Jazzing Up Hazlitt

National Portrait Gallery, London
William Hazlitt; drawing by William Bewick, 1825

There is something secretly repellent in the prospect of an author recommended for his prose style (and nothing else). We hate the thought of an empty performance. Great prose attracts us by expressing great truths, not by the purity of its diction or the beauty and variety of its cadences. And so that place on the library shelf, or in the bookshop, that used to be reserved for the masterpieces of English prose or “belles lettres” (“literary works valued for their aesthetic qualities rather than for any informative or educational content”1) became dusty and unvisited long ago. Joseph Addison, whose essays were once the fire- side reading of cottagers throughout Britain, is obliterated. Samuel Johnson’s “Rambler” essays are reserved for the specialists. And it has been said recently that William Haz- litt too has, as it were, fallen off the shelf.

If he really is neglected, it is not for the first time, for he had to be rescued from posthumous obscurity before becoming a classic. The octogenarian Bryan Procter (1787–1874), who was part of the Hazlitt circle, wrote in his memoirs:

Even some of the best men…are gradually descending into the deep obscure. Wordsworth is no longer widely read; Hazlitt’s books have, as it were, subsided into a dead language; and the racy humour of Charles Lamb lives chiefly in the remembrance of the oldest men.

Procter, a best-selling poet in his day under the name of Barry Cornwall, is measured in his praise, but his generous conclusion has often been repeated: Hazlitt “was always just. He did not carry poisoned arrows into civil conflict.”2 Arrows, though, he certainly possessed and deployed. Coleridge, in a letter to Thomas Wedgwood, remarks that Hazlitt’s “manners are 99 in 100 singularly repulsive; brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange,” but then he adds: “He sends well-headed and well-feathered Thoughts straight forwards to the mark with a Twang of the Bowstring.”3

Among many achievements (philosopher, essayist, dramatic critic, artist), Hazlitt was our first great sportswriter. In the Romantic age, the passion for boxing spread through all classes, from prince to duke to slave. Byron sparred in the Bond Street establishment of Gentleman John Jackson. Procter, a diminutive lawyer, learned the art from Tom Cribb, one of the great champions of the day. Hazlitt, who appears to have trained with the freed American slave Bill Richmond, the “Black Terror” from Staten Island, wrote one outstanding essay in the genre, earning the praise of Gene Tunney a century later. Today you will still find sportswriters who look to Hazlitt as a hero for having written “The Fight.”

It was a revolutionary piece of journalism, which disgusted the staff at the New Monthly, where it was reluctantly published in 1822. Cyrus Redding, the assistant editor, recalled more than thirty years later that he

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