norbert blei | james purdy 1914-2009

22 03 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 175 | March 21, 2009


by Norbert Blei

If I were to ever put together a book of The Literature of Neglected Writers, James Purdy’s entry would occupy a few pages.

Who? James Purdy.

I read a few of his books a long time ago. I can’t say I remember them in any detail, forty years later. But I do recall his first novel MALCOLM which was quirky, funny, different from anything I was reading back in Chicago at that time. He was a far cry from what we considered ‘Chicago writing’, where Algren was the patron saint of grit, Royko honed a street-smart prose, a newsman’s life, on the backs of palooka politicians, and Studs talked to us in the dark with a radio voice as real as the people Sandburg used to sing about. While Purdy (who had a short Chicago history of his own) seemed a little too precious for our neighborhood. If he was one of our tribe (young, striving, wannabe writers) it was only because nobody paid much attention to us either.

As the years passed, Purdy continued to write and publish in a void, though occasionally writers with gravitas–Dorothy Parker, Tennessee William, Gore Vidal, Edith Sitwell, etc….would say or do something in his behalf. Vidal, especially, considered Purdy “ an authentic American genius.” Edward Albee adapted Purdy’s first novel, MALCOLM, for the New York stage—but Purdy hated what Albee did to it

I suspect Purdy feared success. He saw right through it. “I don’t think I’d like it if people liked me,” he said. “I’d think that something had gone wrong.” And the more you read his personal feelings concerning neglect and cultural stupidity, the more complicated his place and contribution to American literature becomes.

He falls into that literary class of American gothics …weary but sublime intellects …who shine the light on the darkest underside of the human condition…then put it all down in the purest prose. Capote could do this too. Innocence, separateness, questionable sexuality. Sherwood Anderson’s grotesque Americana, raised to the art of rococo.

The fact that Purdy lived to be 94 is astounding. I’m not alone in thinking he had died a long time ago. Just how he did survive, continue to publish and be ignored through all those years is a story I’m waiting to hear—and trust someone will unravel now that he is gone.

“When you’re writing, at least in my case, you’re so occupied by the story and the characters that you have no interest in what people may think or whether I should write to please anyone,” he said.

I had to smile when I ran across his small obit last week in a Midwest newspaper. I could have overlooked it so easily. About 10 lines on page 22 of the business section, right above the standard columns of general obits—and just over a small advertisement that read: Best Price Caskets—Our Price $995; Retail Price $5000.


(Little-Known but Controversial Author)


NEW YORK — Author James Purdy, a shocking realist and surprising romantic who in underground classics such as “Cabot Wright Begins” and “Eustace Chisholm and the Works” inspired censorious outrage and lasting admiration, has died.

Spokesman Walter Vatter of Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, said Mr. Purdy had been in poor health and died Friday morning at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey. Reports of his age have differed, but his literary agency, Harold Ober Associ-ates, said he was 94.

Mr. Purdy published poetry, drawings, plays, novels and collections. Much of his work fell out of print; several books were reissued in recent years.

Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams and Dorothy Parker were among his fans, but Mr. Purdy won few awards and was little known to the public.

One time during those early Chicago years, I had lunch with the book editor of a major newspaper that I reviewed for on a regular basis. Our conversation inevitably veered to the usual subject: the plight of the writer. I remember him saying: “Did you hear what happened to James Purdy?” I nodded no. “He had a new book scheduled to be released last fall and his publisher forgot to publish it.”

I probably smiled. Maybe laughed out loud. Which seemed appropriate at the moment. But I never forgot the sadness I felt for James Purdy. —Norbert Blei

James Otis Purdy (17 July 1914 – 13 March 2009) was a controversial American novelist, short story-writer, poet, and playwright who, since his debut in 1956, has published over a dozen novels, and several collections of poetry, short stories, and plays. His work has been translated into more than 30 languages. It has been praised by writers as diverse as Edward Albee, James M. Cain, Lillian Hellman, Francis King, Marianne Moore, Dorothy Parker, Dame Edith Sitwell (an important early advocate), Terry Southern, Gore Vidal (who described Purdy as “an authentic American genius”) and A.N. Wilson. Purdy has been the recipient of the Morton Dauwen Zabel Fiction Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1993) and was nominated for the 1985 PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel On Glory’s Course (1984). In addition, he won two Guggenheim Fellowships (1958 and 1962), and grants from the Ford Foundation (1961), and Rockefeller Foundation. He worked as an interpreter and lectured in Europe with the United States Information Agency.

Purdy was born in Hicksville, Ohio in 1914. His family moved to Findlay, Ohio when he was about five years old where he graduated from Findlay High School in 1932. He was further educated at Bowling Green State College (now Bowling Green State University), the University of Chicago and the University of Puebla in Mexico.

From the start, his work had often been at the edge of what was printable: Gollancz could not bring himself to print the word “motherfucker” in the 1957 UK edition of 63: Dream Palace; decades later, the German government tried to ban Narrow Rooms, but a court threw the case out. Although many readers were scandalized, a solid cadre of distinguished critics and scholars embraced his work from the start, including John Cowper Powys and Susan Sontag, who warmly defended him against prurient critics.

His early novel Malcolm was for decades a staple of the undergraduate American Literature curriculum of most American colleges and universities. Malcolm may have slipped from its place in the canon in recent years due to its irregular publishing history. This is consequent upon the contractual confusion that arose when Purdy agreed to permit Edward Albee to adapt it for the stage. In spite of this ongoing and unresolved problem, Malcolm is currently in print.

Following several reissues of previously out-of-print novels, as well as a recent appreciation by Gore Vidal in The New York Times Book Review, Purdy’s work is currently enjoying a renaissance. As Edward Albee wrote long ago, there is a Purdy renaissance every ten years, like clockwork. Albee has been proved right every decade since.

Since the 1990s, when great age began to make itself felt, he had worked closely with his companion John Uecker (who was previously the last amanuensis of Tennessee Williams), a partnership that resulted in such late works as the novel Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue (1997) and the collection of stories Moe’s Villa (2003, 2005). He continued to dictate to a small team of devoted friends, and ascribed his continued intellectual vigor to the drinking of green tea and the avoidance of alcohol and tobacco. His advice to young writers was to ‘banish shame’.

Purdy wrote anonymous letters since age nine. His first was written to his mother’s landlady who, in young Purdy’s view, was grasping. Countless thousands have been written since, many now owned by persons who have no idea of their provenance or value, although the style is inimitable. One of his very latest, written when he was 92, to a redactor who had displeased him by moving from New York to Montana, can be seen at This features some of Purdy’s drawings, which have attracted some attention.

Purdy continued to dictate and to draw nearly every day until his death at 94. After several years of declining health, he fractured a hip and died in Englewood, New Jersey on 13 March 2009.

The American composer Robert Helps (1928-2001), a friend of Purdy’s, used Purdy’s texts in two of his works, The Running Sun and Gossamer Noons, both of which have been recorded by the soprano Bethany Beardslee.

The playwright Edward Albee adapted Malcolm for the stage, but it was a notable flop, perhaps because Albee cut out the black characters in the book. This cuts out the very meat of the book, for the story makes no sense without the final affair between Malcolm and the young jazz singer, which echoed Purdy’s relationship with Billie Holiday.


  • * 63: Dream Palace (short stories) (1956)
  • * Malcolm (1959)
  • * Colour of Darkness (short stories) (1961)
  • * The Nephew (1961)
  • * Children is All (1963)
  • * Cabot Wright Begins (1965)
  • * Eustace Chisholm And the Works (1967)
  • * Jeremy’s Version (1970)
  • * I Am Elijah Thrush (1972)
  • * Color of Darkness Malcolm (1974)
  • * In a Shallow Grave (1976)
  • * Narrow Rooms (1978)
  • * Lessons And Complaints (1978)
  • * Dream Palaces: Three Novels (omnibus) (1980)
  • * Mourners Below (1981)
  • * On Glory’s Course (1984)
  • * The House of the Solitary Maggot (1986)
  • * The Brooklyn Branding Parlors (poems) (1986)
  • * In the Hollow of His Hand (1986)
  • * The Candles of Your Eyes (1988)
  • * Garments the Living Wear (1989)
  • * Garments (1989)
  • * Out with the Stars (1992)
  • * Dream Palace: Selected Stories, 1956-87 (1992)
  • * Epistles of Care (1995)
  • * Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue (1996)
  • * Moe’s Villa and Other Stories (short stories) (2000, 2005)


jeff winke | in the soup

17 03 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.174 | March 17, 2009

The Literature of the Ordinary Day

[Lessons from The Writing Life…Continued]

Writers fall into this zone quite easily. Those who have trained themselves with journals, daily diaries, notes (these days, ‘blogs’) know the territory.

For more than twenty-five years I religiously began my writing day, my ‘practice’, with a handwritten, typewritten, or watercolor-inspired/written letter to friends. This often set the mood, set the pace. The only danger, sometimes the feelings rushed forth with such fire (ala’ Henry Miller’s 100 mph epistles) that hours later you came up for air only to discover you lost your most productive time, a whole morning putting down thousands of words to friends and strangers.

E-mail has replaced much of this ritual. Though e-mail seldom calls forth the same fervor—for me. We’ve sacrificed so much with the loss of the hand-written, typewritten, (water-colored inspired) letter…sealed in an envelope, stamped, carried to the local post office, dispatched with love all over the country, the world.

I won’t even go into how the spark, the smoke, the small-fires some of us set off in correspondence grew in heat and light to become something larger, later. That same day, night. Weeks, months, even years later. How a poem a story, a novel, a book, a painting actually took its first breath in something we set down in a letter-like exchange. If only we could call all those words and images back! What a wealth of material we would have on hand. Most of it, no doubt trivial, embarrassing. Yet some of it—gold never mined.

All this came to me when I received a short e-mail from Milwaukee poet and friend, Jeff Winke the other day. I think I was still in the state of savoring the Ray Foreman piece I had posted on Poetry Dispatch (#273, MARCH 11, 2009) just a day before that. All the good mail that was coming in from readers everywhere who fell in love with Foreman and his love of stories, old city diners–especially Chicago ones. Which stirred my own memories as well. The fact I have nothing quite like the life and people and excitement of an old Chicago diner here in the rural, where I have lived in a state of self-exile for more years than even I can imagine.

Then this perfect little email note/story/poem from Jeff, landed on my screen, and set everything in motion again.

I want a cup of soup. I want to meet Jeff in “SOUPS’S ON” in Milwaukee. I want to read the paper, take notes, listen, watch, bullshit the day away, surrounded by kitchen clatter, the aroma of food, the look and jabber of total strangers…

I want to talk to that lady with a parrot on her shoulder. —Norbert Blei


In the Soup

by Jeff Winke

One of the three part-time jobs that Carol, my hard-working wife, has in her effort to patchwork-quilt together some scratch for us is this wonderful place called Soup’s On Located south of the Ale House on Water Street in Milwaukee, they serve great breakfast items and sandwiches too. Mary — the old hippie owner—has figured out how to make incredible soups.

