UCSC Review Winter/Spring 1994
Plucked From Obscurity
A new publication restores author Thomas Carlyle to his former prominence
Thomas Carlyle, a leading force of the Romantic movement in England and a prolific essayist, historian, and social critic, is credited with influencing most of his nineteenth-century contemporaries--Charles Dickens, Friedrich Engels, George Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to name a few. And yet the man who was considered the most famous writer in the English-speaking world in his day was almost completely unread by the end of World War II.
The Scottish-born author was so popular in his lifetime that when he died in 1881 his collected works (roughly 35 volumes) had been published in three different editions. The third edition was reprinted 24 times between 1872 and 1901 and sold 130,000 copies. But his descent from fame was swift: Carlyle was forsaken by readers during World War II when he became incorrectly associated with Adolph Hitler, who liked to quote the author to suit his own agenda. Because of guilt by association, Carlyle was assumed to have been a fascist, and his books began gathering dust.
As a result of his fall from grace, the edition of Carlyle's collected works most available to scholars--the one considered definitive--is nearly a century old and replete with errors.
Carlyle is being rescued from his undeserved obscurity by a group of Victorian scholars based at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The group, headed by editor-in-chief Murray Baumgarten, has just published On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993)--the first of a planned eight volumes of Carlyle's works. On Heroes, released last summer, is a fully annotated and scholarly version that will help restore the writer to his previous stature as "the undoubted head of English letters."
Robert Hirst, the general editor of the Mark Twain Project at the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library, served as an inspector of On Heroes for a Modern Language Association committee which gave the book its coveted seal of approval for scholarly integrity. "Serious study of an author cannot begin until a major effort of this kind of editorial work has been done. This book provides the necessary basis for such scholarship on Carlyle," Hirst says, adding, "There is a great amount of learning invested in the text, and they've made a beautiful book."
"This is fundamental scholarship," says Baumgarten, a professor of English and comparative literature at UC Santa Cruz. Baumgarten gathered an international group of scholars for this collaboration. "We are making available an accurate and historically complete text of this major figure of English and world culture," he explains.
The edition--collectively titled The Norman and Charlotte Strouse Edition of the Writings of Thomas Carlyle--is planned to include seven additional volumes: Sartor Resartus, The French Revolution, Past and Present, and four volumes of essays. Along with Carlyle's text, each volume will include a critical and historical introduction setting the volume in its cultural, biographical, and literary context; a history of the printing of the work; and intricate textual notes, including a list of emendations and a historical collation that is one of the most complete ever done.
The detailed collation of On Heroes lists all of the textual variations among the eight editions of the book printed during Carlyle's lifetime, providing valuable data for scholars and literary students. Working with Baumgarten on the first volume were managing editor Mark Engel, an independent scholar and editor based in Santa Cruz and a UCSC graduate, responsible for ensuring the accuracy of the text from the initial collation to the final typesetting of camera-ready copy; Michael Goldberg, a professor of English at the University of British Columbia, who also wrote the introduction and explanatory annotations; and Joel Brattin, an assistant professor of humanities at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
Their approach centered on a computer comparison of the variants in past editions. "We're among a handful of projects who apply computer technology to the problem of establishing an authoritative text. This text could be called scientific in terms of its methodology and accuracy," Engel explains. Hirst confirms that their methodology works, noting that, "This is the first time I've hit a text in which I could find no errors."
Baumgarten stresses that the project was dependent on significant computer support. "UCSC has a wonderful computer center and the help of the staff was important. This kind of computer support for work in the area of the humanities is unique."
The Norman and Charlotte Strouse Collection of Thomas Carlyle, housed at UC Santa Cruz's McHenry Library, is the fundamental resource for this and subsequent volumes. Baumgarten says, "The collection is not just a repository of books, but an active research center that sponsors lectures and talks and serves as a gathering place for Carlyle scholars." The ever-growing collection includes secondary sources--articles, magazines, and the like--that were indispensable in annotating On Heroes. Before he died last year, Norman Strouse provided additional funding for the project.
Work on the second volume in the edition is well under way. The next volume, Sartor Resartus (a fictional work whose title translates as The Tailor Retailored), is expected to be completed within the next year.