The Real Godfather of Gonzo: William Hazlitt

Born in 1778, William Hazlitt never lost his fervor for the French Revolution.  For Hazlitt monarchy was anathema and the status quo an ongoing affront to decency, morality and justice.  His father was a Unitarian Minister, but Hazlitt abandoned religion to make his living with his pen―as an essayist, political reporter and drama critic whose work would establish him as one of the foremost radical thinkers of the nineteenth century.

Hazlitt was part of a small group of hugely influential writers and poets that included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, Robert Southey and William Wordsworth.  As young men, all were passionate supporters of the French Revolution.  In the aftermath of Waterloo, Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth fell back into the monarchical fold, but Hazlitt and Lamb never lost their revolutionary zeal, and while Lamb (whose essays appeared under the pseudonym “Elia”) maintained cordial relations with the three poets, Hazlitt was scathing in his denunciation of them.

In a 1819 essay titled Man is a Toad Eating Animal Hazlitt vented his spleen.  His piece opens with a broadside directed at all those who favor the divine right of kings:

“He offers up his own humanity, and that of all men, at the shrine of royalty.  He sneaks to court; and the bland accents of power close his ears to the voice of freedom ever after; its velvet touch makes his heart marble to a people’s sufferings.  He is the intellectual pimp of power, as others are the practical ones of the pleasures of the great, and often on the same disinterested principle.  For one tyrant, there are a thousand ready slaves.”

Hazlitt then takes on what in early nineteenth century England represented mainstream media―The Times of London:

“The prejudices of superstition (religion is another name for fear) are always the strongest in favour of those forms of worship which require the most bloody sacrifices; the foulest idols are those which are approached with the greatest awe; for it should seem that those objects are the most sacred to passion and imagination, which are the most revolting to reason and common sense.  No wonder that the editor of The Times bows his head before the idol of Divine Right, or of Legitimacy, (as he calls it) which has had more lives sacrificed to its ridiculous and unintelligible pretensions, in the last twenty-five years, than were ever sacrificed to any other idol in all preceding ages.”

And finally, at the conclusion of that same magnificent essay, Hazlitt nails the three above-mentioned poets (Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth) to the proverbial wall:

“And we saw three poets in a dream, walking up and down on the face of the earth, and holding in their hands a human heart, which, as they raised their eyes to heaven, they kissed and worshipped, and a mighty shout arose and shook the air, for the towers of the Bastille had fallen, and a nation had become, of slaves, freemen, and the three poets, as they heard the sound, leaped and shouted, and made merry, and their voice was choked with tears of joy, which they shed over the human heart, which they kissed and worshipped.  And not long after, we saw the same three poets, the one with a receipt-stamp in his hand, the other with a symbol which we could make nothing of, for it was neither literal nor allegorical, following in the train of the Pope and the Inquisition and the Bourbons, and worshipping the mark of the Beast, with the emblem of the human heart thrown beneath their feet, which they trampled and spit upon!”

Hazlitt’s essay The Fight, published by the New Monthly Magazine in 1822, sparked a revolution in reporting―gonzo journalism.  Ostensibly about the 1821 prize fight between Bill Neate and Tom Hickman, the latter known as the Gas-man, The Fight details the author’s journey to the field of combat, presents a brilliant description of the fight itself, and records his long trek back to London.  Much as the Mint 400 served as backdrop to Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, so the prize fight itself is secondary to Hazlitt’s account of his experiences while reporting the event.  Reading his essay, one walks in Hazlitt’s shoes.  (Norman Mailer’s 1975 The Fight was patterned after Hazlitt’s original.)

An iconoclast by temperament, in The Fight Hazlitt describes a sporting event that was technically illegal (known colloquially as the Fancy, prize fights had been staged for decades while officialdom looked the other way) and was seriously frowned upon by polite society.  Its publication raised a scandal.  The essay opens with Hazlitt dropping by Jack Randall’s tavern, the Hole in the Wall on Chancery Lane, for word of an impending match between two of the foremost fighters then active in England—Neate and Hickman.  He learns the event is to be held at Hungerford Common in West Berkshire and makes arrangements to travel by coach, as the location is some sixty miles outside London.  He initially attempts to journey there in company with a friend named Joe Toms, but the two fail to meet as planned and Hazlitt leaves the city alone.  The vehicle he first boards doesn’t go all the way to Newbury, so he is forced to transfer at some distance from Reading to a conveyance that will carry him to his destination.  On this leg of his journey Hazlitt travels with fight-trainer Tom Turtle, who explains that: “The whole art of training . . . consists of two things, exercise and abstinence, abstinence and exercise, repeated alternately without end.”

