U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Premature Death of Thomas Carlyle?

carlyleWhen surveying a period of history not really in my normal purview—in this case, Victorian America—reading around feels something like walking about another person’s house in the dark, maneuvering my way around corners and down staircases by keeping one hand on the wall, comparing the shape of the house to a rudimentary floor-plan in my head, one pieced together from basic reference works, fugitive references in more specialized monographs, and general knowledge. Occasionally, out of curiosity, I will tap on the walls to confirm their solidity, their conformity to the floor plan. And every once in awhile, the wall unexpectedly proves hollow: a makeshift of plasterboard and paint blocking off a room that’s been ignored or forgotten, maybe even disavowed, deliberately walled in.

Such is the sensation—uncanny, tenebrous—I’ve gotten from pursuing Thomas Carlyle through a couple of thickets of US intellectual history, both in relatively recent historiography and in primary sources coming from the American Renaissance through the Second World War. Carlyle is one of these Cask of Amontillado enclosures in US intellectual history, at least so far as I can tell. On the one hand, his extraordinary friendship with Emerson, his influence on Thoreau, his acquaintance with the generation of Higginson and Norton[1]—these are faits connus, part of the background knowledge of these figures and of the broader intellectual context of the nineteenth-century Atlantic. But background knowledge is seldom re-sifted, and even if it is, it is most commonly returned to the background, relegated to inert allusion or a latent awareness.

Whitman wrote in Specimen Days:

As a representative author, a literary figure, no man else will bequeath to the future more significant hints of our stormy era, its fierce paradoxes, its din, and its struggling parturition periods, than Carlyle… It will be difficult for the future—judging by his books, personal dissympathies, &c.,—to account for the deep hold this author has taken on the present age, and the way he has color’d its method and thought. I am certainly at a loss to account for it all as affecting myself. But there could be no view, or even partial picture, of the middle and latter part of our Nineteenth century, that did not markedly include Thomas Carlyle.

Eric Bentley, the great Anglo-American drama critic of the mid-twentieth century, provided both a protest against and a confirmation of this difficulty in his 1945 “The Premature Death of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1945): An Obituary and a Footnote.” He insists that Carlyle’s “‘good’ influence lasted till—early in the twentieth century—it petered out in women’s clubs and elementary college classes [and h]is ‘evil’ influence has also ended—for the present at any rate—with the death of Hitler and Mussolini…” But as Bentley continues, we find that his belief that Carlyle will be sentenced to oblivion is not founded on a principled rejection of his thought due to its being indelibly stained by fascism’s embrace, but rather on a certain unwillingness to bother with the complexity of Carlyle’s moral, intellectual, and rhetorical tergiversations (this is a fun quote):

He was as much of a windbag as any of the liberals whom he mocked. He was not a great philosopher, nor can one regard what he did to English prose with much enthusiasm. If all his writings have their good moments, like Wagner’s operas they have their bad half-hours… In these days when it is comforting to find authors whom one may be excused for not reading, Carlyle will be among the first on our index. He is morally dangerous, aesthetically boring or repellent, and personally a neurotic whose psychoses are too evident and too simple to interest a public glutted with the most refined insanities. Why, it might be asked, if we condemn Ezra Pound and Charles Maurras and Knut Hamsun living, ought we to praise Carlyle dead?

Bentley disagrees with any such dismissal, insisting that Carlyle poses more directly than almost anyone else the question of leadership in democracy, a problem that he believed militant democrats continuously evade. Carlyle’s challenge to liberal pieties, he argued, was so chaotic and vigorous that it would more likely be sidestepped and forgotten than confronted and demolished, at least as long as more straightforward intellectual villains remained close at hand.

Putting Bentley and Whitman together, one apparently needed to drink in the same stormy air as Carlyle, the last tendrils of the smoke of the Napoleonic campaigns, the still newly charred fumes of Manchester, the brittle breath of Parliament responding to the Chartists, to get the full measure of the Annandale sage. Otherwise, the twentieth century has problems enough: “do the duty that lies nearest thee!”—a Goethe quote beloved by Carlyle.

But that is to romanticize, to heroize Carlyle beyond reach, beyond analysis, and, to be frank, beyond interest. To treat Carlyle like a captive of his age is to absolve later historians from seeing him as anything but a part of the background, a symptom not a shaper, a costume not a tailor. Why bother?

Bentley, however, was basically wrong about Carlyle’s permanent eclipse: it is not that he faded from view but that he has stuck in the tail of our eye. We notice him, someone writes a monograph or a couple of articles, then we refocus on the matters facing us. To revert to my original figure, the plasterboard goes back up, and the next person has to find the hollow space behind it yet again.

