The British essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was the leading social critic of early Victorian England. Disseminating German idealist thought in his country, with Calvinist zeal he preached against materialism and mechanism during the industrial revolution.
Thomas Carlyle was born at Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, on Dec. 4, 1795. His father, a stonemason, was an intelligent man and a pious Calvinist. Carlyle was educated at Annan Grammar School and Edinburgh University, where he read voraciously and distinguished himself in mathematics. He abandoned his original intention to enter the ministry and turned instead first to school teaching and then to literary hackwork, dreaming all the while of greatness as a writer. A reading of Madame de Staël's Germany introduced him to German thought and literature, and in 1823-1824 he published a Life of Schiller in the London Magazine and in 1824 a translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.
Meanwhile Carlyle had passed through a religious crisis similar to the one he was to describe in Sartor Resartus and had met Jane Baillie Welsh, a brilliant and charming girl, who recognized his genius and gave him encouragement and love. Through a tutorship in the Buller family Carlyle made his first trip to London, where he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge and other leading literary figures. He returned to Scotland, married Jane Welsh on Oct. 17, 1826, and settled first in Edinburgh and subsequently at Craigenputtock, an isolated farmhouse belonging to his wife's family. It was during this period that he wrote a series of essays for the Edinburgh Review and the Foreign Review which were later grouped as Miscellaneous and Critical Essays. Among these were essays on Burns, Goethe, and Richter and the important "Signs of the Times," his first essay on contemporary social problems.
It was at Craigenputtock that Carlyle wrote Sartor Resartus, his most characteristic work. Originally rejected by London editors, it was first published in Fraser's Magazine in 1833-1834 and did not attain book form in England until 1838, after Ralph Waldo Emerson had introduced it in America and after the success of Carlyle's The French Revolution. The first appearance of Sartor Resartus was greeted with "universal disapprobation," in part because of its wild, grotesque, and rambling mixture of serious and comic styles. This picturesque and knotted prose was to become Carlyle's hallmark.
The theme of the book is that the material world is symbolic of the spiritual world of ultimate reality. Man's creeds, beliefs, and institutions, which are all in tatters because of the enormous advances of modern thought and science, have to be tailored anew as his reason perceives the essential mystery behind the natural world. Carlyle's concern is to allow for a change of forms while insisting on the permanence of spirit in opposition to the materialistic and utilitarian bias of 18th-century thought. Part of his thesis is exemplified in the career of an eccentric fictitious German professor, Teufelsdröckh, whose papers Carlyle pretends to be editing. He progresses from "The Everlasting No" of spiritual negation, through "The Centre of Indifference" of resignation, to "The Everlasting Yea," a positive state of mind in which he recognizes the value of suffering and duty over selfish pleasure.
Career in London
Carlyle came into his maturity with Sartor and longed to abandon short articles in favor of a substantial work. Accordingly, he turned to a study of the French Revolution, encouraged in the project by John Stuart Mill, who gave him his own notes and materials. As a help in his researches he moved to London, settling in Chelsea. The publication of The French Revolution in 1837 established Carlyle as one of the leading writers of the day. The book demonstrates his belief in the Divine Spirit's working in man's affairs. Carlyle rejected the "dry-as-dust" method of factual history writing in favor of immersing himself in his subject and capturing its spirit and movement—hence the focus on the drama and scenic quality of events and on the mounting impact of detail. His ability to animate history is Carlyle's triumph, but his personal reading of the significance of a great event lays him open to charges of subjectivity and ignorance of the careful study of economic and political detail so admired by later schools of historical research.
Carlyle's great popularity led him to give several series of public lectures on German literature, the history of literature, modern European revolutions, and finally, and most significantly, on heroes and hero worship. These lectures were published in 1841 as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in Literature. This work reflects his increasing hostility to modern egalitarian democracy and his stress upon the inequality of men's wisdom and the incorporation, as it were, of divine purpose. Carlyle's insistence upon the need for heroic leadership is the reason why he was attacked—often mistakenly—as an apostle of force or dictatorial rule.
