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William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man Reprint Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
If this workmanlike biography, by the editor of the two-volume New Writings of William Hazlitt, does not live up to the expansive promise of its subtitle, it nonetheless extends a welcome new hand to a transitional figure of the romantic age. Wu admirably reveals his subject's faults and virtues at every point of a crowded life. Always hard up for cash, and often considering himself a failure in the eyes of his Unitarian minister father, Hazlitt (1788–1830) was generally celebrated as a journalist and prose stylist by his contemporaries. He was also an exceptional philosopher and painter. Among his intimates, Hazlitt counted Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Coleridge, Bryon and Keats, Charles Lamb and Robert Southey. Hazlitt was a passionate lover of many women and frequent brothel visitor, all of which doomed his marriage to a wealthy woman from the start. He was also done in by an understandably suspicious brother-in-law. Hazlitt has been more fortunate in his modern critics, among them Somerset Maugham and Virginia Woolf. As Wu notes, Hazlitt's modernity depends on his penetrating grasp of psychology and on his place as the father of modern literary criticism. 30 b&w illus. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
"Even-handed, knowledgeable and detailed...Written in a lively style and sparkling with intelligent analysis, Wu's biography is a captivating account of an unjustly neglected major figure of the Romantic era and a brilliant portrait of the intellectual and political contexts that Hazlitt described and embodied."--Studies in English Literature
"A fine biography that gets inside the pith and muscle of Hazlitt's critical rage, shows the meaning behind its blows, and explains the articulacy of its fury." --Journal of British Studies
"Gives a fully rounded, warts and all, biographical picture of the man...By all means read it." --The Wordsworth Circle
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Top customer reviews
What I got was a detailed history of the politics, cultural and literary scene of that time. This is a well researched, well-written book. Hazlitt got the biographer (serious and perceptive) that he deserves!
Wu is unabashed partisan of Hazlitt (which is probably why he undertook this task in the first place; Hazlitt is one of those figures now largely overlooked, along with Leigh Hunt, as the spotlight shines on the Romantic poets rather than on their prose-writing counterparts) and that enthusiasm for sharing Hazlitt's side in any quarrel can sometimes become a bit wearying. (I'm a fan of Hazlitt's, but find it hard to muster up much enthusiasm for HIS enthusiasm for Napoleon, for instance.) But where Wu succeeds brilliantly is in bringing alive the spirit of the age in which Hazlitt lived and wrote: the era which saw the triumph of the American Revolution (some of his earliest years were spent in the just-born United States) and then the French Revolution, followed by a British crackdown on anything that smelled like 'subversion'. Wu's case for Hazlitt as the first 'modern' man rests on the fact that he saw clearly what could be: a world in which birthright did not determine status or success, and where a man (or woman) could succeed on his or her own merits without having to grovel and win patronage from his social superiors but intellectual inferiors.
A testimony to the power of this biography is the fact that weeks after reading it, the events that Wu describes -- Hazlitt's financial struggles, his occasional triumphs, his tendency to become his own worst enemy and his lack of discretion -- continue to resonate in my memory. I'll be reading or thinking about something completely different, and suddenly a stray word or idea will push my mind back to Hazlitt and his falling out with some of his earliest friends, such as Coleridge, or to his friendship with Charles and Mary Lamb, or his fascination with the theater and his ability to spot some of his era's biggest talents the first time they strode across the stage. Best of all, Wu captures the discomfort of a young man, raised in a non-conformist yet religious household, who loses his faith, who must carve out a place for himself as a 'jobbing writer' in a world that has no place for non-conformists, whether that non-conformity is religious or social in nature. While reading this, I feel as if I inhabited the streets in which my prized first edition was printed.
Even if you're not interested in Hazlitt the person, this book is a great introduction to his times -- his path crossed that of all the great literary figures of his generation, and he engaged in his writings all the major themes, from the need for 'gusto' in life to the individual experience of nature that was part of the romantic era. (Hazlitt himself, however, still strikes me as more professional skeptic than a classic Romantic -- or perhaps, a Curmudgeonly Romantic?) And even if you're not interested in reading about the late 18th and early 19th century literary world, do pick up some of Hazlitt's essays. They are, indeed, treasures in their own right.
Highly recommended to anyone interested in this era, and in the Romantic poets or essay-writing.
That Mr. Hazlitt was an excellent writer and championed many good causes (e.g., attacking the emptiness of the British monarchy and supporting the right to free speech) hardly justifies him in having been a first-class jerk.
As for the subtitle of the book "The First Modern Man", it is quite a claim and one I think wildly overstated.
If you have a keen interest in William Hazlitt's life, read this book.
If not, which is probably most of the world, you can safely take a pass.