Critical And Miscellaneous Essays "A Well-written Life Is Almost As Rare As A Well-spent One"

Thomas Carlyle

"A Well-written Life Is Almost As Rare As A Well-spent One"

Context: Born in a small village of Scotland, the son of a stonemason, Carlyle was reared in poverty. After a grammar school education, he walked to Edinburgh, where he enrolled in the University at the age of fourteen. He was forced by his poverty to leave without a degree, and he returned to his old grammar school as a teacher of mathematics. Religious doubts dissuaded him from following his parents' wishes that he study for the ministry. Lack of interest ended his reading of law in an Edinburgh office. Dyspepsia weakened him, and in 1822 he had a breakdown and spiritual crisis that he recorded in Sartor Resartus. With the reading of some of the German philosophers, he began to establish a system of beliefs that helped him regain his stability, a condition also aided by his marriage in 1826 to Jane Welsh, possessor of a brilliant mind. To earn their living, he began reviewing books for several magazines, including the influential Edinburgh Review. One of his first assignments was a book in German by Heinrich Döring, Jean Paul Richter's Life, with a Sketch of His Works (Gotha, 1826). The review was an agreeable task, since Richter (1763–1825), along with Johann Fichte (1762–1814), had been the most influential philosophers in settling Carlyle's mind. It appeared in Issue 91 of the Edinburgh Review. In it, Carlyle praises the book highly, though with some reservations, such as the biographer's choppy style and labored transitions. He begins his review with a general observation on the writing of biographies.

Dr. Johnson, it is said, when he first heard of Boswell's intention to write a life of him, announced, with decision enough, that, if he thought Boswell really meant to write his life, he would prevent it by taking Boswell's. That great authors should actually employ this preventive against bad biographers is a thing we would by no means recommend: but the truth is, that, rich as we are in Biography, a well-written Life is almost as rare as a well-spent one; and there are certainly many more men whose history deserves to be recorded, than persons willing and able to record it. . . .