Carlyle's hero worship is responsible for the two largest projects of his later career. He first intended to rehabilitate Oliver Cromwell by means of a history of the Puritan Revolution but later narrowed his project to a collection of Cromwell's letters and speeches connected by narrative and commentary (1845). And from 1852 to 1865 he labored on a biography of Frederick the Great (1865) against the mounting uncongeniality and intractability of the subject. During these years Carlyle exerted a great influence on younger contemporaries such as Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Charles Kingsley, John Ruskin, and James Froude. He published a number of criticisms of the economic and social conditions of industrial England, among them Chartism (1839), "Latter-Day" Pamphlets (1850), and Shooting Niagara, and After? (1867). His most significant social criticism, Past and Present (1843), contrasted the organic, hierarchical society of the medieval abbey of Bury St. Edmunds with the fragmented world of modern parliamentary democracy. It hoped for a recognition of moral leadership among the new "captains of industry."
In 1865 Carlyle was elected lord rector of Edinburgh University, but in his last years he was more than ever a lonely, isolated prophet of doom. He died on Feb. 5, 1881, and was buried in Ecclefechan Churchyard.
The standard biography of Carlyle is still James Anthony Froude, Thomas Carlyle: A History of the First Forty Years of His Life, 1795-1835 (2 vols., 1882) and Thomas Carlyle: A History of His Life in London, 1834-1881 (2 vols., 1884). For an account and assessment of the controversy occasioned by the biography see Waldo H. Dunn, Froude and Carlyle (1930). A short biography is Julian Symons, Thomas Carlyle: The Life and Ideas of a Prophet (1952). A good introduction to Carlyle's work is Emery Neff, Carlyle (1932). Also useful is Basil Willey, Nineteenth Century Studies (1949). Recommended for general historical background are George Macaulay Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century and After, 1782-1919 (1922; new ed. 1937); David C. Somervell, English Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1929; 6th ed. 1950); G. M. Young, Victorian England: Protrait of an Age (1936; 2d ed. 1953); and Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (1957).
Campbell, Ian, Thomas Carlyle, New York: Scribner, 1975, 1974.
Clubbe, John, comp., Two reminiscences of Thomas Carlyle, Durham, N.C., Duke University Press, 1974.
Conway, Moncure Daniel, Thomas Carlyle, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977.
Froude, James Anthony, Froude's Life of Carlyle, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979.
Garnett, Richard, Life of Thomas Carlyle, New York: AMS Press, 1979.
Kaplan, Fred, Thomas Carlyle: a biography, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Lammond, D., Carlyle, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.
Nicoll, Henry James., Thomas Carlyle, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.
Sagar, S., Round by Repentance Tower: a study of Carlyle, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977. □
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Thomas Carlyle, 1795–1881, English author, b. Scotland.
Early Life and Works
Carlyle studied (1809–14) at the Univ. of Edinburgh, intending to enter the ministry, but left when his doubts became too strong. He taught mathematics before returning to Edinburgh in 1818 to study law. However, law gave way to reading in German literature. He was strongly influenced by Goethe and the transcendental philosophers and wrote several works interpreting German romantic thought, including a Life of Schiller (1825) and a translation (1824) of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister.
In 1826 he married Jane Baillie Welsh, an acidly witty, well-informed, generally disagreeable, but ambitious woman who did much to further his career. Their marriage, one of the most famous literary unions of the 19th cent. and one of the most unhappy, is meticulously documented in the more than 9,000 letters still extant that they wrote one another. The Carlyles moved to Jane's farm at Craigenputtock in 1828. There he wrote Sartor Resartus (published 1833–34 in Fraser's Magazine), in which he told his spiritual autobiography. He saw the material world as mere clothing for the spiritual one. The God of his beliefs was an immanent and friendly ruler of an orderly universe. In denying corporeal reality, Carlyle reflected his revulsion for the materialism of the age. In 1832 Ralph Waldo Emerson went to Craigenputtock and began a friendship with Carlyle that was continued in their famous correspondence.
