Thomas Carlyle: A Biography

Thomas Carlyle: A Biography

by Fred Kaplan

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National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist: A portrait of the Victorian writer and historian Thomas Carlyle.
A Pulitzer finalist that draws upon years of research and unpublished letters, Thomas Carlyle examines the life of the Victorian genius. Carlyle was the author of Sartor Resartus and The French Revolution: A


National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist: A portrait of the Victorian writer and historian Thomas Carlyle.
A Pulitzer finalist that draws upon years of research and unpublished letters, Thomas Carlyle examines the life of the Victorian genius. Carlyle was the author of Sartor Resartus and The French Revolution: A History, and he possessed one of literature’s most flamboyant prose styles. Despite a childhood beset by anxiety and illness, Carlyle was indefatigable in his literary production. Fred Kaplan delves into the author’s intense personal life, which includes his turbulent marriage to author Jane Baillie Welsh and his disillusionment with religion. Kaplan is a devoted and sensitive explicator, vividly resurrecting both Carlyle and his Victorian setting.

Editorial Reviews

Frederick Busch
Fred Kaplan has performed a labor of love in a commendatory service. His Thomas Carlyle, which draws on unpublished letters, gives us our most complete picture of Carlyle in the context of his age… An achievement of much merit and a gift to students of the word.
Washington Post Book World
John Clive
[Carlyle] is alive and well (except for occasional stomach trouble), and living in Mr. Kaplan's biography.
Times Literary Supplement

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Thomas Carlyle

A Biography

By Fred Kaplan


Copyright © 1983 Fred Kaplan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0980-4


The Pursuer 1795–1816

In the quiet twilight the hoarse cawing of the rooks over Ecclefechan filled the young boy with sensations of mystery and beauty. The birds circled and returned to the Hill of Woodcockair two miles away, "mysterious to me ... as the home of the rooks I saw flying overhead." Ecclefechan in southwestern Scotland was the spot on earth his feelings and imagination most identified with throughout his life. Deeply a man of place, he hated wanderers and wandering, the nomadic obsession. In his mind and in his words he strained always to reproduce the movement of the rooks whose great circles gave form to mystery and established boundaries to the place he called home.

Born on December 4, 1795, in the Arched House, Ecclefechan, a building designed and constructed by his father and uncle, Thomas Carlyle soon discovered that his parents' world was circular, enclosing home, fields, family, meetinghouse, the rural arches of Christian Annandale, the interwoven community of Presbyterian Scotland. For generations the pattern had seemed to be permanent, but as he became a young adult it was his misfortune to find that his consciousness was the center of a circle that was collapsing. At its center was the new Victorian consciousness, crying like "an infant ... in the night."

He was born long and lean to thickset parents. From the very beginning his fragility and his differentness made him a subject of concern. When he was two, however, the birth of a brother distracted parental attention, and in the years that followed he was able to explore Ecclefechan with other preschool children: the smoke and manure of a small market village; rural peace and isolation alternating with market-day sociability; the characters of the village—the beggar, the alcoholic, the blacksmith, the schoolmaster, the preacher. Soon, there were other brothers and sisters; and then the sight of death. His baby sister died in 1801. The coffinmaker went about his business; his mother wept. Later in the year, his uncle John died, his father's eldest brother. Before the funeral, the coverlid was lifted from "his pale, ghastly befilleted head," the sight of which horrified the young boy; he had seen "the King of Terrors." He learned the rudiments of reading from his mother, arithmetic from his father, and when it was time he attended first a private school in Ecclefechan, and then, at age six, the nearby Hoddam parish school. Noted for brightness but not for ruggedness, for eagerness to learn but not for social adaptability, he immediately became the pride of the schoolmaster, the special young person whom approving adults and jealous schoolmates label with the burden of differentness. For his parents, that quality had its rightful place in the circle of tradition. If their son was to be a man of learning, he would be a minister of the Lord; within their society the alternative for differentness was either madness or apostasy. For the young boy, there was worry, confusion, and resentment, some of which he expressed directly, much of which he repressed.

Growing up in the shadow of the local meetinghouse, the young boy was taught to repress physical instincts. His parents' Burgher-Secession affiliation focused on the small, elite community that in his childhood built its own meetinghouse in Ecclefechan, found leadership in the Reverend John Johnstone, and became famous throughout Annandale for pious sincerity. Too young to attend worship, he followed the well-beaten path between his home and the meetinghouse both in his circular imagination and in the religious routines of his family. Hearing the frenzied barking of a neighbor's dog locked indoors, he took the familiar path to the open meetinghouse door and called out, "'Matty, come home to Snap.'" Once he reached the age where his behavior was deemed controllable, his attendance was required. Between the ages of five and eleven, he heard innumerable sermons from "the priestliest man I ever under any ecclesiastical guise was privileged to look upon." It did not matter what theology the young boy was able to comprehend; he understood the essential message of his parents and his minister by example: "A man's 'religion' consists not of the many things he is in doubt of and tries to believe, but of the few he is assured of, and has no need of effort for believing." The subliminal voice of his parents' community told him, among other things, that physical instincts came from the devil, not from God.