So, anyway… Carol calls me yesterday and says all the soups that Mary made today are incredible, so get over here before they sell out. They apparently see around150 customers over the lunch hour that buy between 1 and 4 bowls of soup each. The 4-bowlers are bringing lunch back to their offices.

So, I hot-foot it over there and sample all the soups and go for Perky Squash, which barely won out over the Mushroom Wild Rice. I grab my bowl, that Mary had added a heap of cilantro, Parmesan and cabbage, and wander over to the table with the window view of the fog-draped, rain dappled, slow-moving Milwaukee River taking its sorry-ass time through the warehouse district on its way to Lake Michigan. Since Mary’s husband is an artist, the walls are filled with consignment art from local artists and photographers – many of them graduates of the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, which is located a few blocks away.

The place attracts a very interesting bunch of customers, which includes the truly eccentric. Last week, Carol had rung up a woman’s order and while handing back the change noticed a colorful small parrot on the woman’s shoulder — so she asked, “where did the bird come from?” She was in my purse, the response came. The week before I was at Soup’s On, and Carol introduced me to a regular — a gnarly, toothless guy that has some exquisite photos displayed of a nude young pregnant woman who is “painted” with patterns of light and shadow.

All I want to do is to hang out there with the parrot woman…the toothless photographer…and the writer from Georgia who selected Milwaukee as the place where he can hide out to finish writing his book. I can wear my black fedora (especially since I christened it with my finger wet with bourbon at smoky Caroline’s Jazz Club last weekend). I’ll never smile and occasionally cackle out loud and say something profound like “Can’t drive a double-wide through an Amish outhouse.” Mary will occasionally slip me a wedge of crusty bread and I’ll have the best view of the islands of ice and random trash floating down the river.


william hazlitt | the man of letters

15 03 2009

Illustration by Istvan Banyai

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 173 | March 15, 2009


(Excerpt from Harper’s Magazine, April, 2009)

Editor’s Note: It’s a term that was once a part of our ‘literary’ conversation, something we ascribed to an individual who appeared learned, specifically knowledgeable in the arts, sciences, philosophy, political movements. Someone whom we expected a little more from. Perhaps a different slant on the general perception. There was also a touch of the radical to this voice. The revolutionary. The writer who lights the match.

It’s no secret that my two favorite magazines are Harper’s and The New Yorker, both of which I have subscribed to for many years. I couldn’t possibly recommend two better magazines for writers, artists, readers, anyone with an interest in our culture and the world at large.

To point: The excerpt I have featured below taken from a review of a book on William Hazlitt (whom you may not have read since college) by Duncan Wu. And while the book itself seems a sure winner, the excerpt I have featured is beyond superb in covering the greater idea of “the man of letters” at large. Just who and what what this once entailed. And what has become of him. I urge readers to continue the essay where I left off by either buying the magazine at your local newsstand, subscribing to Harper’s (a VERY reasonably subscription for a month or more of reading) and, if neither of these ideas works for you, check out the April issue at your local library.

And while you’re into this same issue, by all means don’t miss another brilliant essay/review on John Cheever, by Jonathan Dee: “Suburban Ghetto, John Cheever, misread and misunderstood”. –Norbert Blei



William Hazlitt’s radical imagination
By Terry Eagleton*

Discussed in this essay: William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man, by Duncan Wu. Oxford University Press. 557 pages. $45.

From Samuel Johnson to Christopher Hitchens, a strange, hybrid creature known as the man of letters has been an abiding feature of the British literary landscape. There have been some distinguished women of letters, too, not least George Eliot and Virginia Woolf; but the category has been confined mostly to men. To be a genuine man of letters a century or two ago, you had to do more than write poems or novels. You had to launch a journal, dabble in theater reviewing, throw off the odd biography, compile a dictionary, deliver public lectures, compose scurrilous essays for periodicals, and edit the letters of some political bigwig.

The man of letters was a literary jack-of-all-trades, a hand-to-mouth hack who could knock together a popular account of Darwinism as easily as he could churn out notes on an art exhibition. He had to be ready to re-view anything that came to hand, which meant that he had to be adept at more than one intellectual discipline (and was therefore the opposite of the professional academics who would eventually take over from him). He also had to take his political color from the journals that hired him, if he was to have food on the table. As the reading public and the periodicals market expanded in the nineteenth century, the man of letters found himself able to eat more regularly than ever before. For all its claims to timeless spiritual wisdom, literature had become a thoroughly commercial enterprise.

The man of letters, then, was an intriguing combination of critic, sage, scholar, journalist, and dilettante. He was what we might now call a public in-tellectual, though he existed long before the dreaded word “intellectual” gained currency in 1870s Europe. He was also less aloof and intimidating than the intellectual, since he needed to stay in close touch with the public in order to shape their views. He was entrusted with the momentous task of forming public opinion, and was thus, as one Victorian author remarked, part of the “unelected Commons” of the nation. Until the late nineteenth century, the critic was still an influential public figure rather than a cloistered university academic. It fell to him to absorb and interpret new ideas, then broadcast them to a non-specialist reading public; and this meant combining the erudite with the popular, which intellectuals rarely do.

As new ideas grew more and more alarming in the Victorian era (atheism, evolution, rumblings of social revolution), the man of letters found himself a consoler as well as a critic, increasingly adopting a soothing bedside manner to quell the anxieties of the middle classes. He was expected to steer a distinctly nervous public through a tempest of social and cultural change. But he also wrote directly for all of the people involved in political decision-making, and his voice could weigh heavily with them.

By the end of the nineteenth century, though, the authority of the man of letters had drastically diminished. What need was there for public critics when the market determined what was worth reading? As knowledge grew more specialized and esoteric, could the man of letters be anything more than an embarrassing amateur? In an age riven by social and political conflict, could he still be the mouthpiece of a public consensus? Public opinion was now something to be manipulated The public critic was on the way out, to be replaced by the political technocrat, P.R. consultant, and university don. An honorable tradition of public critics would survive, all the way from Edmund Wilson and Susan Sontag to E. P. Thompson and Edward Said. But they would no longer rub shoulders with the powerful, as they did in the eighteenth-century coffee houses of London. On the contrary, power was now their enemy.

For over a century, one of the finest men of letters ever to emerge in England was shamefully neglected. Nor was this some in- explicable oversight. On the contrary, the sidelining of William Hazlitt was entirely predictable. He was an ardent supporter of Napoleon at a time when Britain was at war with France, which would have been rather like championing Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of 9/11. Nor did it help that he published a startlingly candid sexual memoir, Liber Amoris, which a reviewer of the time attacked as a “precious record of vulgarity and nastiness” that revealed the author “in all the nakedness of his conceit, selfishness, slavering sensuality, filthy profligacy and howling idiotcy.” But Hazlitt had grown used to this kind of stuff. Paraphrasing the social reformer Robert Owen, he once remarked that if your enemies could not find a flaw in your reasoning, they would quickly find one in your reputation.

The true reasons for Hazlitt’s unpopularity, however, run deeper. He belonged to an age and place—early nineteenth-century Britain—the public discourse of which was too bellicose and abrasive for the well-mannered Vic-torians who followed in its wake. Hazlitt, in short, was too foul-mouthed and belligerent to qualify as a proper gent. ….

*Terry Eagleton is the author of Reason, Faith, and Revolution, which will be published in April by Yale University Press.

William Hazlitt (10 April 1778 – 18 September 1830) was an English writer remembered for his humanistic essays and literary criticism. Hazlitt was a prominent English literary critic, grammarian and philosopher. He is considered one of the greatest critics and essayists in English, placed in the same company as Samuel Johnson and George Orwell, but his work is currently little-read.

Hazlitt’s family were Irish Protestants that in the early 18th century moved from the county of Antrim to Tipperary. His father, also named William Hazlitt, attended the University of Glasgow (where he was contemporary with Adam Smith), receiving a master’s degree in 1760. Not entirely content with his Presbyterian faith, he became a Unitarian minister in England. In 1764 he became pastor at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, where in 1766 he married Grace Loftus, daughter of a recently deceased ironmonger. Of their many children, only three survived infancy. The first of these, John (later known as a portrait painter) was born in 1767 at Marshfield in Gloucestershire, where the Reverend William Hazlitt had accepted a new pastorate after his marriage. In 1770, the elder Hazlitt accepted yet another position and moved with his family to Maidstone, Kent, where his first and only surviving daughter, Margaret (usually known as “Peggy”), was born that year.

William, the youngest of the surviving Hazlitt children, was born in Mitre Lane, Maidstone, in 1778. In 1780, when he was two, his family began a migratory existence that was to last several years. From Maidstone his father took them to Bandon, County Cork, Ireland; and from Bandon in 1783 to the United States, where Mr. Hazlitt preached, lectured, and founded the First Unitarian Church at Boston. In 1786–87 the family returned to England and lived at Wem, in Shropshire. William would remember little of his years in Bandon and Boston, save the taste of barberries.

Hazlitt was educated at home and at a local school until 1793, when his father sent him to a Unitarian seminary on what was then the outskirts of London, the Unitarian New College at Hackney (commonly referred to as Hackney College). He stayed there for only about two years, but during that time the young Hazlitt read widely and formed habits of independent thought and respect for the truth that remained with him for life, the tutelage at Hackney having been strongly influenced by eminent Dissenting thinkers of the day like Richard Price and Joseph Priestley.

The curriculum at Hackney included a grounding in the Greek and Latin classics, mathematics, and, of course, religion. Priestley, whom he had read and who was also one of his teachers, was an impassioned commentator on political issues of the day. This, along with the turmoil in the wake of the French Revolution, sparked in Hazlitt and his classmates lively debates on these issues, as they saw their world being transformed around them. Hazlitt’s thoughts on these political concerns stayed with him, becoming an important part of his thinking. Other changes were taking place within the young Hazlitt as well. While, out of respect for his father, Hazlitt never openly broke with his religion, he suffered a loss of faith, and left Hackney before completing his preparation for the ministry.

Returning home, around 1795, his thoughts were directed in more secular channels, encompassing not only politics but, increasingly, modern philosophy, which he had begun to read with fascination at Hackney. He spent much of his time in intensive study of English, Scottish, and Irish thinkers like John Locke, David Hartley, George Berkeley, and David Hume, and French thinkers like Claude Adrien Helvétius, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, the Marquis de Condorcet, and Baron d’Holbach.  From then on Hazlitt’s goal was to become a philosopher. His thoughts were focused on man as a social and political animal, and, even more intensely, on the philosophy of mind, what would later be called psychology.

In this period he discovered Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who became one of the most important influences on the budding philosopher’s thought, and Edmund Burke, whose writing style impressed him enormously. He was painstakingly working out a treatise on the “natural disinterestedness of the human mind”,  meant to disprove the idea that man is naturally selfish, a fundamental concept in most of the philosophy of the day. Hazlitt’s treatise would not be published for a number of years, after further reading, and after other changes had occurred to alter the course of his career, but to the end of his life he would think of himself as a philosopher.