Later Life and Works
In 1834 the Carlyles moved to London to be near necessary works of reference for the projected French Revolution. Finally completed in 1837 (the first volume had been accidentally burned in 1835), the book was received with great acclaim. Although it vividly recreates scenes of the Revolution, it is not a factual account but a poetic rendering of an event in history. Carlyle extended his view of the divinity of man, particularly in his portraits of the great leaders of the Revolution.
In subsequent works Carlyle attacked laissez-faire theory and parliamentary government and affirmed his belief in the necessity for strong, paternalistic government. He was convinced that society does change, but that it must do so intelligently, directed by its best men, its "heroes." His lectures, published as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History (1841), express his view that the great men of the past have intuitively shaped destiny and have been the spiritual leaders of the world.
Carlyle's other works expanded his ideas—Chartism (1840); Past and Present (1843), contrasting the disorder of modern society with the feudal order of 12th-century England; Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (1845); Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850); Life of John Sterling (1851); and a massive biography of a hero-king, Frederick the Great, on which he spent the years 1852–65. In 1866 his wife died, and the loss saddened the rest of his life.
One of the most important social critics of his day, Carlyle influenced many men of the younger generation, among them Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin. His style, one of the most tortuous yet effective in English literature, was a compound of biblical phrases, colloquialisms, Teutonic twists, and his own coinings, arranged in unexpected sequences.
See his Reminiscences (1881) and numerous collections of his letters and his wife's; biographies by J. A. Froude (4 vol., 1882–84, repr. 1971) and D. A. Wilson (6 vol., 1923–34, repr. 1971; Vol. VI finished by D. W. MacArthur); studies by E. Neff (1932, repr. 1968), E. Bentley (1944), J. Symons (1952, repr. 1970), G. B. Tennyson (1966), and A. J. LaValley (1968); studies of the Carlyle marriage by T. Holme (1965, repr. 2000), P. Rose (1983), and R. Ashton (2003).
"Carlyle, Thomas." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carlyle-thomas
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"Carlyle, Thomas." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carlyle-thomas
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"Carlyle, Thomas." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carlyle-thomas
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BORN: 1795, Ecclefechan, Scotland
DIED: 1881, London, England
German Romance (1827)
Sartor Resartus (1836)
The French Revolution: A History (1837)
On Heroes, Hero-Worship & the Heroic in History (1841)
History of Friedrich II of Prussia, called Frederick the Great (1858–1865)
Thomas Carlyle was an important biographer, historian, and essayist of the nineteenth century. Venerated for his wisdom and insightful thinking, Carlyle fell out of favor after his death and has only recently been revived as a subject of scholarly interest.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Strict Calvinist Upbringing in Scotland Carlyle was born on December 4, 1795, in the Scottish village of Ecclefechan to James and Margaret Aitken Carlyle. His father, who was a stonemason and later a farmer, instilled Scottish Calvinist principles of self-denial and hard work into his large family. Carlyle attended Annan Academy from 1806 to 1809 and Edinburgh University from 1809 to 1814, but left the university without taking a degree.
His parents hoped that he would become a clergyman, but he was already dreaming of literary fame and started his literary career by translating and by writing reviews and encyclopedia articles. In 1823 the London Magazine asked Carlyle to write a short biographical sketch of German poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller; the essay expanded during the writing to book length and became Carlyle's first literary biography.
In 1824 Carlyle visited London for the first time. He stayed with his friend Edward Irving, who introduced him to London literary society; among those Carlyle met was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1821 he had met Jane Baillie Welsh, an ambitious and witty daughter of a doctor. They married on October 17, 1826, much to her family's dismay. In 1828 Carlyle and his wife moved to Craigenputtoch, an isolated farm.
Carlyle's 1833 Sartor Resartus, though fiction, tells much about Carlyle's ideas about the art of writing biography. The work sounds his message about the importance and pleasure of biography and the use of biography to find heroes: “Biography by nature is the most universally profitable, universally pleasant of all things: especially the Biography of distinguished individuals.”
