Hazlitt as a Thinker

By Richman, Sheldon | Freeman, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Hazlitt as a Thinker


Richman, Sheldon, Freeman


Henry Hazlitt was not only a prolific writer, he also succeeded at it early in life. In an unpublished autobiography, Hazlitt recalls that before landing his job at the Wall Street Journal in 1913, at the age of about 18, he finished writing his first book, "with the modest title" Thinking as a Science. He gave the manuscript to a friend, Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), who later became a prominent critic and historian, for comment.

Meanwhile, Hazlitt sent it to five or more publishers, each of which returned it with a form rejection. "Finally discouraged," he recalls, "I put it away in a drawer somewhere, where it lay for many months."

Then Mumford, having just read a book on thinking that he regarded as inferior to Hazlitt's, inquired about his manuscript. "I was ashamed to tell him of all my rejections and final discouragement," Hazlitt says. "So I mailed the manuscript off to still another publisher, E. P. Button & Company, then wrote Lewis admitting the previous rejections, but telling him the book was now in Dutton's hands."

About a month later, Hazlitt received a phone call from his mother while he was at work. "Dutton's has taken your book!" she said. Hazlitt assumed she had misunderstood the letter, so she read it to him. The first thing he did was "leap in the air."

His next feeling was fear. "I was afraid to accept Dutton's invitation to come to their office. I was sure that when they saw this kid they would try to get out of their offer. But finally I overcame my reluctance." He snapped at Dutton's offer, though the terms "would be considered incredible today": no royalties on the first 1,000 copies. "I do not believe the royalty rate rose above 10 percent," he writes.

As Hazlitt recalled the big day:

A Mr. Acklom, who interviewed me, seemed to feel at one point that I did not sufficiently realize the chance they were taking on me. "You know, we make money on only one out of five of the books we print," he said.

I must have looked at him as if he were a fool. "Why do you publish the other four?"

Hazlitt reports that the book "sold well for the market in those days." But how many copies, he didn't remember.

"So I was an author," Hazlitt wrote. "The notion went a little to my head, and it led me to make a serious mistake." The mistake was to imitate the writing style of Arnold Bennett, the British author whose selfimprovement books had caught Hazlitt's fancy. "Then I wrote a full-length book, The Way to Will Power, in direct imitation of his style and themes, and submitted it to Dutton's. They published it! They had hardly done so when I realized that I had done the wrong thing; and for years, up to the present writing, I did not list the book among my writings in my Who's Who entry."

Thinking as a Science came out in 1916, when Hazlitt was 21. He begins by noting that for each person a particular evil stands out above the rest. "I, too, have a pet little evil, to which in more passionate moments I am apt to attribute all the others. This evil is the neglect of thinking. And when I say thinking, I mean real thinking, independent thinking, hard thinking." And by that he meant "thinking with a purpose, with an end in view, thinking to solve a problem. …

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