It is full night when Hazlitt’s coach reaches Newbury, where he meets up with Joe Toms.  In Hazlitt’s day travel was hazardous, and nothing could be taken for granted.  Hazlitt writes:

“Our present business was to get beds and a supper at an inn; but this was no easy task.  The public-houses were full, and where you saw a light at a private house, and people poking their heads out of the casement to see what was going on, they instantly put them in and shut the window, the moment you seemed advancing with a suspicious overture for accommodation.”

At the Crown they were allowed admittance, but only to the kitchen, where travelers gathered about a large fire and engaged one another in conversation to safely pass the night.  Dozing off was perilous, leaving a traveler vulnerable to cutpurses and other lowlifes, and a hearth was a popular gathering place where clay pipes with long stems were proffered; when a smoker was finished he’d pass the long-stemmed pipe to another, who’d snap off that piece of stem the previous smoker had used as a hedge against communicable disease.

Hazlitt passes the night in boisterous conversation and the following morning, in company with Joe Toms, sets off on foot for Hungerford Common and the fight, where some twenty thousand spectators gather to witness this “illegal” sporting event.  Hazlitt writes:  “The crowd was very great when we arrived on the spot; open carriages were coming up, with streamers flying and music playing, and the country-people were pouring in over hedge and ditch in all directions, to see their hero beat or be beaten.”

Hazlitt was not fond of Hickman—the Gas-man—whom he considered a braggart.  Hickman called his right fist “the gravedigger” and claimed to be the finest fighter in the land.  Neate, the larger of the two, was rated the underdog prior to the bout, but Hickman was much disliked for his public posturing and Neate was the popular favorite.  Hazlitt sets the scene:

“The day, as I have said, was fine for a December morning.  The grass was wet, and the ground miry, and ploughed up with multitudinous feet, except that, within the ring itself, there was a spot of virgin-green closed in and unprofaned by vulgar tread, that shone with dazzling brightness in the mid-day sun.”

Having arrived early, Hazlitt and Toms waited an hour for combat to begin.  Then:

“ . . . a bustle, a buzz, ran through the crowd, and from the opposite side entered Neate, between his second and bottle-holder.  He rolled along, swathed in his loose great coat, his knock-knees bending under his huge bulk; and, with a modest cheerful air, threw his hat into the ring.  He then just looked round, and began quietly to undress; when from the other side there was a similar rush and an opening made, and the Gas-man came forward with a conscious air of anticipated triumph, too much like the cock-of-the-walk.”

Hickman gets off to a fast start, unleashing a flurry of blows that fells the larger man.

“Neate seemed like a lifeless lump of flesh and bone, round which the Gas-man’s blows played with the rapidity of electricity or lightning, and you imagined he would only be lifted up to be knocked down again.”

For the next couple rounds Neate operates cautiously, and with his longer arms establishes an effective barrier against the Gas-man’s brilliant fists.  In the fifth round, Neate answers back:

“ . . . the Gas-man aiming a mortal blow at his adversary’s neck, with his right hand, and failing from the length he had to reach, the other returned it with his left at full swing, planted a tremendous blow on his cheek-bone and eyebrow, and made a red ruin of that side of his face.  The Gas-man went down, and there was another shout—a roar of triumph as the waves of fortune rolled tumultuously from side to side.  This was the settler.”

Hickman attempts to recover but his efforts fall short.

“From this time forward the event became more certain every round; and about the twelfth it seemed as if it must have been over.  Hickman generally stood with his back to me; but in the scuffle, he changed positions, and Neate just then made a tremendous lunge at him, and hit him full in the face.  It was doubtful whether he would fall backwards or forwards; he hung suspended for a second or two, then fell back, throwing his hands in the air, and with his face lifted up to the sky.  I never saw any thing more terrific than his aspect just before he fell.  All traces of life, of natural expression, were gone from him.”

A short time later: “The carrier-pigeons now mounted into the air, and one of them flew with the news of her husband’s victory to the bosom of Mrs. Neate.  Alas, for Mrs. Hickman!”

On the grounds of the fight, Hazlitt parts company with Toms and meets up with an old acquaintance named Jack Pigott, and in company with Pigott begins the long journey home.

“Pigott and I marched along the causeway from Hungerford to Newbury, now observing the effect of a brilliant sun on the tawny meads or moss-coloured cottages, now exulting in the fight, now digressing to some topic of general and elegant literature.”

At Wolhampton, Hazlitt and Pigott find food and lodgings and the following day conclude their return trip in good spirits, sharing a coach ride with others who had witnessed the event.  The fight at Hungerford Common was held on December 11, 1821, and Hazlitt’s account was published in the February 1822 edition of The New Monthly Magazine.

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Chris Welzenbach is a playwright (“Downsize”) who for many years was a member of Walkabout Theater in Chicago. He can be reached at incoming@chriswelzenbach.com

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