Not since the publication of David Alec Wilson and David Wilson MacArthur’s six-volume Life of Carlyle (1923-1934) has there appeared as ambitious a study of the Sage of Chelsea as Professor Fred Kaplan’s book. Wilson and MacArthur wrote their biography mainly to clear Carlyle of the “slander” they believed had accrued to his name and reputation as thresult of James Anthony Froude’s monumental four-volume work, Thomas Carlyle: A History of the First Forty Years of His Life, 1795-1835; A History of His Life in London, 1834-1881 (1882, 1884). Froude was a major historian and critic in his own right as well as the most intimate friend of Carlyle in his last years and the legally appointed executor, together with Carlyle’s niece, of his letters and personal papers. When Froude wrote, he left in the warts. Carlyle wanted him to do so. Wilson and MacArthur wanted Carlyle a saint. Professor Kaplan treads an evenhanded course and gives the reader the whole man, his strengths and weaknesses.
It may be a truism, but great men invariably seem to be bundles of contradiction. This is particularly true of the nineteenth century giants in literature and cultural history. Poets like Walt Whitman and Alfred, Lord Tennyson; politicians like William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli; seers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Stuart Mill, and John Ruskin—all of these titanic personalities combined contradictory elements of aestheticism and realism, radicalism and conservatism, atheism and fervid belief in myths of culture in transcending poetic, political, and historical visions. Almost all of the aforementioned were either touched or directly influenced by the greatest seer or “vates” (as Carlyle put it in On Heroes and Hero Worship, 1841) of them all, a dour, angry peasant from a remote Scottish village who spent his life forging (often forcing) an iron link between the rigid Calvinism of his childhood and the powerful secular ideas of the modern world. The conventional picture of the nineteenth century intellectual is of someone caught between the moral demands of an outdated religiosity and the pressures of a new reality which has traded the moral sanctions of religion for the logic and validation of science. Matthew Arnold’s famous lines from “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” capture the emotional essence of this predicament:
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,The other powerless to be born,With yet to rest my head,Like these, on earth, I wait forlorn
If these lines represent the drift of Victorian sensibility, then one can best understand Carlyle by seeing in him the counterforce, the great rock in the stream that tried to change aimless drift to directed current.
Childhood fired the man. The Wordsworthian myth that the “child is father to the man” holds for Carlyle. Whereas William Wordsworth was mothered by a benevolent Nature and her “ministries of beauty and fear,” the world in which Carlyle grew to manhood, says Professor Kaplan, was in fact a “blend of economic necessity and theological prohibition.” Nature was there, but she was a hard parent. Carlyle’s lifelong bluntness and at times brutal sarcasm go back to the farm and the kirk. He did well in his rural school, and his hardworking and ambitious parents sent their eldest son to Edinburgh where he attended the university and studied mathematics and discovered German. Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe spoke as directly to his spirit as Nature had to Wordsworth. The discovery of German idealism and organicism provided fuel for ethical and social visions that animated the great works of his middle years. His earliest publications were almost entirely devoted to translating and interpreting German writers. They were the inspiration which enabled him to secularize and modernize the religious heritage of his youth.
What he thrilled to in German writers was the way they went about building and discovering their lives, creating “selves” in the image of ideals rooted in mind and nature. Primarily through their example, he came to believe...
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