Thomas Carlyle 1795-1881
Scottish philosopher, social critic, essayist, historian, biographer, translator, and editor.
For additional information on Carlyle's life and works, see .
Carlyle achieved literary notoriety for his penetrating and often scathing criticism of Victorian society. His writings demonstrate his opposition to the Victorian emphasis on the logical and mechanical nature of the universe and his feelings against democracy in Britain. In conveying these views, Carlyle developed a writing style so distinct that it has been referred to as "Carlylese," and such works as Sartor Resartus (1833-34) and The French Revolution (1837) are often regarded as revolutionary in both their prose and their content. Carlyle's methods and themes met with mixed and extreme reactions in his time and continue to fascinate twentieth-century scholars.
Carlyle was born in 1795 in Ecclefechan, Scotland, to James Carlyle, a stonemason, and Margaret Aitken Carlyle. He studied mathematics at Edinburgh University, but he left before earning his degree. Making a break with his Calvinist upbringing and family tradition, Carlyle chose not to become a clergyman, instead earning his living as a tutor at Annan and then as a schoolmaster at Kirkcaldy School. After returning to Edinburgh in 1818, Carlyle wrote occasional book reviews but grew increasingly depressed by his uncertainty regarding his vocation and religion. In the early 1820s, Carlyle appears to have undergone a spiritual conversion, which he later described in Sartor Resartus as a realization of a sense of individual freedom. In 1826, he married Jane Welsh, whom he had courted for some time. After publishing several essays, Carlyle attempted with much difficulty to place Sartor Resartus. It was finally accepted by Fraser's Magazine in 1833. Following a move to Chelsea, Carlyle began work on The French Revolution. It was published in 1837 and brought Carlyle recognition as a major literary figure. Most of Carlyle's major works were produced before the death of his wife—these works include On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (originally a series of lectures, published in 1841), Past and Present (1843), Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), The Life of John Sterling (1851), and History of Friedrich II. of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great (1858-65). Carlyle was devastated by the death of his wife in 1866, and his literary output after her death is small. Carlyle died in 1881.
The publication of Sartor Resartus established Carlyle as a social critic, though the work was received with much confusion because of its unique literary style. The title of the work means "the tailor re-tailored" and highlights the main theme of the work: that social customs and religious and political institutions are merely the "clothing" of essential realities. The book is presented as the efforts of a nameless editor, aided by a German colleague, to summarize the life and theories of the German Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (devil's dung). Teufelsdröckh's philosophy stresses that just as clothes go out of fashion, so do ideas and institutions, and they also must be reenvisioned or retailored. Therefore, the significance of being able to see through these symbols, or clothes, is emphasized throughout the work. Carlyle's literary style in this volume presents as many challenges to the reader as does his format in that it heavily employs allusion, metaphor, and other techniques that have been described as "eccentricities" and "syntactical aberrations."
In addition to this philosophy, sometimes characterized as a religious vision without a personal God, Carlyle also developed distinct ideas about the political, social, and economic troubles of his day. In The French Revolution, Carlyle sympathized with the revolutionaries to some extent but despised anarchy and appeared to fear the rule of the people. In On Heroes and Hero-Worship, Carlyle presented the view that the vast majority of people are unsuited to rule and instead need heroes to provide solid leadership. Additionally, in the essay "Chartism" (1839), Carlyle used the Chartist movement as an example of a threatening revolution in England and advocated British imperialism as the antidote for England's problems—problems that, in Carlyle's view, stemmed from democracy and attempts at reform. Similarly, in Past and Present, Carlyle questioned democracy and analyzed the problems of workers in England. Some have suggested that in this work Carlyle foresaw the growth and development of the Labor Party in England.
