on 12 July 2012
I had long wanted to delve into the life of William Hazlitt (1778-1830), having frequently seen him wandering about the stage in biographies of Keats and Lamb. Many references to him in those books were laudatory - about his razor-sharp intelligence and his critical intensity - while hinting at a complex, troubled private life and difficult personality. Having seen the newspaper reviews of 'William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man' when it first came out, I recently found a copy of Wu's book and finally had the opportunity to meet the great man. Wu's approach is already perceptible in the subtitle of his biography: "the first modern man" sets the stakes extraordinarily high. Can Hazlitt - who, let's admit it, is not much read these days, yet has managed to become something of a writer's writer in certain academic circles and amongst the political left - fulfil this grand claim?
A forceful paradox seems to lie at the heart of Hazlitt's character, as portrayed here: in print he could be (and frequently was) splenetic even about his friends, but in person he was often diffident and awkward (Mary Russell Mitford once memorably described Hazlitt's habit of "enter[ing] a room as if he had been brought back to it in custody"). He was anxiously, fervently productive, yet more often than not wasteful of the fruits this would bring. Fickleness and inconstancy made him furious, yet he seems to have subconsciously courted precisely that in his disastrous obsession with Sarah Walker, his landlady's daughter. It is frustrating that Wu does not explore more deeply the emotional and psychological hinterland of Hazlitt's behaviour because it is so fascinating.
I would also question why Wu feels the (defensive?) need to write extravagantly, even grandiosely, about his subject. Can it really be true that Hazlitt's Unitarian father "sparked a revolution" in America during the 1780s (p. 40) or that William is indeed "the father of modern literary criticism" (p. 238)? The only flaws that Wu is prepared to ascribe to his subject are tellingly couched as potential strengths: "If Hazlitt had a fault, it was that he was too trusting of his acquaintances" (p. 249); "his crime was honesty" (p. 339). Intriguingly, Wu is prone - very much like Hazlitt - to outbursts, railing against "the stupidity of modern literary criticism" (p. 328), calling Coleridge "a bore" (p. 237), and characterising Keats's friend Charles Brown as "a venal, self-important blackguard" (p. 364)! With a biographer this emotionally and psychologically invested in his subject, it shouldn't surprise us that Wu admits in his Acknowledgements that the writing of this book "coincided with Hazlittian traumas in [his] own life" (p. x).
And yet I feel a thirst to know more about Hazlitt, to read more of his writing, to hear more of his voice, after reading this book. Wu does a good job of convincing us that "Hazlitt's talent lay in his analytical firepower" (p. 149) and the biographer's vivid recreation of the lectures his hero gave enliven the narrative. I didn't find the partly invented conversations jarring, but Wu's relegation of doubt to his footnotes is sometimes troubling: it is only in the small print that we learn it is not known whether Hazlitt visited Keats's and Shelley's graves at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, although in this body of his text he recreates the scene as if it were undisputed truth. Wu repeats Andrew Motion's conviction that Keats visited prostitutes and contracted venereal disease (it is, in fact, not known why Keats was taking a course of mercury after his trip to Oxford in 1817); he also excludes from his Life the biting remarks that Hazlitt made about Keats's supposed "unmanliness" after the death of his friend.
With Wu's book, you can learn a lot about Hazlitt - especially the vicissitudes of his life - but it may be wise to take up one of the four other biographies - Catherine Macdonald Maclean's Born under Saturn (1943), Ralph Wardle's Hazlitt (1971), Stanley Jones's Hazlitt: A Life (1989) or A.C. Grayling's The Quarrel of the Age: The Life and Times of William Hazlitt (2001) - if you are looking for a more even-handed, level-headed approach to this complex and compelling subject. (3.5 stars)