The intensity and duration of Carlyle’s relationship to Emerson is a case in point. Important enough for an entire monograph in 1978,[2] in Lawrence Buell’s 2003 Emerson, Carlyle rarely stands alone, almost always is accompanied by Goethe or Coleridge or Wordsworth, Mill or Ruskin or Arnold. It’s obviously not the case that Buell failed to take the friendship between the two giants into account; it’s that his account did not consider it a substantial factor, one worth developing independently from the general catalogue of Romantic and Victorian intellectuals.

There is a certain truth to Bentley’s belief that Carlyle is simply too earnestly self-contradictory to become again a focal point of our understanding of transatlantic intellectual culture since the advent of industrialism, since the first real movements toward universal enfranchisement took hold. Unlike other figures who abound in self-contradiction—Whitman, for instance—Carlyle requires a kind of emotional and intellectual work from the reader that is difficult to sustain: we forgive Whitman (or Emerson) an inconsistency, but Carlyle challenges us not to forgive him anything. He does not want us to modulate our response to him; he wants an absolute yes or an absolute no from us at every second, and he want us to maintain the same response to him from first word to the last.

Chesterton wrote of this very well in one of the best measurements of Carlyle’s style and mentality that I have come across:

Where Carlyle really did harm was in the fact that he, more than any modern man, is responsible for the increase of that modern habit of what is vulgarly called ‘Going the whole hog.’ Often in matters of passion and conquest it is a singularly hoggish hog. This remarkable modern craze for making one’s philosophy, religion, politics, and temper all of a piece, of seeking in all incidents for opportunities to assert and reassert some favourite mental attitude, is a thing which existed comparatively little in other centuries. Solomon and Horace, Petrarch and Shakespeare were pessimists when they were melancholy, and optimists when they were happy. But the optimist of to-day seems obliged to prove that gout and unrequited love make him dance with joy, and the pessimist of to-day to prove that sunshine and a good supper convulse him with inconsolable anguish. Carlyle was strongly possessed with this mania for spiritual consistency. He wished to take the same view of the wars of the angels and of the paltriest riot at Donnybrook Fair. It was this species of insane logic which led him into his chief errors, never his natural enthusiasms.

It is also this absolutism, this mania for the ‘whole hog,’ that I think is what made Carlyle such a powerful diagnostician of society. In a subsequent post, I may look at the way that I think Carlyle’s influence in terms of the genre of holistic social diagnosis (think Lippmann or Lasch) has persisted throughout the twentieth century: Carlyle’s positing, for the first time, the “condition of England question” remains instantly recognizable as a rhetorical mode today.

[1] Well, better than acquaintance—Charles Eliot Norton became Carlyle’s literary executor.

[2] Kenneth Marc Harris, Carlyle and Emerson: Their Long Debate (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. this is a great series of reflections, and I’m eager to know a bit more about Carlyle’s legacy, since indeed he is someone I have tried to read a bit recently.

    At the end here, you suggest Carlyle is compelling within “the genre of holistic social diagnosis.” I wonder to what degree this can be separated from the legacy of Hegelian social thought. That’s where taking the ‘spirit of the age’ comes from, after all. Carlyle, of course, is one of the big ‘transmitters’ of this way of thinking (Sartor Resartus!). Can he be said to have made it literary, and therefore appealing? Or is this to be distinguished from the suggestion, in that last wonderful long quote, of foolish spiritual consistency, going whole hog (Emerson?), getting in the way of naturally good taste? that last is also a common 19th century trope, whoever it was had great taste, natural intelligence, but was beholden to a bad system…

  2. Thanks, Eric! I would need to do some more research to answer your question well, but I would say that the German influence on Carlyle’s social diagnostic writings was relatively oblique, coming from Goethe, Novalis, Richter, Schiller, and Tieck (the writers he translated). At any rate, Carlyle’s “Signs of the Times” (I’m really hoping I eventually uncover a connection between the Prince album and this essay, but that’s unlikely) was published in 1829, and I don’t believe Hegel had made much of an impact in England at that point.

    So I think you are entirely right to see the literary as the mode from which Carlyle’s social diagnostic impulse sprang–and, after all, it easily went right back into the literary, with Dickens’s Hard Times, which was dedicated to Carlyle.

  3. Eric, I just ran across this great quote from Engels in an 1844 review of Past and Present. Hope it helps, or is at least interesting to you:
    “For us Germans, who know the antecedents of Carlyle’s position, the matter is clear enough. On the one hand vestiges of Tory romanticism and humane attitudes originating with Goethe, and on the other scepticalempirical England, these factors are sufficient for one to deduce the whole of Carlyle’s view of the world from them. Like all pantheists, Carlyle has not yet resolved the contradiction, and Carlyle’s dualism is aggravated by the fact that though he is acquainted with German literature, he is not acquainted with its necessary corollary, German philosophy, and all his views are in consequence ingenuous, intuitive, more like Schelling than Hegel. With Schelling ” that is to say, with the old Schelling not the Schelling of the philosophy of revelation – Carlyle really has a great deal in common; with Strauss, whose outlook is similarly pantheistic, he is on common ground in his ‘heroworship’ or ‘cult of genius.'”

