‘It is often necessary for a good journalist to write bad literature. It is sometimes the first duty of a good man to write it’ G.K. Chesterton once wrote, in a brief introduction to a collection of Charles Dickens’s journalism. He expresses in characteristically pithy fashion a central problem with literary journalism and its interactions both with the outside world, and with the world of art. Few writers grappled with this problem more resolutely than James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who is an important and unjustly neglected figure both in nineteenth-century press history and in our literary history.
Hunt’s determination—against considerable odds, including a controversial prison sentence—to stake a claim for the aesthetic realm from within the confines of a newspaper’s columns can be read not as a dilettantish affectation, but as a real theoretical and generic challenge to negative associations of journalism with self-serving corporate agendas. Born in Middlesex, and schooled within earshot of Bow Bells, Leigh Hunt was the son of a Barbados preacher. A West Indian in Cockney clothing, he revelled in a ‘tropical sensibility,’ which found little favour with the British Establishment, but which makes his essays, journalism and poetry wonderfully lively and unpredictable.
It was Dickens himself who, meeting Hunt when the latter was in his late sixties, skewered his reputation for later generations by parodying many of Hunt’s supposed affectations and conceits through the character of Harold Skimpole in Bleak House. In doing so, Dickens was in effect continuing a kind of debate about literary journalism itself: a form of professional riposte to Hunt’s deliberate conversion of the harsh realities around him into series of artistic ‘reasons to be cheerful.’ But as an editor, sketch-writer, essayist, poet, critic and stylist, Hunt deserves to be taken seriously, even as we recognize and appreciate his playfulness.
In 1824, aged forty, Hunt was perhaps past his prime as a poet and journalist, though much of his best work as an essayist, critic, and prolific founder of whimsical periodicals was yet to come. With his brother John, 9 years his elder, he had founded The Examiner –perhaps the nineteenth-century’s finest example of a political and literary miscellany – in 1808, and remained its editor-in-chief until 1821, throughout the turbulence of the Regency. Indeed, the Prince Regent himself , and his impact on the moral tone of metropolitan life, was a particular bête noire of the Hunt brothers, who, after an audacious campaign of exposure, found themselves imprisoned for libel, for a two-year term and with crippling fines to pay (they’d refused a bribe to silence them), following the publication of Hunt’s famous leader of 22 March 2012, ‘The Prince on St. Patrick’s Day’ (recalled here in Hunt’s celebrated Autobiography of 1850).
To readers today, the article might seem mild or simply ill-advised, but it must be remembered that with the press in thrall to party politics and Britain under martial law no other editor of a stamped newspaper in London was bold enough to so much as murmur against the Prince’s high-profile decadence. In many of his over 1,400 leaders for the paper, Hunt bravely and amusingly spoke the truth to power, but suffered as a result. Nevertheless, all through these years, Hunt was both an encourager of poets and a poet himself: inventor of the poetry slam. Here’s his sprightly sonnet, composed against the clock in 1818 in competition with his young protégé, John Keats, on the subject of ‘The Grasshopper and the Cricket’:–
Green little vaulter in the sunny grass,
Catching your heart up at the feel of June,
Sole voice that’s heard amidst the lazy noon,
When even the bees lag at the summoning brass;
And you, warm little housekeeper, who class
With those who think the candles come too soon,
Loving the fire, and with your tricksome tune
Nick the glad silent moments as they pass;
Oh sweet and tiny cousins, that belong
One to the fields, the other to the hearth,
Both have your sunshine; both, though small, are strong
At your clear hearts; and both were sent on earth
To sing in thoughtful ears this natural song:
Indoors and out, summer and winter,—Mirth
Hunt also used the columns of The Examiner to publish cheek by jowl with his political sallies and meditations, such famous poems as Keat’s ‘On First Looking in Chapman’s Homer’ (1 December 1816, p. 762) and Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ (11 January 1818, p. 24).
The debt to the courts and the probability of further prosecution meant that well before 1824, Hunt had had to step aside as the titular editor of The Examiner, and it was his friendships with other poets which offered what looked like a lifeline and escape route. Instead, disaster and tragedy were to follow. Keats had died of tuberculosis in Rome in February 1821; in a form of homage and escapism, Hunt arranged with his patron and hero Shelley, and with Lord Byron, the darling of the Tory press (whom he scarcely knew) to publish an ambitious radical review from a base in northern Italy. To be called The Liberal, it was still in embryonic form, when, after welcoming Hunt in Pisa and making arrangements with Byron for his financial support, Shelley set sail from Livorno in the Don Juan, to a watery grave. For Hunt’s most recent biographer, Nicholas Roe, 8 July 1822 thus marks the end not only of Shelley’s, but of Hunt’s ‘first life’. This is a persuasive narrative, but equally 1824, with the death of Byron, could be taken as the turning point. This was the year in which, with the two of the triumvirate on which The Liberal had been premised now dead, Hunt’s Italian sojourn—intended as a convalescence in the land of the classical and Renaissance poets Hunt loved sought to emulate—came to a bitter end, and he returned to London penniless, to soldier on.
Later years brought incessant work, new projects and short-lived writing engagements, but never financial solvency. Eventually, in 1847, Lord John Russell’s Liberal administration saw fit to pension Hunt at two hundred pounds a year (about £12,000 in today’s money) ‘in consideration of his distinguished literary talents.’ But the last twelve years of his life—which included the bitterness of reading his young friend Dickens’s attack in Bleak House (serialized 1851-53)—were still beset by genteel poverty, with critics and reviewers unwilling to recognize his gifts. As J. E. Morpurgo eloquently puts it, ‘Hunt had outlived his generation, and in living too long, had lost the attention and the respect of his accidental contemporaries and slipped the plaudits of posterity’ (introduction to the Autobiography, Cresset Press edition).
Currently, Hunt’s reputation is, belatedly, on the rise, with appreciative biographies by Roe and Anthony Holden, and a 6-volume scholarly edition of his Selected Writings for publishers Pickering & Chatto. Retailing at £495, however, it is unlikely to have much impact on Hunt’s popular reputation, which is not well served by mainstream publishers. There’s no ‘Classics’ selection from Penguin or OUP, for example. Hats off to Carcanet Press, therefore, for their affordable 2003 selection. Online there’s not much key material for Huntians, apart from the admirable collection of digitised letters made available by the University of Iowa Library. What we really need to appreciate Hunt’s signal contribution to our literary and journalistic heritage is an online edition, with authorship information, and annotations, of The Examiner week-by-week under his landmark editorship, 1808-21. Anyone out there interested in helping?
Hunt and Buckingham: Leigh Hunt is discussed on the Literary Journalism module as part of the Buckingham English Department’s degree programme in English Literature. Blog author John Drew has published on Hunt in the 2014 anthology, Exploring the Journalistic Imagination.