restricted access Discriminating Idolatry
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Discriminating Idolatry

Francis O’Gorman, writing a few years ago in the Times Literary Supplement, had a good summing-up of Carlyle’s continuing importance:

Thomas Carlyle’s passionate intensity placed him at the heart of Victorian radicalism…. His work was studied by the middle classes and by labourers aspiring, with uniquely Victorian ambition, for a better education. Among the most resourceful and determinedly intellectual of working men, Carlyle acquired a seam of followers who would not give him up…. He showed to readers that politics, in the broadest sense, was a matter for ardent feeling and thought; he imbued radicalism with intellectual weight and detached it from the values of the mob; his personal fervour, frugality and commitment to improving the modern world imparted to his ideas integrity it was impossible to fake…. None of this, however, made him any easier to like. (22)

This, with the unexpected blow in the last line, is very fair. For many today, Carlyle simply is not easy to like, and it remains a problem that a lack of affection may well coexist with a lack of familiarity with Carlyle’s work. Happily, there are several reasons why people are likely to have read more of his work lately: the internet has made it much more available, modern editions are beginning to rescue the texts from obscurity or bad editing, and the steady advance of the Collected Letters, supplemented by the Carlyle Letters Online, has illuminated a great deal of the life and writing of both Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle into the 1860s.1 Revisiting the invaluable Critical Heritage volume on Carlyle, it is striking to see the prophetic tone in Richard Holt Hutton’s obituary notice of 1881, which asserted that “For many years back it had been tolerably certain that Carlyle would add nothing more to that body of unique imaginative work which constitutes his real contribution to the life of man, except whatever of reminiscences and correspondence might be forthcoming at his death” (qtd. in Seigel 493). Not only was he right about the impact of the Reminiscences, he also foresaw the importance of the correspondence, painstakingly assembled in Carlyle’s own lifetime, as far as his and [End Page 1] Jane’s letters ran, and equally painstakingly reassembled and extended by Alexander Carlyle after his uncle’s death. Hutton went on: “And we now know not only that this has added, and will add, much very rich material to our knowledge of him, but also that what it adds will be exactly of the kind most fitted to increase the due appreciation of his great genius, and temper the undiscriminating idolatry of his special adorers” (qtd. in Seigel 493). To re-read the Critical Heritage volume as a whole is to be struck by two simultaneous facts. One is the extraordinary span in time of Carlyle’s impact on his critical world, evidenced by material from 1835 to the obituaries of 1881, followed by the scandalized critical responses to Froude’s publication of the Reminiscences.2 As with any attempt to teach Carlyle, the first question is which Carlyle? The radical and mold-breaking essayist of the 1820s is far removed from the sour pamphleteer of 1849, still farther from the exhausted historian of Frederick the Great who reached the end of that valley of the shadow (as he called it) in 1865. The material in the Critical Heritage makes clear that different Carlyles summoned admiration from different critical groups, even from occasional pro-Slavers in the American South who thought they might see in him a kindred spirit.

The other striking fact gleaned from reading the phalanx of critical response is how discriminating the praise really is—idolatry no doubt existed, but the volume gathers together some very pointed writing, which balances sharp criticism with praise. A striking example is George Eliot’s much-quoted tribute (“there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings” [qtd. in Seigel 410]), which is part of something much larger and more balanced. Although dismissing a lot of talk about his style as “twaddle,” Eliot admits that...