(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

At the beginning of one of his best-known essays, William Hazlitt describes a stunning performance by an Indian Juggler. Although he goes on to give full praise for the Juggler’s mechanical mastery, his “skill surmounting difficulty, and beauty triumphing over skill,” Hazlitt is first astonished by an odd and inexplicable mixture of simple and miraculous power. In the course of his act, the Juggler tosses two brass balls in the air, “which is what any of us could do,” but then keeps four balls up, “which is what none of us could do to save our lives, nor if we were to take our whole lives to do it in.” There is something of the Indian Juggler as seen by Hazlitt in David Bromwich’s fine study Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic. Bromwich’s performance—and throughout the book he reminds the reader that the critical act, whether Hazlitt’s or his own, is invariably a performance—is a curious blend of simple observations subtly, even mystifyingly, explored and remarkable discoveries. Although the biography is in some places densely written and loosely organized, the “effort of extraordinary dexterity,” again to use Hazlitt’s terms, “distracts the imagination and makes admiration breathless.”

The book is successful at so much of what it does that perhaps it is best to get a few critical quibbles immediately out of the way. Bromwich not only understands but also assimilates Hazlitt extremely well, and this book, much like Hazlitt’s best work, is filled with energy, adventurousness, and meditative impressionism. Also like Hazlitt, Bromwich is not particularly interested in self-effacement. His aims are ambitious: to “offer a story about [Hazlitt’s] genius in relationship to the literature he cared for and the age in which he lived” and “to help foster a new understanding of the romantic movement, by calling attention to a neglected side of it.” That he accomplishes these aims is indisputable, although his manner is sometimes objectionable, marked by overstatement, excessive critical reflexivity, and occasional self-trumpeting. Bromwich evidently intends to inform, to persuade, and to be quoted, and he will have great success on all of these counts, sometimes because of, sometimes in spite of, a characteristic preciousness of style. Few readers, for example, will forget his authoritative statement that Hazlitt “is the most restless of the English romantics, the most dangerous to his enemies, and in one sense the most shocking,” but this enthusiastic claim is not only highly arguable—Bromwich conveniently forgets about William Blake—but also distracts the reader from the useful and precise paragraph of stylistic analysis in which it is embedded. Bromwich means to be more than a good close reader (though he is that as well), and much of the value of the book results from his sophisticated inquiry into the grounds of Hazlitt’s criticism and his own as well. On those various occasions when the balance shifts to a focus on Bromwich’s methodology, not Hazlitt’s, however, the book becomes somewhat less interesting, except perhaps to those readers who look to all critical books as essays on metacriticism.

For all the originality of Bromwich’s study, he is as much a partner in a collaborative critical exploration as he is a pathfinder. Among others, E. P. Thompson (whose The Making of the English Working Class, 1964, Bromwich mentions briefly early in his book), and more recently, Jerome J. McGann, in The Romantic Ideology (1983), and Marilyn Butler, in Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries (1981), have investigated the Romantic movement in its historical context, focusing on the writers not as isolated prophetic bards but as individuals in an unavoidable social and political setting. René Wellek’s brief section on Hazlitt in his multivolume A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 (1955-1965) concisely and clearly sets out much of the background for a study of Hazlitt’s theoretical and philosophical roots, topics that Bromwich covers in extensive and illuminating, though sometimes rambling detail. Bromwich’s emphasis on the centrality of Hazlitt’s complicated relationship to Edmund Burke is anticipated and supported by Jonathan Cook’s Marxist critique “Hazlitt: Criticism and Ideology” in Romanticism & Ideology: Studies in English Writing, 1765-1830 (1981). On an even more mundane level, although Bromwich begins his book by tilting against critics and anthologizers who either neglect Hazlitt or turn him into a “sprightly, debonair, essentially worldly figure,” there are in fact many serious readers such as the British Labour leader Michael Foot, no such straw targets, who are not particularly surprised to see in Hazlitt exactly what Bromwich sometimes seems astonished to find: a dynamic and dialectical “champion of embattled causes.”

Although Bromwich is not the sole discoverer of the philosophical Hazlitt or Hazlitt Agonistes, he is unquestionably one of the best writers on these subjects. As the subtitle of his book implies, he is not writing a comprehensive biography (already available in P. P. Howe’s Life of Hazlitt, 1922, 1928) but a study of “The Mind of a Critic.”...

(The entire section is 2139 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Choice. XXI, June, 1984, p. 1462.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, April 12, 1984, p. 28.

Library Journal. CVIII, December 15, 1983, p. 2333.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 11, 1984, p. 6.

The New Republic. CXC, April 16, 1984, p. 42.

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, May 10, 1984, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, January 15, 1984, p. 30.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LX, Summer, 1984, p. 82.