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William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man
Oxford University Press, 2008
400 pp., $58.00
The English Montaigne
The cover of Duncan Wu's William Hazlitt: the First Modern Man features a portrait of Hazlitt—a self-portrait. It is clearly the work of a significant talent, executed with subtle skill. We see in it a young man in a nondescript coat, a white stock wreathing his neck, who looks directly at the viewer. Light from an unseen window illuminates the right side of his face, but the other side is still discernible. His face is tilted ever so slightly downward so that he seems to be looking from under his brows. His eyes are quite large, his closed lips full; but his chin is short and, one might say, rather weak. The overall impression is of immense intelligence, immense sensitivity, immense vulnerability. These impressions are correct, though they do not tell us all we need to know of the man's character.
Hazlitt has not come down to us as a painter, and barely even as an essayist, though that was the role he filled for generations: one of the two great English essayists of the Romantic era, the other being Charles Lamb. When Hazlitt is remembered today it is usually as the beleaguered protagonist of a doomed love affair with a serving girl more than twenty years his junior, a story he faithfully recorded in a book called Liber Amoris. Duncan Wu wants to restore Hazlitt to a far higher place in the public estimation, and anyone who has spent much time reading Hazlitt is likely to wish him success in that endeavor. But Wu's approach—driven by an almost comical determination to justify Hazlitt's behavior in the countless quarrels that dominated much of his adult life—works against his declared aims. A reader of this biography who was not already well acquainted with Hazlitt's prose would have little sense of why Wu thinks Hazlitt deserves the highest possible praise for an essayist, "the title of the British Montaigne." And this is sad, because even so high a claim is plausible. William Hazlitt is a great but largely forgotten genius of English literature.