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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: William Hazlitt

From Washington Lawyer, September 2009

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

Recently The New Yorker carried an article about William Hazlitt (1778–1830), the critic and essayist.

In that article Arthur Krystal wrote that, until recently, it was unlikely students of literature would bother to crack open P. P. Howe’s 1930–34 edition of The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, consisting of 21 volumes. It so happens that I have a set in blue boards sitting on the shelf in my office.

Here is how I came to buy the books. One fine day, circa 1953, I was out for a stroll along New York’s Fifth Avenue. The avenue was crowded with shoppers confident they were in the presence of the most expensive things money can buy—Tiffany here, Cartier there, and so on.

As I walked along with an independent air, my posture improved. I stepped with authority. I wanted to be accepted as an authentic member of the acquisitive elite. I thought that I was about to grasp the reality hidden behind the materialism, the continuity behind the transitory, and the laws that control who wins and who loses, and what is known as accidental sagacity.

My general destination was J. N. Bartfield Fine & Rare Books, the antiquarian book store on West 57th Street. In those days when in New York, I looked in on Bartfield to check the stock. On prior visits, I had spied the blue Hazlitt. Each time I saw it, I thought of Hazlitt’s essay, “The Indian Jugglers,” and how well Hazlitt described juggling. I myself had tossed around a few clubs in the air, but nothing like the Indian jugglers Hazlitt described. The essay itself was, in its own way, a demonstration of the juggler’s art.

Hazlitt opens by saying that the Indian juggler tosses two balls into the air and catches them, which is what anyone can do. He then takes four in hand. But let me give you Hazlitt’s words:

[He keeps up] four at the same time, which…none of us could do to save our lives, nor if we were to take our whole lives to do it in. Is it then a trifling power we see at work, or is it not something next to miraculous? It is the utmost stretch of human ingenuity, which nothing but the bending [of] the faculties of body and mind to it from the tenderest infancy, with incessant, ever-anxious application up to manhood, can accomplish or make even a slight approach to. [Any miscalculation is fatal because] the precision of the movements must be like a mathematical truth, their rapidity is like lightning. To catch four balls in succession in less than a second of time, and deliver them back so as to return with seeming consciousness to the hand again, to make them revolve round him at certain intervals, like the planets in the spheres, to make them chase one another like sparkles of fire, or shoot up like flowers or meteors, to throw them behind his back and twine them round his neck like ribbons or like serpents, to do what appears an impossibility, and to do it with all the ease, the grace, the carelessness imaginable.

A juggler friend of mine who works on political campaigns said that anyone running for president must have the same talent as Hazlitt’s Indian juggler. He must keep four balls in the air. But once elected, the president is handed 20 balls that he must keep in the air. He will drop most of them.

The person I dealt with at Bartfield, Barney Ruder, knew I had my eye on Hazlitt. He said that when the set came out, a client of his, a prominent Washington lawyer, bought it. That prominent lawyer said that reading Hazlitt’s essays was the way to learn to write. Hazlitt was the master of a biting, direct, and concise sentence—most lawyers cannot write like that.

Mr. Ruder asked if I had heard of Frank Hogan. Of course I heard of Frank Hogan—he founded Hogan & Hartson LLP. He said Hogan represented the defendants in the Teapot Dome Scandal, and the papers reported he received a million-dollar fee. He spent some of that money on books. Hogan has been quoted as saying that there is something sacred in the spiritual and intimate companionship of a book, and he felt “a profound happiness and satisfaction in possession of these precious monuments of human thought and progress.” Mr. Ruder said Hogan was an avid book collector who, when he wanted something, he bought it. That was enough for me. If Frank Hogan had to have Hazlitt, I must have Hazlitt.

When you are in my neighborhood, drop by and we will read, in volume XIX, Hazlitt’s arguments against capital punishment. In his time, anyone caught stealing five shillings could be put to death.

Hazlitt’s opening comments in his essay on wit and humor have been repeated many times:

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with a difference between what things are, and what they ought to be. We weep at what thwarts or exceeds our desires in serious matters: We laugh at what only disappoints our expectations in trifles.

Hazlitt commented on “The Fear of Death,” “The Shyness of Scholars,” “Religious Hypocrisy,” “On Living to Oneself,” and “On the Ignorance of the Learned.”

Hazlitt would have been a good person to have sitting at your side at counsel table when picking a jury. He knew people, inside and out. He even wrote a piece titled “On the Look of a Gentleman.” But in his own case, he got caught up in a disastrous love affair, which he called his fatal attachment. He never got over it. His friends could not discourage him from writing a book about it. It is in volume IX.

Jacob A. Stein, a partner at Stein, Mitchell & Muse LLP, can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.