Carlyle, Our Hero?

Philip Rosenberg, so the blurb tells us, “dramatically reverses the standard interpretation of Carlyle…and explores for the first time the radical dimension of Carlyle’s works.” Odd, I thought. Surely this was done for the first time thirty years ago by Eric Bentley in A Century of Hero-Worship. So I turned next to the index of Rosenberg’s book where the first reference to Bentley was on page 39 and read as follows:

The most common assumption with regard to Carlyle’s politics has been that his attack on Benthamite Radicalism comes from the right rather than from the left. From Emery Neff…to Eric Bentley, who sees Carlyle as almost an architect of the Third Reich, the idea of a right-wing Carlyle has been predominant in the literature.

How do you see a man almost as an architect? Either he was an architect or he wasn’t. The weasel-word means nothing. But I found this statement even stranger than the blurb. For did not Bentley maintain that the one certain way to misinterpret Carlyle was to regard him as a protofascist? I pulled down from the shelf my English edition of Bentley’s book. On the first page of the introduction the reader was reminded that “specifically, the doctrine of hero-worship should not lightly be dismissed as Hitlerism.”

Toward the end of the book Bentley showed at length how many scholars and authors had tried to claim Carlyle as an architect of this or that cause and how ludicrous such claims turned out to be. He convicted Sir Herbert Grierson and other pillars of scholarship of vulgarly pandering to wartime prejudices when they pinned a Nazi label on Carlyle. No doubt Carlyle was no believer in democracy, but if that was a crime then Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shaw, Flaubert, Zola, Joyce, Proust, Yeats, Rilke, and T. S. Eliot should also be in the dock.

It was not all that easy to take this line when Bentley was writing his book (for the most part in 1940). Historians of ideas, political theorists, and sociologists were then asking how the success of fascism had come about, and in the search for scapegoats everything from pop culture (which had enervated an otherwise heroic proletariat) to the philosophes of eighteenth-century France—who had vainly imagined that they were the standard-bearers in the fight against authoritarian government—got cast for the role of proto-Nazis. Bentley did not deny that there was a sinister side to Carlyle which prefigured the high-brow fascism of Hamsun and Daudet and the professors of Hitler’s Germany. But Bentley was far more concerned to show how Carlyle anticipated Marx and Engels, Nietzsche and Bergson, Freud and Jung, and, above all, William James: how he held novel theories of psychology and a pragmatic view of truth. His life indeed was one long fight against contemporary orthodoxies, and I cannot conceive how anyone who reads Bentley’s book could imagine that he was casting Carlyle for the role of architect of …

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