Just as readers and critics in Carlyle's time found Sartor Resartus perplexing, modern scholars disagree on Carlyle's intention in this work. The "Clothes Philosophy" has been discussed at length by critics, and many have a common understanding of its emphasis on symbolism, the idea that the world's institutions cloak a deeper, divine reality. Yet it is the method Carlyle used to convey this message—particularly the interplay between the Editor and the anonymous colleague—that is problematic for many critics. Lee C. R. Baker, for example, argues that the Editor's apparent skepticism about embracing Teufelsdröckh's philosophy (which would seem to undercut Carlyle's aim of getting the reader to embrace this philosophy) is actually ironic. The use of irony is necessary, Baker states, in order to help "bring forth the reader's own understanding of the Clothes Philosophy." D. Franco Felluga, however, maintains that efforts like Baker's to impose order or a "stable system of thought" on Sartor are attempts to "retailor" the work. Felluga argues that Carlyle's goal is to expose "all systems as limiting and false."
The French Revolution examines this period of history in a manner that took Carlyle's contemporary critics off guard. A review in the Athenaeum in 1837 charges Carlyle with carrying "quaintness, neologism and a whimsical coxcombery" through three volumes of "misplaced persiflage and flippant pseudo-philosophy." Modern scholars have been a bit more kind. Robert W. Kusch reviews Carlyle's marriage of metaphor and theme throughout the work and praises this union as Carlyle's "artistry at its best." With On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, it is the message, more than the method, that has attracted critical attention. Ernst Cassirer explains that Carlyle sought to "stabilize the social and political order" in England and was convinced that hero worship was the best way to achieve this aim. Tracing the effects of Carlyle's views into the twentieth century, Cassirer links him to National Socialism and even to Hitler, and claims that for Carlyle history was identified with great men without whom there would be only stagnation. David J. Delaura takes another view of Heroes, arguing that the unity of the lectures stems from Carlyle's efforts to "define the characteristics, the message, and the social role of the prophet." In examining these features, Delaura argues, Carlyle revealed himself as the hero of Heroes, as a prophet, "at times the prophet whose wise and healing word the age looked for."
Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship [translator; from Wilhem Meisters Lehrjahre by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe] (novel) 1824
The Life of Friedrich Schiller (biography) 1825
"Burns" (essay) 1828
"Signs of the Times" (essay) 1829
"Boswell's Life of Johsnon" (essay) 1832
*Sartor Resartus (prose) 1836 The French Revolution (history) 1837
"Sir Walter Scott" (essay) 1838
**Critical and Miscellaneous Essays. 4 vols. (essays) 1838-39
"Chartism" (essay) 1839 On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History(lectures) 1841
Past and Present (prose) 1843 Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches. 2 vols. [editor] (letters and speeches) 1845
Latter-Day Pamphlets (prose) 1850 The Life of John Sterling (biography) 1851
"Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question" (essay) 1853 The Collected Works of Thomas Carlyle. 16 vols.(prose, history, essays, biography, and translations) 1857-58
History of Friedrich II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great. 6 vols. (biography) 1858-65
"Shooting Niagra: And After?" (essay) 1867
Reminiscences (memoir) 1881
The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo...
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SOURCE: A review of The French Revolution, in The Athenaeum, May 20, 1837, pp. 353-55.
[In the following review, the anonymous critic offers a negative assessment of The French Revolution, describing Carlyle's history as "flippant pseudo-philosophy" and condemning his use of German idiomatic expressions and style.]
Originality of thought is unquestionably the best excuse for writing a book; originality of style is a rare and a refreshing merit; but it is paying rather dear for one's whistle, to qualify for obtaining it in the university of Bedlam. Originality, without justness of thought, is but novelty of error; and originality of style, without sound taste and discretion, is sheer affectation. Thus, as ever, the corruptio optimi turns out to be pessima; the abortive attempt to be more than nature has made us, and to add a cubit to our stature, ends by placing us below what we might be, if contented with being simply and unaffectedly ourselves. There is not, perhaps, a more decided mark of the decadence of literature, than the frequency of such extravagance; especially, if it eventually becomes popular. The youth of literature is distinguished by a progressive approach to simplicity and to good taste; but the culminating point once attained; the good and the beautiful, as the Italian poet sings, become commonplace and tiresome,—"caviare to the general"; and the sound canons...
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SOURCE: "The English Essays," in Thomas Carlyle as a Critic of Literature, The Columbia University Press, 1910, pp. 114-38.
