Ian Hamilton Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ian Hamilton 1938-2001

(Born Robert Ian Hamilton) English poet, nonfiction writer, essayist, editor, and biographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Hamilton's career through 2003.

Recognized as one of the most notable literary critics, poets, and biographers of the twentieth century, Hamilton is applauded for his uncompromising standards of excellence. His role as founder and editor of two short-lived but influential literary magazines, as well as his tenure as editor of the Times Literary Supplement, established his lasting influence on the world of letters. Hamilton’s own poetic output is praised for its finely crafted verse, characterized by restrained but powerful emotion.

Biographical Information

Hamilton was born March 24, 1938, in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England. He attended Keble College, Oxford, earning a B.A. with honors in 1962. He founded and edited The Review, a small but well-respected literary journal published between 1962 and 1972. The Review ceased publication for two years, and was reestablished in 1974 as The New Review under Hamilton's editorship. Hamilton served as poetry and fiction editor for the Times Literary Supplement from 1965 to 1973. He was a lecturer in poetry at the University of Hull in 1971. For the next few decades, he wrote literary reviews and biographies and edited several prestigious collections of essays and poems. In 1988, controversy erupted over issues of copyright infringement in his biography In Search of J. D. Salinger. In an early manuscript for the biography, Hamilton quoted substantial passages from unpublished letters of Salinger held in a library archive. Learning of this, Salinger sued Hamilton for copyright infringement; Hamilton was ordered to re-edit the biography, cutting out the quotes from Salinger's letters. Later, Salinger filed another lawsuit, claiming that Hamilton heavily paraphrased the letters and thereby violated copyright law. When a high court ruled in Salinger's favor, Hamilton was forced to re-edit his book once again. Hamilton died December 27, 2001, in London.

Major Works

Hamilton is known as a bold and controversial literary biographer. Robert Lowell (1982) traces the life of the celebrated modern American poet, focusing on Lowell's mental breakdowns due to manic-depression. A Gift Imprisoned (1998) chronicles the early years of nineteenth-century English poet Matthew Arnold. In this biography, Hamilton addresses the question of why Arnold abandoned the writing of poetry in his middle age, turning instead to literary criticism. In Search of J. D. Salinger is viewed as much a chronicle of Hamilton's thwarted efforts to research Salinger's life as it is a biography of Salinger himself. Inspired by his experiences with the Salinger biography, Hamilton wrote Keepers of the Flame (1992), a critical discussion of the rise of literary biography, and the struggles between those who hold the estates of deceased writers and the biographers who wish to research writers' lives. As a poet, Hamilton has been called a minimalist. His poems tend to be short—most are fewer than twelve lines—written in finely crafted free verse, with a strong element of lyricism. Most of the poems in The Visit (1970) concern Hamilton's struggles with the death of his father and the mental breakdown of his wife. Fifty Poems (1988) comprises all of the thirty-three pieces in The Visit, with additional poems written since 1970. Sixty Poems (1997) includes all of Fifty Poems and ten newer works.

Hamilton was regarded as an influential critic and editor. His opinions were often harsh and uncompromising, and did not shy away from criticizing the works of such acknowledged masters as T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Hamilton's Against Oblivion (2002), published posthumously, provides brief essays on the life and work of forty-five American and English poets of the twentieth century whose works Hamilton believed would survive the test of time. In The Little Magazines (1976), Hamilton examined six small but significant literary magazines, and in Writers in Hollywood (1990) he explored the role of screenwriters in the moviemaking process, considering several literary figures who became Hollywood screenwriters. Hamilton's collections of essays and reviews include A Poetry Chronicle (1963), Walking Possession (1994), and “The Trouble with Money” and Other Essays (1998). As editor of The Faber Book of Soccer (1992), he collected several notable essays on the history of professional soccer as well as recollections of the game's greatest moments.

Critical Reception

As a poet, critic, biographer, and editor, Hamilton has garnered both widespread admiration and pointed criticism. Many reviewers have praised his limited poetic oeuvre—some sixty poems over the course of a lifetime—as restrained but emotionally intense works of minimalist verse. Hamilton's authoritative biographies of Lowell and Arnold have met with mixed reviews. Critics have investigated the thoroughness of his research and asserted that he sometimes focuses on the sensationalist aspects of his subject's life. Hamilton's controversial biography of Salinger has been described, in retrospect, as an embarrassment to Hamilton, whose efforts to document the life of a writer he supposedly admired caused nothing but grief for Salinger—not to mention the would-be biographer. Commentators have asserted that Hamilton's most significant contribution to English letters may be his prominent influence as an editor, reviewer, and literary critic, setting the highest of standards in his assessments of modern poetry and providing a fresh perspective on the received masters, as well as championing contemporary poets who might otherwise have gone unnoticed.