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.
Further Reading on Thomas Carlyle
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).
Additional Biography Sources
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.