Around 1796, Hazlitt was encouraged and inspired by a retired clergyman who had become a reformer of note, Joseph Fawcett. Hazlitt was awed by the enormous breadth of Fawcett’s tastes. From Fawcett, in the words of biographer Ralph Wardle, he imbibed a love for “good fiction and impassioned writing,” Fawcett being “a man of keen intelligence who did not scorn the products of the imagination or apologize for his tastes.” They discussed the radical thinkers of their day, and, important for understanding the breadth and depth of Hazlitt’s own taste in his later critical writings, everything literary from John Milton’s Paradise Lost to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

Somewhat earlier, he had also met William Godwin, the reformist thinker whose Political Justice took the thinking world by storm at this time. Hazlitt was never to feel entirely in sympathy with Godwin’s philosophy, but it gave him much food for thought.

Besides residing with his father while trying to find his voice and work out his thoughts as a philosopher, he often in these years stayed with his older brother John, who had studied under Joshua Reynolds and was following a career as a portrait painter. He also spent delighted evenings at the theatre in London then, but did not yet know how this too would be important to his later writing. Mostly at this time he led a contemplative existence, still feeling frustrated in being unable to express on paper the thoughts and feelings that churned within him. The course of this existence was now to be interrupted by the single event that, with its aftermath, had an impact on his career greater than any other.

In January 1798, Hazlitt encountered, preaching at the Unitarian chapel in Shrewsbury, the minister Samuel Taylor Coleridge, soon much better known as a poet, critic, and philosopher. He was dazzled. “I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres”, he wrote years later in his essay “My First Acquaintance with Poets”. “Poetry and Philosophy had met together. Truth and Genius had embraced, under the eye and with the sanction of religion.”

Later still, long after they had parted ways, Hazlitt would speak of Coleridge as “the only person I ever knew who answered to the idea of a man of genius”. That Hazlitt learned to express his thoughts “in motley imagery or quaint allusion”, that his understanding “ever found a language to express itself, I owe to Coleridge”, he later wrote. In conversation afterwards, Coleridge for his part expressed interest in the younger man’s germinating philosophical ideas and offered encouragement.

In April he joined Coleridge at his residence in Nether Stowey, where they both spent time with the poet William Wordsworth. Again, Hazlitt was enraptured. While he was not immediately struck by Wordsworth’s appearance, when he observed the look in Wordsworth’s eye as he contemplated a sunset, he reflected, “With what eyes these poets see nature!” When he read his poetry he realized that this was something entirely new, and he began to see that Wordsworth’s was the mind of a true poet. At that time, the three shared a passion for the ideas of liberty and rights of man. They tramped back and forth across the countryside, talking of poetry, philosophy, and the political movements that were changing the earth. This unity of spirit was not to last, but it gave Hazlitt, just twenty years old, validation of the idea that there is much to be learned and appreciated in poetry as well as the philosophy to which he was already devoted, and the encouragement to pursue his own thinking and writing.

Meanwhile, the fact remained that Hazlitt had chosen not to follow a pastoral career. Although he never abandoned his goal of writing a philosophical treatise on the disinterestedness of the human mind, it had to be put aside indefinitely. Still dependent on his father, he was now obliged to earn his own living. Artistic talent seemed to run on his mother’s side of the family. Starting in 1798 he became increasingly fascinated by paintings. His brother, John, had by now become a successful painter of miniature portraits. So it occurred to William that he might earn a living similarly, and he began to take lessons from John.

Hazlitt also visited various picture galleries, and he began to get work doing portraits, painting somewhat in the style of Rembrandt.  And so he managed to make something of a living for a time, travelling back and forth between London and the country, wherever he could get work. By 1802, his work was considered good enough that a portrait he had recently painted of his father was accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy.

Later in 1802, Hazlitt was commissioned to travel to Paris and copy several works of the old masters hanging in the Louvre. This was one of the great opportunities of his life. Over a period of three months, he spent long hours in rapture studying the paintings. He later thought long and hard about what he had seen, and this provided substance for a considerable body of art criticism some years afterward. He also had an opportunity to see Napoleon (at a distance), whom he idolized as the rescuer of the common man from the oppression of royal “Legitimacy”. Eighteen years later, Hazlitt reviewed nostalgically the “pleasure in painting, which none but painters know”, and all the delight he found in this art, in his essay “On the Pleasure of Painting”.

Back in England, Hazlitt again travelled up into the country, having obtained more work painting portraits. One commission again proved fortunate, as it brought him back in touch with Coleridge and Wordsworth. He painted portraits of both, as well as of Coleridge’s son Hartley. Always endeavouring to paint the best pictures he could, even if they failed to flatter their subjects, he produced results not found satisfactory by either poet. (And yet Wordsworth and their friend Robert Southey thought his portrait of Coleridge a better likeness than one by the celebrated James Northcote.)

In this period also a mishap occurred that shadowed his life for many years. The young Hazlitt rarely felt comfortable in the society of women, especially those of the upper and middle classes. Tormented by sexual desires, he sought the company of prostitutes and “loose women” of lower social and economic strata. During his last stay in the Lake District with Coleridge, his actions led to a near disastrous blunder, as a misunderstanding of the intentions of one local woman led to an altercation, followed by Hazlitt’s precipitous retreat from the town under cover of darkness. This strained his relationship with Coleridge and Wordsworth, which was already coming apart at the seams for other reasons.

In 1803, Hazlitt met Charles Lamb and his sister Mary. There was an immediate sympathy between William and Charles, and they became fast friends. The friendship, though sometimes strained by Hazlitt’s difficult ways, lasted until the end of Hazlitt’s life. He was fond of Mary as well, and—ironically in view of her intermittent fits of insanity—he considered her the most reasonable woman he had ever met.  (Coming from one whose view of women at times took a misogynistic turn, this was high praise indeed.)

Hazlitt frequented the society of the Lambs for the next several years. He was not getting much work as a painter, but now he finally found the opportunity to complete his philosophical treatise, which was published in 1805 as An Essay on the Principles of Human Action: Being an Argument in favour of the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind. This gained him little notice as an original thinker, and no money. Hazlitt’s outrage at events then taking place in English politics in reaction to Napoleon’s wars led to his writing and publishing, at his own expense (though he had almost no money), a political pamphlet, Free Thoughts on Public Affairs (1806). Finally, he began to find enough work to support himself, if just barely. Although the treatise he valued above anything else he wrote was never, at least in his own lifetime, recognized for what he believed was its true worth, it brought him attention as one who had a grasp of contemporary philosophy. He therefore was commissioned to abridge and write a preface to a now obscure work of mental philosophy, The Light of Nature Pursued by Abraham Tucker (originally published in seven volumes from 1768 to 1777), which appeared in 1807 and may have had some influence on his own later thinking.

Hazlitt also contributed three letters to William Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register at this time, scathing critiques of Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798 and later editions). Another project that came his way was a compilation of parliamentary speeches, released in 1807 as The Eloquence of the British Senate. In the prefaces to the speeches, he began to show a skill he would later develop to perfection, the art of the pithy character sketch. He was able to get more work as a portrait painter as well.

In 1808, Hazlitt married Sarah Stoddart, a friend of Mary Lamb’s and sister of John Stoddart. Although incompatibilities would later drive the couple apart, at first the union seemed to work well enough. Miss Stoddart was an unconventional woman who would be accepted by one as unconventional in his way as Hazlitt, and would in turn tolerate his eccentricities. It was hardly a match of love, but at first there were signs of a certain playful, affectionate behaviour between them. They made an agreeable social foursome with the Lambs, who visited them when they set up a household in Winterslow, a village a few miles from Salisbury, Wiltshire, in southern England. The couple had three sons over the next few years, but only one who survived infancy, William, born in 1810 (to be the father of William Carew Hazlitt).

Now, as the head of a family, Hazlitt was more than ever in need of money. Through William Godwin, with whom he was frequently in touch, he obtained a commission to write an English grammar, published at the end of 1809 as A New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue. Another project that came his way was the work that was published as Memoirs of the Late Thomas Holcroft, a compilation of autobiographical writing by the recently deceased playwright, novelist, and radical political activist, together with additional material by Hazlitt himself. Though completed in 1810, this work did not see the light of day until 1816, and so provided no financial gain to satisfy the needs of a young husband and father. But Hazlitt had not abandoned his ambitions as a painter. He found opportunities for landscape painting in the environs of Winterslow, and he spent considerable time in London getting commissions for portraits.

In January 1812 Hazlitt embarked on a sometime career as a lecturer, in this first instance in a series of talks on the British philosophers, at the Russell Institution in London. A central thesis of the talks was that Thomas Hobbes, rather than John Locke, had laid the foundations of modern philosophy. After a shaky beginning, Hazlitt gained some attention (as well as much-needed money) by these lectures, and they gave him an opportunity to expound some of his own ideas.

The year 1812 also seems to have been the last in which Hazlitt entertained serious ambitions to make a living as a painter. Although he had demonstrated some talent, the results of his most impassioned efforts never failed to fall far short of the standards he had set for himself by comparison with such masters as Rembrandt, Titian, and Raphael. Nor did his commissioned portraits often please their subjects, as he obstinately refused to sacrifice to flattery what he considered truth.

In October 1812, Hazlitt was hired by The Morning Chronicle as a parliamentary reporter. Soon he met John Hunt, publisher of The Examiner, and his younger brother Leigh Hunt, the poet and essayist, who edited the weekly paper. Hazlitt admired both as champions of liberty, and befriended especially the younger Hunt, who found work for him. He began to contribute miscellaneous essays to The Examiner in 1813, and the scope of his work for the Chronicle was expanded to include drama criticism, literary criticism, and political essays. In 1814 The Champion was added to the list of periodicals that accepted Hazlitt’s by-now profuse output of literary and political criticism. A critique of Joshua Reynolds’ theories about art appeared there as well, one of Hazlitt’s major forays into art criticism.

Having by 1814 become established as a journalist, Hazlitt had begun to earn a satisfactory living. A year earlier, with the prospect of a steady income, he had moved his family to a house at 19 York Street, Westminster, which had been occupied by the poet John Milton, whom Hazlitt admired above all other English poets except Shakespeare. As it happened, Hazlitt’s landlord was the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham. Hazlitt was to write considerably about both Milton and Bentham over the next few years.

His circle of friends expanded, though he never seems to have been particularly close with any but the Lambs and to an extent Leigh Hunt and the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. His poor tolerance for any who, he thought, had abandoned the cause of liberty, along with his frequent outspokenness, even tactlessness, in social situations made it difficult for many to feel close to him, and at times he tried the patience of even Charles Lamb.[46] His criticism of Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion lavished extreme praise on the poet—and equally extreme censure. Wordsworth, who seems to have been unable to tolerate anything less than unqualified praise, was enraged, and relations between the two became cooler than ever.

Though Hazlitt continued to think of himself as a “metaphysician” (less often as a painter; he had by now given up his professional ambitions along those lines), he began to feel comfortable in the role of journalist. His self-esteem received an added boost when in early 1815 he began to contribute regularly to the quarterly The Edinburgh Review, the most distinguished periodical on the Whig side of the political fence (its rival The Quarterly Review occupied the Tory side). Writing for so highly respected a publication was considered a major step up from writing for weekly papers, and Hazlitt was proud of this connection.

