In The Birth of the Modern, his panoramic history of world society between 1815 and 1830, Paul Johnson refers to William Hazlitt as “a truly great writer, perhaps the first truly modern writer in England.” Johnson, working an extremely crowded canvas, never gets around to saying just why he thinks Hazlitt is perhaps the first truly modern writer in England. Yet his is an assertion that gains immediate assent; it feels, somehow, right. Among Hazlitt’s contemporaries, Coleridge was certainly more wide-ranging, Wordsworth in his particular line deeper, Lamb more winning. But Hazlitt, for a multiplicity of reasons, feels more like our contemporary, which is another way of saying that he seems more modern.

Hazlitt, Our Contemporary—it sounds, I fear, like one of those rather dreary lectures read in a patches-on-the-elbows brown tweed jacket from yellowing...


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