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Introduction: Thomas Carlyle and the Totalitarian Temptation
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Thomas Carlyle and the Totalitarian Temptation

This thematic issue of Studies in the Literary Imagination brings together both established and emerging scholars in the field of Carlyle studies to address Carlyle’s paradoxical and often controversial politics from a variety of angles. A reconsideration of the political and ideological views permeating Carlyle’s work—ranging from his early aesthetic and social criticism to his historiographies and biographies—presents itself as a highly timely intervention, not only in the field of Carlyle studies, but in the study of nineteenth-century literature as such. Far from a belated attempt at apologetic restoration, the issue results from a shared conviction among the contributors that there is at present an acute need to re-examine critically Carlyle’s politics after the often uncritical assumption of his adherence to a totalitarian ideology that dominated the twentieth-century reception of his work. The articles included in the volume span Carlyle’s career from his earliest writings to his biography of Frederick the Great and re-examine Carlyle’s politics from rhetorical, historical, biographical, discursive, and philosophical/theoretical angles.

The narrative that has persistently determined Carlyle’s twentieth-century reception is that of the degeneration of a promising “Romantic” prophet into an altogether tragic and ultraconservative “Victorian” sage. This narrative is familiar enough and was most economically articulated by Harold Bloom in his introduction to the 1986 volume of Modern Critical Views on Carlyle:

In his profound anxiety to overturn the empirical view of the cosmos as a vast machine, Carlyle divinised nature and debased man. It is Carlyle, and not his critic Nietzsche, who is the forerunner of twentieth-century fascism, with its mystical exaltation of the state and its obliteration of compassion and the rights of the individual. That shadow cannot be removed from the later Carlyle, author of such efforts as “The Nigger Question” (1849) and “Shooting Niagara: and After?” (1867), and uncritical idolater of those iron men, Oliver Cromwell and Frederick the Great. It is the Carlyle who [End Page v] wrote during the fifteen years from 1828 to 1843 who still matters to us. The author of “Signs of the Times” (1829) and “Characteristics” (1831), of Sartor Resartus (completed 1831) and Past and Present (1843) remains the sage who fathered Ruskin, inspired Emerson, and stimulated the social prophecy of William Morris. If time has darkened Carlyle, it has shown also that there is a perpetual remnant of vision in him, a voice that still rises out of the wilderness. (14–15)

This “perpetual remnant of vision” has consistently been located in Carlyle’s early critical engagement with German Romanticism and idealism, from which he derived the poetic insights and rhetorical means to effect his own highly singular late-Romantic critique of British utilitarianism. In his History of Modern Criticism, for example, René Wellek claimed that

From a strictly literary-critical perspective, one must deplore that Carlyle chose the path of virtue: the shift to biography, didacticism, moralism, and the criterion of “sincerity” have not advanced the cause of criticism. Carlyle’s temporary adoption of the creed of historicism and of German romantic symbolism brought him much closer to an understanding of poetry. But on the other hand, one should recognise that Carlyle’s moralism was basic to his personality.… Carlyle’s harsh dualism between good and evil in man, his recognition of catastrophes and cataclysms in history, and even his worship of lived experience as “fact” represents a view of the world (and thus of art) that must be faced in order to be refuted. (110)

A brief look at the history of Carlyle’s reception since the early twentieth century demonstrates that his work has been systematically refuted on the basis of ideological bias or too hasty reading, rather than critically examined or, for that matter, “faced.” In a bibliographical essay of 1976, G. B. Tennyson chronologically reconstructed the three main stages of Carlyle’s reputation as “The Popular, the Reactionary, and the Scholarly-Critical,” roughly corresponding to the period of Carlyle’s lifetime, 1795–1881, the period from his death until 1930, and from 1930 to 1976, respectively (30).

Carlyle’s early...