On the question being started, Ayrton said, “I suppose the two first persons you would choose to see would be the two greatest names in English literature, Sir Isaac Newton and Mr. Locke?” In this Ayrton, as usual, reckoned without his host. Everyone burst out a-laughing at the expression on Lamb’s face, in which impatience was restrained by courtesy."Bursting out a-laughing" might have been an excellent tactic in days gone by, but it has not kept its freshness (nor will its modern equivalent, which is probably something like "shit a brick.")
Therefore, this essay, by William Hazlitt, fails to charm. He and his adorably English friends (including Charles Lamb, which makes me remember that in school I was told to find some Lamb essay terribly charming, which it wasn't) are just sitting around deciding which figures from history they would bring back to life in order to have dinner with -- a Proust questionnaire, kind of, but taking oh so many more words. The kind of thing, in other words, people did before there was broadcasting.
It is the kind of essay where the essayist describes what he's doing as "whimsical," which seems deadly to me now. Maybe it's sort of a comedic Gresham's Law, where bad emotions drive out good, but "smartass" seems much more to our taste these days than "whimsical" -- either because things are worse, so we need to be sharper in our opinions, or because things are better, and we need to shock more to get the same effect.
I was shocked to find in Wikipedia that Hazlitt was a huge rebel who never reconciled with the Establishment. I don't think I've read anything this year that doesn't seem more overstuffed-red-leather-armchair than this essay.