On June 18, 1815, Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. Having idolized Napoleon for years, Hazlitt took it as a personal blow. The event seemed to him to mark the end of hope for the common man against the oppression of “legitimate” monarchy. Profoundly depressed, he took up heavy drinking and was reported to have walked around unshaven and unwashed for weeks.  He idolized and spoiled his son, William Jr., but in most respects his household grew increasingly disordered over the next year, his marriage deteriorated, and he spent more and more time away from home. As a part-time drama critic, he found an excuse to spend evening after evening at the theater. Afterwards he spent time among those friends who could tolerate his irascibility, the number of whom dwindled as a result of his sometimes outrageous behavior.

Hazlitt continued to produce articles on miscellaneous topics for The Examiner and other periodicals, including political diatribes against any whom he felt ignored or minimized the needs and rights of the common man. Defection from the cause of liberty had become easier in light of the oppressive political atmosphere in England at that time, in reaction to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Opposing this tendency, the Hunts were his primary allies. Lamb, who tried to remain uninvolved politically, tolerated his abrasiveness, and that friendship managed to survive, if only just barely in the face of Hazlitt’s growing bitterness, short temper, and propensity for hurling invective at friends and foes alike.

For relief from all that weighed on his mind, Hazlitt became a passionate player at the game of Fives, a type of handball then sometimes played, as he did, with rackets. He played with savage intensity, dashing around the court like a madman, drenched in sweat, and was accounted a good player. More than just a distraction from his woes, this devotion led to musings on the value of competitive sports and on human skill in general, expressed in writings like his notice of the “Death of John Cavanagh” (a celebrated Fives player) in The Examiner on February 9, 1817, and the essay “The Indian Jugglers” in Table-Talk (1821).

Early in 1817, a series of Hazlitt’s essays that had appeared in The Examiner in a regular column called “The Round Table” was collected in book form, including a few contributions by Leigh Hunt. Hazlitt’s contributions to The Round Table were written somewhat in the manner of the periodical essays of the day, a genre defined by such eighteenth-century magazines as The Tatler and The Spectator.

The range of topics typified his output in succeeding years: Shakespeare (“On the Midsummer Night’s Dream”), Milton (“On Milton’s Lycidas”), art criticism (“On Hogarth’s Marriage a-la-mode”), aesthetics (“On Beauty”), drama criticism (“On Mr. Kean’s Iago”; Hazlitt was the first critic to champion the acting talent of Edmund Kean), social criticism (“On the Tendency of Sects”, “On the Causes of Methodism”, “On Different Sorts of Fame”).

There was an article on The Tatler itself. Mostly his political commentary was reserved for other vehicles, but included was a “Character of the Late Mr. Pitt”, a scathing characterization of the recently deceased former Prime Minister. Written in 1806, Hazlitt liked it well enough to have already had it printed twice before (and it would appear again in a collection of political essays in 1819).

Some essays blend Hazlitt’s social and psychological observations in a way calculatedly thought-provoking, presenting to the reader the “paradoxes” of human nature. The first of the collected essays, “On the Love of Life”, explains, “It is our intention, in the course of these papers, occasionally to expose certain vulgar errors, which have kept into our reasonings on men and manners…. The love of life is … in general, the effect not of our enjoyments, but of our passions”.

Again, in “On Pedantry”, Hazlitt declares that “The power of attaching an interest to the most trifling or painful pursuits … is one of the greatest happinesses of our nature”. In “On Different Sorts of Fame”, “In proportion as men can command the immediate and vulgar applause of others, they become indifferent to that which is remote and difficult of attainment”. And in “On Good-Nature”, “Good nature, or what is often considered as such, is the most selfish of all the virtues….”

Many of the components of Hazlitt’s style begin to take shape in these Round Table essays. Some of his “paradoxes” are so hyperbolic as to shock when encountered out of context: “All country people hate each other”, for example, from the second part of “On Mr. Wordsworth’s Excursion”. He interweaves quotations from literature old and new. They help drive his points home, and (as some critics have felt) he used quotations as a device as well as anyone ever has, yet all too often he gets the quotes wrong. In one of his essays on Wordsworth he misquotes that very poet:

Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of glory in the grass, of splendour in the flower….

(See Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.)

Though Hazlitt was still following the model of the older periodical essayists, these quirks, together with his keen social and psychological insights, began here to coalesce into a style very much his own.

In this period, Hazlitt’s marriage was deteriorating; he was writing furiously for several periodicals to make ends meet; waiting so far in vain for the collection The Round Table to be issued as a book (which it finally was in February 1817); suffering bouts of illness; and making enemies by his venomous political diatribes. He found relief by a change of course, shifting his critical focus from the acting of Shakespeare’s plays to the substance of them. The result was Characters of Shakespear’s Plays (1817), a collection of critical essays on the drama of William Shakespeare.

His approach was something new. There had been critics of Shakespeare before, but either they were not comprehensive or they were not aimed at the general reading public. As Ralph Wardle put it, before Hazlitt wrote this book, “no one had ever attempted a comprehensive study of all of Shakespeare, play by play, that readers could read and reread with pleasure as a guide to their understanding and appreciation”. Somewhat loosely organized, and even rambling, the studies offer personal appreciations of the plays that are unashamedly enthusiastic. Hazlitt does not present a measured account of the plays’ strengths and weaknesses, as did Dr. Johnson, or view them in terms of a “mystical” theory, as Hazlitt thought his contemporary A.W. Schlegel did (though he approves of many of Schlegel’s judgements and quotes him liberally). Without apology, he addresses his readers as fellow lovers of Shakespeare and shares with them the beauties of what he thought the finest passages of the plays he liked best.

Readers took to it, the first edition selling out in six weeks. It received favourable reviews as well, not only by Leigh Hunt, a close friend who might have shown bias, but by Francis Jeffrey, the editor of The Edinburgh Review, a notice that Hazlitt greatly appreciated. (Hazlitt had contributed to that quarterly, had exchanged business correspondence with Jeffrey, and held him in great respect, but they had never met and were in no sense personal friends.) Jeffrey saw the book not as a learned study of Shakespeare’s plays but rather as a loving appreciation of them, and an insightful and eloquent one at that, “a book of considerable originality and genius”.

Now looking at the prospect of being out of debt, and enjoying critical and popular acclaim, Hazlitt could relax a bit and bask in the light of his growing fame.

Meanwhile, however, Hazlitt’s reputation in literary circles had become tarnished, apparently by retaliatory rumours spread by such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, whom he had continued to criticize openly for their personal failings in contrast to their earlier actual or potential accomplishments. And the worst was yet to come.

But Hazlitt soon found a new source of satisfaction, along with escape from his financial woes, in a return to the lecture hall. In early 1818 he delivered a series of talks on “the English Poets”, from Chaucer to his own time. His presentation was uneven in quality, but ultimately the lectures were judged a success. In making the arrangements for the lectures, he also met Peter George Patmore, Secretary of the Surrey Institution, where the lectures were presented, and soon to become a friend and confidant of Hazlitt’s in the most troubled period of the latter’s life.

The Surrey Institution lectures were printed in book form, followed by a collection of his drama criticism, A View of the English Stage, and the second edition of Characters of Shakespear’s Plays. Hazlitt’s career as a lecturer gained some momentum, and his growing popularity allowed him to get a collection of his political writings published as well, Political Essays, with Sketches of Public Characters. Lectures on “the English Comic Writers” soon followed, and these as well were published in book form. After them came lectures on dramatists who were Shakespeare’s contemporaries, published as Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth. The latter did not go over so well as lectures, but were reviewed enthusiastically after they were published.

More trouble was brewing, however. Hazlitt was attacked brutally in the Tory The Quarterly Review, and Blackwood’s Magazine. One Blackwood’s article mocked him as “pimpled Hazlitt”, accused him of ignorance, dishonesty, and obscenity, and incorporated vague physical threats. Though Hazlitt was rattled by these attacks, he sought legal advice and sued. The lawsuit against Blackwood’s was finally settled out of court in his favour. Yet the attacks did not entirely cease. The Quarterly Review issued a review of Hazlitt’s published lectures in which he was condemned as ignorant and his writing as unintelligible. Such partisan onslaughts brought spirited responses. One, unlike an earlier response to the Blackwood’s attack that never saw the light of day, was published, as A Letter to William Gifford, Esq. (1819; Gifford was the editor of the Quarterly). In this pamphlet Hazlitt presented what amounted to an apologia for his life and work thus far and showed he was well able to defend himself. Yet Hazlitt’s attackers had done their damage. Not only was he personally shaken, he found it more difficult to have his works published, and once more he had to struggle for a living.

His lecturing in particular had drawn to Hazlitt a small group of admirers. Best known today is the poet John Keats, but there were others, such as the diarist and chronicler Henry Crabb Robinson and the novelist Mary Russell Mitford. But the rumours that had been spread demonizing him, along with the vilifications of the Tory press, not only hurt his pride but seriously obstructed his ability to earn a living. Income from his lectures had also proved insufficient to keep him afloat.

His thoughts drifted to gloom and misanthropy. His mood was not improved by the fact that by now there was no pretense of keeping up appearances: his marriage had failed. Years earlier he had grown resigned to the lack of love between him and Sarah. He had been visiting prostitutes and displayed more idealized amorous inclinations toward a number of women whose names are lost to history. Now in 1819, he was unable to pay the rent on their rooms at 19 York Street and his family were evicted. That was the last straw for Sarah, who moved into rooms with their son and broke with Hazlitt for good, forcing him to find his own accommodations. He would sometimes see his son and even his wife, with whom he remained on speaking terms, but they were effectively separated.

For long periods, for solace and so he could concentrate on his writing, he frequently retreated to the country, staying at “The Hut”, an inn at Winterslow, near where his wife had some property (he had come to love that countryside at the beginning of his marriage). He shut himself away like a hermit and returned to contributing to periodicals, including the recently reestablished (1820) London Magazine, to which he contributed drama criticism and miscellaneous essays.

One idea that particularly bore fruit was that of a series of articles called “Table-Talk”. (Many were written expressly for inclusion in the book of the same name, Table-Talk; or, Original Essays, which appeared in different editions and forms over the next few years.) These were essays in the “familiar style” of the sort that had begun with Montaigne two centuries earlier, and were greatly admired by Hazlitt. Here he brought his essay writing much closer to the model of the “familiar essay” as distinct from the eighteenth-century periodical essay. The personal “I” was now substituted for the editorial “we”. In a preface to a later edition of the book, Hazlitt explained that rather than being scholarly and precise, these essays attempted to combine the “literary and the conversational”. As in a conversation between friends, the discussion would often branch off into topics related only in a general way to the main theme, “but which often threw a curious and striking light upon it, or upon human life in general”.

