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The Anatomy of Criticism, by Henry Hazlitt

  • The Anatomy of Criticism by Henry Hazlitt
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Odds are that you have never heard of this book, much less own it, for it is exceedingly rare and I've hardly ever seen a mention of it, though it is just brilliant. It is The Anatomy of Criticism: A Trialogue, by Henry Hazlitt. It is now available for free download or in print on demand. (And it was a big sacrifice to give up my personal copy for the sake of the common good here!)

It was published in 1933. He was finishing up a three-year position at The Nation as literary critic, and preparing to accept the position as H.L. Mencken's successor at American Mercury. He was not yet a Misesian. Rather, he was an old fashioned liberal who rejected the turn liberalism took at the New Deal: toward statist-corporatism. Hazlitt's literary and political values rejected the idea of regimentation on behalf of privileged elites, and he was frankly disgusted that so-called liberals would go along. He was also perplexed that any self-respecting intellectual could go for the baloney of Marxism, which struck him as a stupid and obviously false creed that warred against free thought.

At this point in his life, he was struggling with integrating his two main interests: literary criticism and economics. In economics, value is subjective, whereas the key goal in literary criticism is the discovery of something approximating objective value. The text of this book reflects that struggle in the form of a trialogue.

Hazlitt has his characters debate the question of literary value, and pushes forward the proposition that the value of literature is discerned and revealed through the operation of the "social mind." So he ends up rejecting relativism while avoiding mistakes in economic theory. A fascinating study, brilliantly conceived and rendered by a master.

The appendix is incredible. He discusses Marxian literary criticism at length, pointing out that Marx himself read widely in Western literature. What is striking is that Hazlitt's pointed attack takes place in 1933 - long before this strain of thought took over literary departments. He saw it coming! We are now talking about putting up this appendix as a daily article. It is surely one of the first essays contra Marxian literary analytics.

Jeffrey Tucker is Editorial Director of the American Institute for Economic Research. He is author of It's a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes and Bourbon for Breakfast: Living Outside the Statist Quo. Send him mail.

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