The Hazlitt Comparison
You may remember that I talked about Hazlitt’s Letter to Gifford recently. I forget what made me think of it then – I think it was something I was discussing with Scott McLemee, but I misremember what. Something has put it in my head again. Memory is an odd thing. Anyway, this is what I said last time. Somehow I just feel like saying it again.
The letter to Gifford starts off briskly:
Sir, You have an ugly trick of saying what is not true of any one you do not like; and it will be the object of this letter to cure you of it.
There are so many people around who have that ugly trick, these days. How one wishes for a few Hazlitts to cure them of it.
Yes and at the same time, how few people there are around who can write like Hazlitt. Well there’s nothing surprising in that. Few people – in fact no people – could write like him at the time, either. That’s rather the point. He’s a one-off. He was, as I said last time, a brilliant, dazzling writer – so he could get away with things that just make other people look unpleasant and out of control. It is a nice point. One sees the same thing in Christopher Hitchens (who often reminds me of Hazlitt). He can say outrageous, cutting things, because he’s witty and brilliant and knows what he’s talking about. When other people, who are less witty and brilliant and don’t know what they’re talking about (and such people are legion), attempt the same kind of thing, they just look rude and self-infatuated. But they will keep trying.
There’s another thing about Hazlitt, too.
He didn’t write anonymously. When he wanted to insult people, he did it under his own name. I have an idea he would have scorned the notion of attacking people anonymously – would indeed have considered it a trick suitable for the likes of the Quarterly Review and Gifford himself. Anonymous insulting is easy enough, but it’s a mug’s game.