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Carlyle and the Search for Authority

Chris R. Vanden Bossche

Chris R. Vanden Bossche’s Carlyle and the Search for Authority demonstrates how Thomas Carlyle, in virtually all his writings, conducted a search for a new center of social and political authority that would fit his changing world.

To Carlyle and his contemporaries, the nineteenth century constituted a crisis of authority. The old centers of hierarchical political order and western Christianity were giving way to democracy and atheism. Carlyle believed he could find in literature the lost authority of the sociopolitical order. However, he eventually came to recognize a contradiction in this view of literature. Instead of encouraging a reshaping of the public domain, literature encouraged a withdrawal to an idyllic alternative world. It was, therefore, impotent.

Carlyle’s problem for the remainder of his career was to figure out how authors could give their writings sufficient authority so that they would be listened to at all. The best an author could hope to do was to spur action in the domain where real power resided—politics—and, in his later writings, Carlyle turned to such models of political authority as Abbot Samson, Oliver Cromwell, and Frederick the Great.

Carlyle’s career offers a window on Victorian social problems and the difficulties the Victorians faced in trying to solve them. One of the most famous and popular authors of the century, Carlyle was a fierce critic of middle-class cupidity and shallowness, but he was also a racist whose writings were adapted as proslavery propaganda. His inability to break out of a conception of authority that offered as alternatives only the impotency of literary culture and the power of physical force produced a problematic vision of society that has been often glossed over or ignored. Chris Vanden Bossche argues that if we do not pay attention to these questions, literature will continue to be haunted by the same charges of impotence and irresponsibility that haunted Carlyle and the Victorians.

Chris R. Vanden Bossche is associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of numerous articles about Victorian literature.

1991 234 pp.  6 x 9

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Studies in Victorian Life and Literature