Thomas Carlyle's major work, Sartor Resartus (meaning 'The tailor re-tailored'), first published as a serial in 1833-34, purported to be a commentary on the thought and early life of a German philosopher called Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (which translates as 'god-born devil-dung'), author of a tome entitled "Clothes: their Origin and Influence." Teufelsdröckh's Transcendentalist musings are mulled over by a skeptical English editor who also provides fragmentary biographical material on the philosopher. The work is, in part, a parody of Hegel, and of German Idealism more generally.
Publication history, themes and critical reception
Carlyle had terrible trouble finding a publisher for Sartor
, and thus a number of different publication dates are given. Project Gutenberg
, for instance, gives the date as 1831, but that seems to be the date that Carlyle wrote it, not when it was published. Fraser's Magazine
serialised it in 1833-4 and the text was published as a volume in 1838, possibly because of the success of The French Revolution
Sartor Resartus was intended to be a new kind of book: simultaneously factual and fictional, serious and satirical, speculative and historical. It ironically commented on its own formal structure, while forcing the reader to confront the problem of where 'truth' is to be found. In this respect it develops techniques used much earlier in Tristram Shandy, to which it refers. The imaginary "Philosophy of Clothes" holds that meaning is to be derived from phenomena, continually shifting over history, as cultures reconstruct themselves in changing fashions, power-structures, and faith-systems. The book contains a very Fichtean conception of religious conversion: based not on the acceptance of God but on the absolute freedom of the will to reject evil, and to construct meaning. This has led some writers to see Sartor Resartus as an early Existentialist text.
Sartor Resartus was initially considered bizarre and incomprehensible by some, but had a limited success in America, where it was admired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, influencing the development of New England Transcendentalism, and by Herman Melville, whose Moby-Dick was strongly influenced by Carlyle.
Characters and locales
The siren who, Calypso
-like, seduced Teufelsdroeckh at the commencement of his career, but who also helped him see that it is not in sentiment
, however fine, that the soul's
cravings can find satisfaction.
Dumbdrudge is an imaginary village
where the natives drudge away and say nothing about it, as villagers all over the world contentedly do.
Hofrath Heuschrecke (i. e. State-Councillor Grasshopper) is a loose, zigzag figure, a blind admirer of Teufelsdroeckh's, an incarnation of distraction distracted, and the only one who advises the editor and encourages him in his work; a victim to timidity and preyed on by an uncomfortable sense of mere physical cold, such as the majority of the state-counsellors of the day were.
In the book, Weissnichtwo (weiß-nicht-wo
, German for Know-not-where) is an imaginary European city, viewed as the focus, and as exhibiting the operation, of all the influences for good and evil of the time, described in terms which characterised city life in the first quarter of the 19th century; so universal appeared the spiritual forces at work in society at that time that it was impossible to say where they were and where they were not, and hence the name of the city, Know-not-where (cf. Sir Walter Scott
- Auscultator is a name in the book, the hero as a man qualified for a profession, but as yet only expectant of employment in it.
- Dwight Eisenhower who kept this book with him from 1942 through 1945 while Commander of AEF noted, “It is a humble man who has read this masterpiece and hides it in his heart.”