The contradictory quality of Carlyle's achievement as intuitive sage, seminal interpreter of German Romanticism, sworn enemy of mechanical and reductive views of life, outrageous ranter and charismatic humbug is already present in the early Sartor Resartus, lively and opaque by turns, a book which inspired the young and bewildered their elders. A devastating social critic over-impressed by heroes and dictators, Carlyle was humane and savage, radical and racist, an agnostic quoted by churchmen and praised as 'a prophet in the midst of an untoward generation' in Dean Stanley's funeral sermon in Westminster Abbey. He was sympathetic to Irish sufferings after the Famine, but almost equally sympathetic to Cromwellian ferocity in Ireland two centuries earlier. In the 1840s he was much admired by Marx and Engels. Both were deeply impressed by Past and Present (1843), his dramatic onslaught on the chaos and inhumanity of industrial England in the hungry 1840s. This text was a powerful influence on Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, written in 1844, and contributed to The Communist Manifesto the idea of the cash nexus as the only real connection between master and men in a degraded capitalist society. But Carlyle's obnoxious 'Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question' (1849) and his violent, jingoistic and misanthropic Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) seemed to confirm Marx's conviction that the leading talents of the bourgeoisie were now in decline, morally and intellectually, and prompted a harsh reassessment. Carlyle had earlier translated the whimsical German Romantic novelist Jean Paul Richter, lyrical and discursive by turns, a major influence on Sartor Resartus, and Marx now noted and deplored the pervasive effect on Carlyle's style of this 'literary apothecary'. Anthony Trollope and Edward Fitzgerald thought Carlyle had finally gone mad, and former disciples such as Matthew Arnold denounced him as frankly dangerous, a 'moral desperado'.
LRB 2 November 2000 | PDF Download