Though the essays were structured in the loose manner of conversations held at a table, this was a time when Hazlitt frequently secluded himself in isolation at Winterslow. His motivation is explained in one of the Table-Talk essays, “On Living to One’s-Self” (January 1821), as not wanting to withdraw completely but rather to become an invisible observer of society. Also here and elsewhere in the series he weaves personal material into more general reflections on life, frequently bringing in long recollections of happy days of his years as an apprentice painter (as in “On the Pleasure of Painting”, written in December 1820) as well as other pleasurable recollections of earlier years, “hours … sacred to silence and to musing, to be treasured up in the memory, and to feed the source of smiling thoughts thereafter” (“On Going a Journey”, written January 1822).

Hazlitt also had to spend time in London in these years. In another violent contrast, a London lodging house was the stage on which the worst crisis of his life was to play itself out.

In August 1820, he rented a couple of rooms in 9 Southampton Buildings in London from a tailor named Micaiah Walker. Walker’s 19-year-old daughter Sarah, who helped with the housekeeping, would bring the new lodger his breakfast. Immediately, Hazlitt became infatuated with Miss Walker, more than 22 years his junior. His brief conversations with Walker cheered him and alleviated the loneliness that he felt from his failed marriage. He dreamed of marrying Sarah Walker, but that would require a divorce from Sarah Hazlitt–no easy matter. Finally, his wife agreed to grant him a Scottish divorce, which would allow him to remarry (as he could not had he been divorced in England).

Sarah Walker was, as some of Hazlitt’s friends could see, a fairly ordinary girl. She had aspirations to better herself, and a famous author seemed like a prize catch. But she never really understood Hazlitt; in her relative youth, she apparently did not know her own mind very well either. When another lodger named Tomkins came along, she entered into a romantic entanglement with him as well, leading each of her suitors to believe he was the sole object of her affection. With vague words, she evaded absolute commitment until she could decide which she liked better or was the more advantageous catch.

Hazlitt discovered the truth about Tomkins, and from then on his jealousy and suspicions of Sarah Walker’s real character afforded him little rest. For months, during the preparations for the divorce and as he tried to earn a living, he alternated between rage and despair, on the one hand, and the comforting if unrealistic thought that she was really “a good girl” and would accept him at last. The divorce was finalized on July 17, 1822, and Hazlitt returned to London to see his beloved—only to find her cold and resistant. They then become involved in angry altercations of jealousy and recrimination. And it was over, though Hazlitt could not for some time persuade himself to believe so. His mind nearly snapped. At his emotional nadir, he contemplated suicide.

It was with some difficulty that he eventually recovered his equilibrium. In order to ascertain Sarah’s true character, he persuaded an acquaintance to take lodgings in the Walkers’ building and attempt to seduce Sarah. Hazlitt’s friend reported that the attempt seemed to be about to succeed, but she prevented him from taking the ultimate liberty. Her behavior was as it had been with several other male lodgers, not only Hazlitt, who now concluded that he had been dealing with, rather than an “angel”, an “impudent whore”, an ordinary “lodging house decoy”. Eventually, though Hazlitt could not know this, she had a child by Tomkins and moved in with him.

By pouring out his tale of woe to anyone he happened to meet (including his friends Peter George Patmore and James Sheridan Knowles), he was able to find a cathartic outlet for his misery. But catharsis was also provided by his recording the course of his love in a thinly disguised fictional account, published anonymously in May 1823 as Liber Amoris; or, The New Pygmalion. (Enough clues were present so that the identity of the writer did not remain hidden for long.) Critics have been divided as to the literary merits of Liber Amoris, which is quite unlike anything else Hazlitt ever wrote. Wardle suggests that it was compelling but marred by sickly sentimentality, and also proposes that Hazlitt might even have been anticipating some of the experiments in chronology made by later novelists.

One or two positive reviews appeared, such as the one in the Globe, June 7, 1823: “The Liber Amoris is unique in the English language; and as, possibly, the first book in its fervour, its vehemency, and its careless exposure of passion and weakness—of sentiments and sensations which the common race of mankind seek most studiously to mystify or conceal—that exhibits a portion of the most distinguishing characteristics of Rousseau, it ought to be generally praised”.

However, there were few such positive reviews, and whatever its ultimate merits, Liber Amoris provided ample ammunition for Hazlitt’s detractors, and even some of his closest friends were scandalized. For months he did not even have contact with the Lambs. And the strait-laced Robinson found the book “disgusting”, “nauseous and revolting”, “low and gross and tedious and very offensive”, believing that “it ought to exclude the author from all decent society”. As ever, peace of mind proved elusive for William Hazlitt.

Unsurprisingly, there were times in this turbulent period when Hazlitt could not focus on his work. But often, as in his self-imposed seclusion at Winterslow, he was able to achieve a “philosophic detachment”, and he continued to turn out essays of remarkable variety and literary merit, most of them making up the two volumes of Table-Talk. (A number were saved for later publication in The Plain Speaker in 1826, while others remained uncollected.)

Some of these essays were in large part retrospectives on the author’s own life (“On Reading Old Books” [1821], for example, along with others mentioned above). In others, he invites his readers to join him in gazing at the spectacle of human folly and perversity (“On Will-making” [1821], or “On Great and Little Things” [1821], for example). At times he scrutinizes the subtle workings of the individual mind (as in “On Dreams” [1823]); or he invites us to laugh at harmless eccentricities of human nature (“On People with One Idea” [1821]).

Other essays bring into perspective the scope and limitations of the mind, as measured against the vastness of the universe and the extent of human history (“Why Distant Objects Please” [1821/2] and “On Antiquity” [1821] are only two of many). Several others scrutinize the manners and morals of the age (such as “On Vulgarity and Affectation”, “On Patronage and Puffing”, and “On Corporate Bodies” [all 1821]).

Many of these “Table-Talk” essays display Hazlitt’s interest in genius and artistic creativity. There are specific instances of literary or art criticism (for example “On a Landscape of Nicholas Poussin” [1821] and “On Milton’s Sonnets” [1822]) but also numerous investigations of the psychology of creativity and genius (“On Genius and Common Sense” [1821], “Whether Genius Is Conscious of Its Powers” [1823], and others). In his manner of exploring an idea by antitheses (for example, “On the Past and the Future” [1821], “On the Picturesque and Ideal” [1821]), he contrasts the utmost achievements of human mechanical skill with the nature of artistic creativity in “The Indian Jugglers” [1821].

Hazlitt’s fascination with the extremes of human capability in any field led to his writing “The Fight” (published in the February 1822 New Monthly Magazine). This essay never appeared in the Table-Talk series or anywhere else in the author’s lifetime. A direct, personal account of a prize fight, it was controversial in its time as depicting too “low” a subject, Written at a dismal time in his life—Hazlitt’s divorce was pending, and he was far from sure of being able to marry Sarah Walker—the article shows scarcely a trace of his agony. Not quite like any other essay by Hazlitt, it proved to be one of his most popular and was frequently reprinted after his death.

Another article written in this period, “On the Pleasure of Hating” (1823; included in The Plain Speaker), is a pure outpouring of spleen, a distillation of all the bitterness of his life to that point. It concludes, “…have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough”.

Not only do the “Table-Talk” essays frequently display “trenchant insights into human nature”, they at times reflect on the vehicle of those insights and of the literary and art criticism that constitute some of the essays. “On Criticism” (1821) delves into the history and purposes of criticism itself; and “On Familiar Style” (1821 or 1822) reflexively explores at some length the principles behind its own composition, along with that of other essays of this kind by Hazlitt and some of his contemporaries, like Lamb and Cobbett.

In Table-Talk, Hazlitt had found the most congenial format for this thoughts and observations. A broad panorama of the triumphs and follies of humanity, an exploration of the quirks of the mind, of the nobility but more often the meanness and sheer malevolence of human nature, the collection was knit together by a web of self-consistent thinking, a skein of ideas woven from a lifetime of close reasoning on life, art, and literature. He illustrated his points with bright imagery and pointed analogies, among which were woven pithy quotations drawn from the history of English literature, primarily the poets, from Chaucer to his contemporaries Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats. Most often, he quoted his beloved Shakespeare and to a lesser extent Milton. As he explained in “On Familiar Style”, he strove to fit the exact words to the things he wanted to express and often succeeded—in a way that would bring home his meaning to any literate person of some education and intelligence.

These essays were not quite like anything ever done before. They attracted some admiration during Hazlitt’s lifetime, but it was only long after his death that their reputation achieved full stature, increasingly often considered among the best essays ever written in English. Nearly two centuries after they were written, for example, biographer Stanley Jones deemed Hazlitt’s Table-Talk and The Plain Speaker together to constitute “the major work of his life”, and critic David Bromwich called many of these essays “more observing, original, and keen-witted than any others in the language”.

At the beginning of 1824, though worn out by thwarted passion and the venomous attacks on his character following Liber Amoris, Hazlitt was beginning to recover his equilibrium.[107] Pressed for money as always, he continued to write for various periodicals, including The Edinburgh Review. To The New Monthly Magazine he supplied more essays in the “Table-Talk” manner, and he produced some art criticism, published in that year as Sketches of the Principal Picture Galleries of England.

He also found relief, finally, from the Sarah Walker imbroglio. In 1823, Hazlitt had met Isabella Bridgwater (née Shaw), who married him in March or April 1824, of necessity in Scotland, as Hazlitt’s divorce was not recognized in England. Little is known about this Scottish-born widow of a planter in the West Indies, or about her interaction with Hazlitt. She may have been attracted to the idea of marrying a well-known author. For Hazlitt, she offered an escape from loneliness and to an extent from financial worries, as she possessed an independent income. The arrangement seems to have had a strong element of convenience for both of them. Certainly Hazlitt nowhere in his writings suggests that this marriage was the love match he had been seeking, nor does he mention his new wife at all.

In any case, the union afforded the two of them the opportunity to travel. First, they toured parts of Scotland, then began a European tour lasting over two years.

Before Hazlitt and his new bride set off for the continent, he submitted, among the miscellany of essays that year, one to the New Monthly on “Jeremy Bentham”, the first in a series entitled “Spirits of the Age”. Several more of the kind followed over the next few months, at least one in the Examiner. Together with some newly written, and one brought in from the “Table-Talk” series, they were collected in book form as The Spirit of the Age: Or, Contemporary Portraits in 1825.

These sketches of twenty-five men, prominent or otherwise notable as characteristic of the age, came easily to Hazlitt. In his days as a political reporter he had observed many of them at close range. Others he knew personally, and for years their philosophy or poetry had been the subject of his thoughts and lectures.

There were philosophers, social reformers, poets, politicians, and a few who did not fall neatly into any of these categories. Bentham, Godwin, and Malthus, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron were some of the most prominent writers; Wilberforce and Canning were prominent in the political arena; and a few who were hard to classify, such as The Rev. Edward Irving, the preacher, William Gifford, the satirist and critic, and the recently deceased Horne Tooke, a lawyer, politician, grammarian, and wit.

