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February 13, 2008

Emerson on Carlyle

Filed under: Essay,Writing — litlove @ 3:41 pm

From So Many Books 

I wonder what it was in Emerson that allowed him to have good friendships with people that were difficult? He must have found such relationships stimulating. Perhaps they were an opportunity to test his own mind and ideas against those of another who wouldn’t balk at telling Emerson he was full of it. And maybe that’s why he managed to be friends with Thomas Carlyle even toward the end of Carlyle’s life when he and Emerson seemed to hold divergent views on most things. Still, Emerson was Carlyle’s American agent, taking it upon himself to find publishers for his work.

I am not certain of the context in which Emerson wrote his biographical sketch, Carlyle. It doesn’t have the tone of a eulogy, so perhaps it was a speech Emerson gave to get people interested in Carlyle and his work which would explain why the only negative thing Emerson says about Carlyle is that he had “errors of opinion,” whatever that means. So what comes out most in this essay is Carlyle’s sense of humor and his cantankerousness which Emerson manages to make seem charming.

Emerson begins the essay describing Carlyle as “an immense talker” and a “practical Scotchman.” Emerson suggests

If you would know precisely how he talks, just suppose Hugh Whelan [Emerson’s Scottish gardener] had found leisure enough in addition to all his daily work to read Plato and Shakspeare, Augustine and Calvin, and, remaining Hugh Whelan all the time, should talk scornfully of all this nonsense of books that he had been bothered with, and you shall have just the tone and talk and laughter of Carlyle. I called him a trip-hammer with “an Aeolian attachment.”

I don’t know about you, but this sort of makes me want to meet Emerson’s gardener more than Carlyle.

But Emerson allows that Carlyle might be difficult for Americans to be interested in. While Carlyle is “as remarkable in England as the Tower of London,” he is a man of his country and does not necessarily stand up to translation into American culture. So why should Americans care about Carlyle then, a man with a “strong religious tinge” who

“talks like a very unhappy man, – profoundly solitary, displeased and hindered by all men and things about him, and, biding his time, meditating how to undermine and explode the whole world of nonsense which torments him.”

What could he possibly have to offer?

It is the desire to “undermine and explode” nonsense that Emerson seems to most admire him for and asks us to admire him too. He talks of Carlyle’s contempt for the brown-nosing young men who would come around and try to impress and how Carlyle would take the opposite view just to make a person nuts and expose the flimsiness or an argument or belief. Because, according to Emerson, what Carlyle really cared about was genuineness. He could detect weakness in an instant and was “a hammer that crushes mediocrity and pretension.”

Emerson asserts Carlyle’s “guiding genius” was his moral sense; that truth (”of character, not of catechisms”) and justice were the most important things to him. Men should address themselves not to art or poetry but to “the problem of society.”

And of course, there was Carlyle’s sense of humor which Emerson praises and shows off when he says

“in the decay and downfall of all religions, Carlyle thinks that the only religious act which a man nowadays can securely perform is to wash himself well.”

Can you hear the two of them guffawing over that one? Still, Emerson doesn’t make me feel that sitting in a pub having a pint with Carlyle would be fun. Unless, of course, you were Emerson and up to having your friend tell you that you’re full of crap.


  1. I fear Emerson did his fair share of telling his friends that they were full of crap, too.

    Comment by Emily — February 14, 2008 @ 9:26 am | Reply

  2. Heh, I think you are right Emily 🙂

    Comment by Stefanie — February 18, 2008 @ 12:08 am | Reply

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