He sought two avenues of escape from the conflict that he began to feel between the restrictions of his parents' community and his own instincts. In the changes of weather, he pursued the mysterious beauty of the Annandale countryside, and soon he discovered the ancient remains of the Roman occupation. In his excited imagination the Anglo-Saxon tower of Repentance Hill became a physical representation of that heroic period that had witnessed the creation of the tribal designations of the nation. As a young man, he read Wordsworth, Southey, and the other Lake poets. When he raised his eyes, the sunlit view across the Solway Firth to the Cumberland Hills and the Lake Country took on an additional soft resonance.

The same glow that illuminated the natural landscape connected it with the world of the only human community he knew in his childhood years. Strategically located and large enough to maintain a number of rural industries, Ecclefechan provided the surrounding farmers with a busy market. The young boy explored its commercial life, curious about people and their activities, apparently a familiar observer, particularly on weekly market days and at the frequent cattle fairs. Ecclefechan drew cattlemen, traders, merchants, and entertainers from all over southern Scotland, as well as "the Italian with his mirrors and elaborate toys ... from the Lake of Como, ... Gamblers, Balladsingers, Beggars, dwarfs" mingling "their thousand voices with the bellowing of oxen and the din of buying and selling." Still the town was small enough to retain a circular wholeness. The barter system predominated, wages were low, and cash was meager. The general agricultural depression and the stoicism of rural Calvinism combined to create a scarcity economy. Thomas saw his father's sympathy with the poor laborers, who in difficult years drank water from the brook at lunch-time instead of eating, too proud to complain, too embarrassed to draw attention to their plight. But James Carlyle "never meddled with Politics: he was not there to govern, but to be governed; could still live, and therefore did not revolt." While it was true that "'the lot of a poor man was growing worse and worse,'" still "the precept reaches all the human clan / Submit to ev'ry ordinance of man."

James Carlyle was shaped by neglect. Food had been a luxury and self-help a necessity in his small but noncohesive family. As an adult, he reacted against this boyhood isolation, working with his second wife, Thomas' mother, to make his own family into an intensely tight, self-sustaining unit. Whereas his father had been self-indulgent, lax, and undisciplined, James Carlyle became willful, purposeful, and defiant, "the strongest-minded man" his son ever knew. His father had been indifferent to formal education, but James not only pushed his own children into literacy but propelled two of the sons into professional careers. His father farmed but did all work indifferently, for he felt that there was nothing sacred about labor. James Carlyle worked with full commitment. Thomas would recall that "we were all practically taught that work (temporal or spiritual) was the only thing we had to do; and incited always by precept and example to do it well," for "whosoever is not working is begging or stealing." Whereas his grandfather cared little for religion, his father became a model of religious commitment.

It is doubtful that any single incident motivated James Carlyle's turn to religion. Instead, he felt a gradually increasing sense of the sinful nature of all men and the uselessness of all activities that interfered with the acceptance of oneself as a sinner who could be saved by God's grace. James Carlyle had ample evidence that he was a sinner, for he had inherited, among other qualities, the Carlyle family temper. As young men he and his brothers were notorious for their brawls, "among the best drinkers and best head-splitters at the annual fairs of the village.... Pithy, bitter-speaking bodies, and awfu' fighters." His father had been "a fiery man; irascible," and like him James responded to provocation with a defense so prompt and thorough that it could hardly be distinguished from aggression. Thomas later attempted to justify his father's temper: "To me they were not and are not other than interesting and innocent [acts] scarcely ever, perhaps never, to be considered as aggressions, but always as defences, manful assertions of man's rights against man that would infringe them,—and victorious ones."

But there were countervailing models to the anarchic, uncontrollable temper. The tradition of the Covenanters was strong in Annan-dale, the Secession Church had been formed—"there was the Bible to read." James Carlyle took as his model Robert Brand, a maternal uncle, from whom he "consciously and unconsciously ... may have learned more ... than from any other individual, ... a just man and of wise insight ... a rigorous Religionist ... filled with a celestial Philosophy of the earthly Life." Though his father had read Anson's Voyages and the Arabian Nights, James himself would "not tolerate anything fictitious in books," sternly forbidding "his children to read the Arabian Nights—'those downright lies,' he called them." Becoming "grimly religious," he attempted to live every moment of his life as if salvation, the most important aim of man's existence, were to be approached only through a complete fulfillment of the rules and spirit of the Burgher Seceder Church.

