A British journalist's attempt to make an influential but enigmatic Victorian literary figure accessible to a late-20th-century audience. Thomas Carlyle was a problem for the Victorians and has remained puzzling ever since. His abrupt, moralistic style remains as opaque today as it was to contemporary critics. When readers turn to Carlyle, they find many incoherent arguments and others that strongly resemble Nazi ideology. Heffer (deputy editor of London's Daily Telegraph) acknowledges those difficulties and sets out to justify Carlyle by setting him in context. As a straightforward, readable account of his life, Moral Desperado is a success. Heifer manages to convey a sense of how this awkward, ungracious hypochondriac addressed the moral and political anxieties of the world's first industrial nation, beset with urban slums and unprecedented class conflict. When attempting to make sense of Carlyle's often repellent political views, Heifer is much less successful. It is not enough simply to assert that those who object to Carlyle's racist power-worship are failing to put his ideas in context. It was, after all, another famous Victorian, John Stuart Mill, who characterized Carlyle in context as a ""moral desperado."" Today it is even more difficult to come to terms with a writer whose solution to what he called ""the nigger question"" was whipping. What are we to make of a writer whose works were a favorite of Adolf Hitler? What are we to think of someone who was, by his own admission, horribly cruel to his wife? Heifer does little to answer those questions, and largely ignores the scholars of Victorian literature and culture who have labored to keep Carlyle's reputation alive. In spite of Heifer's rehabilitation, Carlyle remains in his hands as much of a moral desperado today as he was in his Victorian context.
Pub Date: Dec. 15, 1996
Page Count: 420
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson--dist. by Trafalgar