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1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Nobody reads Thomas Carlyle anymore, but back in the 1840s he was one of the most important writers in the English language. His style was not designed for general accessibility, but among his fellow writers his influence was incalculable - it's well documented that Dickens idolized him, and testimonies from George Eliot, Charles Kingsley, Emerson, Whitman, etc. also demonstrate his importance. Reading 1843's Past and Present, one of his central works and a reflection on the ills of his society, it is often hard to see why.

Carlyle has a prophetic style which is often powerful. He speaks with a complete moral certainty that is in itself impressive, and his turns of phrase are strange and unexpected, sometimes grotesque, but with a real wit and insight. But he's also very long-winded and repetitive in this book, and his central ideas are not very convincing or nuanced, and delivered with an intolerance that is hard to stomach. He lambasted his society's materialism and called for a return of spirituality. He found that feudalism was more conducive to spiritualism than laissez-faire capitalism, and called for a return to communities working together under strong leadership, which he felt factory owners and "captains of industry" should try to provide. If given strong, moral leadership, workers would forget their grievances and work as, he felt, they were born to do. If they didn't work even when given this great leadership and guidance, they should be severely punished.

Carlyle's tone is alternately empathetic to the poor's difficulties and unpleasantly authoritarian - sometimes it is simply vicious and sadistic. Reading it now, it's surprising that his contemporaries saw him as a voice of genuine concern for the poor - Engels was a big fan of this book! As literature, this book has a certain style, and an occasional power, but is marred by gross repetition. Ironically, part of Carlyle's philosophy was the worship of silence and the notion that action was everything and speech nothing, but he himself was a pure windbag, as this book shows. The interesting thing about Carlyle was the progression of his attitudes, the sensitivity present in much of his early work and some of the late, his descent from concern into hysterical anger in his later work. Past and Present, from around the middle of his career, shows him moving towards the latter, and so is mostly of historical interest. I believe that if his work is to be rediscovered by a new generation, Past and Present is not the place to start, but his earlier work, such as the pseudo-novel Sartor Resartus (Oxford World's Classics), a work of great verbal invention, relatively unobjectionable politics, moral depth, extreme sarcasm, and lyrical power.
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