  4. I am really enjoying this series on Carlyle, it speaks to my interest in Latin American appropriations of his “holistic social diagnosis,” especially the rhetoric of the “signs of the times.” Andy, I am particularly interested in seeing if you end up engaging with Carlyle’s engagement with reading and interpreting such signs, what does the act of “discerning” them–that’s the word he utilizes–signify in connection to both the present and the past. The link with Emerson here becomes more visible, it makes me think of Eduardo Cadava’s lovely book on Emerson and the tropes of the weather in his work: Emerson and the Climate of History.

    • Kahlil, thanks so much for this comment, and sorry for my delay in getting to it. I haven’t read all of Cadava’s book, but I wanted to read a bit of it before I responded to you.

      I think that Carlyle and Emerson are actually fairly far apart on the question of reading signs or discerning social patterns. Even in “Signs of the Times,” Carlyle is fully comfortable defining a single element as foundational to all else: the Machine. I don’t think that Emerson could tolerate such a brute-force summation of an “age,” much less a moment. In his essay “Characteristics,” Carlyle translated Schiller’s aphorism “immer wird, nie ist”–which to my mind perfectly captures the endless morphing and troping of Emerson’s prose–as “never is, always is a-being.” To me, “is a-being” misses out on most of the resonances of werden in rather revealing ways. For Carlyle, change is a process of discrete states, each defined by the dominance of one particular influence. Eventually, the dominance of that influence is weakened by successive attacks on it, until it is no longer the strongest influence; at which time, some other influence immediately steps in to take its place.

      My understanding of Emerson places him very far away from this conception of change. Carlyle looks for a common denominator, a bottom-line which defines the most powerful influence of the moment; Emerson looks for a sort of confluence, a place where many influences meet in order to read the weather patterns of history. At least, that’s been my reading so far–but I’d love to hear more of your thoughts!

      • I have to echo Tim on your way with words, this is not only illuminating, but has a wondrous fluidity to it. So we have then a mechanical approach in Carlyle, could we describe Emerson’s approach then as organic? Cadava would probably disagree, since he argues, in a classical poststructuralist flourish, that Emerson’s weather / history reading as symptomatic of its time but also as breaking away from it and inserting itself in a genealogy of skeptical thought that connects with, surprise, poststructuralism.

  5. Andy: You mention (Matthew) Arnold as a fan. Indeed, Carlyle’s name comes up numerous times in *Culture and Anarchy*. My sense from Arnold—a feeling corroborated, I think, by your post—is that one’s feelings about Carlyle might hinge on perceptions of the French Revolution. I need to read a study that focuses on the reception of the French Revolution and its after-effects in American thought (surely that’s been done, numerous times, right? right?!). It seems that later attitudes about Victorian Era writers like Carlyle and Arnold are based on the perception of either writer vis-à-vis happenings in France. Indeed, Arnold’s skepticism about British (and American) “liberals” (i.e. bourgeois, individualist, business-oriented Philistines) is really about their overly optimistic attitudes toward mass democracy (read: resultant anarchy and Jacobinism). What are your thoughts on this?

    Also, great post! I find myself admiring your literary flourish in relation to my boring, prosy, nuts-and-bolts style (when people are feeling nice they call me “accessible”). – TL

  6. Tim, thanks for drawing out the Arnold thread here–I agree that he’s vitally important, and that both his and Carlyle’s reputations seem to correlate well with a speaker or writer’s views on the French Revolution. But I think there’s also something more fundamental linking all three: universal suffrage, and what one feels about it. (Maybe that’s what you meant by mass democracy, though–but I just want to highlight the difference.)

    You’ve undoubtedly read more about Arnold than I have, but one thing I ran across was that during one of his American tours, Arnold gave a lecture on Emerson which extensively contrasted Emerson and Carlyle–to Carlyle’s detriment! Some scholars have argued that Arnold’s relatively sour feeling about Carlyle came from the enormity of his influence–regardless, it’s an interesting little episode in transatlantic intellectual history.

    • Andy: You are correct that I was using democracy and universal suffrage interchangeably. That said, Arnold uses them that way, though he probably shouldn’t either. On Arnold’s sour v. positive view of Carlyle (perhaps it changed over time?), I confess that wasn’t the goal of my rereading so I may not be precisely remembering Arnold’s deepest feel for Carlyle. – TL

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