Friday, September 18, 2015

Quote of the Day (William Hazlitt, on Books)

“Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own."—William Hazlitt, “The Sick Chamber,” The New Monthly Magazine, August 1830, in Selections from William Hazlitt, edited by Will David Howe (1913)

William Hazlitt died on this date in 1830 in Soho, London. Afflicted by stomach cancer, with his money depleted and two failed marriages behind him, the great British essayist uttered perhaps the most inexplicable last words ever uttered: "I have had a happy life.”

Happy? Probably not. Accomplished? Absolutely. We are, perhaps, only now assessing the full nature of his achievement. 

He wrote political commentary, biography (including one of Napoleon), literary and theater criticism (Edmund Kean, he famously wrote, "acted with the ferocity of an enraged street urchin"), art criticism (he had originally wanted to become an artist himself until he concluded he didn't have enough talent for it), personal essays (on hating), and sports ("The Fight" is an early classic on boxing). 

Blogger Sheila O'Malley, in a post for "The Sheila Variations," offers a good overview of Hazlitt's underrated career and turbulent personal life.  
In terms of the latter, it would have been bad enough that Hazlitt could be quarrelsome and drink to excess, but his relationships with women were unfortunate. Both his marriages foundered (surely not helped by his penchant for prostitutes), and--as noted by Alistair Smith in an October 2014 essay for the British newspaper The Telegraph, he did himself in with much of the contemporary commentariate not just through an obsession with a landlord's daughter half his age, but by writing about it at some length in Liber Amoris.

Even in this case, however, he was a forerunner of something new: the confessional memoir that has come to dominate the last several decades.

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