From the early 19th century until his death in 1859, Leigh Hunt was a significant and controversial man of letters. He was an essayist, poet, literary and theater critic, playwright, editor, journalist, founder of periodicals and political radical. It was his keen eye for literary talent, however, that enabled him to make his most important contributions. At the height of his career, Hunt's close friends, whose careers he helped to advance, included the Romantic poets John Keats, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, and the esteemed essayists Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt. Later, Charles Dickens and Alfred, Lord Tennyson were encouraged by him and became his friends.
Anthony Holden, known for his biographies of Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, Prince Charles and Laurence Olivier, superbly chronicles Hunt's ambitions, literary feuds and chronic financial problems in The Wit in the Dungeon: The Remarkable Life and Times of Leigh Hunt Poet, Revolutionary, and the Last of the Romantics. The title comes from Byron, who wrote those words in a verse letter to a friend before the first of his many visits to Hunt during the two years the latter was imprisoned for libeling the Prince of Wales.
Hunt considered personal essays he wrote for his journal Indicator to be his best writing, while his friend Thomas Carlyle praised Hunt's Autobiography as by far the best book of the autobiographic kind in English. At the other extreme, desperate for money, Hunt wrote a commercially successful book that was notable for its assault on Byron, with whom he had had a falling out. Holden writes, While Hunt was reviled on all sides for ingratitude towards a man who had offered him substantial patronage, his bestseller was as avidly (if guiltily) read as are all such indiscreet memoirs of the famous. Holden's well-researched and wonderfully readable biography of Hunt shows us the literary life in a very productive period among writers whose works are still widely read and admired today.