Book of the week: William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man

Drummond Bone does not warm to a harsh critic but enjoys his cut-throat literary world

October 23, 2008

I greatly enjoyed this major new biography, though possibly not always for the reasons Duncan Wu intended. The feel it gives of literary England in the period from 1798 to 1830 is immediate and intense - but, it has to be said, rarely likeable.

The world portrayed through Hazlitt is not that of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron meeting in Murray's, friends across the political divide. It is a world of rivalry and hyper-sensitivity, stabs in the back and stabs in the front - Grub Street at its worst. In the world of publications such as Blackwood's Magazine, The New Monthly, The Liberal, The Yellow Dwarf, The London Magazine and The Edinburgh Review, and a host of other reviews that marked an explosion of journalism, regard for truth was scant when it came to the demolition of reputations. The atmosphere was vicious, with the death of John Scott in a duel the summit of tragic folly.

There is political dignity and personal kindness, too, but it seems the exception rather than the rule. If this reminds us of the tabloid press of today, it might well be one of the ways in which Hazlitt, if not exactly the first modern man, does indeed inhabit a very modern world of mass readership, and mass journalism pandering to it. Wu's argument, in among and from time to time lost in the wealth of detail that makes this an exceptional study, is that Hazlitt is a decent man, by and large, in a world of "thugs".

He argues that he is modern both by his journalism and by his placing a modern importance on the psychology of character. I can certainly accede to that sense of hectic media, but I have more difficulty with the psychological insights and the decency.

Leaving the writings aside, there is not much in Hazlitt's life as recorded here that suggests psychological insight, indeed rather the opposite - a blind insistence that everyone else should behave exactly as he does.

Right from Wu's prologue recounting Hazlitt's first meeting with Coleridge, and subsequently Wordsworth, Hazlitt seems unable to conceive that what he says might cause offence - and perhaps later in life and from time to time he affects so not to conceive. This prologue has in condensed form both the best and the worst of the style of the study. This is journalistic raciness appropriate to Hazlitt, perhaps: "Wordsworth smiled, his equine face turning back along the road they had been walking ... then he looked straight at Hazlitt's face." It can both conjure atmosphere and irritate, and which for better or for worse gets lost along with its narrative drive when we dive into the mire of Grub Street.

There are whole series of rows and fallings-out that seem to occur with alarming frequency for a man with psychological insight, including disagreements with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Henry Crabb Robinson, Francis Jeffrey and William Godwin, to keep it to those more major figures of the period. Wordsworth and Coleridge are targets for political apostasy, of course, but it is a shame that Hazlitt did not allow the following deleted passage in his Lectures on the English Poets to stand to counterbalance the raging attacks on Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, for example: "he (Coleridge) is the earliest friend I ever had, and I will add to increase the obligation, that he is the only person from whom I ever learnt anything in conversation. He was the only person I ever knew who answered to my idea of a man of genius."

But rather than let this stand, "one of Hazlitt's favourite jokes" was to pun on the influence of opium on Coleridge. John Murray comes out of this (as he does when trying to restrain the Blackwood's boys) as the sympathetic figure, with his distaste for "personalities" dominating and driving opinion. Then there is Robinson, and Hazlitt's defence that he used private confidences because "I am forced to write an article every week, and I have not time to make one with so much delicacy as I otherwise should", which is not very encouraging, although Hazlitt did not abuse Robinson after their fallout.

But if there are excuses and, indeed, reasons for his attacks on Coleridge, Wordsworth and Robinson, what about Godwin? Of Godwin, a friend "of more than three decades" with a family connection, Hazlitt writes: "He says little, and that little would better left alone, being both dull and nonsensical; his talk is as flat as a pancake, there is no leaven in it, he has not dough enough to make a loaf and a cake; he has no idea of anything till he is wound up, like a clock, not to speak, but to write, and then he seems like a person risen from sleep or from the dead."

In his defence of Hazlitt, Wu asks "why did he do it?", and speculates that Hazlitt had long believed that "we do not like our friends at worst because they sometimes give us an opportunity to rail at them heartily. Their faults reconcile us to their virtues". Which would be all right if Hazlitt himself did not react with extreme sensitivity to criticism. Wu notes that the attack on Godwin was "a terrible miscalculation" and that Hazlitt regretted it - but not enough, apparently, to make it up with an apology.

And what of Shelley? Hazlitt writes: "Egotism, petulance, licentiousness, levity of principle (whatever be the source) is a bad thing in anyone, and most of all, in a philosophical reformer." The fact that Shelley's friend Leigh Hunt, and indeed another casualty, Charles Lamb, did not in the end hold these outbursts against Hazlitt in the long run speaks more good of them than of Hazlitt. We could go on - Jeffrey writes of Hazlitt that he is "a very clever man ... but observes both less extensively and with far less accuracy", which provokes an impossible outburst from Hazlitt. Where, now, is the resilience to honest criticism, criticism from a man who had, after all, been very generous to Hazlitt over the years and indeed is described by Wu as Hazlitt's "employer and benefactor"?