Many of the sketches presented their subjects as seen in daily life. We witness, for example, Bentham “tak[ing] a turn in his garden” with a guest, espousing his plans for “a code of laws ‘for some island in the watery waste'”, or playing the organ as a relief from incessant musings on vast schemes to improve the lot of mankind. As Bentham’s neighbor for some years, Hazlitt had had good opportunity to observe the reformer and philosopher at first hand.

He had already devoted years to pondering much of the thinking espoused by several of these figures. Thoroughly immersed in the Malthusian controversy, for example, Hazlitt had published A Reply to the Essay on Population as early as 1807, and the essay on Malthus is a distillation of Hazlitt’s earlier criticisms.

Where he finds it applicable, Hazlitt brings his subjects together in pairs, setting off one against the other. So here he points out that, for all the limitations of Godwin’s reasoning, as given in that essay, Malthus comes off worse: “Nothing…could be more illogical…than the whole of Mr. Malthus’s reasoning applied as an answer…to Mr. Godwin’s book”. Most distasteful to Hazlitt was the application of “Mr. Malthus’s ‘gospel'”, greatly influential at the time. Many in positions of power had used Malthus’ theory to deny the poor relief in the name of the public good, to prevent their propagating the species beyond the means to support it; while on the rich no restraints whatsoever were imposed.

Yet, softening the asperities of his critique, Hazlitt rounds out his sketch by conceding that “Mr. Malthus’s style is correct and elegant; his tone of controversy mild and gentlemanly; and the care with which he has brought his facts and documents together, deserves the highest praise”.

His portraits of such Tory politicians as Lord Eldon are unrelenting, as might be expected. But elsewhere his characterisations are more balanced, more even-tempered, than similar accounts in past years. Notably, there are portraits of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, which are, to an extent, essences of his former thoughts about these poets—and those thoughts had been profuse. He had earlier directed some of his most vitriolic attacks against them for having replaced the humanistic and revolutionary ideas of their earlier years with staunch support of the Establishment. Now he goes out of his way to qualify his earlier assessments.

In “Mr. Wordsworth”, for example, Hazlitt notes that “it has been said of Mr. Wordsworth, that ‘he hates conchology, that he hates the Venus of Medicis.’…” (Hazlitt’s own words in an article some years back). Indirectly apologizing for his earlier tirade, Hazlitt here brings in a list of writers and artists, like Milton and Poussin, for whom Wordsworth did show appreciation.

Coleridge, whom Hazlitt had once idolized, gets special attention, but, again, with an attempt to moderate earlier criticisms. At an earlier time Hazlitt had dismissed most of Coleridge’s prose as “dreary trash”. Much of The Friend was “sophistry”. The Statesman’s Manual was not to be read “with any patience”. A Lay Sermon was enough to “make a fool…of any man”. For betraying their earlier liberal principles, both Coleridge and Southey were “sworn brothers in the same cause of righteous apostacy”.

Now, again, the harshness is softened, and the focus shifts to Coleridge’s positive attributes. One of the most learned and brilliant men of the age, Coleridge may not be its greatest writer—but he is its “most impressive talker”. Even his “apostacy” is somewhat excused by noting that in recent times, when “Genius stopped the way of Legitimacy…it was to be…crushed”, regrettably but understandably leading many former liberals to protect themselves by siding with the powers that be.

Southey, whose political about-face was more blatant than that of the others, still comes in for a measure of biting criticism: “not truth, but self-opinion is the ruling principle of Mr. Southey’s mind”. Yet Hazlitt goes out of his way to admire where he can. For example, “Mr. Southey’s prose-style can scarcely be too much praised”, and “In all the relations and charities of private life, he is correct, exemplary, generous, just”.

Hazlitt contrasts Scott and Byron; he skewers his nemesis Gifford; he praises—not without his usual strictures—Jeffrey; and goes on to portray, in one way or another, such notables as Mackintosh, Brougham, Canning, and Wilberforce.

His praise of the poet Thomas Campbell has been cited as one major instance where Hazlitt’s critical judgment proved wrong. Hazlitt can scarcely conceal his enthusiasm for such poems as Gertrude of Wyoming, but neither the poems nor Hazlitt’s judgment of them have withstood the test of time. His friends Hunt and Lamb get briefer coverage, and—Hazlitt was never one to mince words—they come in for some relatively gentle chiding amid the praise. One American author makes an appearance, Washington Irving, under his pen name of Geoffrey Crayon.

In this manner twenty-five character sketches combine to “form a vivid panorama of the age”. Through it all, the author reflects on the Spirit of the Age as a whole, as, for example, “The present is an age of talkers, and not of doers; and the reason is, that the world is growing old. We are so far advanced in the Arts and Sciences, that we live in retrospect, and doat on past achievements”.

Some critics have thought the essays in The Spirit of the Age highly uneven in quality and somewhat hastily thrown together, at best “a series of perceptive but disparate and impressionistic sketches of famous contemporaries”. It has also been noted, however, that the book is more than a mere portrait gallery. A pattern of ideas ties them together. No thesis is overtly stated, but some thoughts are developed consistently throughout.

Roy Park has noted in particular Hazlitt’s critique of excessive abstraction as a major flaw in the period’s dominant philosophy and poetry. (“Abstraction”, in this case, could be that of religion or mysticism as well as science.) This is the reason, according to Hazlitt, why neither Coleridge, nor Wordsworth, nor Byron could write effective drama. More representative of the finer spirit of the age was poetry that turned inward, focusing on individual perceptions, projections of the poets’ sensibilities. The greatest of this type of poetry was Wordsworth’s, and that succeeded as far as any contemporary writing could.

Even if it took a century and a half for many of the book’s virtues to be realized, enough was recognized at the time to make the book Hazlitt’s most successful. Unsurprisingly the Tory Blackwood’s Magazine lamented that the pillory had fallen into disuse and wondered what “adequate and appropriate punishment there is that we can inflict on this rabid caitiff”. But the majority of the reviewers were enthusiastic. For example, the Eclectic Review marveled at his ability to “hit off a likeness with a few artist-like touches” and The Gentleman’s Magazine, with a few reservations, found his style “deeply impregnated with the spirit of the masters of our language, and strengthened by a rich infusion of golden ore…”.

Yet more of Hazlitt’s finest work was to come, but most of it in the form of essays collected only after his death. Hazlitt is credited with having created the denomination Ultracrepidarianism to describe one who gives opinions on matters beyond one’s knowledge.

Hazlitt put forward radical political thinking which was proto-socialist and well ahead of his time and was a strong supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte, writing a four-volume biography of him. He had his admirers, but was so against the institutions of the time that he became further and further disillusioned and removed from public life. He died in poverty on 18 September 1830 and is buried in St. Anne’s Churchyard, Soho, London.

His works having fallen out of print, Hazlitt underwent a small decline, though in the late 1990s his reputation was reasserted by admirers and his works reprinted. Two major works then appeared,The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt’s Radical Style by Tom Paulin in 1998 and Quarrel of the Age: the life and times of William Hazlitt by A. C. Grayling in 2000. In 2003, following a lengthy appeal, Hazlitt’s gravestone was restored in St. Anne’s Churchyard, unveiled by Michael Foot [1]. A Hazlitt Society was then inaugurated. One of Soho’s fashionable hotels is named after the writer. Hazlitt’s hotel located on Frith Street is one of the homes William lived in and today still retains much of the interior he would have known so well.


  • * An Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805)
  • * Lectures on the Literature of the Age of Elizabeth and Characters of Shakespear’s Plays (1817)
  • * Lectures on the English Poets (1818)
  • * Lectures on the English Comic Writers (1819)
  • * Table-Talk; or, Original Essays (1821–22; “Paris” edition, with somewhat different contents, 1825)
  • * Liber Amoris: Or, The New Pygmalion (1823)
  • * “On The Pleasure of Hating” (written 1823; published 1826)
  • * The Spirit of the Age (1825)
  • * Notes of a Journey Through France and Italy (1826)


verlyn klinkenborg | sow those seeds!

13 03 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 172 | March 7, 2009

Editor’s Note: The New York Times is one of the few (perhaps, only) national newspapers to pay attention to man & nature on the editorial page. And Verlyn Klinkenborg, an accomplished poet-essayist of the rural, is the steady voice on the page to all that is green within us. We need more writing of this nature to preserve us—and the meaningful role of good newspapers in our lives. –Norbert Blei

Sow Those Seeds!

by Verlyn Klinkenborg

In August 2004, I wrote a Rural Life editorial about the
victory garden movement during World War II, noting that a
national crisis had turned Americans — for a few years at
least— into a nation of gardeners. Now we are in the midst of
another crisis. And perhaps this is the moment for another na-
tional home gardening movement, a time when the bur-
geoning taste for local food converges with the desire to cut
costs and take new control over our battered economic lives.

There are signs that some people are already thinking
this way. A number of friends have said to me, wistfully, that if
things get worse, they’ll just go to the country and learn to
farm, as if learning to farm were like studying shorthand or
learning to weld.

This is daydreaming. But there’s every reason to think
about putting in a garden. In fact, many seed companies are
reporting higher sales — especially in Britain, which has a
rich tradition of home gardening. At grocery stores and farm
stands, the difference in cost between organic and convention-
ally grown vegetables can be substantial. In the garden, the
difference is negligible.

I can’t help noting, too, that half of “The 11 Best Foods
You Aren’t Eating” — a widely e-mailed Web article by Tara
Parker-Pope of The Times — are easily grown in a northeast-
ern garden, including beets, chard, pumpkins and blueberries.

Growing a vegetable garden isn’t going to balance the
budget or replace lost benefits or even begin to make up for
the shock of a lost job. But part of the crisis we face is a sense
of alienation and powerlessness. You don’t meet many alienat-
ed gardeners, unless it’s been a terrible woodchuck year.

It’s also tempting to assume that a garden can’t really
make much difference in your annual food budget. But you
would never convince my parents of that, who raised four kids
on the fresh and home-canned produce of a big backyard gar-
den. And I can think of few better distractions from the news
of the day than the offerings of seed catalogs and the Edenic
visions they inspire.

But over the years, something odd has happened to seed
catalogs. They’ve come to resemble grocery stores and, in
some sense, the culture at large — fuller and fuller of inedible
stuff to buy, like copper plant labels and sunlight calculators
and fan-cooled sunhats. One of the hard things for beginning
gardeners to learn is that very little of that stuff is needed.
What beginning gardeners need most, in fact, is old garden-
ers, the ones who’ve made do all along and who are starting
their seedlings in windowsills right about now.’

[from THE NEW YORK TIMES 2.15.09]

Verlyn Klinkenborg was born in Colorado in 1952 and raised in Iowa and California. He graduated from Pomona College and received a Ph.D. in English Literature from Princeton University. Mr. Klinkenborg joined the editorial board in 1997. He is the author of “Making Hay” (The Lyons Press, 1986), “The Last Fine Time” (University of Chicago Press, 1991) “The Rural Life” (Little Brown, 2003) and “Timothy; Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile” (Knopf, 2006).

