New Writings by William Hazlitt

By Allender, Peter | The Byron Journal, December 2009 | Go to article overview

New Writings by William Hazlitt


Allender, Peter, The Byron Journal


NEW WRITINGS BY WILLIAM HAZLITT. Two volumes. Edited by Duncan Wu. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Vol. I, pp. lxvi + 507; Vol. II, pp. xiv + 553. ISBN 978 0 19 920706 0. £132.

Two volumes of new writings seem to represent the long-deserved canonisation by a major university publisher of an 'exceptional writer', as Duncan Wu describes Hazlitt in his introduction. In some ways, they can be seen as supplements to the still unsurpassed Complete Works in twenty-one volumes, edited by P. P. Howe and published by J. M. Dent in the early 1930s. Rather than a title that might have included the more circumspect 'miscellaneous' or 'uncollected', Wu has chosen to emphasise 'new'. This usually indicates freshly discovered correspondence but here reflects, perhaps in acknowledgment, two volumes of New Writings by Hazlitt published in the 1920s and also edited by P. P. Howe. Unidentified Writings was, however, the choice of Stanley Jones, the eminent Hazlitt scholar who died in 1999, for a collection he proposed of such material. Wu declares that his edition of New Writings is 'in many ways a tribute' to Jones, who assiduously pursued the attributions and contexts of Hazlitt's works in the course of many years of diligent research.

Jones did, in fact, draft an introduction where he defines Hazlitt as 'a living person' in his writing, which is not 'mechanically repeated from a basin of formulas conventionally agreed to be appropriate to his subject or the occasion'. Hazlitt himself often judged his writing as being merely fugitive or transient. He even claimed to dislike re-reading his essays and had an aversion to 'bound' editions of them. Although he did revise, this did not tend to take the form of what he called 'interlinings', which 'plagued the printer's devil', but cancelled sections or paragraphs. Indeed, he professed to have often finished writing 'just as the newspaper is going to press', yet still believed that what resulted from such 'at the moment' intensity would 'stand [] comparison with more laboured compositions', since 'there is a kind of extempore writing, as well as extempore speaking'. Wu refreshingly declares that Hazlitt was 'first and foremost, a journalist' and in two very generous volumes he presents an anthology of Hazlitt's journalism from 1809 to 1830 for a diverse range of publications. Overall, there are 205 reclaimed articles. None has appeared in book form before and many have never been extracted from the source of their initial publication.

The complete span of Hazlitt's journalistic career is represented. When he started on the Morning Chronicle in 1812 he discovered, rather to his own surprise and the initial delight of his editor James Perry, that he could write to demand and at speed. Wu includes key contributions to the paper as well as, amongst much else, reviews from The Times, where Hazlitt was the drama critic in 1817, and over thirty articles he wrote for The Examiner during the editorship of John Hunt's son Henry from 1819 to 1829. (Hazlitt's contributions to The Examiner under Leigh Hunt's editorship have largely already been published, many in his Political Essays and A View of the English Stage.) Wu concludes with over forty articles from Robert Bell's The Atlas, for which Hazlitt wrote during the last three years of his life. He continued writing almost until 18 September 1830, the day he died aged only fifty-two.

Just under three-quarters of the articles Wu presents are unquestionably attributed to Hazlitt and he has made the decision to grade those with an A. 'Where the case is less straightforward, for whatever reason', inevitably echoing the exam room, the grade is a B or C. In some cases doubt is unavoidable, as the kind of journalism Hazlitt engaged in could be collaborative. Leigh Hunt recalled his affirming cry: 'By God, sir, I think it will do, eh?' This can cause problems, however, for both Wu and the reader - as, for example, when Wu selects three passages that 'express views identified with Hazlitt' from a long review of Cain, Sardanapalus and The Two Foscari for the Edinburgh Review, which is attributed to Francis Jeffrey. …

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