Thomas Carlyle was born on the 4th of December, 1795.
Thomas Carlyle was a grumpy old man, but then again, he was a grumpy young man, too. It’s fair to say he had good reason as he quite probably suffered from gastric ulcers throughout most of his life. He is generally presented as having been crotchety and argumentative, and even his great friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said he “…talks like a very unhappy man, profoundly solitary, displeased and hindered by all men and things about him”. Regardless of all that, Carlyle was a leading Victorian intellectual. It’s easy to say that he was an essayist, writer, translator, historian, and influential social critic, but he’s not that easy to categorise as he wasn’t a philosopher and he was much more than a critic. His early works inspired such social reformers as John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, Thomas Mann and William Morris, however, by the late 1840s, his progressive opinions seem to have progressed to the right. At least that is the common analysis, which stems from his admiration of strong leaders being interpreted as a foreshadowing of Fascism and the oft repeated story of Göbbels having read Carlyle’s work on Frederick the Great to Hitler in their Berlin bunker. What does that prove? That even dictators have a discerning taste in books.
Carlyle wrote a lot of good books, some would say great books; none of which were novels, but there are one or two that were novel. Carlyle’s most novel work and his breakthrough publication was called ‘Sartor Resartus’ (‘The Tailor Retailored’), which was published in ‘Fraser’s Magazine’ between 1833 and 1834. It is partly autobiographical and wholly enigmatic, and it was written using a complex language that came to be called ‘Carlylese’. It is also partly philosophy as it tells the story of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, a German self made philosopher who believes everything can be explained in terms of clothes, which seems quite absurd. Teufelsdröckh undertakes a spiritual journey in “One age [of which], he is hag-ridden, bewitched; the next, priestridden, befooled; in all ages, bedevilled”. It is a satire and the source of Carlyle’s reputation as a social critic deeply concerned with the falseness of material wealth and the social conditions of workers.
Carlyle’s work comprises thirty volumes, so you’ve got a lot of catching up to do if you want to get through even a shortlist. One of his key themes was that of leadership, a quality that he admired and propounded in his six volumes about Frederick the Great and in ‘The Early Kings of Norway’. In his famous work ‘On Heroes and Hero Worship’ he put forward the concept of the leader as hero, whom the people should recognise and worship, and the examples he used ranged from the Prophet Mohammed to Will Shakespeare. Perhaps folks would have a different view of Mohammed if they also saw his as a man who “single-handedly, could weld warring tribes and wandering Bedouins into a most powerful and civilized nation in less than two decades”. One downside of Carlyle’s searing honesty is that his treatment of the subject of West Indian slavery in ‘The Negro Question’ is an anathema to the modern reader; leave that one off your list.
In his writing, Carlyle raised serious questions about democracy, politics and mass persuasion, which aren’t a million miles from the ‘will to power’ theories in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ by Friedrich Nietzsche. However, in that very book, Nietzsche called Carlyle an “insipid muddlehead”, suggesting he’d failed to escape from the very petty-mindedness he professed to condemn. However, George Eliot was a fan, suggesting, “…surely there is no one who can read and relish Carlyle feeling that they could no more wish him to have written in another style than they could wish Gothic architecture not to be Gothic... No novelist has made his creations live for us more thoroughly than Carlyle… what depth of appreciation, what reverence for the great and godlike under every sort of earthy mummery!”.
Carlyle’s love of German literature led to his translations of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and others. His translation of Goethe’s ‘Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre’, is regarded as a masterpiece. He also wrote ‘The Life of Schiller’ and was largely responsible for introducing German Romantic literature to Britain. To Carlyle, history was the storehouse of heroes and he once wrote that “All that mankind has done, thought or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books.”. His three volume history ‘The French Revolution’ presents historical facts, but also sets out to question the nature of the facts with which historians deal. He must’ve been a bit of hero himself as he had to rewrite that book after John Stuart Mill’s maid mistakenly burned the original first volume. He graciously accepted £100 compensation from Mill, who had originally offered twice as much.
Thomas Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan, on the 4th of December, 1795. He was educated at the village school, in Annan Academy and, from the age of fifteen, at Edinburgh University, where he studied arts and mathematics. Afterwards, he taught at Annan Academy, Kirkcaldy Grammar School and privately in Edinburgh, where he also studied law, briefly. During that period he worked on his book about Schiller, which was first published by the ‘London Magazine’ in serial form between 1823 and 1824. He also contributed to Brewster’s ‘Edinburgh Encyclopaedia’ and such journals as the ‘Edinburgh Review’ and ‘Fraser’s Magazine’. Thomas was expected to become a preacher, but he lost his inbred Calvinist faith and went on to serve mankind by means of an admirable alternative. From 1824 he was a full time writer and in 1834, moved from the farm at Craigenputtock to London, where he became known as ‘the Sage of Chelsea’.
In the last few years of his life, Carlyle’s writing was confined to letters to ‘The Times’. He was appointed Rector of the University of Edinburgh in 1866 and in 1874, he received the ‘Prussian Order of Merit’. Thomas Carlyle died in London on the 5th of February, 1881. Carlyle had declined a Baronetcy from the Prime Minister, Disraeli, and although it was arranged that he could be buried in Westminster Abbey, his earnest wish was granted and he was buried in Scotland; in lowly Ecclefechan.