His work has appeared in many magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, National Geographic, The New Republic, Smithsonian, Audubon, GQ, Gourmet, Martha Stewart Living, Sports Afield and The New York Times Magazine. He has taught literature and creative writing at Fordham University, St. Olaf College, Bennington College and Harvard University and is a recipient of the 1991 Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He lives in rural New York.

steven fortney | ll garden

13 03 2009

Poetry Dispatch No. 274 | March 13, 2009

Steven Fortney

Editor’s Note: Steven Fortney is one of those larger-than-life guys. A descendent of Lutheran preachers who jumped the seminary ship at a certain point and found himself in the daily world of newspaper writing, teaching, politics, union and management negotiating…not to mention taking a further leap from Lutheran to Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. Not your average resident of Lake Wobegon– though he holds valid Norwegian- American credentials, and is probably the only one reading this besides me and a handful of others who knows where the hell Oulu is in this country. (What’s more, has a place there!)

He is a great spirit. A poet in his bones. A man of words that will both settle comfortably inside you and/or possibly disrupt your thinking. (Martin Luther in a yoga position).

I would like to return to him again sometime, but for now…just one small poem—his response to the piece about gardens which appeared in a recent posting (Notes from the Underground #172, March 7, 2009).

Steven Fortney’s “Garden “ is Part II from Canto Three of a most amazing longer poem, “A Canticle for Palmquist” which, in itself, is part of a larger collection of poems in a book of the same title: A CANTICLE FOR PALMQUIST.-–Norbert Blei


II Garden

His poems improve the more he gardens.
He made twelve that ran east and west
at the south-west end of the yard; each
is a four foot square. He analyzed the earth,
then made these squares. They are level and
on a straight line with each other, save for three
which are a bit askew. In them he does not
plant what he does not need. He plants what
they eat. Tomatoes. Potatoes. Beans. Squash.
Cantaloupe. Each square is a verse. Before
his boxes, his large garden would get away
from him, from weeds. He lost the food. But
now he breaks things down, separate. He
rewrites each plot. Though he still has
weeds, the plants scan, images clear; as in
history there is even rhyme. The people are
nourished. He always saves two squares for
compost; yard and kitchen trash enters, is
renewed to food. He works by the sweat of his
brow for this; his delight is to be cast into
this garden. He dresses and keeps his poems.

[from A Canticle for Palmquist, Black Buzzard Press]

Steve Fortney can be reached via: sfortneyATcharter.DOTnet and on Freeservers plus his Steven Fortney web page.

ray foreman | strange horses, ray’s diner & buddha or no buddha

11 03 2009

Poetry Dispatch No. 273 | March 11, 2009

The Word and World According to


To experience the full impact of Ray Foreman and his world, put yourself in a favorite city diner, circa…hell, anywhere from the 30’s to the 60’s. Or the coffee houses of today. For Ray (and myself) that would be Chicago. Many years ago—though we never knew each there or anywhere, never met to this day, though I was introduced to him and his work through the fine-press printer/publisher (Ox Head Press), librarian, poet, activist, rascal, raconteur, Don Olsen, whose classic book on life, art, the art of printing, A BUTTERFLY SLEEPS ON THE TEMPLE BELL, Cross+Roads Press published in 2003. And so it began the way many of us in the small press world get ‘passed around’ from one reader-writer to another. You know: “You gotta read this guy Ray Foreman sometime,” said Olsen to Blei. And so, the introductory handshake through words. And so…the song continues.

His was/is a voice I knew instantly. The guy (with a book, a notebook, a newspaper, a steaming white cup of strong black coffee, a smoke, a laugh, a joke, story, a penetrating thought, an eye for excitement–the opposite sex…the person you sometimes meet by chance at the next table…soon joining forces at the same table to share a moment, an hour, a good part of the day in conversation that has its own life. Eventually leaving that table with a goodbye-see-you-again, perhaps a pat on the back, and stepping out into the big city of noise and crowds, the heart of the city pounding, feeling a little more alive, a little smarter, happier, a little more convinced that life is good and what the world needs are more moments to meet the likes of a Ray Foreman in one diner or another, anywhere in the country—or the world.

So here you (we) are now…listening to Ray. A story. He’s got a million of them. Most wrapped in Ray Foreman kind of poem. When you know who you are, legitimacy finally claims you. Your poems don’t lie. Your poems are you. And Ray’s are Ray’s. The way it should be. If you haven’t read him before, you’ll know his voice pretty well by the end of this first poem. And by the end of this piece, you’ll know him even better. Like him or not. It’s no skin off his nose.

One more thing before I turn it all over to Ray. One thing I particularly admire about him…something it takes some writers a long time to understand (and some never get it at all)…he’s kind of pioneered that place where the literati and academia don’t particularly know or care if you/your works exists…that place where awards and grants and advances and agents and ‘publishers-of-note’ all hang together…that Last Literary Stop when you finally look at that map of the crowded, cooing writing world and decide: “You know, I don’t really belong or want to go/be there.” And it has nothing to do with hopeless. It’s abut staking out your own territory. Like Ray and his diner. —Norbert Blei



by Ray Foreman

“life is full of strange horses,
some I rode,
some ran by without stopping.”

I was fascinated, I hadn’t heard
that kind of talk from a woman before.
I hadn’t heard it from anyone before.
it was the way Mellisa said it,
so sincere, as we sipped sangria
in a Madrid cafe on a perfect day.

I’d met Mellisa a few days before
at a bar one evening in the old part
of the city. she was alone. I was alone.
“are you an American?” I asked.
she said, “sometimes, do you want to talk?”
it took me a week to find out
what sometimes meant, and more.

it could have been an accident,
but I don’t believe in accidents.
Jung had a word, synchronicity.
I believe in things that are not
in the mode of common think.
the living experience for many
isn’t all that grand.
a touch of magic coming through
the faucet adds taste to tap water.
in the last few years, she said she
rode a strange horse, several horses.
at first, why she was sharing this with me?
at the end of a week with her,
what wasn’t obvious at first,
became obvious and my strange horse
was gentle and galloped sweetly.

“college, position with a prestigious
law firm, money and all the toys.
something was missing.
empty fits.
one day in Golden Gate Park
a man in a white leisure suit spoke.
Bagwhan Shree Rajneesh, a Buddhist.
I was hypnotized by his words,
a philosophy for those ready
to live with purpose.

“he was talking about a journey,
everyone has a journey that is particularly theirs.
most people never bother to discover
what their journey is or if they have one.
I was in a mental state where I needed
something to make sense in my life.
I knew it wasn’t being an attorney
or making money for the rest of my life.
I remembered he had said,
‘in some of us pulsates a need to reach
a destination which is not a place,
but a state of peace.’

“I needed to give my life meaning,
at least what was left of it.
travel, people, lovers, share my life
‘with someone who is more than a bed mate.
a soul mate.”

Mellisa was forty when we
shared that bottle of Sangria in Madrid.
“let me put it out front, I’m ill and I carry
a sentence, two years, maybe three.
there’s no fixing it,” she said.

we laugh about it today,
that word, synchronicity.

Mellisa is fifty-two,
more tired lately,
her eyes are a problem.
I’ll be seventy-one this Spring.


A Recent Note from Ray:

Norb, yes, still alive. I won’t talk about age, it might scare us to death. Still at PO Box 1377, Berthoud, CO 80513. Although we live in Loveland, CO about 5 miles away. I don’t change things when they work. I’m attaching an old poem which I know you’ll feel at home with along with a small glass of E&J brandy. The poem is for you personally. I can’t help but shed a few tears, you may too,… man, there were so many things that just aren’t. I’m sure the Diner will touch some good feelings for places and times we both miss.

I’ll send along some poems in the next day or so and you can use whatever you like, if you like.

Peace, Ray


RAY’S DINER There once was a place . . .

A nervous streetcar motorman clangs his bell
for the high notes while a shivering coal truck driver
pushes a lever delivering a claghorn bass arruughaa!
With a chorus of grinding gears and coughing engines
trying to stay alive, the symphony of Chicago begins.

The wind off Lake Michigan nips at Sid Weinberg’s
freshly shaven face on this November morning in 1927.
He walks huddled, but briskly, up Clark Street,
past Diversey, to the middle of the block.
In the window of a store front hangs a green neon sign
with twelve inch letters that spell out “RAY’S DINER.”
When Aristedes Gianakopolous opened the diner five years ago,
he bought the used sign for twenty dollars and became Ray.

Sid opens the door and the smell of frying bacon and eggs
greets him and has no regrets leaving his father’s kosher house.
Inside, six round tables and a counter with five stools are flanked
by pastel murals of the Greek Isles and the Acropolis
which Ray traded for two months of meals to an unemployed artist.
Only a few chairs are unoccupied at the oilcloth covered tables.
Sid wraps his coat around the back of one of the chairs
and says his good mornings as he pours himself
a cup of coffee from the steel urn behind the counter.
Ray carries on two conversations with customers
while working eggs, bacon and French toast on the grill.
It is the same forty-cent morning menu every day.
“Over easy, no rush, I’m early today,” Sid says.
His morning begins the same as it has for five years.

The Diner vibrates with the noise of the camaraderie
of no strangers that permeates the conversations of politics,
philosophy and the Chicago White Sox.
Ray calls your name when your order is ready
and someone will pass your plate to you.
There are no checks; you place your money
or an IOU on the register when you leave.

Sid leaves the diner and hops a #7 streetcar to his office at
the Herald Examiner where he manages the city desk.
Today, a double funeral for two Capone men.
“I have to get out of this lousy town,” he says to the editor
who hears it ten times a day from ten different people.
No one moves away except to New York.

Ray closes the Diner after lunch for three hours,
unties his apron and reads the papers or naps.
Sometimes he and Alex, the dishwasher, talk about the
old country. Alex, came from Mykonos, the place of Ray’s birth.
At three o’clock the six girls who work the Reinzi Hotel
come in before their evening trade. They take over the Diner
bringing their own groceries from the A&P on Diversey.
The girls like to cook dinner for themselves and tease Alex
who prefers the company of the young men around Division Street.
They always clean up and keep a tab, which they pay on Monday.
If their weekend business is good, there’s always an extra twenty.
Ray drops in on the girls once a week for an on the house.

The sign in the Diner window says, “Hours: 7:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M.”
Ray draws the heavy drapes and turns off the Ray’s Diner sign,
then walks three blocks to his flat on Commonwealth Avenue,
bathes, and takes a streetcar to Diana’s Grocery, a Greek restaurant,
where he will meet friends and sip ouzo from a coffee cup.

By nine o’clock Clark Street is deserted except for the few souls
who haven’t landed in one of the blind pigs on the street.
Now the Diner comes to life through the back door
with the conversations of writers, reporters, politicians,
lawyers and struggling actors. Darrow comes in once a week
as does Sandburg, and the alderman accompanied
by the captain of the 21st precinct who never pays.
Big Bill Thompson, the mayor, occasionally drops by.
Alex handles the evening trade by himself for one third
the five dollars charged for a half pint of Canadian and a clean cup.


