I first heard of Hazlitt when Melvyn Bragg did a program on him in his In Our Time series on BBC Radio 4. I have subsequently read quite a few of his essays, which are all beautifully written as well as full of thought provoking content. This biography, also very well written, really fills out his life. What an interesting period of history this was, the lakeland poets, Napoleon, etc. etc.
AC Grayling is a philosopher and critic just as Hazlitt was, and therefore writes about him with particular insight and sympathy. His account of the historical background of Hazlitt's life is masterly, and the book is written with narrative pace and wit. Grayling makes brilliant use of extensive quotations from Hazlitt's own writings and the writings of contmporaries to bring the contemporary flavour of Hazlitt's life and times before the reader. There are remarkable pen-portraits of Keats, Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Coleridge and Southey, and the political quarrels in which they were all mutually engaged (hence "The Quarrel of the Age", punning on Hazlitt's "Spirit of the Age") is sharply and often amusingly drawn. The account of Hazlitt's bitterly unhappy and notorious love affair with Sarah Walker is extremely moving. This biography is succeeds in getting right into the skin of its subject, as if the author knew him personally. As a bonus, as one would expect from such an elegant writer as Grayling, it is a beautifully written book, and a double pleasure to read therefore, for both its style and its subject.
I have just finished reading 'The Quarrel of the Age: the Life and Times of William Hazlitt' by A.C. Grayling, having previously read a number of Grayling's other books on philosophy which I found to be models of clarity and concision. I had, for this reason, eagerly awaited the publication of 'The Quarrel of the Age'. I was not disappointed; reading the book greatly added to the pleasure of my Christmas break. I could not in any way understand the comments made by the reviewer from London, England who felt that "Grayling never managed to convince me that Hazlitt meant anything to him" and that it "... seemed like his publisher had suggested the topic as a likely seller and Grayling a media pundit and SOMETIME PHILOSOPHER (my emphasis) - snapped eagerly at the bait." My reaction to the this review is that it is rather heavy on personal criticism and light on the work itself. Firstly, no serious reader of the book could fail to appreciate Grayling's clear delight in Hazlitt's writing, or his sympathetic but honest treatment of Hazlitt's personal failings and travails. Grayling has elsewhere in his writings indicated his personal admiration for both Hazlitt's intellectual and critical abilities and the forcefulness and clarity of his argument and writings. It is also clear that Grayling had undertaken a great deal of original research in order to be able to write the book. For these reasons, the remark that Hazlitt meant nothing to Grayling simply doesn't stand up. Secondly Grayling would not for one moment suggest that his book is in any way a substitute for reading the original works by Hazlitt. Indeed, within the book he provides regular commentary on Hazlitt's principal works and their strengths and weaknesses - clearly designed to help the reader understand the wealth on offer for further reading. To suggest, therefore, that any one wishing to know about Hazlitt should read his writings and ignore the biography misses the point of Grayling's book by a very wide margin. Biography is not intended as a substitute for its subject's original work or thoughts. The point of good biography is, rather to set its subject in context and to provide as clear an understanding as possible of the subject's motivations, abilities, personality, foibles and failings. I felt that Grayling did this job admirably. During my reading of the book I often experienced strong feelings - variously of personal discomfort, elation, anger and sadness - at the situations confronting Hazlitt. Grayling shares this ability to provoke such emotions with only the very best biographers of my experience and I certainly do not believe such ability could come from a money-grabbing hack. Thirdly, I found Grayling's writing a joy to read, he somehow managed to find a style that not only did not jar with Hazlitt's writing, but managed to sound contemporaneous without sounding dated. I urge anyone considering this book to read it and come to their own conclusions as I did. My lingering suspicion is that the reviewer from London has some unstated reason - personal or policital - to feel piqued about the author as opposed to the quality of his writing; something that Hazlitt would certainly have understood given the personal attacks he suffered throughout his life. In fact, if there is a 'leitmotif' running through Grayling's book it is that Hazlitt was personally attacked largely because his antagonists had neither the courage nor the intellect to criticise his work on its merits, or - worse still - who felt that someone with a differing political perspective or cultural outlook was by virtue of this unable to produce work of lasting quality, still less genius. They were wrong about Hazlitt, and I am equally confident that the vast majority of readers of this biography by Grayling will see the real merits of the book.