Thomas Carlyle

David Sorensen and Brent E. Kinser

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online July 2012 | | DOI:
Thomas Carlyle

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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—Oliver Cromwell, Frederick the Great, and Napoléon and more ominously José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, Edward Eyre, and Otto von 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. Tragically Carlyle became identified with the worst excesses of mechanistic social engineering, which he had denounced so memorably in his greatest works, Sartor Resartus (1833–1834), The French Revolution (1837), and Past and Present (1843). Like his beloved Prussia, he disappeared from the cultural 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.

Article.  10678 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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