In 1932, business slowed and eggs and coffee at home,
or a free baloney sandwich with a nickel beer for lunch,
was the menu of the day for many around Clark Street.
Repeal disappeared the evening back door trade.
In 1934 a Thompson’s Cafeteria opened a block away.
Open 24 hours, it was a haven for people out of work
who preferred anonymity and an abandoned newspaper.
IOUs piled up in the register and rather than embarrass
anyone, Ray closed the diner to take a job as a counterman.
In 1942 he enlisted in the Merchant Marine as a ship’s cook.

epilogue to the epilogue

In 1952 Ray returned to the place of his birth, Mykonos
and bought a small café with his old friend, Alex.
After he got out of the army, Sid Weinberg moved to New York City
and married a nice Jewish girl for whom he gave up bacon.
He wrote two war novels before becoming an editor at Esquire.

epilogue to the epilogue to the epilogue

In 1957 Ray moved back to the states and bought a McDonald’s
franchise in Peoria. In 1962 Ray was bored with the faceless people
who ordered hamburgers and French fries and never spoke to him.
He sold the franchise and drifted for a few years before opening
a coffeehouse in San Francisco near the City Lights Book Store.
It was open only evenings from eight to midnight.
There were six round tables with six chairs at each.
The walls were profusely decorated with murals of the Greek Isles.
A green neon sign in the window read, “Ray’s Diner.”

People coming in the first time were surprised; the menu
was strong coffee and Greek pastries sugared with conversations
rolling continuously between people with long hair
and beards who said “peace” as they walked in or out the door.
Most nights there were never enough seats and people sat
cross-legged on the floor. Everyone spoke to Ray and to each other.

Sid Weinberg came into the diner in 1975 when he read
about it in the San Francisco People’s Press.
When the two saw each other they cried openly and
went through three bottles of Roditis talking about Clark Street
and people they knew, some still alive, most, memories.
Sid came to see Ray every year until 1980 when Ray received
a call from Sid’s wife saying he had died.
Ray flew to New York and attended Sid’s funeral.

In 1981 Ray passed on; there was standing room only
in the chapel, mostly regulars who came to the Diner.

The Diner never reopened and the store was rented
three months later to a man who sold gyros and hot dogs.

There once was a place . . .


Ray Fires Off Another Note:

Norbert, Norbert, good to hear from you, it’s been much too long. I often think of you, can’t help it. I have a stack of news printouts laying on top of my tall bookcase and a copy of Chi Town lays on them to keep the cats from messing them up. Sadly, the cats don’t read much, only the labels on the cat food cans. Very selective, you know.

With me, same old stuff. Clark Street Review hasn’t missed a bimonthly issue in 13 years. Energizer Bunny. Started another magazine 4 years ago, Backstreet. Different format, works for poets who enjoy reading because the pages are removable. As you remember, I like small mags where the chances of having all the poems read are better. Hey, how many times do you pick up a book of poetry, read a half dozen, put the book down, and forget about it. That makes publishing a magazine every month possible, alive. You may not agree, but I never take new subscribers unless I have accepted something of theirs for publication. Unfortunately I receive tons of new submissions and accept a minute 2 or 3%. I remember talking to Steve Kowit years ago and him telling me when he and another poet started a new magazine that the submissions were so poor that they had to write much of the work using psuedo names. Norb, let’s face it, if it wasn’t for the older writers, we’d have Jello.

Both magazines concentrate exclusively on publishing poetry dealing with people and the human condition. If I don’t focus narrowly, there’s no way I could handle a larger quantity. This way I can publish a poet every 3rd issue.

As far as me writing, I continuously write at least one or two decent poems every week. Like Strange Horses, people poems. Some of us who have been around a while, two years ago formed a group of seven, named it The Marquis Cafeteria Round Table. Remember the Marquis, Clark and Division Streets….every week we look at a poem in a Bukowski book, don’t use the poem, instead, look at lines, words, surprisingly, something clicks, mostly fiction, but definitely a people human condition poem. What makes it work is that the seven writers “can write.” I make up a page and send it as an attachment only to the seven. I’ll send you a copy of this week’s latest on Monday.

Anyhow… you, the calendar pages are turning much too quickly and keeping our minds active is #1, or else we’re looking at blank walls.

Keep in touch, Ray



sitting in Starbucks in the Fort Collins
Barnes & Noble, coffee, thumbing through
a magazine, sitting at the next table
was syzmanski.
I never expected see him again
in this lifetime, nor in the next.
it had been twenty years
since we’d seen each other,
that was when we were both living in Chicago.
I couldn’t help recognizing him,
both of us changed, but some features stayed put.

we shook hands, hugged, ran the bullshit list,
“good to see you after all these years,”
“what a miraculous coincidence.”

one thing I hate doing is comparing notes
on the so called old days.
anything older than a year in my life
is bye bye.
some old people live in the past,
I don’t, and I’m not old.
I just don’t want to hear about the old days,
my old days or anyone else’s old days.
and I don’t talk about mine.
whatever they were, good or bad,
they aren’t anymore
and if they aren’t, I don’t want to travel
over that road again.
over is over, past is past.
it was good to know you when it was,
but I forgot your name.
let it stay like that.

that’s me, but it wasn’t syzmanski,
he’s going back, all the way back,
he’s going to talk about how he made it,
money, women, how his three ex wives
screwed him out of a fortune,
how his kids don’t talk to him.
I listened to that crap in Chicago,
I didn’t want to hear it again.

syzmanski and I were friends
when we were both young,
not married, trying to make a buck
and scoring ladies on the weekend.
that was until he married his first wife.
then I hardly saw him.
married guys and single guys lose
what they had in common when they were single,
see each other less, finally, hardly at all.
he stayed in Chicago, made it in real estate,
eventually shared his money and properties
with his ex’s by court order .
I moved to Colorado where I taught
creative writing at a small college.

he rambled on, and then, surprise,
asked me about my life.
as far as I was concerned,
he was still the same szymanski
just like he was when I lived in Chicago.
I wasn’t going to tell him anything.

then I noticed he had a book under his newspaper.
as long as I’d known him,
he never cracked a book.
if I mentioned a book I read, he’d say
he’d wait until they made it into a movie.

I couldn’t resist asking him
what he was doing in a bookstore,
saying I remembered he never read books.
I did notice something, his eyes were bright,
and the way he spoke was less forceful
than what I’d remembered.

I asked him what he was reading.
he said he was into Buddhism
since he divorced his last wife.
I wasn’t eager to get involved in his personal life,
but out of curiosity, I asked
what he was doing living in Colorado.
asking a question like that
and expecting a succinct answer
from szymanski wasn’t going to happen.

Through four grande coffees and two trips
to the john I listened as he revealed what
he called, “his realization.”
how he discovered himself through
Buddhism and was finding peace
living in a big house in the mountains.

then he went on about who he was living with
at the moment.
he intimated there was more than one who,
but was sure the present one was going to last.
he said he was starting a Zen retreat,
inviting people up to his place.
people, I assumed, probably meant women.
when you have money, you do what you like,
live where the hell you want to.

some things don’t change,
Buddha or no Buddha driving the bus.



Ray Responds to a Few of My Questions…

I started writing poetry and short stories seriously in 1976 but never sent anything out until early 1982 and for three years had a number accepted for publication, Even got paid for some. Had some published in Spain when I lived there and received a few meals in payment; gave a few readings to the English speaking expats in Mallorca. You have to know that a some of the kids who grew up on Division Street had some brains in their head besides in those their ass. Hugh Hefner, Shecky Green, Fat Jackie Leonard.

After receiving a few dozen acceptances I noticed two things, there were no checks in the envelopes the acceptances came in, and I also noticed there were no contracts and checks for me to appear on Broadway. Strokes to my ego I didn’t need and the bullshit of sending out mailings every week to get a letter from some editor saying they accepted my poems or short story, come on, Norb, that was running around in a circle. The fact was that I loved writing, period, and I knew I could do it, and I kept on doing it, and then in 1990, I started Coffeehouse Poet’s Quarterly….which was fun for me because I can do things like publishing a magazine.

Anyhow, how many poems have I written? There’s a stack in the bookcase in my office of those I’ve kept, the better ones, that’s over 7 reams high, over 3500. I threw out a stack of political stuff a while back, meaningless now, plus probably another 1000 which were babble.

I’m going to attach a poem here from a true experience I had in writing back in the 70s when I lived in San Francisco. Back then I was pretty involved in New Age and psychic work….which I gave up because sticking my nose in other people’s lives “ain’t nice” especially telling them how to live their lives. Living your own is more than enough.

Back in the early nineties I published chap books for our subscribers, 100 copies for $40. Gave them a chance to get their work out, at least to friends and relatives. I printed up a few of my own which only my cats know where they are.

The only thing that counts for some of our poets is writing and what we’re writing today, this week. Norb, how I wish we had those coffeehouse days back….

Ciao, Ray


Some Final Notes from Ray:

Our round table tells me that there are writers who like to write just for the sake of writing…that it works in non-competitive small groups that are active on a pushed weekly basis. The material we write about needs only a spark, it’s there like a kitchen pantry waiting for the cook to reach in and randomly grab some ingredients and cook up something edible, more often than not, deliciously appetizing.

What’s happened to American poetry? How many ‘camps” are there, in your estimation, and what the hell are they saying?

There are three camps, if that’s what you want to call them. One is the academy that endeavors to keep poetry formal in order to have a paycheck. They say little other than saying it nicely and convincing some students they can make a living at teaching it if they follow the formal rules. If they don’t convince them that this is what poetry is, it’s the unemployment line.

What I see from poets I deal with are there are wannabe writers, have something to say, connect to the viscera of people and life, and are able to put their thoughts and ideas into the literary short hand of poetry. Their only payoff is getting published in the small magazines. If they live in the right town, getting up at an open mike in front of a savvy audience followed by a few face to face compliments from people/poets who relate to the poem, are a bonus. A third camp is the focused poetry camp which today is the Slams. This occurs in African American and Hispanic enclaves. Some is theatrically good and has been performed on Broadway. For other audiences it soon becomes same old same old.

Any other camps are composed by poets/people who have been impressed by mediocre poetry and feel they can emulate it on paper. They keep the post office in business with their submissions.

Are poetry readings good for us?

Local readings are definitely good — for those who attend them. They are social mostly events. Nothing more need be said except that the best serve wine and cucumber sandwiches. If you are familiar with the poet’s work and like it, then the event is worthwhile for you. If the readers are mostly those who show up every month and read the same style of meaningless poems, be nice, a duck may be somebody’s mother.

What the hell, really, does the poet want–especially in America?

The poet in America, anywhere, who is not in academia, wants to stand out with his poetry and hopes for some modicum of recognition which comes mainly from being published in the small magazines. Today, recognition is payless bragging. A list of fifty pub credits is meaningless to me, the poem in front of my eyes is the poet. It could be a different in a country with a population of under 25 million, but 300 million, an ear of corn in a cornfield.

Like many poets my satisfaction comes from writing what I consider a good poem. 99.9% of my poems are never published. I prefer publishing other poets and when I do, they know they have been close to the mountain top.

An epitaph for Ray Foreman:

I do what I do, do it sweet, then drive up the road and never look back