Wednesday, January 14, 2009

`Beauty Triumphing Over Skill'

When I started Anecdotal Evidence almost three years ago the first words I posted were not mine but William Hazlitt’s, from “The Fight.” This was an act not of humility but gratitude. The essay is the literary form I value most, from Montaigne and Johnson to Lamb and Liebling, and Hazlitt stands high in their company. According to his latest biographer, Duncan Wu, “The Fight” was something new in the world – part reportage, part memoir, part prose poem. Here is the passage I used to introduce this blog:

“…we agreed to adjourn to my lodgings to discuss measures with that cordiality which makes old friends like new, and new friends like old, on great occasions. We are cold to others only when we are dull in ourselves, and have neither thoughts nor feelings to impart to them. Give a man a topic in his head, a throb of pleasure in his heart, and he will be glad to share it with the first person he meets.”

Odd that lines from an account of a bloody, bare-knuckle fight should serve as my welcome to readers. In William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man, Wu notes that Hazlitt and some 25,000 other spectators became, in effect, accessories to a criminal act. Boxing had been outlawed in England since 1750 (83 years before the abolition of slavery), but Hazlitt’s tastes were raffish and he enjoyed rubbing shoulders with dubious characters.

Wu describes the secrecy that surrounded the fight between Tom “The Gas-man” Hickam and Bill Neate on Dec. 11, 1821. Boxing aficionados from all classes were known collectively as the “Fancy.” Hazlitt had trained as a boxer under Bill Richmond, “a man of colour, and a native of America,” and relied on such connections to locate the fight and arrange to get there. The owner of a tavern in Chancery Lane, the Hole in the Wall, sent him to Hungerford in Berkshire, 70 miles away. On the coach he met John Thurtle, proprietor of the Black Boy tavern in Long Acre where, Wu says, “he entertained so many brawling, disreputable customers that his license was revoked.” He was executed for murder in 1824. Back to Wu:

“Hazlitt’s description of the match is a virtuoso display of technique, the like of which had not previously been seen; he even coined a phrase now known to every sports fan around the world: `In the first round every one thought it was all over.’ The challenge he gives himself is: can I replicate in words the cut and thrust of a fist? He did so magnificently, in a manner sportswriters have imitated ever since.”

And here’s a sample of Hazlitt’s prose:

“Neate seemed like a lifeless lump of flesh and bone, round which the Gas-man's blows played with the rapidity of electricity or lighting, and you imagined he would only be lifted up to be knocked down again. It was as if Hickman held a sword or a fire in the right hand of his, and directed it against an unarmed body. They met again, and Neate seemed, not cowed, but particularly cautious. I saw his teeth clenched together and his brows knit close against the sun. He held out both his arms at full-length straight before him, like two sledge-hammers, and raised his left an inch or two higher. The Gas-man could not get over this guard -- they struck mutually and fell, but without advantage on either side.”

Wu speculates that the vividness of Hazlitt’s prose in “The Fight” owes something to his experience as a painter and his study of such masters as Titian and Raphael. That’s unconvincing. Instead, I would suggest that by 1821 Hazlitt had mastered the art of the English sentence, as few writers have, and he chose an event suited to his gifts. It was a superbly timed encounter between artist and subject.

Inevitably one thinks of Liebling’s accounts of boxing matches collected in The Sweet Science. Liebling, of course, knew Hazlitt’s essay, though he ranked it below the work of his “fistic" mentor Pierce Egan, author of Boxiana. I should mention that I’m not a boxing fan and have never seen a fight but I’m a fan of good prose. When Hazlitt sent the finished essay to the New Monthly Magazine, its editor, Thomas Campbell, “racked his brains to think of some reason for rejecting it,” Wu reports. (Hazlitt had once rightly accused Campbell of plagiarizing a line in one of his poems.) Campbell said:

“The subject is thoroughly blackguard! It gives currency to a disgraceful, demoralizing species of vulgar exhibition that brands England just as the bull-fight does Spain with disgrace in the sight of all civilized nations.”

Campbell’s motives are dubious and ultimately he agreed to publish “The Fight,” but I sympathize with his assessment of bare-knuckle boxing and bullfighting. Hazlitt’s account is exciting, but it also gives some notion of the violence on display: “…the other returned it with his left at full swing, planted a tremendous blow on his cheek-bone and eyebrow, and made a red ruin of that side of his face.”

Hazlitt was among the first writers to treat popular culture in a literary manner, without condescension or moralizing. He did the same in “The Indian Jugglers.” What he writes of the art of juggling in that essay serves as an apt assessment of Hazlitt’s own art:

“It is skill surmounting difficulty, and beauty triumphing over skill.”

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