There is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writingsGeorge Eliot, 1855
Carlyle is a nullity.Eric Bentley, 1945
His contemporaries did not understand [his political theory], but it can be defined in one single and pervasive word: Nazism.Jorge Luis Borges, 1979
Thomas Carlyle is hard to pin down. The conventional wisdom about his work has oscillated from reverence to indifference to vilification. From a low point after World War II, Carlyle’s reputation began to make a comeback in the 1960s with the publication of several important books examining his writing style: G.B. Tennyson’s Sartor Called Resartus (1965), Albert J. LaValley’s Carlyle and the Idea of the Modern (1968), John Holloway’s The Victorian Sage (1953), and George Levine’s The Boundaries of Fiction (1968). This renewed interest in Carlyle as prose stylist led to a closer look at his political positions from a modern perspective and, under this lens, the sage did not appear to advantage. Beginning in the 1970s he was increasingly pigeonholed as both racist and proto-fascist. His authoritarian and racist politics, the difficulties his style presents for modern readers, and the idiosyncratic paradoxes inherent in his views have all caused his works to show up less and less frequently on class reading lists.
Yet despite this trend, there has remained a thread of continuing interest in Carlyle’s works and a desire to explore their complexities. The ambitious new collection of essays Thomas Carlyle Resartus aims to keep that interest alive and to springboard Carlyle studies into the future. In their Introduction, editors Paul E. Kerry and Marylu Hill describe how this volume grew from an international Carlyle studies conference held at Villanova University in 2007. The event aimed to reevaluate Carlyle as a philosopher of politics and history and the essays in this collection continue that work. They succeed in retailoring Carlyle by making new connections between his texts and other nineteenth-century writing about the period’s concerns as well as by proposing alternative frameworks for evaluating his questionable views on race and governance.
Several authors in the collection suit up Carlyle anew as a man of his times. In a well-developed reading of Past and Present (1843), Chris R. Vanden Bossche gives a nuanced account of Carlyle’s ideas on reform, arguing that Carlyle redefines agency as primarily social rather than individual. Ralph Jessop proposes that Carlyle’s skepticism be read in the context of Enlightenment philosophy; in particular, the David Hume versus Thomas Reid debate about skepticism. Moving forward from this period context, Jessop then proposes that Carlyle’s ideas are relevant to modern debates about agency, relativism, and nihilism, as seen in the well-known exchange between Jurgen Habermas and Michel Foucault. Marylu Hill looks at the relationship between Edmund Burke and Carlyle’s theories of traditional social hierarchy, arguing that while both writers advocate a hierarchical society linked by bonds of affection and deference, Carlyle more emphatically requires that governors possess merit and a sense of social obligation to the governed. The reception of Carlyle’s writing in Britain, the United States, and Germany has been fairly well examined; Catherine Heyrendt looks into the less-explored area of Carlyle’s reception in France. Ian Campbell documents Carlyle’s influence on a range of nineteenth-century ideas about education, making connections between Carlyle’s thought and that of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and others. Carlyle’s ideas about history are explored by Kerry, Lowell T. Frye, and Laura Judd, while Tom Toremans and Hans Mattingly look carefully at the politics of reading the peculiar style of Sartor Resartus (1833-34). The collection concludes with two essays on Jane Welsh Carlyle (by Aileen Christianson and Kathy Chamberlain) that humanize the too-often caricatured portrait of Carlyle’s gifted, long-suffering partner.
