napoleon was a man committed first and foremost to himself and the family members he installed on these old thrones. He betrayed most of the best values of the Revolution, even to the extent of crowning himself emperor and reintroducing slavery on the French colonies. That Hazlitt could ignore these betrayals in the name of “the greater good” is very disappointing a man usually so clear-sighted, and so completely committed to the purest ideals of liberty in all other areas.

But for this one blindspot however, Hazlitt has perhaps the subtlest insights of all into the frail nature of the Left, and how easy it is to be betrayed. The subtlety of Hazlitt’s insight into the nature of the progressive cause made it easy for him to see why his former friends, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey were to abandon their radicalism and embrace Toryism and royal patronage. In his essay on Coriolanus, Hazlitt observes “The insolence of power is stronger than the plea of necessity... We had rather be the oppressor than the oppressed... Wrong dressed out in pride, pomp and circumstance has more attraction than abstract right.” He sees this unfortunate fact as the reason why the wrong side, the side of reaction, selfishness and privilege is so often triumphant. He does not however, allow this as an excuse for either conservatism or defeatism. He sees it instead as a challenge that must be faced. Hazlitt also had an ambivalence about “progress” as a whole, aggressively championing it in the social and political sphere, whilst seeing the story of art over the ages, his other great passion, as one of decline, a “reactionary” view. He considered the influence of the greatest artistic minds of previous generations was forever diminishing the originality of thought of the next (“Every love’s the one before / in a duller dress” as Miss Parker later put it.) This tension served as another safeguard against rigidity of thought in his mind, helping forge the same largeness of spirit which could see him praise the use of language and solidity of argument in both Burke and Malthus, whilst still denouncing their conclusions. That enabled him to be both apostle of the Enlightenment and an enemy of technocracy. A genius for paradox and a wrestling with contradiction and ambiguity that in the end found that perfect combination, a far-sighted, wise radicalism. A radicalism which is uncompromising, yet also one bereft of absolutism, the only radicalism to follow.

His constant onslaught on monarchy and government meant that his were seen very much as a threat by the establishment of the day. Hazlitt was vilified in the Tory press, both popular and literary, with a venom which equalled Hazlitt’s own, though not of course his wit or style. They were constantly looking to find the killer blow which would mortally wound his reputation. Eventually, they were to find it.

His obsessive love for Sarah Walker, a woman half his age, the 19-year-old daughter of a boarding-house landlady, inspired his pained letter of obsession Liber Amoris, but scandalised society. Liber Amoris is a cry from the depths of a man spurned, a study in anguished obsession. Even former admirers found it deeply distasteful. The Tory press scented blood. Many years earlier, Hazlitt was assisted by Coleridge and Wordsworth in fleeing the Lake District, following his advances on a young woman were taken violently against by her family. Now allied with the Tories they once despised, the poets were happy to bare the detaisl again against their former friend. Here at least was a great excuse for the Tory right to damn the man, and as a more puritanical age Victorian moralism was beginning to emerge, this particular mud stuck. Hazlitt was now not just an enemy of Nation, Church and King, but a menace to our young women too. This of course was pretext, an excuse, Hazlitt had done nothing that hundreds of well-heeled, well bred Tories weren’t doing day in day out. All the same, it worked. His reputation was ravaged before he died in poverty.

As the Victorian era went on, so did the shadow on his name. A man whose lectures enraptured hundreds, whose writings inspired thousands in the early part of the nineteenth century had fallen into ghostly obscurity before the century was out. But even after that puritanical age ended, the stain remained. That Hazlitt’s love was unrequited made it seem all the more sad and seedy, not for him the great romantic (rather than Romantic) aura-which attached to Keats, Shelley and Byron.

As Victorian prurience dwindled, one would imagine his libertinism would see a greater intrigue, and inspire a rediscovery. Wilde’s persecution by the middle-class mores of Victorian sexual hypocrisy have after all ultimately added to his reputation from the late twentieth century onwards. And yet it hasn’t happened. Was he buried too deeply by his enemies? Was the very fact that he became the personal enemy of the sainted Wordsworth and Coleridge a further nail in the coffin? It wasn’t just the Tories or moralists which did him down, but the emerging literary kingpins of the early twentieth century. T S Eliot and F R Leavis held the form of the essay in contempt, and Hazlitt, as its foremost exemplar as one of the greatest focus points of their contempt. His writing was seen as insubstantial, “journalistic”, itself now a term of abuse. And the second half of the twentieth century things hadn’t got better, David Lodge’s Small World had an academic character whose study of Hazlitt was supposedly emblematic of an attachment to tedious and irrelevant figures from the past...

To put Hazlitt’s continuing obscurity down to the machinations of the early 19th century Tory establishment, the early 20th century literary establishment, and late 20th century comic novelists seems something of a conspiracy theory. There is some truth to it, though even taken together its not enough.

Perhaps more pertinent is the fact that, the machinations of Eliot and Leavis aside, the form of the essay is undervalued in Hazlitt’s homeland in general (not so with the French, where Montaigne is treated with due reverence.) Its arch proponent is similarly overlooked. Hazlitt needs a proselytiser, one who will champion him the same way he championed Shakespeare. The work of Wu, Grayling and Paulin is a brave start, and I hope others follow.

For as his obscurity continues, the great modernity of the man remains. Hazlitt, with his paens to electricity and the scientific process, wrote that he French Revolution was the inevitable result of the invention of the printing press. The democratic spread of knowledge was to him the great secular miracle of mankind, a champion of the Enlightenment creed that that knowledge is both a intrinsic good in itself, and a scourge of the tyrants whose interest it is to keep the masses pacified in ignorance. Global communication now has more potential than ever before, and we now have the capacity for a much better, more materially fulfilling world than we had in Hazlitt’s day, but still the darkness of ignorance, the ‘mind-forged manacles’ powered by hated patronage keeps us down. Hazlitt’s neglect is a fairly small crime compared to this much greater ignorance. But if he were read again, it would be a great inspiration to those seeking to counter it, quite apart from a rediscovery of amongst the finest of our literary heritage. Both he, and we, deserve it.

-- Ben Granger (09/12/2010)

Readers Comments

  1. Madere Olivar says... Sunday 13 February 2011

    What a lovely essay on Hazlitt by Ben Granger! I once absolutely wowed a reporter at the Los Angeles Times by comparing him to Hazlitt, really because he has a good range, commentating on literature as well as politics. I did not know much about it but he was thrilled!

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