The Hazlitt Society


Radical Cheek

Radical cheek by Michael Foot

The Quarrel of the Age: The Life and Times of William Hazlitt by AC Grayling (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

Devotees of Saturday's Guardian need no further introduction to the work of Dr Grayling. Every week he offers what editors had previously thought impossible: a genuinely fresh excursion into the world of metaphysics or morals. Sometimes he even trespasses into the field of radical politics. And where did he get that from?

His book on William Hazlitt starts with a trumpet blast: "Without question one of the greatest writers of prose in the English language". True enough: as we enter into the new century, a growing company of devoted readers will accept that claim. But 100 years ago, some of Hazlitt's writings were still thought to be so offensive that he deserved no honour at all. Seventy years earlier, when he died in poverty in his upper room in Frith Street, Soho, most of his best-known contemporaries, headed by Wordsworth and Coleridge, would have been both astounded and horrified by the modern verdict. The political argument with them and others in which he had been engaged all his adult life was still blazing. The quarrel of the age, from which Grayling takes his title, was the argument between the defenders of the French Revolution and its opponents.

Edmund Burke was the leading exponent of the politics and philosophy of that worldwide opposition. William Hazlitt, as we can now see more plainly than ever before, was the truest exponent in his age of the revolutionary doctrine. In his lifetime, though, no quarter was allowed. Hazlitt, the Jacobin revolutionary, was hurried off to his grave and to oblivion.

Maybe it was his subject's profession as a philosopher that first attracted Grayling's attention Hazlitt often lamented the agonies he suffered before he could inscribe the first words on to the page, but it was through philosophy that he felt he had to tell the truth within him. He had gifts enough to follow several other callings: he could have been a painter, had taught himself French and Latin in his teens, and understood novelists sometimes before they understood themselves. Yet he was 28 years old before he sought to restore his reputation, and his livelihood with his new wife, with a series of lectures on the English philosophers. Since he was no natural philosopher, the enterprise was a terrible flop.

Summoning to his aid a literary genius that he would never claim for himself but that he had somehow fashioned for his own use, he learned to recover from such moments of near-despair and turn them into triumphs. He disowned all forms of egotism, sublime or otherwise he had friends and lovers at his side, heroes and heroines to stir his talents to the highest pitch.

His new biographer weaves all these personal strands together, as the best biographers should. He is well aware of Hazlitt's own dictum that all the greatest men (and women) have ideas greater than themselves, and draws the whole picture as indelibly as Hazlitt himself did in his magnificent self-portrait, reproduced on the cover of the book.

Thanks to the philosophical connection, Grayling tells that part of the story as well as any of his predecessors. He is properly appreciative of the scholars of the past 100 years who have rescued Hazlitt from the neglect and infamy of the previous century. Indeed, he dedicates his book to the first of these, PP Howe, both for the collected works and for the biography of the early 1920s, still one of the best in the language. He acknowledges the ways in which different parts of Hazlitt's legacy have been rescued by modern critics - whether that means Herschel Baker's recognition of the bravery of Hazlitt's challenge to Dr Johnson, or Tom Paulin's study of the poetics of Hazlitt's prose.

Grayling himself has a combination of qualities that offers something new again. If readers are looking for a single volume of introduction to this great figure, they will find nothing better than this biography to set beside Howe's classic. Once again, Hazlitt has passed on his gusto to his biographer.

The Guardian, Saturday Review, 23rd December 2000.