Each day James Carlyle read the Bible to himself and his family. Calvin he knew indirectly through the Confession of Faith and the catechisms, Knox through the covenant and through echoes of The Book of Discipline and The Book of the Universall Kirk heard in the life of the meetinghouse. He probably read Thomas Boston, Ebenezer Erskine, Ralph Erskine, and the other founders of the Seceder Church. Pamphlets from the Puritan movement of the sixteenth and particularly the seventeenth century were generally available to him, supplemented by John Brown's Self-Interpreting Bible; his favorite author was "Old John Owen," the Puritan Divine. The Confession of Faith and the Bible provided the general text: "As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent." John Owen and others provided the gloss, which composed itself into a dynamic drama for the daily life of the Christian who had fallen from grace and was miserably unhappy. For there is an irresistible law of human nature which leads us to "Distractions," "Despondencies," "Weariness," and "Unreadiness" for grace, to madness, to rage, to violence—to the loss of control which James Carlyle feared within himself and which Thomas Carlyle dreaded. "It is very true that a madman lies within every sane man; is the material whereof the sane man fashions himself," Carlyle later wrote, for "Satan has his place in all hearts!" But, in John Owen's words, when the madness that rises "in the heart ... is denied by the law of grace, and rebuked ... it returns, and exerts its poison again; the soul is startled, casts it off: it returns again with new violence and importunity; the soul cries out for help and deliverance." But there is still hope in the marvelous fact that "this condition is peculiar to believers. Unregenerate men are not said to be led captive to the law of sin.... Where grace hath the dominion, it will never utterly be expelled from its throne ... but its influences may for a season be intercepted." One confronts, then, the returning season of rage and madness, irritability, short temper, hostility, pride, violence. The only antidote, "the only spring of life and peace to our souls, is this grace and duty of being spiritually minded."


The third but more shadowy avenue of escape for the bright young boy led into the schoolroom. His first schoolrooms were extensions of his parents' world, combining both scholarly and religious values under the tutelage of young divinity students. No subject, not even mathematics, was unrelated to the religious view of the universe. But to the young student that connection did not have nearly the force of the actual body of knowledge that he had to master through study and memory. An alert student, capable at everything, he was motivated by approval to excel in those subjects, such as mathematics and reading, to which he felt a natural attraction. Since the local village school was by reputation inferior, his parents sent him to "Tom Donaldson's School ... a severely correct young man, Tom," who was "always merry & kind to me, tho' harsh & to the ill-deserving severe." The next year, 1802, he walked to Hoddam Parish School, a short distance toward Annan, where it was soon judged that he must "'go into Latin'" or waste his time. Reverend Johnstone's son, home from college, gave the boy of seven help. Then the reverend himself, "the venerablest & most venerated Clerical Person I have ever seen. White full bottom Wig; income" next to nothing, taught the eager student. Meetinghouse and schoolroom were interwoven.

The possibility that meetinghouse and schoolroom might not always be reconcilable, however, awakened his mother's anxieties. "She trained his heart to the love of all truth and virtue.... To this good being, intellect, or even activity, except when directed to the purely useful, was no all-important matter; for her soul was full of loftiest religion, and truly regarded the glories of this earth as light chaff." So Carlyle characterized the mother of "Wotton Reinfred," his unfinished portrait of the artist as a young man. Training Tom's heart in the values of the meetinghouse was his mother's highest priority. "Intellect" and "activity" were only of value insofar as they were practical necessities, and overwork was a threat to the health. Margaret Carlyle judged "religious and moral habitudes of far more consequence" than "learning."

The daughter of a Dumfriesshire farmer who had "gon bankrapt," Margaret Aitken was working as a servant in the home of her aunt when she met the recently widowed James Carlyle. She married him in 1795, after a short courtship. Nine children, one of whom died as an infant, another as a young lady, dominated her life, whose daily concern was to provide her family with love and sustenance. Though Margaret Carlyle was the emotional voice of the household, speaking the language of love while her husband supplied the language of authority, she fully supported her husband's theology. Indeed, her voice often resonated with the solemn tones of the Old Testament prophets in terms appropriate to the daily needs of rural Calvinism: "The weather here is at present very stormy and wet but it is no wonder if we have unfruitful seasons for we are a people laden with iniquity like Israel of old." Combining within herself the theology of her church and the strong love of a devoted mother, the force of the prophets and the emotion of protective love, she was "the truest Christian Believer" her son had "ever met with." "I hardly know now another person in the world that so entirely believes and acts on her Belief." As a child he took his doubts to his mother. His younger brother John had "many arguments" with her "about religion but none in ill nature." She created inher children the conviction that her love was based on faith alone, a gift of God's grace which those whom God had chosen for his love could never lose, for "it was the Most High God that made Mothers and the sacred affection of children's hearts." Much as he revered his father's authority, the deepest emotional attachment of his life was to his mother. She, not his wife or his father, was his ultimate dependency, and, both while she was alive and after her death, he conversed with her as with his other self.

Still, his mother could not prevent him from following the natural bent of his talent for learning. Nor could she check her husband's determination to encourage their eldest son's schooling, whatever the consequences. Unwilling to "part with him from her sight, still less trust him among the contaminations of a boarding-school," she vigorously argued against his going to Annan Academy; six miles distant, it was an alien world. James Carlyle simply said that his son would go, and on "26 May 1806, a bright sunny morning" that Thomas remembered all his life, he walked with his son to Annan.


Excerpted from Thomas Carlyle by Fred Kaplan. Copyright © 1983 Fred Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Fred Kaplan (b. 1937) has written biographies of Charles Dickens, Henry James, Abraham Lincoln, Gore Vidal, and Mark Twain, as well as Sacred Tears, a study of sentimentality in Victorian literature. His biography Thomas Carlyle (1983) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Kaplan is distinguished professor emeritus of English at both Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  

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