Friday, February 21, 2014

`One of the Cardinal Virtues'

Pairing writers is a useful way to lend high resolution to their affinities and differences.  Once upon a time, Percy Shelley and John Keats were conjoined twins, two beings in one: Shelleykeats. Critics and common readers subsequently severed the shared tissue, much to Shelley’s diminishment. The stronger of the twins is thriving while his brother withers away. The contrasts are less vivid and more nuanced between their contemporaries William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, and a reader’s preference for one over the other is probably more a matter of temperament than critical rigor. One is tempted to divide humanity between the partisans of each, setting Hazlitteans against Lambites, though neither tribe is hopelessly barbaric. In “The Essayists,” first published in The Cornhill Magazine in 1881 and collected in Men, Books and Mountains (The Hogarth Press, 1956), Leslie Stephen has admiring things to say about both, but declares himself decisively in the Hazlitt camp: 

“[Lamb] is always on the verge of affectation, and sometimes trespasses beyond the verge. There is a self-consciousness about him which in some moods is provoking. There is a certain bigotry about most humourists (as of a spolit child) which has become a little tiresome. People have come to talk as if a sense of humour were one of the cardinal virtues.” 

You mean it’s not, Leslie? A sense of humor eludes many otherwise admirable people, even critics. Even Hazlitt. He was cranky, overheated, intolerant and volatile, and fatally drawn to politics. In love he was adolescent. He idolized Napoleon and wrote his biography. He possessed a genius for alienating friends and others who could be of service to him professionally. Stephen acknowledges this and almost excuses it, while adding a twist of class snobbery by observing that Hazlitt had “the weaknesses of a cockney,” the very slur thrown at Keats by his rivals: 

“[Hazlitt] has acquired, to an irritating degree, the temper characteristic of a narrow provincial sect. He has cherished and brooded over the antipathies with which he started, and, from time to time, has added new dislikes and taken up grudges against his old friends. He has not sufficient culture [!] to understand fully the bearing of his own theories; and quarrels with those who should be his allies.” 

After all this faultfinding and more (he detects in Hazlitt’s essays “a certain acidity” – this of the man who wrote “On the Pleasure of Hating”), Stephen, we sense, is writing autobiographically. He sees himself in Hazlitt and not in Lamb – not the gravest of sins among critics. He is very much his daughter’s daddy, snobbery and all. Even his praise of Lamb is disapproving: 

“One should be a bit of a cockney [again] fully to enjoy his writing; to be able to reconstruct the picturesque old London with its quaint and grotesque aspects. For Lamb is nowhere more himself than in the humourous pathos with which he dwells upon the rapidly vanishing peculiarities of the old-fashioned world.” 

Which, of course, is precisely why some of us remain loyal Lambites while peacefully coexisting with the Hazlitteans. Go here to read Hazlitt on Lamb, here to read Lamb on Hazlitt, and here to read this writer on both of them.

1 comment:

drizzz said...

I wonder if Hazlitt has a certain appeal to mountaineers. I first learned of Hazlitt through an essay by Jim Perrin, also a mountaineer.