Friendship with Emerson In August 1833 Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Carlyle at Craigenputtoch. Their friendship, conducted mostly by mail over the years, was beneficial for Carlyle: Emerson convinced a Boston publisher to publish Sartor Resartus in book form in 1836 (it did not appear in that form in England until 1838), funded the 1838 American edition of Carlyle's The French Revolution (published in England in 1837), and introduced Henry David Thoreau to Carlyle's works and, in turn, Carlyle to Walt Whitman's.
In June 1834 the Carlyles moved to 5 Cheyne Row, London. For the next three years Carlyle worked on The French Revolution. During this time he met William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, and the man who was to become his most cherished friend for the next nine years and the subject of one of his best biographies: the poet, novelist, and dramatist John Sterling.
From 1837 to 1841 Carlyle gave annual lectures on German literature, literature in general, revolution, and heroes. On Heroes, Hero-Worship & the Heroic in History, the published version of the May 1840 lectures, delineates the unconscious and mysterious forces that underlie the personalities of great men.
Literary Circles and Biography Subjects During the late 1830s and early 1840s Carlyle formed friendships with members of a new generation of writers, including Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Richard Monckton Milnes, John Forster, William Make-peace Thackeray, and Edward FitzGerald. He planned a biography of Oliver Cromwell, the seventeenth-century Puritan leader who ruled England as a commonwealth after the English Civil War, during its period without a recognized king. However, the work stagnated and he decided instead to edit Cromwell's letters and speeches and let Cromwell speak for himself. The edition was published in 1845–1846.
In 1851 Carlyle began studying the life of Frederick the Great; in 1852 he traveled to Germany to continue his research. The first two volumes of the History of Friedrich II of Prussia, called Frederick the Great, were not published until 1858; Carlyle in the meantime had struggled with problems with sources, his own lack of enthusiasm about the project, and sorrow over his mother's death. In 1858 Carlyle traveled to Germany again, visiting battlefields to gather material for the remaining four volumes. It took seven more years, however, for Carlyle to finish the work.
In 1865 Carlyle was elected rector by the students of the University of Edinburgh, and on April 2, 1866, he delivered an inaugural address. While he was polishing the speech for publication, he received word that his wife had died. In 1868 Carlyle, with the help of his niece, Mary Aitken, organized Jane's letters, which he considered evidence of her brilliance; he also wrote annotations for a biography of her.
By 1871 Carlyle wrote only by dictation to Aitken. In the winter of 1871–72 he dictated a history of the early
kings of Norway, in which he found new heroes in Olaf Tryggveson, King Olaf the Saint, and Magnus the Good.
Carlyle died in his sleep on February 5, 1881. He was buried in Ecclefechan. Carlyle was one of the most influential figures of the Victorian age; his attitudes affected a wide audience, particularly the writers of his day. His convictions that modern life was too “mechanical” and analytical, that greed and selfishness had replaced feelings of blessedness and brotherhood, and that spiritual rebirth was needed to bring coherence to modern life drew many to regard him with awe and reverence.
Works in Literary Context
Carlyle's contributions to literary biography are both theoretical and practical. “Man is,” he says in “Biography,” “properly the only object that interests man.” The boundaries separating history, biography, literature, and social criticism are not rigid for Carlyle: In a sense all his works are a nineteenth-century epic poem. To him, history is a procession of great men rather than the interplay of economic, political, and social forces, and a good biography portrays both the character of the subject and the times in which he lived.
Radical and Experimental Format Sartor Resartus is in some ways a baffling work: Genuinely original in form and content, it combines biography, autobiography, essay, and political commentary with a layered structure and avoidance of final meaning which makes it seem well in advance of its time. It purportedly tells the story of a German academic (Teufelsdröckh or German for “Devil's Excrement”) who travels a path from struggling beginning and self-doubt to awakening sensitivity to a supernaturally alive universe.
