William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man

Article excerpt

Wu, Duncan. William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man. New York Oxford University Press, 2008. 557 pp. $45.

Duncan Wu, a professor of English at Georgetown and a long-time William Hazlitt scholar, has produced a masterly biography of Hazlitt, an often-overlooked Romantic writer. Beginning with his 1778 birth near London, continuing through childhood in the United States and the English countryside, and culminating in his adult years in the capital and on the continent, Wu describes in detail this apparent polymath.

According to Wu, Hazlitt penned philosophical essays introducing theories of psychology and aesthetics; painted imitating the masters; presented thoughtful public lectures; and participated extensively in journalism, "a trade he could never give up, as he could not afford to do so" until his death in 1 830. His press career encompassed parliamentary reporting, editorial commentary, and rheatre, art and, above all, literary criticism. Wu names him the father of the political sketch that exemplifies linguistic caricature, the fearure story that combines anecdote and analysis, and the sporrs column diat enlivens events.

The son of Unitarians, Hazlitt had an informal education, ranging from classics to shorthand, and a developing interest in the arts. Before he was eighteen, he lost his faith but not his belief in Radical politics. His lifelong commitment to its tenets resonates throughout Wu's text but surfaces most often in discussions of Hazlitt's disdain for acquaintances who abandoned theit enthusiasm for this credo. His attitude earned him the enmity of important authors, among them Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and of periodicals that promoted conservatism. While it seems excessive for Wu to characterize publisher William Blackwood as a "malicious mug," evidence points to the latter's Bkckwood's Magazine as a major player in discrediting Hazlitt's work. As Wu makes clear, the attacks by this and other serials persisted, eventually constituting a "subgenre of literary journalism" so severe that Charles Lamb and William Godwin could hardly assuage its effects on their friend.

As Wu follows Hazlitt, he pictures many men who shaped early nineteenth-century journalism, then a stepchild of literature but on the threshold of becoming the chief medium of public communication. The famous included: William Cobbett, who mentored him and welcomed him to the Political Register, James Perry, rhe Morning Chronicle owner, who hired him at thirty-four to cover the House of Commons, which was his first salaried journalism job; Francis Jeffrey, the longtime editor of the Edinburgh Review, who paid him well for his articles and regularly loaned him money; Henry Colburn, a ubiquitous periodicals' publisher, who brought him to the New Monthly Magazine against the wishes of editor Thomas Campbell; and Thomas Barnes, the successor as Times' editor to Hazlitt's brother-in-law and foe, John Stoddart, and a patron of Hazlitt at the paper in 1817. …