A powerful analysis of Romantic essayist William Hazlitt,
By Merle Rubin
Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor. Of the triad of English Romantic essayists that includes Charles Lamb, Thomas De Quincey, and William Hazlitt, the direct and vigorous style of the latter is the most congenial to modern ears. It is no accident that ''The Fight'' - one of Hazlitt's best-known pieces - describes a boxing match, for his own life as a man and as a writer was marked by pugnacity and by honesty, courage, and forcefulness. Son of a dissenting minister who founded the first Unitarian Church in Boston during the family's sojourn in America from 1783 to 1787, William Hazlitt (1778- 1830) abandoned his plans to enter the ministry, but remained true to his father's republican and libertarian ideals. In an age of political reaction, he continued to defend the principles that had inspired the French Revolution. During a period when Napoleon was still reviled as an archfiend in France, Hazlitt wrote what he believed was his life's crowning achievement - a biography defending Bonaparte. When we remember Beethoven furiously erasing his dedication of the ''Eroica'' symphony to Napoleon, Hazlitt's unchanging admiration for the Emperor may seem excessive. Yet, as David Bromwich points out in this critical study of the embattled essayist, Hazlitt was highly sensitive to the appeal of power and to the example of Napoleon as a man who made his reputation on the basis of personal merit, owing nothing to external rank or circumstance. The concept of power, Bromwich argues, is central to Hazlitt - not power as an attribute of physical strength or external political authority, but the power of the individual mind. With the broadening diffusion of knowledge, Hazlitt felt , the grand march of intellect would proceed democratically: ''The world of books overturns the world of things, and establishes a new balance of power and scale of estimation. Shall we think only rank and pedigree divine, when we have music, poetry, and painting within us?'' The power of words to move readers was the quality Hazlitt admired in political philosopher Edmund Burke, friend of the American Revolution, enemy of the French Revolution, and influential theorist of ''the Sublime.'' Hazlitt considered Burke a ''mighty opposite,'' a genius who had gone over to the wrong (i.e., reactionary) side. For Hazlitt, it was ''a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposite party whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.'' This ability to respond to imaginative and rhetorical power, even in those cases where one might disagree with the ideas so movingly expressed, was evidence of the quality of disinterestedness which Hazlitt prized. As Bromwich emphasizes, Hazlitt's concept of disinterestedness did not mean lack of interest or strict judicial impartiality, but rather, the capacity to enter sympathetically into interests or positions other than one's own. Disinterestedness did not preclude partisanship, or Hazlitt would not have been able to achieve it! Responding to the imaginative power of an opponent's argument (such as Burke's) would not necessarily entail granting that his ideas were right. In his early foray into philosophy, ''An Essay on the Principles of Human Action'' (1805), Hazlitt argued that the imagination was essentially disinterested - as capable of responding to the predicament of a friend, neighbor, or stranger as to one's own predicament. Habit, of course, would in time render us more self-centered, but innately, our imaginative capacities were boundless. Hazlitt based his argument on the idea that each of us is able to sacrifice the selfish pleasures of the present moment for the sake of the future happiness of the selves we will eventually become. The imagination required to appreciate the plight of this yet-nonexistent self, he argued, was akin to the imagination that appreciated the plight of all other selves - mine, thine, his, and hers. Hazlitt's theory directly challenged the prevailing Hobbesian idea of man's innate selfishness, a belief which was often used to justify social repression (society must limit individual selfishness), or, in more Malthusian fashion, to justify a laissez faire attitude in which the selfishness of each person was presumed to be balanced by the selfishness of everyone else. Hazlitt's ideas placed him on the side of social change, not merely as a Utilitarian or Godwinite arguing that we must suspend our emotions in order to favor the greatest good for the greatest number, but as a full-fledged Romantic arguing for justice on the basis of passion as well as reason. His idea of disinterestedness, as Bromwich points out, is actually a theory of multi-interestedness. Rather than unselfishness, Hazlitt postulates our ability to sympathize with other selves. It is just this quality that Hazlitt admires in Shakespeare, who created so many distinct and fully realized characters. It surfaces again in his praise for Edmund Kean's uncanny ability to become the characters he portrayed on stage. And it is expressed in the letters and poems of Keats, whose idea of ''negative capability'' reflects Hazlitt's skepticism and whose pronouncement that the poet has no identity echoes Hazlitt's belief in the protean nature of the imagination. Bromwich has accomplished a formidable task in piecing together a Hazlittian aesthetic from Hazlitt's more than 100 essays on topics as various as politics, painting, drama, poetry, and philosophy. By focusing on the contrast between Hazlitt and the Romantic poet generally accounted the foremost Romantic critic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Bromwich largely succeeds in establishing Hazlitt as the model for an alternative kind of Romantic criticism. Against Coleridge, the idealizing system-builder who conceived of a self-contained literature, separate from politics, Bromwich sets Hazlitt, the skeptical, unsystematic journalist who does not see literature as a thing apart. Against Coleridge, whose own example seemed to suggest that the critic must be some kind of specialist, is set Hazlitt - a latter-day version of Dr. Johnson's Common Reader. And, against Coleridge's mystifying style, Hazlitt's direct and familiar style. I could recommend Bromwich almost as wholeheartedly as he recommends Hazlitt, but for a certain callowness that creeps into his tone, undermining the general impression of thoughtful competence. Defending Hazlitt's confidential revelations about persons he knew, Bromwich assures us that these breaches of confidence only confirmed what was already the popular impression of the authors in question. This is justification for a gossip columnist, not a responsible critic. Praising Hazlitt's skillful use of quotation and allusion, Bromwich provides a contrasting example of inept quotation from the prose of Herschel Baker (author of a biography of Hazlitt) - a silly comparison and a petty snipe at a rival Hazlitt scholar. Bromwich is also prone to egregious errors of misinterpretation, as in his startling misreading of what is depicted on Keats's ''Grecian Urn.'' And, perhaps most astonishing of all, he fails to take account of - or even to mention - Harold Bloom's important theory of influence, either in his discussion of Hazlitt's ideas about poetic belatedness or in his characterization of Hazlitt's efforts as a contest with his predecessor, Burke. In light of the fact that Professor Bloom was the adviser of the dissertation on which this book is based, such an omission seems inexplicable. Although the minor irritations of Bromwich's stance and tone are clearly outweighed by the power and scope of his tonal conception, they must give us pause in measuring his critical judgment.
Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic, by David Bromwich. New York: Oxford University Press. 450 pp. $35.