The Familiar Essays of William Hazlitt Critical Essays

William Hazlitt

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

William Hazlitt came to be regarded as one of the nineteenth century’s most gifted essayists, but he did not arrive at this mode of expression by any systematic or logical process. As George Bernard Shaw came to writing drama only after long experience as a musical and dramatic critic and a novelist, Hazlitt discovered his true vocation only at the age of thirty-five, and only after years of trying, in turn, to become a painter, a political writer, and a philosopher. He had talent as a painter, as his portrait of Charles Lamb in the National Gallery shows, but his literary gifts were not displayed to good advantage in his writing until 1811. In that year he and his family he had married Sarah Stoddart in 1808, and had one son by then were clinging to an impecunious existence in London when a series of lectures helped relieve his financial worries. Through the aid of Charles Lamb, Hazlitt entered, at the age of thirty-four, a crucial apprenticeship as a reporter for the Morning Chronicle. He worked for a year in the gallery of the House of Commons. By the next year he had finished his apprenticeship and begun the career as an essayist that was to suit him so well. His books up to now, among which may be mentioned his AN ESSAY ON THE PRINCIPLES OF HUMAN ACTION, the LIFE OF HOLCROFT, had brought him little fame or fortune, but in the shorter essay he found the kind of form that suited him ideally.

Hazlitt’s familiar essay appeared in numerous periodicals between 1812 and his death in 1830. Many of them were reprinted in his lifetime but even in the Centenary Edition they are scattered over twenty-one volumes. Some of the major periodicals for which he wrote were Leigh Hunt’s The Examiner, 1814-1817; Constable’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1818; John Scott’s London Magazine, 1820-1822; Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine, 1822; and Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt’s The Liberal, 1822. Important collections containing his familiar essays which were published during his life include THE ROUND TABLE (with Leigh Hunt), 1815; TABLE TALK (2 volumes), 1821-22; and THE PLAIN SPEAKER, 1826.

It is nearly impossible to give an accurate idea of the range of Hazlitt’s interests, but literature, painting, the drama, travel, and the oddities of human behavior were chief among them. While he wrote familiar essays on subjects within all of these areas, those on literary or art topics are not ordinarily treated with those on human experience, men, manners, and customs of different countries—his favorite areas for exploration.

Like all great familiar essayists, Hazlitt had but one subject: himself. Whether writing of books, a prizefight, or the necessity of hating things, his own reaction to his material was his subject. Thus Hazlitt continues to read because of the intriguing quality of mind revealed in the essays, a strange mixture of vivacity and gloom. He said of himself in “On Depth and Superficiality”: “I am not, in the ordinary acceptation of the term a good-natured man. . . .” This assessment may be taken as an understatement. Although cheerful and happy as a child, he passed through some crisis in adolescence that left him gloomy and morose. Irascibility alone is probably as dull as superficial optimism, but in Hazlitt it was coupled with an amazingly vivacious intellect, stocked with vivid recollections of a staggering number of books, penetrating in vision, and never tired of examining all aspects of existence. That such a mind should be linked with such a temperament perhaps...

(The entire section is 1450 words.)