Heroes and Biographies After Sartor Resartus, Carlyle moved to London and began work on The French Revolution. While modern historians dispute the objectivity of Carlyle's view on the French Revolution, his carefully researched and vividly imagined work is a powerful evocation of what happens to a morally corrupt monarch and the accompanying abuse of social privilege and human exploitation. This method of scrupulous research and personal engagement with the subject helped establish Carlyle as a historian whose power was not just to recreate the past but also to use his historical works to disturb the present.
By the early 1840s Carlyle's works were selling well, and each new book conveyed an original mind at the peak of its powers. Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches—two volumes (1845) and a supplement (1846)—is a case in point. The English Civil War fascinated Carlyle for decades, and the personality of its great hero (and he certainly saw the Protector in this light, as the strong leader who saved the country from collapsing into anarchy) gave him the focus for a historical work which blends narrative with letters and documents of the period and intersperses all with the author's addresses to the figures he treats, especially Cromwell.
In the early 1850s Carlyle began working in earnest on his monumental history of Frederick the Great of Prussia. He, like Cromwell, was a ruler who earned Carlyle's approval for a job well done. Like Cromwell, too, he violated most of the civilized rules of freedom and justice to keep the machine of society running. The end, for Carlyle as for Frederick, clearly justified the means.
Works in Critical Context
Thomas Carlyle was an extremely long-lived Victorian author. He was also highly controversial, variously regarded as sage and impious, a moral leader, a moral desperado, a radical, a conservative, and a Christian. In the later twentieth century he was still far from being understood by a generation of critics awakening to his pivotal place in nineteenth-century Britain. He is coming to be seen as innovator and survivor, a man born in the eighteenth century who lived through most of the nineteenth, whose early work predated Victoria's reign, and whose longevity almost matched his monarch's. Alive, he was an enigma; dead, he remains a problematic figure for the literary historian as well as for the critic.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Carlyle’s famous contemporaries include:
Queen Victoria (1819–1901): Queen of England, and the person for whom the Victorian age was named.
Charles Dickens (1812–1870): British novelist of classics such as David Copperfield and Great Expectations.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882): American writer and philosopher who led the transcendentalist movement.
Charles Darwin (1809–1882): naturalist and scientist credited with popularizing the concept of natural selection in his book On the Origin of Species.
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865): British novelist and biographer of Charlotte Brontë.
Sartor Resartus Carlyle's first major piece was a radical, nontraditional blend of fiction, biography, and political commentary rendered in both a serious and farcical tone. Perhaps due to its highly original content, Sartor Resartus is not easily understood. (Carlyle included comments from puzzled readers in later editions of the book.) His wife, Jane Carlyle, a perceptive voice among early readers, pronounced it “a work of genius,” however, and others took it as such (notably, the American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson). Although it no longer
provokes the shock and confusion it did upon publication, Sartor Resartus remains a difficult book and has lacked the critical attention it perhaps deserves.
The French Revolution The appearance of the three volumes of The French Revolution in 1837 better acquainted readers with Carlyle's passionate style and his passionate belief in the need for society's rebirth, so that the seriousness of Sartor Resartus was more readily received, and now it is taken for a masterpiece, and rightly. While historians today have discredited much of the emphasis and interpretation Carlyle gave history in the volumes on France (and in the later works on Oliver Cromwell and Frederick the Great), few deny the power of Carlyle's view of the revolution. The historical research and annotation bespeak careful preparation, and the artistic impulse behind the finished work orders and selects, to orchestrate a pattern clearly of the author's choosing and to highlight his message of the inevitability of revolution in a France rotten with abused social privilege, skeptical freethinking, and human exploitation.
Legacy Several works published after Carlyle's death had a profound effect on his reputation. His confidant and executor was James Anthony Froude, a young historian and longtime admirer of Carlyle to whom his literary remains and papers were entrusted. Froude took his position seriously and was hard at work on biographical materials long before Carlyle's death. Hence the Reminiscences appeared soon after Carlyle's death, followed by four magnificent but badly flawed volumes of biography by Froude (1882, 1884) and Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle (1883), which had been partly annotated by Carlyle in the 1860s and 1870s. The effect of Froude's work in the years following Carlyle's death was extraordinary. Almost overnight, it seemed, Carlyle plunged from his position as Sage of Chelsea and Grand Old Victorian to the object of puzzled dislike, or even of revulsion, due to the image of the writer that emerged in personal writings selected by Froude.
