Thomas Carlyle

Scottish philosopher, writer, historian, and critic Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) dominated European and American thought in the 1830's and 1840's. A passionate Germanophile, his translations of Schiller, Goethe, and other German Romantics were profoundly influential on both sides of the Atlantic and formed a linked between German, English, and ultimately American Romantic thought. To these he added his own masterpieces, The History of the French Revolution (1837), On Heroes and Hero Worship (1840), Past and Present (1843), and his spiritual autobiography, Sartor Resartus (1833).

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Photo: T. Carlyle / E. Hader, pinxit ; phot. u. verl. v. Sophus Williams, Berlin W.; digital ID: cph 3c34797; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Educated at Edinburgh University, Carlyle abandoned his plans for entering the ministry in favor of a career in literature. He married Jane Welsh in 1826, and for the next 40 years she remained his personal and intellectual helpmate. An accomplished author herself and an energetic, witty woman who numbered among her friends the Brownings, Mazzini, Tennyson, and the Gilchrists, she devoted much of her life with Carlyle to domestic chores and to assuaging the humors of her temperamental spouse. When she died in 1866, Carlyle mourned “a blow that shattered his whole existence into immeasurable ruin.”

Carlyle’s flamboyant prose, with its focus on the individual and on personal viewpoints (“history is the essence of innumerable biographies”), transformed the way historical narrative would be written. Carlye’s sympathy for the industrial poor would influence successive generations of social novels, and his study of medieval abbey life offered a new perspective on machinery, craftsmanship, and industrial progress. Increasingly, however, he grew conservative in his thoughts, alienating a poet of democracy like Walt Whitman with racist views of African Americans and criticism of the American experiment.

Yet despite reservations about Carlyle’s democratic theories, which he expressed in Democratic Vistas, Whitman, like Emerson, Fuller, and many other thinkers of the American Renaissance, found Carlyle to be the key to European Romanticism. It was in Carlyle’s translations that Whitman first encountered German literature, and he shared with Carlyle a fondness for the Folk Movement, a love of Robert Burns, and a passion for the common man. But the correspondences go even deeper. From Carlyle’s pantheon of heroes–religious founders, prophets, and poets–Whitman gained inspiration for creating his own identity: the modern Poet-Prophet of the Self. From Sartor Resartus, whose satire Whitman reviewed as “weird, grotesque,” but whose admixture of ecstasy and pain, real and surreal, boasting and brag, sounded a sympathetic chord, Whitman may well have found the energy to proclaim in Leaves of Grass: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

Carlyle’s prestige as a historian and his reputation as a social prophet and critic were unassailable during his lifetime, though since his death in 1881 critical opinion has viewed his work–especially his beliefs in authoritarian leadership–with increasing unease, particularly after the abominations of Fascism. Nevertheless, Carlyle remains admired as a prose writer of genius who had the courage to use grand rhetoric with great abandon, reveling in exclamatory turbulence, emotional evocations, and clever coinages.

As Margaret Fuller wrote in 1841 in the Transcendentalist publication The Dial, “Where shall we find another who appeals so forcibly, so variously to the common heart of his contemporaries?”

–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing

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