Selected Criticism

Carlyle, Thomas (1795–1881)
Altman, Matthew C.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Thomas Carlyle was a controversial but highly influential Victorian social critic, philosopher, historian, biographer, and translator. He fused elements of his Calvinist upbringing—an insistence on duty and the primacy of an elite caste—with German romanticism, gleaned especially from the writings of Schiller and Goethe.

Born in Ecclefechan, Scotland, in 1795, Carlyle attended Edinburgh University, which he left before receiving a degree. After his marriage to Jane Baillie Welsh in 1826, Carlyle moved to Craigenputtock, where he wrote numerous essays that were collected in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays (1838). He also wrote Sartor Resartus (1833–1834), in which a fictional philosopher, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, resolves a crisis of belief. Although the book was initially criticized by a number of confused readers, Sartor eventually drew praise from figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1834, Carlyle and his wife moved to Chelsea, where he completed The French Revolution (1837). Carlyle also began to lecture; his May 1840 lectures were published in On Heroes, Hero Worship & the Heroic in History (1841), a characteristic insistence that great individuals must exert their powerful influence to provide coherence in desperate times. Carlyle's tenets were further outlined in works such as Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843). While in Chelsea, the Carlyles entertained a circle of admirers that included such figures as John Stuart Mill; Charles Dickens; John Forster; Robert Browning; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Harriet Martineau; and Carlyle's biographer, James Anthony Froude. Carlyle became known as the "Sage of Chelsea."

Carlyle's later writings were increasingly conservative and antidemocratic, as evidenced in Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question (1853), History of Friedrich II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great (1858–1865), and Shooting Niagara: and After? (1867). Carlyle condemned overly liberal views on such issues as human rights and prison reform, and opposed emancipating American and West Indian slaves. His more stringent conservatism alienated many of his followers, most notably Mill. The death of his wife in 1866 devastated Carlyle, who spent most of his final years completing the autobiographical Reminiscences (1887). When he died in 1881, Carlyle was buried, as he wished, at Ecclefechan rather than Westminster Abbey.

Walt Whitman was very familiar with Carlyle's writings, as evidenced by the Carlylean images that appear in his poetry and his notes on German philosophy, which seem to come directly from Carlyle. Whitman reviewed several of Carlyle's books while he was a journalist with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and he claimed that Democratic Vistas (1871) was written in response to Shooting Niagara. Horace Traubel notes that during his time at Camden Whitman read many books by and about Carlyle.

Despite Whitman's interest in Carlyle, Carlyle was much less attentive to Whitman. In 1856 Emerson sent a copy of Leaves of Grass (1855) to Carlyle, which prompted him to say: "'It is as though the town-bull had learned to hold a pen'" (qtd. in Wilson 6:926). Whitman wrote to Carlyle and even sent him a copy of Vistas, but apparently Carlyle never responded.

Whitman disagreed with a number of Carlyle's beliefs. Carlyle insists in his Occasional Discourse that blacks are naturally inferior to whites, and although Whitman was no abolitionist, he treated the black race more sympathetically. In addition, the strict political and social aristocracy that Carlyle endorsed clashed with Whitman's ideal democracy. As he states in his essays on Carlyle, it was not Carlyle's specific pronouncements that Whitman admired but his outspoken voice of protest. Whitman recognized Carlyle's conservatism and distaste for democracy (especially American democracy) but praised his overpowering individualism, his honesty, and his attempts to reform the age. Whitman considered Carlyle a powerful and necessary literary voice of his time: "[W]ithout Carlyle there would be no literature" (Traubel 478).


Carlyle, Thomas. The Works of Thomas Carlyle. Ed. H.D. Traill. Centenary ed. 30 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1896–1899.

Cumming, Mark. "Carlyle, Whitman, and the Disimprisonment of Epic." Victorian Studies 29 (1986): 207–226.

Froude, James Anthony. Thomas Carlyle: A History of His Life in London 1834–1881. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1884.

———. Thomas Carlyle: A History of the First Forty Years of His Life, 1795–1835. 4 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1882.

Paine, Gregory. "The Literary Relations of Whitman and Carlyle with Especial Reference to Their Contrasting Views on Democracy." Studies in Philology 36 (1939): 550–563.

Smith, Fred Manning. "Whitman's Debt to Carlyle's Sartor Resartus." Modern Language Quarterly 3 (1942): 51–65.

———. "Whitman's Poet-Prophet and Carlyle's Hero." PMLA 55 (1940): 1146–1164.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Ed. Gertrude Traubel. Vol. 5. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1964.

Whitman, Walt. "Carlyle from American Points of View." Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 1. New York: New York UP, 1963. 254–262.

———. "Death of Thomas Carlyle." Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 1. New York: New York UP, 1963. 248–253.

Wilson, David Alec. Life of Thomas Carlyle. 6 vols. London: Kegan Paul, 1929–1934.


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