William Hazlitt and Ralph Waldo Emerson: Unitarianism, the Museum, and the Aesthetics of Power

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Unitarian, born the son of a church minister influential in post-colonial America, he was destined for piety but became instead the most important essayist and lecturer of his time, one whose Zeitgest he described and defined. An apologist for Napoleon, celebrant of Hamlet and his creator, intimate of Coleridge and Wordsworth, he devoted himself to the study of genius. Though unorthodox in religion, his Christ was a teacher and he himself became in time a moral instructor, dedicated to the liberty of the individual within an equal and free society. Power is the key term within his aesthetics and it is in the often mystical-seeming value with which he invests poetry that this is most manifest as an emancipating force for humankind. A believer in brotherhood, he spent much of his life considering national character, reflecting in lectures and essays upon the idea of Englishness. He is perhaps the first truly transatlantic essayist in his nation's canon, and though entombed within his reputation as a difficult prose writer during much of the literary criticism of the last half-century, he has emerged finally as an intellectual force of the first rank, one for whom metaphysics was never to be divorced from the examination of emotion. He is above all an analyst of the Self. (1)

From recent reassessments, this is a now familiar portrait. (2) And yet the writer whom I am describing is not William Hazlitt but rather Ralph Waldo Emerson, better known to students of the Romantic period as a transcendentalist and disseminator in America of the principles of German idealism, a thinker not so much with but against history, a friend of Carlyle and a writer beloved of Friedrich Nietzsche. What is to be gained from reading William Hazlitt with an awareness of Ralph Waldo Emerson? Or more specifically, what is gained by reading Hazlitt alongside and indeed through Emerson when they inhabit so much common intellectual ground, and yet when the scholarly conception of both writers has conditioned neglect of their potential connections; when indeed it is a relationship that has never been seriously explored? (3) In particular, I am interested in examining continuities in their aesthetic thought that grow from their shared Unitarian heritage.

William Hazlitt first achieved a form of prominence in America because of his important role in conditioning the reception of late Romantic poetry with his Select British Poets of 1824, a volume owned and annotated by Emerson. His early works were widely disseminated and republished in America. Reading The Spirit of the Age in 1828 proved to be transformational for Emerson because it brought the ideas of Wordsworth and Coleridge alive and convinced him that he lived at a distinct moment in history, one which looked back to the past only to strike it out. "Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers," he writes at the start of Nature, at once echoing and trampling upon Hazlitt's phrase in his essay on "Mr. Coleridge," "we live in retrospect, and doat on past achievements." (4) Given his Unitarian background and the radical foundation of his thought, Hazlitt was destined to find early champions in America. Nevertheless, he is of all the major British Romantic writers, perhaps the quietest presence in later 19th century American thought. Kept alive by amateur interest, his critical reputation grew in America during the second half of the 20th century considerably more than it did in Britain, culminating in indispensible studies by David Bromwich, John Kinnaird and John Mahoney. (5) Writing in Oxford, Roy Park observed in 1980 that like "so many of our writers Hazlitt has been wrested from us by the Americans" and he regretted that 150 years after his death, there was no available edition of his criticism in Britain. (6)

Emerson meanwhile, although he is of insuperable importance as the champion of Thoreau, Whitman and the American Renaissance, has enjoyed an indistinct reputation in Britain, rediscovered only recently by critics concerned to recover the history of his influence upon the transatlantic context of Romantic thought. …