[In the following essay, Roe discusses the only three essays Carlyle wrote on "English subjects," including Burns, Boswell's Life of Johnson, and Sir Walter Scott. Roe praises the critical method employed by Carlyle but acknowledges that in the case of the essay on Johnson, Carlyle assesses the man and his ideas rather than his literary influence.]
Carlyle wrote but three essays on English subjects, "Burns," "Boswell's Life of Johnson" and "Sir Walter Scott." He proposed to write others, notably one on Byron and another on "Fashionable Novels," but they never appeared, chiefly because Napier, the successor to Jeffrey as editor of the Edinburgh Review, to whom they were offered, was warned that Carlyle was a man to be feared as an intense radical and a hysterical worshipper of German divinities. The three essays, which therefore constitute his deliberate appreciation of English authors, cover a decade of time and roughly mark the end of three critical periods in Carlyle's literary fortunes. The essay on Burns was the first work executed at Craigenputtock, whither in 1828 he had moved from Edinburgh in order to toil and think and be beyond the reach of interruptions. His critical interest was now at its height, and he had entered the field of letters far enough to...
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SOURCE: "Carlyle's Past and Present: A Prophecy," in The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 1, January, 1922, pp. 30-40.
[In the following essay, Williams analyzes Carlyle's Past and Present, arguing that it provides "'a piercing glance into the feudal age, " an "acute critique upon contemporary England," and a glimpse into the future in which Carlyle foresees the rise of the Labor Party.]
One day when Mr. Arthur Henderson was stating in no uncertain terms what would be acceptable to the British Labor Party, a member of the audience was moved to quote to his neighbor a sentence from Carlyle's Past and Present: "Some 'Chivalry of Labour,' some noble humanity and practical divineness of labor, will yet be realized on this earth." Recent strikes, then, had made the Labor Party "chivalrous," if not "divine;" the speaker's tone was that of complacence, of realized prophecy. "Chivalrous" and "divine" are not the adjectives applied by all men to the Labor Party; but every faction would admit one other epithet, that of powerful. Every history of industrialism, of socialism, or merely of political history indicates the growth of the Labor Party; its progress since 1843, the date of the appearance of Past and Present, has been almost incalculable. Curiously enough Carlyle's book ends with a section called Horoscope, a somewhat incoherent and passionate...
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SOURCE: "The Preparation: Carlyle," in The Myth of the State, Yale University Press, 1946, pp. 189-223.
[In the following essay, Cassirer studies Carlyle's views on hero-worship, noting that Carlyle regarded hero-worship as a means of stabilizing the social and political disorder of his time. Cassirer also reviews the influence of Goethe and Fichte on Carlyle.]
Carlyle's Lectures on Hero Worship
When Thomas Carlyle on May 22, 1840, began his lectures On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History he spoke to a large and distinguished audience. A "mob of London society" had assembled to listen to the speaker. The lectures created a sort of sensation; but nobody could have foreseen that this social event was pregnant with great political consequences. Carlyle spoke to Englishmen of the Victorian era. His audience was between two and three hundred in number and "aristocratic in rank and intellect." As Carlyle says in one of his letters "bishops and all kinds of people had appeared; they heard something new and seemed greatly astonished and greatly pleased. They laughed and applauded."1 But assuredly none of the hearers could think for a moment that the ideas expressed in these lectures contained a dangerous explosive. Nor did Carlyle himself feel this way. He was no revolutionary; he was a conservative. He wished to stabilize the social and political...
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SOURCE: "The Early Development of Carlyle's Style," in PMLA, Vol. LXXII, No. 5, December, 1957, pp. 936-51.
[In the following essay, Roellinger asserts that the eccentric style of Carlyle's Sartor Resartus is absent from Carlyle's earlier writings. Roellinger maintains that a review of Carlyle's early writings shows that Carlyle "first mastered a rather conventional style, " patterns of which remain largely unbroken until the late 1820s.]
