Excellent. Hazlitt again. Say what you will about the Guardian – they do have a good books section, and they do keep having articles on Hazlitt. More than you can say for the New York Times!
I’ve said it before so why not say it again (especially since the article is saying much the same thing). Hazlitt is the most inexplicable case of undeserved literary obscurity that I know of in the case of an Anglophone author. Absolutely the top one. To be sure, there are Elizabethans and 17th century people who are well worth reading, who don’t get read all that much any more – Sidney, Nashe, Browne, Burton. But the barriers to reading them are easily understandable. But Hazlitt? Hazlitt?? Hazlitt is so readable it’s absurd, and the genre he writes in, unlike the genres that Nashe, Browne and Burton wrote in, is still very much current. He wrote essays and reviews. Big leap, huh? Nobody reads essays and reviews any more!
So why is Hazlitt so damn gone? Why was I made to read Lamb essays in school while I never so much as heard of Hazlitt? Why, why, why? I have no idea. I mean I really don’t – I don’t have a lurking suspicion of something or other; I have no clue; it makes no sense.
Because here’s the thing. He’s a brilliant stylist. Brilliant. Not just pretty good, not just very good; brilliant. One of the very, very best. He makes Orwell look lame. And nobody reads him. It’s tragic! And in case being a brilliant stylist is not enough, he’s no slouch as a thinker. And he’s politically interesting, and he’s good on literature, and he has an interesting mind and personality and take on things. There’s just no downside to reading Hazlitt. But no one does.
A reasonably well-educated friend noticed this book peeping out of my pocket one morning and remarked that it was rather heavy reading for such a time of day, or indeed for any time. I do wish people would stop doing this. Because Hazlitt died 170-odd years ago and is not as famous as Wordsworth or Coleridge, they assume that he cannot be an easy read, or even less of an easy read than W&C, or that to read him is more of a duty than a pleasure.
If you want a depressing lesson in contemporary cultural memory, go to any average-sized branch of a chain bookstore and ask for anything by Hazlitt. You will notice that it will take the person at the counter four or five goes to get the spelling right…
Terrible. Hazlitt rules. Down with archbishops and up with Hazlitt. Happy Easter.