Unforget Hazlitt

Alastair Smart at the Telegraph asks a question that I have wondered about many many times – How did we forget William Hazlitt?

Seriously. The guy was a demon writer, and a genuine thinker. He was also interesting to read. How and why did he get so obscure?

Certainly, even by the non-specialist standards of his day, he had a mighty range: a philosopher, journalist, political commentator, grammar theorist, theatre critic, art critic, travel writer, memoirist – not to mention, biographer of Napoleon. Here was a serious thinker, for whom every pursuit fed into life’s deeper questions. His rise coincided with that of Romanticism. Indeed, though our popular image of the movement is dominated by its poets – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Co. – Hazlitt was a key figure too.

And yet, he’s astonishingly neglected.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hazlitt racked up enemies at quite a rate. His attacks extended beyond the art world into literature, politics and most spheres of public life. He also maintained the highest regard for Napoleon, going on a depressed, drinking binge after Waterloo and insisting the dictator had remained true to the principles of the French Revolution.

What really did for Hazlitt, though, was an ill-advised affair with a landlord’s daughter half his age, followed by his even more ill-advised declaration of that affair in the book Liber Amoris. It became a stick which all his moralising opponents could beat him with. His reputation never really recovered – and nowadays he’s barely read.

Which is sad for all the people who’ve never read him.


  1. Dan says

    I’m sure he was a great writer and thinker, but I want to know more about that “ill-advised affair with a landlord’s daughter half his age” before I dismiss it as “oh those prudish nasty moralists.” Was it what we would today consider statutory rape? Also, when they say affair, do they just mean romance or do they mean betraying your spouse?

  2. quixote says

    Wikipedia says he was separated from his wife, and the landlord’s daughter was 19 and he was 41.

  3. says

    What was ill-advised about it was his sad sad sad foolishness and self-exposure, rather than any harm he did to his ex-wife (they had mutually agreed on the separation) or the love object. It was like a teenage crush but carried on by an adult man. The love object was just fundamentally uninterested throughout. If only he’d had a friend handy to say “she’s just not into you.”

  4. Al Dente says

    He also maintained the highest regard for Napoleon, going on a depressed, drinking binge after Waterloo and insisting the dictator had remained true to the principles of the French Revolution.

    Napoleon was a military dictator who instituted a secret police, reestablished the aristocracy, and made his own ambitions synonymous with those of France. His successes in war made him rely on war as an instrument of policy and he was insensitive to its human cost. He’s often described as a political genius but the execution of d’Enghien was criminal and the imprisonment of the Pope politically disastrous. His lust for power, the coup d’etat Brumaire, his dismissal of democracy and the establishment of Empire, were all benchmarks of rampant ambition.

    Napoleon has come to be identified as an prime example of Lord Acton’s adage “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I have to disagree with Hazlitt’s opinion of Napoleon and the principles of the revolution.

  5. Kiwi Dave says

    I haven’t read Hazlitt. One can see his infatuation with a 19 year old as middle-aged male folly, but as Al Dente points out, by Waterloo the evidence that Napoleon had betrayed the revolution and ravaged Europe for his own and his family’s interests was indisputable.

  6. says

    I do wish Hazlitt and other great political prose writers like Burke and Cobbett were taught as part of English literature at the senior school level. It’s fiction, poetry and drama that get taught but reading fine discursive prose should be part of learning English as well. Some students who aren’t particularly caught by Wordsworth and Jane Austen could be caught by essays and articles on matters of historical interest. I’d teach Ruskin as well – his essay on iron is really exciting to a non-scientist.

  7. says

    Yes yes yes. One might even add Keats’s letters to that mix.

    We did have an anthology of essays in one upper level English class, and with shame I have to admit I wasn’t taken with it. I kept thinking I preferred fiction; for decades I thought that.

    That anthology didn’t include Hazlitt though, or Burke, or Cobbett. It was thoroughly middle-ish.

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