Duncan Wu is a British academic and biographer. From 2000-2008, Wu was Professor of English Language and Literature at St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford, England. He is now the Raymond Wagner Professor of Literary Studies in the English Department at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He is Vice-Chairman of the Keats–Shelley Memorial Association and The Charles Lamb Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a founder member and former Chairman of The Hazlitt Society.
Duncan Wu introduces All That Is Worth Remembering, the selected essays of William Hazlitt. These selected essays give real insight into the Hazlitt’s character and Wu’s introduction and supplementary notes throw light upon his thinking and courage.
Why read Hazlitt today? Because no one celebrates better than he did the imaginative power of the mind as it invests itself in theatre, painting, literature, music and philosophy. But there is nothing fanciful or lightweight about him. He sees clearly into the darkness of the human heart, perceives ‘its various threads of meanness, spite, cowardice, want of feeling, and want of understanding, of indifference towards others and ignorance of ourselves’. That undeceived vision and love of life makes him as compelling as ever.Duncan Wu
1. What sets William Hazlitt apart as one of the greatest essayists in the history of English language?
Before he started writing, Hazlitt wanted to be an artist to rival Titian, and to that end cultivated the ability to capture what he saw and felt and experienced in his imagination. Of all the essayists I’ve read, he is by far the best able to harness that superpower. When describing Wordsworth in The Spirit of the Age, for instance, he evokes not just the look and the demeanour of the man but what it was like to stand in a room with him; when describing a boxing match in the first ever journalistic report of such a thing, the detail is such that you can almost hear the grunt of the fighters and see the sweat flying off their bodies. In that way, he’s incredibly modern.
2. How did Hazlitt renovate the form of the essay?
Hazlitt’s predecessors were writers like Joseph Addison and Dr Johnson; their work remains highly regarded. What Hazlitt did, from their perspective, was to vulgarize it. He took the essay into the gutter–where, his enemies argued, he spent so much of his time. He took it into the theatres, the streets, the coffee-houses, the coaching-inn, even into the bedroom. But it wasn’t just subject-matter; he injected into his prose all the vitality and energy that was to be found in the world around him, making the essay seem the vehicle not just of the sedate library-mole but of the man about town, living and learning of the world about him.
3. Did Hazlitt get into trouble for the topics he wrote about?
Hazlitt got into trouble–not only with his editor, but also with his best and oldest friends–for being a fervent supporter of Napoleon. And his endless criticism of Wellington and laments over the defeat of the French could only get him into trouble. On one occasion Hazlitt staggered out of the Cider Cellars and went to the offices of the Chronicle only to be ordered to write an article on press freedom. His editor threw the finished piece back in his face describing it as “the most pimping thing I ever read!”
4. In what way was Hazlitt ‘the first modern man’?
Modernity is a vague term. Hazlitt was modern in the sense that, though educated in an Enlightenment household, and therefore being a product of an eighteenth-century culture, he was an intellectual pioneer. It’s fair to say he reinvented every branch of journalism to which he applied himself, creating the parliamentary commentary as we know it, the theatre review, the sports commentary, the opinion piece, and the book review. Most importantly, he was a Romantic, and he lived like one–willing to fight for his convictions, to live to the full and to write with passion.
5. Are you currently working on anything that you wish to share with your readers?
I’m working on a book about British and American writers and artists in Rome at the fin de siécle–Wilde, James, Wharton, Elihu Vedder, and George Inness.
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