In his admirable lectures, The Problem of Style, J. Middleton Murry illustrates one of the most common meanings of the word "style" by this remark: "I know who wrote the article in last week's Saturday Review—Mr. Saintsbury. You couldn't mistake his style." Here, according to Mr. Murry, "'style' means that personal idiosyncrasy of expression by which we recognize a writer."1 This is a limited conception of style, but it is useful in studying the style of certain writers. Murry mentions Dr. Johnson, Gibbon, Meredith, and Henry James as appropriate subjects for this approach. We may add, with the authority of precedent, Thomas Carlyle.
For it is in this sense of "style" as a characteristic mode of expression, a highly individualized and frequently eccentric idiom, that critics have spoken of the style of Sartor Resartus and the later works. Some have gone so far as to call it, with or without disparagement,...
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SOURCE: "Ishmael as Prophet: Heroes and Hero-Worship and the Self-Expressive Basis of Carlyle's Art," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. XI, No. 1, Spring, 1969, pp. 705-32.
[In the following essay, Delaura argues that the unity of Carlyle's lectures on heroes and hero-worship is based in Carlyle's attempt to identify the personal characteristics, message, and role of the prophet. Furthermore, Delaura suggest that at times Carlyle presented himself as a prophet.]
No reader of Thomas Carlyle's lectures On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, delivered in May 1840, has missed the crucial unifying theme of the possibility of "Prophecy" in the nineteenth century. Carlyle is guardedly optimistic as he glances at the achievement of Goethe, about whom he had written for two decades. If the prime quality of the prophet is his "vision of the inward divine mystery," then Goethe eminently qualifies; for under Goethe's "guise of a most modern, high-bred, high-cultivated Man of Letters," Carlyle discerns that his works are "really a Prophecy in these most unprophetic times."1 Writing to Mill the following February, Carlyle notes that the message of Heroes—"a stranger kind of Book than I thought it would [be]"—already lay, for the perceptive reader, "mostly legible in what I had long since written" (LCM, p. 174). And indeed, the theme of...
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SOURCE: "The Eighteenth Century as 'Decaying Organism' in Carlyle's The French Revolution," in Anglia, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 4, 1971, pp. 456-70.
[In the following essay, Kusch examines the interplay between metaphor of the eighteenth century as a "decaying organism " and theme of decay advancing toward "spontaneous combustion " in Carlyle's The French Revolution.]
If a poet is a man who sees in metaphor a primary way of knowing and uses language for evocation as well as description, then Carlyle was one of the great poets of the nineteenth century. Other scholars have said as much, and John Holloway, in The Victorian Sage, has classified some lines of metaphor as they appear in work after work.1 We know that certain images recur in Carlyle's mind, and they may become so powerful, I believe, that the arc of his metaphoric flight defines the horizon of his awareness. Carlyle was aware that the energy of metaphor might do this. In Sartor, he sees the "symbol" as a technique of revelation and concealment, a power whose light inheres in its darkness2. In The French Revolution, he illustrates a similar point about metaphor with his extended interplays between tenor and vehicle. A single idea in The French Revolution—his view of the eighteenth century—may show how the whole process works. Carlyle focuses his view of the eighteenth...
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SOURCE: "The Open Secret of Sartor Resartus: Carlyle's Method of Converting His Reader," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXXIII, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 218-35.
[In the following essay, Baker attempts to identify the questionable function of the British Editor in Sartor Resartus. Baker argues that the Editor's apparent skepticism, which seems to undermine Carlyle's goal of converting readers to the "Clothes Philosophy, " is actually irony needed to help the reader understand Carlyle's philosophy.]
Carlyle's purpose in writing Sartor Resartus is to convert British readers to the Clothes Philosophy. He indicates his intention quite clearly when he writes to Jane that his "persuasion that Teufk is in his place and his time here grows stronger the more I see of London and its philosophy: the Doctrine of the Phoenix, of Nat. Supernaturalism and the whole Clothes Philosophy (be it but well stated) is exactly what all intelligent men are wanting."1 However, the means Carlyle uses to present this philosophy seem to subvert rather than achieve his goal. He does not choose a familiar, explicit and didactic method of persuasion. Rather, he creates as his spokesman an eccentric German Professor, a figure who doubtless puzzles many of his readers. To compound the confusion, he conveys Teufelsdröckh's philosophy through the...
