The English literary and social critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) is best known for his informal essays, which are elegantly written and cover a wide range of subjects.
Born at Maidstone, Kent, on April 10, 1778, William Hazlitt was the son of the Reverend William Hazlitt, a Unitarian minister. In 1783 the family sailed for America. Three years later, after preaching Unitarianism from Maryland to Maine, the Reverend Hazlitt returned to seek a home for his family in England. Eight-year-old William wrote his father that it would have been "a great deal better for America if the white people had not found it out." The family was reunited at Wem in Shropshire, where William grew happily until 1793, when he went to New College, Hackney, to study divinity. In 1795 he withdrew from New College, feeling unfitted for the ministry.
In January 1798 Hazlitt heard Samuel Taylor Coleridge preach in Shrewsbury and wrote that "until then … I could neither write nor speak … the light of his genius shone into my soul." Coleridge, however, later described him as "brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange." That May, Hazlitt spent 3 weeks with Coleridge in Somerset, meeting William Wordsworth. That fall he began painting in London and in 1802 had a portrait hung in the academy. In 1802 he lived in Paris for 4 months, studying painting in the Louvre and making his living expenses by copying his favorite masterpieces. He returned to England in 1803 and painted Coleridge and Wordsworth, from whom he now differed politically, since he nearly worshiped and they detested Napoleon Bonaparte. In May war with France was renewed, and Hazlitt was driven out of the Lake District, both for his pro-French views and because of a sexual involvement. In 1804 he made friends with Robert Southey and with Charles and Mary Lamb.
Hazlitt published An Essay of the Principles of Human Action in 1805, Free Thoughts on Public Affairs in 1806, and Reply to the Essay on Population and an anthology of parliamentary speeches in 1807. He married Sarah Stoddart on May 1, 1808, and lived for 4 years on her small property at Winterslow. In 1811 he gave up painting and in 1812 returned to London and gave lectures at the Russell Institute. In the same year, on Lamb's recommendation, he became parliamentary correspondent for the Morning Chronicle, then the leading Whig (Liberal) daily.
In 1813 Hazlitt began writing drama criticism for the Morning Chronicle but left it in 1814 for the Examiner. He also became art critic of the Champion. From 1814 to 1830 he was a regular contributor to the Edinburgh Review. From 1816 on he wrote political articles for the Examiner. There he expounded his idea that all nations are part of "the great society of mankind" and each must defend all against the aggressions of any single one upon the whole society. In 1818-1820 he lectured on English poets and in 1820 wrote drama criticism for the London Magazine.
Hazlitt left his wife in 1819, going to board at a Holborn tailor's, with whose 20-year-old daughter, Sarah Walker, he fell passionately in love. He analyzed his "insane passion" in the Liber Amoris, published in 1823. He got a divorce, but Sarah would not marry him. In 1824 he married a rich widow, Mrs. Bridgwater, and went with her on a tour of European art galleries, making friends with Walter Savage Landor in Florence. On his return to London his wife left him. In 1826 he was in Paris writing his life of Bonaparte, which was completed in four volumes in 1830. It disappointed his friends. He declared, "I have loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, hearing, thinking, writing what pleased me best." Hazlitt died on Sept. 18, 1830, his last words being, "I have had a happy life."
Further Reading on William Hazlitt
Among the full-length biographies of Hazlitt are Percival P. Howe, The Life of William Hazlitt (1922; rev. ed. 1928; new ed. 1947), and Herschel C. Baker, William Hazlitt (1962). John Boynton Priestly, William Hazlitt (1960), is a short study. See also Marie H. Law, The English Familiar Essay in the Early Nineteenth Century (1934), and William Price Albrecht, Hazlitt and the Creative Imagination (1965).
Additional Biography Sources
Albrecht, William Price, William Hazlitt and the Malthusian controver, Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press 1969.
Birrell, Augustine, William Hazlit, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press 1970.
Brett, R. L., Hazlitt, Harlow, Eng.: Published for the British Council by Longman Group, 1977.
Bromwich, David, Hazlitt, the mind of a critic, New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Cafarelli, Annette Wheeler, Prose in the age of poets: romanticism and biographical narrative from Johnson to De Quincey, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
Chandler, Zilpha Emma, An analysis of the stylistic technique of Addison, Johnson, Hazlitt, and Pater, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.
Hazlitt, William, The letters of William Hazlitt, New York: New York University Press, 1978.
Hazlitt, William, Liber amoris, or, The new Pygmalion, Oxford; New York: Woodstock Books, 1992.
Hazlitt, William, My first acquaintance with poets, Oxford; New York: Woodstock Books, 1993.
Hazlitt, William Carew, Lamb and Hazlitt; further letters and records hitherto unpublished, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1973.
Heller, Janet Ruth, Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the reader of drama, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.
Houck, James A., William Hazlitt: a reference guide, Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.
Howe, Percival Presland, The life of William Hazlitt, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press 1972.
Jones, Stanley, Hazlitt: a life, from Winterslow to Frith Street, Oxford England; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Keynes, Geoffrey, Sir, Bibliography of William Hazlitt, Godalming, Surrey: St. Paul's Bibliographies, 1981.
Kinnaird, John, William Hazlitt, critic of power, New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.
Lamb, Charles, Lamb and Hazlitt: further letters and records hitherto unpublished, New York: AMS Press, 1973.
Mahoney, John L., The logic of passion: the literary criticism of William Hazlitt, New York: Fordham University Press, 1981.
McFarland, Thomas, Romantic cruxes: the English essayists and the spirit of the age, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Park, Roy, Hazlitt and the spirit of the age: abstraction and critical theory, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.
Priestley, J. B. (John Boynton), William Hazlit, London: Published for the British Council and the National Book League by Longmans, Green 1969.
Ready, Robert, Hazlitt at table, Rutherford N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1981.
Stoddard, Richard Henry, Personal recollections of Lamb, Hazlitt, and others, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976 c1875.
Uphaus, Robert W., William Hazlitt, Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1985.
William Hazlitt, New York: Chelsea House, 1986.