Carlyle remained a neglected writer until the mid-1950s; since then, critical awareness of his work and its importance has risen steadily. With the publication of scholarly editions of his works, and above all of his letters, the reader stands a better chance than ever before of making an accurate and fair estimation of his importance.
Responses to Literature
- Choose one incident from Carlyle's The French Revolution and research other accounts of the historical event. Look for places where Carlyle's account differs from other sources. How do you think Carlyle shaped his work to comment on the events of his time? Why do you think he did so?
- Carlyle belongs in the literary period called “the Victorian age.” Research Queen Victoria, and suggest three ways her political reign influenced the literature of the time.
- Carlyle was much influenced by concept of heroes, both historical and literary. Research how our concept of heroes has changed over time. Consider some of the heroes Carlyle writes about in On Heroes, Hero-Worship & the Heroic in History. Compare these to modern examples of heroes. How are they similar? How are they different?
- Carlyle believed it was important to imagine the historical details as vividly as possible and would visit battlefields and historic sites in order to get the details right. Is this an important, integral part of good historical scholarship or does it sacrifice objectivity by creating a personal connection between author and subject?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Carlyle was one of the first historians to vividly narrate historical material in an effort to comment on his own times. Here are a number of biographies and histories that also break new ground.
The Life of Johnson (1791), a biography by James Boswell. Boswell's biography of his close friend and English poet, Samuel Johnson, was revolutionary in his use of quoted material and vivid details to paint the picture of a living, breathing human rather than a dry historical figure.
The Armies of the Night (1968), a book by Norman Mailer. This Pulitzer Prize–winning book, about the 1967 march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam war, helped create a new type of nonfiction novel.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2003), a graphic memoir by Marjane Satrapi. Satrapi's memoir of growing up in Iran won many critics and readers over to graphic literature.
Campbell, Ian. Thomas Carlyle. New York: Scribner, 1975.
Froude, James Anthony. Thomas Carlyle, A History of the First Forty Years of His Life, 1795-1835. 2 volumes, London: Longmans, Green, 1882.
———. Thomas Carlyle, A History of His Life in London, 1834–1881. 2 volumes, London: Longmans, Green, 1884.
Kaplan, Fred. Thomas Carlyle. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.
Siegel, J.P., ed. Thomas Carlyle: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1971.
Tennyson, G. B. Sartor Called Resartus: The Genesis, Structure, and Style of Thomas Carlyle's First Major Work. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.
Wilson, David Alec. Life of Thomas Carlyle. 6 volumes. London: Keegan Paul, 1929.
Gursten, Rochell. “The Case of Thomas Carlyle”. American Scholar Summer, volume 70, (2001).
Treadwell, James. “‘Sartor Resartus’ and the work of writing.” Essays in Criticism, July 1998.
Landow, George. The Victorian Web (Thomas Carlyle). Accessed February 28, 2008 from http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/carlyle/index.html.
Lewis, Jone Johnson, ed., The Transcendentalists (Thomas Carlyle). Accessed March 1, 2008 from http://www.transcendentalists.com/thomas_carlyle.htm.
"Carlyle, Thomas." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carlyle-thomas
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CARLYLE, THOMAS (1795–1881), Scottish historian, biographer, translator, and social critic.
Born in Ecclefechan in the Annandale section of Dumfriesshire, Scotland, Thomas Carlyle was raised by stern Calvinists of low social stature. Carlyle enrolled at the University of Edinburgh in 1809 to prepare for the ministry but turned instead to mathematics. In his early twenties, Carlyle studied German literature and idealist philosophy. He came especially to admire the writing of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. In 1821 he met the sharp-witted Jane Baillie Welsh, whom he married five years later, despite her family's higher social rank.
