In This Article Thomas Carlyle

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Collected Works
  • Other Editions
  • Manuscript Sources
  • Essay Collections
  • Critical Monographs
  • Carlyle and the Victorians
  • Carlyle and Scotland & Ireland
  • Carlyle and America
  • Carlyle and Germany
  • Carlyle and France
  • Sartor Resartus
  • The French Revolution
  • On Heroes and Hero-Worship
  • Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell
  • Chartism and Past and Present
  • “The Negro Question” and Latter-Day Pamphlets
  • Frederick the Great and Beyond
  • Style and Stylistics
  • History and Philosophy of History
  • Religion and Theology
  • Science and Evolution
  • Radicalism and Social Criticism

Victorian Literature Thomas Carlyle
by
David Sorensen, Brent E. Kinser
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0037

Introduction

In the history of English literature, few figures have risen to such commanding heights and fallen to such neglect in the space of a century as the Victorian social critic, historian, essayist, and “prophet” Thomas Carlyle (b. 1795–d. 1881). In his own period he exerted a profound influence on a vast range of major figures, including politicians, theologians, scientists, economists, feminists, aesthetes, artists, novelists, poets, dramatists, historians, architects, and radicals and revolutionaries of every stamp. Carlyle established the terms of the “Condition of England” debate that dominated his age and played a pivotal role in shaping the response to it. His signal contribution to Victorian culture was his deep realization of the moral and spiritual cost of industrialization, which had mechanized every area of life and transformed individuals into passive units of production and consumption. No other writer in the 19th century, not even Karl Marx, understood the personal and the political repercussions of this change with such luminous insight as Carlyle. Yet his disillusionment with “laissez-faire” liberalism and Benthamite Utilitarianism gradually led him to an embittered embrace of illiberal solutions. Having lost faith in untidy humanity, he applauded the efforts of strong men—Cromwell, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon, and more ominously, Dr. Francia, Governor Eyre, and Bismarck—who ruthlessly imposed their will to achieve order. Though he fiercely denied the charge, Carlyle was widely accused of equating right with might. His callous and cruel denunciations of negroes, Jews, and Irish Catholics, and his concomitant celebration of “Teutonic” strength rendered him attractive to 20th-century authoritarian and totalitarian ideologues, who distorted his teachings to justify their attempts to purge society of racial and political imperfection. As a result, Carlyle became identified with the worst excesses of mechanistic social engineering, which he had denounced so memorably in his greatest works, Sartor Resartus, The French Revolution, and Past and Present. Similar to Prussia, he was erased from the intellectual landscape after 1945, only to be resurrected later as a flawed exemplar whose brutally paradoxical career warranted deeper study and consideration for the enduring truths that it yielded.

Biographies

Morrow 2006 is a valuable study of Carlyle’s intellectual and social mission. Ashton 2002 provides a meticulously detailed and balanced account of the Carlyle marriage. Heffer 1995 offers a valuable journalistic perspective of Carlyle. Kaplan 1983 is a generally reliable study. Campbell 2011 provides a solid and brief general introduction to Carlyle’s life and writings. Though dated, Wilson and MacArthur 1923–1934 remains an invaluable resource. Sloan 2010 includes a vivid photographic record of Carlyle’s Scottish landscape.

  • Ashton, Rosemary. Thomas and Jane Carlyle: Portrait of a Marriage. London: Chatto & Windus, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    An indispensable study of a marriage that intrigued and disturbed 20th-century feminists in equal measure. Though Ashton did not have access to the correspondence of Harriet Lady Ashburton to Carlyle (see Sorensen 2010, cited under New Letters and Other Collections), her treatment of their friendship and its corrosive impact on Jane Welsh Carlyle is evenhanded and astute.

  • Campbell, Ian. Thomas Carlyle. Glasgow: Kennedy and Boyd, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    A lucid study of Carlyle’s development as a writer and his intricate reconciliation of his Scottish intellectual inheritance with his German studies. Originally published in 1974.

  • Heffer, Simon. Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written in a prose that Carlyle would have judged “free of cant,” Heffer’s biography focuses on the social and political context of Carlyle’s life and writings. Particularly strong on Carlyle’s later brand of divinely and historically justified authoritarianism.

  • Kaplan, Fred. Thomas Carlyle: A Biography. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive study of Carlyle and his age, especially valuable for its discussion of his literary apprenticeship. Stylistically cumbersome and at times, theoretically questionable, it remains an important and useful source.

  • Morrow, John. Thomas Carlyle. New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    An excellent study of Carlyle’s intellectual development that carefully charts the course of his influence on the dominant social and political movements of his day.

  • Sloan, John MacGavin. The Carlyle Country; with a Study of Carlyle’s Life. Edited by Mary Hollern and Ian Campbell. Glasgow: Grimsay, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    A topographical biography lavishly illustrated with black-and-white photographs of the people and places that dominated Carlyle’s memory of his upbringing in Annandale, Nithsdale, and Galloway. Originally published in 1904.

  • Wilson, David Alec, and David Wilson MacArthur. Life of Carlyle. 6 vols. New York: Dutton, 1923–1934.

    E-mail Citation »

    Hagiographical, but still a vital trove of miscellaneous information, with valuable anecdotes and biographical vignettes that Wilson mines from a wide body of contemporary reminiscences, letters, and gossip.

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