William Hazlitt

Hazlitt, William, 1778–1830, English essayist. The son of a reform-mindeed Unitarian minister, he abandoned the idea of entering the clergy and took up painting, philosophy, and later journalism. He moved to London in 1799, studied painting, and joined the social circle of Charles and Mary Lamb. Beginning in 1812 Hazlitt acted as a parliamentary reporter and a theatrical, literary, and artistic critic for the Morning Chronicle. He later contributed a variety of articles to Leigh Hunt's Examiner, the Edinburgh Review, the London Magazine, the New Monthly, and other periodicals. By the 1820s he was widely considered London's most influential critic. A student of the art of prose, Hazlitt combined conversational and literary language into his own distinctively lucid and elegant prose style. His penetrating literary criticism (he has been called the father of modern literary criticism) is collected in Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817), Lectures on the English Poets (1818), Lectures on the English Comic Writers (1819), Table Talk (1821–22), and The Spirit of the Age (1825), portraits of his contemporaries. His essays on Shakespeare and his Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth (1820) renewed enthusiasm for Elizabethan drama.

Hazlitt was one of the great masters of the miscellaneous essay, displaying a keen intellect, fine sensibility, critical intelligence, and wide scope of interest and knowledge. His most notable single essays include "On Going a Journey,""My First Acquaintance with Poets,""On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth," and "Going to a Fight." His interest in and support of the French Revolution and his strong beliefs in the principles of liberty and the rights of man inspired him to write a life of Napoleon (4 vol., 1828–30).

See his letters (ed. by Herschel M. Sikes et al., 1978); biographies by C. M. MacLean (1944, repr. 2008), H. C. Baker (1962), P. P. Howe (1947, repr. 1972), S. Jones (1989), A. C. Grayling (2000), and D. Wu (2008); J. Cook, Hazlitt in Love (2008); studies by J. B. Priestley (1960), R. Park (1971), R. M. Wardle (1971), J. Kinnaird (1978), D. Bromwich (1985), H. Bloom, ed. (1986), M. Whelan (2003), and U. Natarajan, T. Paulin, and D. Wu, ed. (2005).

William Carew Hazlitt, 1834–1913, his grandson, was a bibliographer and wrote The Memoirs of William Hazlitt (1867). Among W. C. Hazlitt's works are a valuable Handbook to the Popular, Poetical, and Dramatic Literature of Great Britain (1867) and its supplements and Four Generations of a Literary Family: The Hazlitts (1897).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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