In August of 1822, Carlyle underwent a trans-formative religious experience on Leith Walk in Edinburgh. His personal vision convinced him that a transcendental, godly presence animated the universe and put him at odds with what he saw as the wicked materialism of the times and its adjutants: pride, secularism, agnosticism, liberalism, and democracy.
Carlyle came to regard poets and writers as the new prophets of the age. In 1824 he published an English translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, and in 1825 he published his own Life of Schiller. In 1827 he published four volumes of translations from the work of prominent German writers, known together as German Romance.
In 1828 he and his wife, Jane, moved to the isolated outskirts of Craigenputtock in Scotland. From there Carlyle wrote and published Sartor Resartus (The tailor retailored) when Fraser's Magazine agreed to serialize it in 1833–1834. His prose immediately stood out. It was combative, emphatic, satirical, highly allusive, metaphorically recursive and often boldly paradoxical, embedded in a loose, elliptical sentence structure. His book called for a redressing of the imbalance between spiritual and material values in modern European society through personal, inward reformation. In 1834 he and wife, Jane, moved to Chelsea, London.
The publication of The French Revolution in 1837 transformed Carlyle into a public figure. No dependable history yet existed in English of the French Revolution. Carlyle penned it in a fiery, momentous style that made his narrative palpable to readers. Characteristically, he ranked personalities and circumstances ahead of abstract analysis, contending that history was driven by the irrational and often dark emotions of individuals. Its completion was unexpectedly delayed by two years. In the
winter of 1835, he loaned the manuscript to his friend John Stuart Mill and Mrs. Harriet Taylor, in whose possession it was mysteriously burned. For Carlyle, social instability and violence in France as elsewhere could only be checked by strong, heroic individuals, a subject he elaborated upon in On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841).
After The French Revolution, Carlyle turned to social questions in the form of essays and biographies. His 1839 publication on Chartism and his 1843 book, Past and Present, sharply attacked the social misery generated in England by the Industrial Revolution, especially that of women and children working in factories and mines. Past and Present targeted the "idle dilettantes" of the agricultural aristocracy who, he argued, ruled without virtue or talent. He also inveighed against the Corn Laws that kept the country elite enriched. He censured the unfeeling utilitarianism of the political economist Jeremy Bentham that championed a godless "profit and loss philosophy" and the laissez-faire policies that divided mankind into atomized cogs in vast profit-making machines. His social reformism was also motivated by fear of radical revolution from below. He derided democracy as mob rule.
Carlyle's later publications alternated between the biographical and the social, with Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (1845), Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), and his six-volume Frederick the Great (1858–1865). He was elected Rector of Edinburgh University in 1865, the year of his wife's death. That same year, Governor Edward John Eyre of Jamaica suppressed a rebellion of plantation workers in Morant Bay, allowing at least 439 people to be killed retributively. Between 1866 and 1869 Carlyle headed a committee that defended Eyre in a fierce public debate that pitted him and his colleagues Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and Alfred Tennyson against Charles Darwin, T. H. Huxley, and Herbert Spencer. In this same period, Carlyle renewed his attacks on popular representative government through debates on the Second Reform Bill of 1867. He died in 1881.
Carlyle influenced many later Victorians who first read him in the 1830s and 1840s. His impact is present in Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil (1845), John Ruskin's Stones of Venice (1851–1853), and in Charles Dickens's Bleak House (1852–1853) and Hard Times (1854), the latter being dedicated to Carlyle. Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859) was based largely on Carlyle's French Revolution, which Dickens claimed to have read hundreds of times.
Ashton, Rosemary. Thomas and Jane Carlyle: Portrait of a Marriage. London, 2002.
Campbell, Ian. Thomas Carlyle. London, 1974.
Cumming, Mark, ed. Carlyle Encyclopedia. Madison, N.J., 2004.
Heffer, Simon. Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle. London, 1995.
Kaplan, Fred. Thomas Carlyle: A Biography. Ithaca, N.Y., 1983.
"Carlyle, Thomas." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carlyle-thomas-0
"Carlyle, Thomas." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire. . Retrieved September 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carlyle-thomas-0