Having now done the birthday posts for over a year, I have the advantage of being able to go back and look at what I wrote last year. And the amazing thing is how much they evolved over time. By this point last year, they had just become something of a hodgepodge with my flitting from one person to another without rhyme or reason. That is rather typical of me in general, but not very interesting. And it is shocking just how little time I spend with the “winner” of the day. Of course, now I don’t necessarily have a lot to say, but it isn’t so scattered.
On this day in 1778, the writer William Hazlitt was born. He was one of the greatest essayists ever. Yet he isn’t well know, at least not compared to his friends like Coleridge and Wordsworth. But he is greatly loved by real intellectuals and also people like me who would like to be real intellectuals. I think there are a few reasons for this. One is that he is sharp witted. And not at all adverse to being mean, as you can see in the opening sentence of his essay, “On People With One Idea”:
There are people who have but one idea: at least, if they have more, they keep it a secret, for they never talk but of one subject.
But the essay itself isn’t cruel. He has rather nice things to say about such people. I think his interest is very much my own: I’m fascinated by people who have a singular focus. Now some of them are focused on things I too am interested in. And others are not. But I’m interested in these people as one is interested in a white raven or anything else idiosyncratic. (And yes, I am aware that many people look at me the same way. I just wish they would write an essay about it!)
Another thing about Hazlitt’s writing that impresses people (or at least me) is that it is remarkably dense but clear. Kant’s work is dense, but not at all clear. Orwell is clear—wonderfully so. But he would never write a thousand word paragraph. Here is the second paragraph of “On People With One Idea,” and it is the rule more than the exception in his work:
There is Major Cartwright: he has but one idea or subject of discourse, Parliamentary Reform. Now Parliamentary Reform is (as far as I know) a very good subject to talk about; but why should it be the only one? To hear the worthy and gallant Major resume his favorite topic, is like law-business, or a person who has a suit in Chancery going on. Nothing can be attended to, nothing can be talked of but that. Now it is getting on, now again it is standing still; at one time the Master has promised to pass judgment by a certain day, at another he has put it off again and called for more papers, and both are equally reasons for speaking of it. Like the piece of packthread in the barrister’s hands, he turns and twists it all ways, and cannot proceed a step without it. Some schoolboys cannot read but in their own book; and the man of one idea cannot converse out of his own subject. Conversation it is not; but a sort of recital of the preamble of a bill, or a collection of grave arguments for a man’s being of opinion with himself. It would be well if there was anything of character, of eccentricity in all this; but that is not the case. It is a political homily personified, a walking common-place we have to encounter and listen to. It is just as if a man was to insist on your hearing him go through the fifth chapter of the Book of Judges every time you meet, or like the story of the Cosmogony in the Vicar of Wakefield. It is a tine played on a barrel-organ. It is a common vehicle of discourse into which they get and are set down when they please, without any pain or trouble to themselves. Neither is it professional pedantry or trading quackery: it has no excuse. The man has no more to do with the question which he saddles on all his hearers than you have. This is what makes the matter hopeless. If a farmer talks to you about his pigs or his poultry, or a physician about his patients, or a lawyer about his briefs, or a merchant about stock, or an author about himself, you know how to account for this, it is a common infirmity, you have a laugh at his expense and there is no more to be said. But here is a man who goes out of his way to be absurd, and is troublesome by a romantic effort of generosity. You cannot say to him, “All this may be interesting to you, but I have no concern in it”: you cannot put him off in that way. He retorts the Latin adage upon you-Nihil humani a me alienum puto [“Nothing human is alien to me. -FM]. He has got possession of a subject which is of universal and paramount interest (not “a fee-grief, due to some single breast”), and on that plea may hold you by the button as long as he chooses. His delight is to harangue on what nowise regards himself: how then can you refuse to listen to what as little amuses you? Time and tide wait for no man. The business of the state admits of no delay. The question of Universal Suffrage and Annual Parliaments stands first on the order of the day—takes precedence in its own right of every other question. Any other topic, grave or gay, is looked upon in the light of impertinence, and sent to Coventry. Business is an interruption; pleasure a digression from it. It is the question before every company where the Major comes, which immediately resolves itself into a committee of the whole upon it, is carried on by means of a perpetual virtual adjournment, and it is presumed that no other is entertained while this is pending—a determination which gives its persevering advocate a fair prospect of expatiating on it to his dying day. As Cicero says of study, it follows him into the country, it stays with him at home: it sits with him at breakfast, and goes out with him to dinner. It is like a part of his dress, of the costume of his person, without which he would be at a loss what to do. If he meets you in the street, he accosts you with it as a form of salutation: if you see him at his own house, it is supposed you come upon that. If you happen to remark, “It is a fine day,” or “The town is full,” it is considered as a temporary compromise of the question; you are suspected of not going the whole length of the principle. As Sancho, when reprimanded for mentioning his homely favorite in the Duke’s kitchen, defended himself by saying, “There I thought of Dapple, and there I spoke of him,” so the true stickler for Reform neglects no opportunity of introducing the subject wherever he is. Place its veteran champion under the frozen north, and he will celebrate sweet smiling Reform; place him under the mid-day Afric suns, and he will talk of nothing but Reform—Reform so sweetly smiling and so sweetly promising for the last forty years—
That’s 870 words! And it includes a reference to Don Quixote! And it’s funny! I love the line, “Now it is getting on, now again it is standing still; at one time the Master has promised to pass judgment by a certain day, at another he has put it off again and called for more papers, and both are equally reasons for speaking of it.” I think that Hazlitt suspected, as I do, that Major Cartwright is happier than the rest of us with our many ideas. But whatever pain those many ideas caused him, Hazlitt wrote about them wonderfully for all of our edification.
Happy birthday William Hazlitt!
 This is from Chapter 31 of the second book. It took me a while to find the exact translation he used. It is from Tobias Smollett’s 1755 translation. John Ormsby later translated it, “I thought of Dapple here, and I spoke of him here.” Samuel Putnam translated it, “I happened to think of my gray, and so I spoke of him.” Edith Grossman translated it, “Here I remembered about my donkey, and here I talked about him.” The actual Spanish is, “Aqui se me acordo del rucio, y aqui hable del.” Take your pick, although I think Grossman is a bit too literal. Putnam strikes me as a more modern translation, even though his is 50 years older than Grossman’s.