Michael Dirda on 'William Hazlitt'
The life of a man whom injustice wounded to the quick.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 11, 2009; BW10

Oxford Univ. 557 pp. $45

This is a distinctly eye-opening biography for anyone who knows William Hazlitt principally as an essayist, moralist and master of English prose. In such anthology favorites as "On Reading Old Books," "On Going a Journey," "On Wit and Humour" and "On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth," Hazlitt (1778-1830) comes across as a genial observer of the passing scene, full of insight into the perplexities of the human heart, and pithy and wise enough to earn comparison with Montaigne. Just consider the spirited lead sentences from the four essays just mentioned:

"I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire to read at all."

"One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey, but I like to go by myself."

"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."

"No young man believes he shall ever die."

Hazlitt always speaks from the page with this mix of intimacy and epigrammatic punch, no matter what the topic. And his topics are legion: the pleasures of hating; "Hot and Cold"; bare-knuckle boxing (see that early classic of sports reporting "The Fight"); reflections on acting (and beautiful actresses); what it's like to sit for one's portrait; the prose style of Edmund Burke; "Persons one would wish to have seen"; the want of money ("It is hard to go without one's dinner through sheer distress, but harder still to go without one's breakfast"); and myriad short profiles of the great figures of the day, including Coleridge and Wordsworth. Hazlitt's 20-page "My First Acquaintance with Poets" is probably the finest short memoir in English.

Still, the essayist's signature theme must be the gloomy one of a disappointed life. In "On the Fear of Dying," he writes that when young "we eye the farthest verge of the horizon, and think what a way we shall have to look back upon, ere we arrive at our journey's end; and without our in the least suspecting it, the mists are at our feet, and the shadows of age encompass us." In one of his lectures, from a series mainly devoted to Elizabethan drama, he describes the writer's lot:

"An author wastes his time in painful study and obscure researches, to gain a little breath of popularity, meets with nothing but vexation and disappointment in ninety-nine instances out of a hundred; or when he thinks to grasp the luckless prize, finds it not worth the trouble -- the perfume of a minute, fleeting as a shadow, hollow as a sound. . . . He thinks that the attainment of acknowledged excellence will secure him the expression of those feelings in others, which the image and hope of it had excited in his own breast, but instead of that, he meets with nothing (or scarcely nothing) but squint-eyed suspicion, idiot wonder, and grinning scorn. -- It seems hardly worth while to have taken all the pains he has been at for this!"

Such remarks are as obviously self-referential as this straight-out confession from "On Depth and Superficiality":

"I am not, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, a good-natured man; that is, many things annoy me besides what interferes with my own ease and interest. I hate a lie; a piece of injustice wounds me to the quick, though nothing but the report of it reach me. Therefore I have made many enemies and few friends."

In these latter passages we glimpse the rough outline of Duncan Wu's biography. Wu, perhaps the leading Hazlitt scholar in the world, portrays Hazlitt as the great bare-knuckles, no-holds-barred prose fighter of the Romantic era. No gentle antiquarian of letters -- Hazlitt's friend Charles Lamb might better fit this image -- the man was a prickly Grub Street hack, and a particularly grubby and prickly one at that. Shy among swells and society, Hazlitt preferred the company of prostitutes and sharpers, and he liked his liquor. As a freelance journalist, he wrote constantly to keep the wolf from the door, wrangled incessantly with his editors, fiercely supported unpopular causes (political dissent, the French Revolution) and sooner or later fell out with almost everyone he knew. With an Asperger's-like unconcern for consequence, he consistently ignored his own best interests, admirably refusing to trim his opinions in any way, even when it meant severely criticizing his friends or their paintings, poems and politics. He even seems to have gone out of his way to bait Wordsworth and Coleridge, the heroes of his youth, who all too soon repudiated the revolutionary ideals of 1789 -- ideals that Hazlitt honored all his life -- and then sacrificed their poetic gifts to preening vanity and blathering pomposity.

While Wu repeatedly justifies Hazlitt's journalistic quarrels and contrarian positions, their very number suggests that the author of The Plain Speaker could rival the snarkiest of modern-day bloggers. Indeed, the thesis of this biography is that Hazlitt rose to prominence because he was plugged into the new technology. Thanks to steam-presses and speedier forms of transport, magazines and newspapers could suddenly reach thousands of people in every part of the country. "Of those who fed this new industry," Wu writes, Hazlitt "was the most gifted, the most wide-ranging in his talents, the most percipient, and by far the best prose stylist."

He was also the most widely despised and calumniated; few of his books ever received good notices, and he seldom earned much money from even such masterpieces as Table Talk (familiar essays) and The Spirit of the Age (vignettes of leading cultural figures). As a result, he was nearly always desperate, usually for money, but in the most notorious episode of his life, in quite another way. While married but separated from his wife, the 40ish Hazlitt fell madly for an 18-year-old serving girl named Sarah Walker. He eventually published an overheated record of his infatuation as Liber Amoris, a book that sealed the ruin of his reputation for a century. Wu compares it to such portraits of obsession as Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Conrad's Heart of Darkness, though Proust's "Swann in Love" would be an even better analogy. To this day, opinion divides over whether Sarah Walker was a deliberate and callous tease, a kind of slatternly "Belle Dame sans Merci," or whether Hazlitt was little more than a sexual predator and Humbert Humbert. At all events, the besotted journalist divorced his wife for Sarah, then discovered that the girl not only didn't wish to marry him but was also secretly going out with another man. Hazlitt nearly committed suicide and never fully recovered from the lacerating affair. I've always presumed that he was referring to Sarah Walker in this haunting cri du coeur from "My First Acquaintance with Poets":

"So have I loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best. I have wanted only one thing to make me happy, but wanting that have wanted everything."

Duncan Wu's life of Hazlitt is a virtual who's who of the romantic era, featuring appearances by William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Keats, Shelley, Leigh Hunt, Byron, Charles Lamb, Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, Francis Jeffrey (editor of the Edinburgh Review), painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, poet Walter Savage Landor, the great French writer Stendhal (in some ways, Hazlitt's Gallic twin) and dozens of others. Drawing on much new material, Wu chronicles every knowable aspect of his hero's life: Hazlitt, for instance, spent his early years in the United States (where his father helped establish Unitarianism) and seriously took up journalism only in his 30s, after having failed to establish himself as a painter. While scholars will value the wealth of material in Wu's biography (and perhaps take issue with his tendency to defend even Hazlitt's most dubious actions), casual readers may occasionally feel overwhelmed by so much detail about the political, artistic and literary life of the romantic era.

Still, even the most casual reader should try a selection of Hazlitt's wonderful essays. Hazlitt was the great champion of "gusto" in art, that expressive power and passion that gives energy to a painting or a poem. His essays, no matter how somber or philosophic their subject matter, overflow with "the full pulpy feeling of youth tasting existence." Such exuberance prevails in everything that Hazlitt undertook, so that even on his death bed this oft-vilified and self-tormented hack of genius could supposedly murmur, "I have had a happy life."

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com