Kevin Gilmartin, William Hazlitt: Political Essayist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), xv + 350pp. ISBN 978-0-19870-931-2; £71.99 (hb).
Those seeking some light reading on one of the early nineteenth-century’s foremost commentators on British literature and culture, or a gentle introduction to Hazlitt’s radical political writing, will not be reaching for this book. Gilmartin’s study requires full commitment to reap rewards, and hardcore Hazlitt scholars and enthusiasts will doubtless regard this publication, replete with comprehensive notes, as an indispensable one-stop guide to the political dimension of Hazlitt’s work.
Interesting aspects of Hazlitt’s seeming contradictions emerge. Knowing of his noted ability, as a seasoned essayist and journalist, to merge into different social milieus, it is fascinating to see this quality extended in the image of a political chameleon, yet Gilmartin effectively conveys Hazlitt’s consistency in ideology—‘an inflexible commitment to political liberty and radical reform’ (p. 33). It is argued that ‘their rhetorical complexity and rich emotional range’ elevates the writer’s political outpourings far beyond ‘mere journalism’ (p. 21); these are not the scribblings of a prejudiced hack. Hazlitt’s The Spirit of the Age comes to the fore early, together with his ‘relentless campaign against Lake School ‘apostasy’ as a cynical desertion of the cause of liberty’ (p. 2). Hazlitt’s scepticism, or amusement, at the thought that ‘English cultural renovation’ could be founded on the same principles as ‘French revolutionizing’ is emphasised, as well as his discomfort at Byron’s ‘preposterous liberalism’ (p. 7).
Similarly, Hazlitt wrestles with, or perhaps that should be skilfully juggles, opinions on the liberal politics but frustrating ‘endless disputation’ of Francis Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review alongside William Gifford’s conservative Quarterly Review (p. 5), while the ultra-Toryism of Blackwood’s with its barbed ‘nick-names and anonymous criticism’ is contemptuously dismissed in his ‘On Public Opinion’ essay (p. 213). Hazlitt is seen to be equally comfortable flipping between defending the Quakers from William Cobbett’s ‘wholesale attacks’ (p. 9) or mitigating Cobbett’s ‘egotism’ as having no vanity about it (p. 109). Although Gilmartin observes that Hazlitt, perhaps, only managed to avoid Cobbett’s brand of ‘outsized self promotion’ because he ‘projected political genius onto the figure of Napoleon’ (p. 109).
Hazlitt’s ‘critical disinterestedness’ and ‘ability to explore competing ideas and inhabit multiple perspectives’ is a salient feature throughout (pp. 159–60). Gilmartin probes Hazlitt the radical essayist, looking at form and style, before offering the 1817 essay ‘What Is the People?’ as a prime instance of the writer’s ‘most compelling versions of a radical insistence on limited economic resources as a way of distinguishing the interests of the people from the voracious appetite of state corruption’ (p. 70). The notion that, although government and people should share and pursue common goals, ‘political corruption institutionalizes the divergence of these interests’, is a persuasive one. Legitimised corruption rears its head again in the chapter on ‘Radical Argument’. Hazlitt’s attacks on ‘radical speculation’ alternate with a ‘dismissal of Whig opposition’, before castigating ‘Tory hypocrisy and personal venality’ (p. 107). Gilmartin later posits that Hazlitt ‘had recourse to Napoleon as an enabling double’ in an effort to ‘find a way out of the nightmare of legitimacy’ by ‘proposing the emperor of France as a figure of political redemption’ (p. 113).
Contradiction is again present in the succeeding chapter ‘Being Critical’ and Hazlitt’s use of ‘a dialectic of political expectation’ present in the period’s reform movement: ‘dividing radical apocalypse between nightmares of the catastrophic fulfilment of a grotesque system of corruption and exploitation, and more ecstatic visions of a sudden popular release from tyranny and dispossession’ (p. 136). Later, Hazlitt’s depiction of George Canning as ‘the embodiment of paradoxical Tory commonplace’ is itself flagged as a paradox as Canning is used as ‘a tool or instrument for systematic purposes’ (p. 155). In the ‘Dissenting Memory’ chapter, Hazlitt’s declaration (when pressed about his political ‘faith’) of himself as a ‘Revolutionist’ is discussed as well as his heritage and relationship with father (pp. 186–87).
The final chapter intriguingly examines ‘Representing Metropolitan Liberty’, and there is Hazlitt’s droll refutation of Blackwood’s definition of ‘Cockney’ in their magazine series ‘On the Cockney School of Poetry’ and his playing with the concept of being ‘not a Tory’ (p. 238). Critically, ‘democratic possibility is systematically diminished’ by Hazlitt’s portrayal of each Cockney faculty being ‘reduced to a trivial response to urban spectacle’ where, returning to a social theme, Hazlitt mockingly states that the true Cockney is ‘a great man by proxy’ (p. 276), for example: ‘He is a politician; for he has seen the Parliament House’ (p. 238). Hazlitt’s engagement with the politics of the sublime is considered as Rousseau replaces Napoleon ‘as the embodiment of revolutionary genius’, before a section ‘The King and the People’ revolves around the 1821 coronation of George IV (p. 255). We see Hazlitt deploying a powerful rhetorical method in the essay ‘On the Spirit of Monarchy’ as several ‘conventional figures’ are employed to ‘portray an impaired human intellect that cannot help but admire Royal power—the madman, the child, the savage, the infatuated lover’ (p. 285). Yet, a distinct point is rendered about Hazlitt’s ‘reluctance to treat the coronation as evidence of the weakness of corrupt government’ and how this could be ‘consistent with popular radical discourse’, splitting the perception of the urban spectators—‘at once enfranchised and servile, exalted and vulgar’ (p. 286).
Concluding thoughts underscore the perceived omnipresent ambiguities and contradictions; the sense that Hazlitt’s work ‘betrays a tension between democratic politics and elite principles of artistic production and appreciation’ (p. 315). Conversely, it is argued (convincingly) that ‘in wrestling with those tensions, and expressing his own pride […] Hazlitt worked with as well as against the terms of the contemporary radical press’. Overall, the comprehensiveness of the discussion, the writing style and convoluted nature of the material can be overwhelming and, in patches, opaque (in short, not readily lucid or accessible). However, the book represents a heavyweight entry into the field of Hazlitt studies, as well as early nineteenth-century political literature. For its intended readership, the book will find a rapt and appreciative audience.