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SOURCE: "Carlyle: The World as Text and the Text as Voice," in The History of Scottish Literature, Volume 3, edited by Douglas Gifford, Aberdeen University Press, 1988, pp. 153-68.
[In the following essay, Watson examines the events in Carlyle's life which led him to the philosophy presented in Sartor Resartus. Watson then studies that philosophy as Carlyle reveals it through the course of Sartor, noting that Carlyle's vision is a religious one, without the concept of a personal God, a vision in which it becomes essential to recognize the power of symbols and to be able to see through them.]
Carlyle occupies a unique place in British cultural history. As a social historian, he was possessed by a vision of human fate which was essentially poetic. As a nineteenth-century intellectual, his impatient and iconoclastic mind created nothing less than an early version of modern semiotic study which claimed a role of crucial intellectual and social importance for what had hitherto been the rather less urgent avocation of essayist or 'man of letters'. As a 'Victorian sage', Carlyle speaks with Dostoevsky, Turner, Whitman, Nietzsche and Yeats as among the first of the Modernists, and indeed, many of the strengths—and the failings—of his vision were to become those of modernism itself. No doubt it was this potential that Walt Whitman glimpsed when his obituary for the old and 'altogether Gothic'...
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SOURCE: "Interpretive Historicism: 'Signs of the Times' and Culture and Anarchy in Their Contexts," in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 44, No. 4, March, 1990, pp. 441-64.
[In the following essay, Harris examines the rhetorical strategies used by Carlyle in "Signs of the Times, " and argues that while the essay may appear to be controversial and "extravagant, " when seen within the context of the time and culture in which the essay was written, "Signs of the Times " is actually rather mild and not as revolutionary as it may seem.]
To adapt Northrop Frye's metaphor, Carlyle's stock has been steadily falling. To the contemporary reader his works are likely to look like mere rhetorical steam—at high pressure, but vaporous nonetheless—becoming substantial only when politically ominous. That Carlyle created the role of the Victorian sage is generally acknowledged, but the attribution can seem an indictment as well as a tribute. At the same time, while Matthew Arnold seems as much in the critical eye as ever, he has become a name for masked social elitism and political conservatism. The argument I want to make is that, when viewed against the interpretive context or cultural "horizon" of its time, Carlyle's rhetorical strategies show themselves to be a great deal less extravagant, and that, similarly examined, Arnold's social prescriptions in Culture and Anarchy prove a great deal...
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SOURCE: "Carlyle, Travel, and the Enlargements of History," in Creditable Warriors, Vol. 3, 1830-1876, edited by Michael Cotsell, The Ashfield Press, 1990, pp. 83-96.
[In the following essay, Cotsell investigates the impact of Carlyle's travels upon his writing and concludes that Carlyle's "sense of the world, as it reveals itself in his travel and other writings, " is larger than the "single vision of imperial rule " which he applauds and advocates in much of his writing.]
It is indeed an "extensive Volume", of boundless, almost formless contents, a very Sea of Thought; neither calm nor clear, if you will; yet wherein the toughest pearl-diver may dive to his utmost depth, and return not only with sea-wreck but with true orients. (Sartor Resartus 10; bk. 1, ch. 2)
Sartor Resartus (1833-34) humorously enacts Thomas Carlyle's imaginative relation to England: an incomprehensible and fragmentary German philosophy and life delivered, by "the kindness of a Scottish Hamburg Merchant, whose name, known to the whole mercantile world, he must not mention" (74; bk. 1, ch. 22), to a confused English editor who has the task of getting the thing into some sort of order for the English reader. Carlyle, of course, had not traveled to Germany, preferring at the time to keep it a "country of the mind." Travel, though, is a major part of...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Romantic Affinities: German Authors and Carlyle; A Study in the History of Ideas, University of Toronto Press, 1993, pp. 3-8.
[In the following essay, Vida surveys the influence of German literature and Romanticism on the views of Carlyle.]
