This extraordinary work is at one and the same time an account of a personal spiritual crisis and a hilarious spoof on academic learning, early Victorian values and materialism. In Sartor Resartus (‘the tailor retailored’) a fictitious editor retells the theories of an equally fictitious German professor who has come to the conclusion that human institutions and morals are only clothes to shield us from nothingness, clothes that can be changed as the whims of the age or fashion dictate.
This radically deconstructive vision reveals the very highest symbols of belief for what they are - merely symbols. How to believe in anything after such an insight is a question even more acute today than it was in Carlyle’s time, when he first asked it in this masterpiece of invention, parody and profound laughter.
This Canongate Classics edition incorporates illustrations by Edmund Sullivan, reproduced as they appeared in the 1898 edition of the text. Also included is the notable Emerson preface to the original American edition and an incisive, specially commissioned introduction from Alasdair Gray.
“The character of his influence is best seen in the fact that many of the men who have least agreement with his opinion are those to whom the reading of Sartor Resartus was an epoch in the history of their minds.”
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Thomas Carlyle, the son of a stonemason, was born in Ecclefechan in Scotland, in 1795. Brought up as a strict Calvinist, he was educated at the village school, Annan Academy and Edinburgh University, where he studied mathematics. After graduating with distinction in 1813 he spent a years studying to join the strictly Calvinist Secessionist Church. His parents had hoped he would become a minister but eventually his religious doubts would not let him continue; he became a teacher at Annan and then at Kirkcaldy.
Carlyle moved to Edinburgh in 1818 where, after an unsuccesful attempt at studying law he became a private tutor and later was commissioned to write several articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia and for the Edinburgh Review. Carlyle also began translating German writers such as Goethe and Schiller and writing original work such as The Life of Schiller (1825).
After marrying Jane Baillie Welsh in 1826, Carlyle moved to London where he became a close friend of the philosopher, John Stuart Mill. As well as contributing articles for Mill’s Westminster Review, Sartor Resartus appeared in Fraser’s Magazine (1833-34). Carlyle also published several books including The French Revolution (1837), On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History (1841) and Past and Present (1843).
Carlyle’s books and articles inspired social reformers such as John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, John Burns, Tom Mann and William Morris. However, although he had originally held progressive political views, Carlyle became increasingly conservative in the late 1840s. This is reflected in the right-wing, anti-democratic attitudes expressed in his collected essays Latter Day Pamphlets (1850) and his admiration for strong leaders illustrated by his six volume History of Frederick the Great (1858-1865) and The Early Kings of Norway (1875). In the last few years of his life, his writing was confined to letters to The Times. Thomas Carlyle died in 1881.