"It has been made an objection to the biography of literary men," wrote William Hazlitt, himself a biographer and a literary man, in 1820, "that the principal events of their lives are their works; and that there is little else to be known of them, either interesting to others, or perhaps creditable to themselves. We do not feel the full force of this objection" (16:153). Five years later he remarked: "An author ... may be full of inconsistencies elsewhere, but he is himself in his books" (12:370-71).
In writing his biography I have been guided by both statements. I have chronicled his life, from birth to death, in detail and have considered the impressions he made on contemporary critics and acquaintances. I have drawn more freely than earlier biographers on his surviving letters, especially those he wrote to Peter George Patmore when driven close to distraction by his hapless love for Sally Walker. And I have examined all his published works—which total some four million words—and have quoted generously from them.
Hazlitt has already been the subject of seven full-length biographies, two of which are outstanding. One of these, P. P. Howe's Life of William Hazlitt, is an excellent objective account, correcting and supplementing the findings of earlier biographers, but attempting little in the way of analysis or interpretation. The other, Herschel Baker's William Hazlitt, is a brilliant study of Hazlitt as thinker, concentrating on his productive years and viewing him against the intellectual background of his era.
My own aim is more modest. Because the character of Hazlitt has fascinated me ever since I first read his essays, I have focused my attention on his development as man and as writer, paying attention to the historical background or to his associates only when it seemed essential to my primary purpose of understanding the man himself. Although I cannot claim to have unearthed any startling new facts, I have had the advantage of materials not available to Howe and not within the concern of Baker.