In affirming that any vestige, however feeble, of this divine spirit, is discernible in German poetry, we are aware that we place it above the existing poetry of any other nation. (Carlyle, 'State of German Literature')
To ascertain Carlyle's approach to his German Romantic sources must be the starting-point for their revaluation. Did Carlyle have a unified view of the essence of German Romanticism, and, if so, what were the tendencies that struck him as new and most noteworthy?
Carlyle saw continuity rather than opposition in the relationship between the German Classics Goethe and Schiller and the evolving Romantic movement.1 In the preface to his translations from Tieck in German Romance, he is quite explicit on the subject. Attempting neither a description nor a judgment regarding the 'New School', he rejects the epithet 'School' altogether and denies that the great change was brought about solely by three young men, living in the little town of Jena: 'The critical principles of Tieck and the Schlegels had already been set forth in the form...
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SOURCE: "The Critic's New Clothes: Sartor Resartus as 'Cold Carnival'," in Criticism, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 583-99.
[In the following essay, Felluga maintains that some critics have attempted to "retailor" Sartor Resartus by viewing the work as "an ornate and stable system of thought. " Felluga states that these reviewers have failed to address "Carlyle's carnivalesque efforts to expose all systems as limiting and false. "]
Hans Christian Andersen's tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes," provides me with a parable for what I find questionable in certain previous treatments of Sartor Resartus. As the story goes,
In the large town where the emperor's palace was, life was gay and happy; and every day new visitors arrived. One day two swindlers came. They told everybody that they were weavers and that they could weave the most marvelous cloth. Not only were the colors and the patterns of their material extraordinarily beautiful, but the cloth had the strange quality of being invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid.1
Of course, no one in the palace wants to admit that s/he is unsuited to the office s/he holds, least of all the king. When the king finally does go to meet the masses in his new non-existent vesture, he is, as a result, thoroughly ridiculed. Though I...
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SOURCE: "Carlyle's 'Chartism,' the Rhetoric of Revolution, and the Dream of Empire," in Victorians Institute Journal, Vol. 23, 1995, pp. 129-50.
[In the following essay, Lamb contends that Carlyle, in his essay "Chartism, " exploited what had become the "myth of the French revolution, " in order to paint the Chartism movement in revolutionary terms and to thereby highlight its significance. Carlyle sought, Lamb argues, to advocate British imperialism as a cure for the country's social and economic distress, of which Chartism was a manifestation.]
Thomas Carlyle's "Chartism" first appeared in December 1839, a crucial moment in the debate over Parliamentary reform and the "Condition-of-England Question." The year 1839 was an extremely important period in the development and shaping of the Chartist movement and in the evolving strategies aimed at pressuring the government into again extending the franchise. Throughout that year, Victorians were either excited or alarmed by numerous and occasionally hysterical accounts in the periodical press of Chartist activities. In addition to extensive coverage of Chartist proceedings in radical publications like the Northern Star or the more virulent London Democrat, frequent reports of working-class agitation could be found in the Examiner, the Spectator, and the Times, all of which informed the public of mass meetings, riots,...
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Adrian, Arthur A., and Vonna H. Adrian. "Frederick the Great: 'That Unutterable Horror of a Prussian Book.'" In Carlyle Past and Present: A Collection of New Essays, edited by K. J. Fielding and Rodger L. Tarr, pp. 177-97. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1976.
Examines Carlyle's attraction to the Prussian emperor Frederick the Great as a subject of biography, and argues that, while Frederick's forceful ruling style appealed to Carlyle's political convictions, it was the emperor's "personal circumstances and qualities" (which Carlyle felt he shared with his hero) that drew Carlyle to Frederick.
Annan, Noel. "Historians Reconsidered: IX: Carlyle." History Today II, No. 10 (October 1952): 659-65.
Studies the apparent contradictions in Carlyle's beliefs and asserts that "the clue to these contradictions" may be found by examining Carlyle's interpretations of history rather than his personal experiences.
Behnken, Eloise M. Thomas Carlyle: "Calvinist Without the Theology." Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1978, 149p.
Explores "the writings of Carlyle as contributions to the Victorian quest for belief."
Beirnard, Charles A. "Rebelling from the Right Side: Thomas Carlyle's...
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