Leaping on Tables

Norman Vance

The contradictory quality of Carlyle’s achievement as intuitive sage, seminal interpreter of German Romanticism, sworn enemy of mechanical and reductive views of life, outrageous ranter and charismatic humbug is already present in the early Sartor Resartus, lively and opaque by turns, a book which inspired the young and bewildered their elders. A devastating social critic over-impressed by heroes and dictators, Carlyle was humane and savage, radical and racist, an agnostic quoted by churchmen and praised as ‘a prophet in the midst of an untoward generation’ in Dean Stanley’s funeral sermon in Westminster Abbey. He was sympathetic to Irish sufferings after the Famine, but almost equally sympathetic to Cromwellian ferocity in Ireland two centuries earlier. In the 1840s he was much admired by Marx and Engels. Both were deeply impressed by Past and Present (1843), his dramatic onslaught on the chaos and inhumanity of industrial England in the hungry 1840s. This text was a powerful influence on Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, written in 1844, and contributed to The Communist Manifesto the idea of the cash nexus as the only real connection between master and men in a degraded capitalist society. But Carlyle’s obnoxious ‘Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question’ (1849) and his violent, jingoistic and misanthropic Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) seemed to confirm Marx’s conviction that the leading talents of the bourgeoisie were now in decline, morally and intellectually, and prompted a harsh reassessment. Carlyle had earlier translated the whimsical German Romantic novelist Jean Paul Richter, lyrical and discursive by turns, a major influence on Sartor Resartus, and Marx now noted and deplored the pervasive effect on Carlyle’s style of this ‘literary apothecary’. Anthony Trollope and Edward Fitzgerald thought Carlyle had finally gone mad, and former disciples such as Matthew Arnold denounced him as frankly dangerous, a ‘moral desperado’.

Some of the mud stuck. It was soon apparent that he was unwholesomely fascinated by Blood and Iron. In 1874, at Bismarck’s behest, the Kaiser conferred on him the Prussian Order of Merit, mainly in recognition of his hero-worshipping biography Frederick the Great (1858-65), but this kind of recognition, reflected for a time in countless German dissertations, proved something of a liability when Bismarck and Frederick went out of fashion. A century later his work was largely forgotten (or strategically ignored) by most German scholars. Until quite recently his reputation in Germany (and indeed elsewhere) has been deeply stained with guilt by association: in the last days of the war, when Hitler was in the bunker, Goebbels had encouraged him by reading out inspirational bits of Frederick the Great.

Carlyle has usually fared better in North America, where more respectable enthusiasts have never been scarce. He had enormous difficulty in getting a British publisher for Sartor Resartus, his first important book, written in 1831, and eventually settled for serial publication in Fraser’s Magazine in 1833-34, but the young Emerson was so excited and impressed that he arranged for an American edition to be published in Boston in 1836, the first of many. The first British trade edition did not appear until 1838. When it came to scholarly editions, the Americans were again the first in the field: in 1896 a Boston publisher (Ginn) brought out the first annotated Sartor, edited by the Canadian German scholar and essayist Archibald MacMechan, who provided much-needed assistance with the densely allusive text. Even as Norwood was charting the decline and fall of Carlyle’s reputation, an American enthusiast, Isaac Watson Dyer, was completing his comprehensive Bibliography of Thomas Carlyle’s Writings. The multi-volume Duke-Edinburgh edition of the Collected Letters owes a great deal to the American Carlyle scholar and founding editor C.R. Sanders. The new Strouse Carlyle Edition, intended to replace the unsatisfactory and unannotated 30-volume Centenary Edition (1896-99), is also American, administered by the Dickens Project, a ‘multicampus research group of the University of California’. It has been made possible by the richness of the Carlyle materials, including Carlyle’s corrected proofs for the 1841 edition of Sartor, collected by Norman and Charlotte Strouse and donated to UC Santa Cruz in 1966.

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