Selected Writings

Selected Writings

Selected Writings

Selected Writings

Synopsis

William Hazlitt (1778-1830) developed a variety of identities as a writer: essayist, philosopher, critic of literature, drama and art, biographer, political commentator, and polemicist. Praised for his eloquence, he was also reviled by conservatives for his radical politics. This edition, thematically organized for ease of access, contains some of his best-known essays, such as "The Indian Jugglers" and "The Fight," as well as more obscure pieces on politics, philosophy, and culture.

Excerpt

There are a number of reasons for wanting to read Hazlitt now. Some of these are historical, but only in that particular sense where enquiry into a past writer renews reflection on the present. the period of Hazlitt's life, from 1778 to 1830, was one of far-reaching changes in English cultural and political life. Hazlitt was deeply engaged by these changes, both as a writer trying to affect their direction, and as an analyst of their causes. We have learnt to name these changes in various ways: as romanticism, as the development of a particular form of conservatism which has become deeply embedded in English life. Hazlitt's writing is, amongst other things, involved in a dialogue with some of the principal protagonists of English romanticism and conservatism: Burke, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. Hazlitt's distinctive urbanity is that he could recognize the power of these writers while at the same time fiercely disputing the political and cultural tendencies they represented. As a result, in reading his work, we can discover an account of the purposes of writing and the status of the writer which is at odds with the definitions which were in preparation when he wrote and were to become influential. Another way of putting this is to claim that Hazlitt had what can now seem a distinctly un-English preoccupation with freedom. This makes reading him now an uneven experience: he can by turns seem both old-fashioned and startlingly modern.

In The Life of Napoleon, a work completed shortly before he died, we can discover something of Hazlitt's sense of the responsibilities of the writer from his account of the French Revolution, where he tells a story about the causes of the Revolution which brings together print, politics, and knowledge:

The French Revolution might be described as the remote but inevitable result of the invention of the art of printing. the gift of speech, or the communication of thought by words, is that which distinguishes men from other animals. But this faculty is limited and imperfect without the intervention of books, which render the . . .

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