All of these essays offer provocative readings of Carlyle’s work, but the most striking refashioning of it occurs in the selections on Carlyle’s racism and alleged proto-fascism. The Jessop essay, for example, follows its contextualization of Carlyle within Enlightenment thought by asserting that Carlyle’s extreme language in “Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question” (1853) is in fact ironic; that is, Carlyle’s racist diatribe builds on the tradition of eighteenth-century satire. Therefore, this much-maligned text “needs to be reread as a gravely humorous indictment of our own stupidity and moral weakness, and the inefficacy of political action to right the wrongs and injustices we oppose, or believe we oppose” (79). I would be interested to see a close reading that backed up this claim, as I have never been able to locate markers in the “Occasional Discourse” pointing to Carlyle’s satirical intent, especially since his views on solving problems in the West Indies line up exactly with his theory of hero-worship as a model for social governance. “Occasional Discourse” is also reexamined by F.S.J. Ledgister, who places it in the context of other period writing on the West Indies, showing Carlyle to be but one voice among many in this charged debate. For example, as Ledgister describes, Carlyle’s disciple J.A. Froude actually traveled to the West Indies and returned to Britain with his racist prejudices intact. The account of his travels Froude wrote after this trip then prompted J.J. Thomas, a self-educated schoolmaster from Trinidad, to pen a sharp rebuke to Froude, entitled “Froudacity” (1889). In this screed, Thomas writes presciently of West Indian independence and, in so doing, becomes “a forerunner to the West Indian nation” (129).
For this reader, the most exciting and original essay in the collection is Jonathan McCollum’s discussion of the Nazi appropriation of Carlyle. Apparently, McCollum wrote this piece while a masters candidate, proving the collection’s premise that Carlyle’s work remains ripe for study. McCollum explores the most damning of the charges leveled at Carlyle – that his work provided the philosophical foundation for twentieth-century totalitarianism and genocide. He counters these charges by carefully examining where, why, and how Carlyle was read in Nazi Germany, concluding that the Nazis perverted Carlyle’s ideas to justify their deplorable actions, and asserting that “some Western academicians have unwittingly accepted Nazi propaganda” (200). A few of the essay’s more notable claims based on the two documented connections between Hitler and Carlyle’s work: in 1924 Hitler quoted from Carlyle during a court case; and, during the last days of the war, when hiding out in his bunker, the almost-defeated Führer read Carlyle’s History of Frederick the Great (1858-65) and discussed it with Goebbels. According to McCollum, Hitler read Frederick less as a political theory of absolutism than as the lauding of an indomitable German leader whose example provided comfort during his darkest hours. Moreover, McCollum points out that, before the Nazis, most German historians acknowledged the factual inaccuracies of Carlyle’s flattering biography of Frederick, but that the Nazis glossed over them in co-opting Frederick for propaganda purposes. Interestingly, one German Ph.D. in history wrote his dissertation on the relationship between Carlyle’s thought and National Socialist philosophy. However, for all this scholar’s Nazi convictions, he could not help concluding that the despite some points of overlap, Carlyle’s worldview was fundamentally incompatible with Nazism. McCollum’s essay contains many new findings such as these and is must-reading for scholars of Carlyle and fascism.
Overall, Thomas Carlyle Resartus has much to recommend it. The essays are jargon-free and clearly written without sacrificing complexity. The range of Carlyle’s opus is covered thoroughly: frp, the idealistic, anti-materialist writings of his early years, and the politically engaged works of his middle period, to the shrill, dogmatic later texts. For the scholar relatively new to Carlyle, the editor’s Introduction and several of the essays provide useful critical histories and the collection as a whole contains a wealth of documentation for further reading. This book will be of great interest to anyone actively working on the Carlyle, as well as scholars interested in nineteenth-century political discourse and intellectual history.
The collection does have limitations, however. As one might expect from a book that emerged from conference presentations, some of the essays do not so much advance a delineated argument as map out territory for further study. Following the editor’s metaphor, I would suggest that the collection leaves Carlyle half-dressed – not a serious problem, given that the book hopes to inspire further retailoring. A more noticeable limitation appears, for this reader, in the lack of essays analyzing Carlyle’s ideas from a gender studies perspective. Since the 1995 publication of James Eli Adams’s Dandies and Desert Saints, this thread of Carlyle criticism has been steadily unwinding, but the collection does not demonstrate awareness of this trend toward examining Carlyle’s ideas about not just universal Man, but also actual Victorian-era men and their various styles of embodying manhood.
Nevertheless, as shown by the range and relevance of the essays contained in Thomas Carlyle Resartus, academic interest in the Sage is alive and perhaps growing, and after finishing the collection one looks forward to seeing what the next season of scholarship will show us.
David Hennessee teaches British literature, LGBT literature and media, and composition at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. His work has been published in Dickens Studies Annual, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, and Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies.