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Thomas Carlyle


Thomas Carlyle
(1795—1881)

Essayist and historian

One of the foremost writers and intellectuals of his era, Carlyle wrote influential works on The French Revolution, Cromwell and Frederick the Great, emphasising the cult of a great man as national moral leader.

Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan, Dumfries and Galloway, as the son of a stonemason and small farmer. He was brought up in a strict Calvinist household. At the age of 15 he went to University of Edinburgh, receiving his B.A. in 1813. From 1813 to 1818 he studied for the ministry of the Church of Scotland, but abandoned this course and studied law for a while.

Carlyle taught at Annan Academy (1814-16), at Kircaldy Grammar School (1816-18), and privately in Edinburg (1818-22). During this time he worked at his Life of Schiller, which was first published by the London Magazine in 1823-24. He wrote contributions for Brewter's Edinburgh Encyclopedia, also contributing to such journals as Edinburgh Review and Fraser's Magazine. From 1824 he was a full-time writer and undertook thorough study of German literature, especially Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Carlyle's essays on German philosophy introduced many new ideas to the British public. He also produced a translation of a work by Goethe, which was highly acclaimed.

In 1826 Carlyle married Jane Baillie Welsh, whose wit made her an exellent letterwriter - her circle of correspondents included many eminent Victorians. Oppressed by financial difficulties the Carlyles returned to Jane's farm at Craigenputtock and concentrated on writing. While staying in London in 1831, Carlyle became acquainted with J.S. Mill, who later introduced him to Emerson, the American philosopher and essayist. In 1834 he moved with his wife to London. Carlyle's breakthrough work, Sartor Resartus, was published in 1833-34. Part autobiography, part philosophy, it was written using an energetic, complex language that came to be called 'Carlylese'. Another major work, a three volume history of the French Revolution, appared in 1837, and a biography of Fredrick the Great in 1858-65. From 1837 to 1840 Carlyle undertook several series of lectures, of which the most significant was On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841).

After his wife's death in 1866, from which he never completely recovered, Carlyle retired from public life, and wrote little. He gave her papers and letters in 1871 to his friend J.A. Froude, who published them after Carlyles death. Froude also published Carlyle's Reminiscenes (1881) and a four-volume biography (1882-84). Carlyle was appointed Rector of the University of Edinburgh in 1866, and in 1874 he received Prussian Order of Merit. However, Carlyle declined baronecy from Disraeli. Carlyle died on February 5, 1881 in London. His grave is in Ecclefechan.

History was Carlyle the storehouse of 'heroes', and in this intuitive spirit he wrote such works as The French Revolution (1837), On Heroes and Hero Worship, Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (1845), Frederick II of Prussia (1858-65). He opposed analytic reasoning and quasi-scientific treatment of social questions by the rationalist political economists, and advocated the more emotional and intuitive approach of the 18th and 19th century German thinkers like Richter and Goethe. Carlyle's Sartor Resartus was a disguised spiritual autobiography, in which he faces the tendencies to intellectual scepticism and dedicates himself to a life of spiritual affirmation. The first half of the book is about the ideas of a self-made philosopher who believes everything can be explained in terms of clothes. The French Revolution was written in dramatic language bringing the history of the revolution alive in a way that few historians have ever done. However, the manuscript was first accidentally burned by a domestic servant and Carlyle rewrote the book, which was published when he was 42.

As an essayist Carlyle's career began with two pieces in the Edinburgh Review in 1827. He expressed sympathy for the condition of the working class in the long essay Chartism (1839). In 'The Negro Question' (1850) he addressed the subject of West Indian slavery in intemperate and for the modern day reader doubtly repugnant terms. Carlyle's cynicism with English society was evident in the Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850). As in his historical studies, Carlyle insisted the importance of the individual, and raised serious questions about democracy, mass persuasion, and politics. This also isolated him from the liberal and democratic tendencies of his age. In the 20th-century his reputation waned, partly because his trust in authority and admiration of strong leaders, which were interpreted as foreshadowing of Fascism.