Wu would argue that Hazlitt had been worn down by years of attacks. This may perhaps be true, but he certainly did not cultivate friendship, a piece of basic insight into human psychology. If in his eyes Shelley was a fanatic, then there is also something fanatical about Hazlitt's honesty with people's foibles and failings, if honesty indeed it was. The logic with which Hazlitt operated is encapsulated in the row with John Cam Hobhouse, when Hobhouse intervened to stop the publication of Byron's vitriolic response to Hazlitt's criticism of Byron's contradictory reactions to Napoleon (a kind of honesty of mood in Byron that, if Wu is right about Hazlitt, we might have thought Hazlitt would approve). Hazlitt was "furious" at Hobhouse's intervention, for by then it was clear that Byron's Don Juan was to be one of the most popular (and scandalous) poems of its day. As Hazlitt told Benjamin Haydon, "what a great service it would have been to have been attacked by Lord Byron". Hmmm.

And the family, and the women? Hazlitt fails to notice that his son William is drowning, but luckily the boy is saved by a friend's dog. He recounts his love affair (or rather non-affair) with Sarah Walker to William and takes him to his meetings with prostitutes, but on the other hand, much to both their credits but particularly hers, he remains friends with his wife after the divorce. Wu is right to defend Hazlitt against modernist charges of sexually harassing Sarah Walker, the landlady's daughter with whom he became obsessed. But on the other hand, there is something seriously odd when Hazlitt writes to Peter George Patmore: "By heaven I dote on her ... the truth is, I never had any pleasure, like love, with anyone but her" before urging Patmore, as Wu notes, to seduce her, testing the theory that she was "a common lodging-house drab".

Wu continues: "He was right. Sarah was a game player with no power besides the attraction she exerted over the men passing through her parents' boarding house ... Her deception was monstrous, and begat monsters." Odd not only in Hazlitt's obsession with testing the "theory", but odd in Wu's failure to see that the fact that Sarah had "no power" was exactly the extenuating circumstance for the poor girl - Hazlitt was free in a way she could never be. One needs to defend Hazlitt against the fanatics, but Sarah has her story, too. As for the "squalid postscript" to the affair detailed in Hazlitt's diary for 14-16 March 1823, the whole horrible thing - urging yet another acquaintance to tempt Sarah - could easily be in the fetid imagination of either Hazlitt or friend or both, and even if not, is, to put it mildly, a parti pris narrative. Wu's swallowing of the party line without question has to raise an eyebrow. Of course, Hazlitt's Liber Amoris is a study in obsession, but not obsession of the same order (as Wu suggests) as Moby-Dick, Heart of Darkness, Fitzcarraldo - the content of an obsession is important if it is not to be reduced to clinical pathology.

What the reader will miss in the biography are, of course, the writings themselves in full and at length. They are why we are interested in Hazlitt, and they do offer a humanity and disinterestedness (Wu's contention) that has to struggle pretty hard to be read in the details of the life. But the texture of the time is there all right, and there are cameo appearances by almost everybody from William Beckford to Stendhal, universities from Glasgow to Oxford and Harvard, the whole sweep of the country from the Quantocks through London and the Midlands to Edinburgh (the Los Angeles of the divorce world in the early 19th century). I am almost tempted to say that if you can put up with the central character, you will enjoy this scholarly tour de force, but that is unfair. Let's just say Hazlitt emerges as a challenging figure, in some ways indeed - possibly depressingly so - a modern man.

THE AUTHOR

Duncan Wu maintains that the past has more in common with our culture than we realise, saying: "Romanticism has shaped our culture, our modern world, yet it is the most misrepresented period in our history." He is unequivocal about who is to blame: "Walt Disney is the bastard child of Romanticism."

His passion for the arts originally found its outlet in television, researching arts programmes for Channel 4 and the BBC. But he has no regrets over his move to academe. "I can't believe anyone in television gets a fraction of the pleasure I do from teaching people how to read poems."

He began his career at the British Academy, moving to the University of Glasgow and then St Catherine's College, Oxford. Last year, he moved to Georgetown University in Washington, DC, where he is professor of English literature.

Now he has crossed the pond, Wu is enjoying learning how to cook. "A very good way to make new friends is to have dinner parties. People almost always come."

William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man

By Duncan Wu

Oxford University Press

400pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780199549580

Published 23 October 2008

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