Biographies of Literary Men: Carlyle and David Foster Wallace

by Mark Wallace

I am once again deeply mired in Carlyle studies, having begun to read the 4-volume Life of Carlyle (1882-1884) by James Anthony Froude, some 1800 pages(!) in all. Froude’s Carlyle is one of the most significant in English letters, for the reason that it played a significant part in destroying Carlyle’s reputation – from being seen as one of the great minds of the age, Carlyle fell into total discreditation, then into oblivion. Walt Whitman said on Carlyle’s death  that:

It will be difficult for the future—judging by his books, personal dissympathies, &c.,—to account for the deep hold this author has taken on the present age, and the way he has color’d its method and thought. I am certainly at a loss to account for it all as affecting myself. But there could be no view, or even partial picture, of the middle and latter part of our Nineteenth century, that did not markedly include Thomas Carlyle. (“Carlyle from American Points of View”, 1892)

But if Carlyle did color the method and thought of his age, with his disquisitions on justice, duty, and a stern adherence to the Eternal Laws of the Universe; his ridicule for those who felt life could be theorized into meaningfulness; the worship of sorrow and silence and the need for Heroes/ Great Men to lead the unthinking herd, and above all his constantly being “dreadfully in earnest” (Froude II, 56); as I say, if he did color his age’s method and thought, with the publication of Froude’s Carlyle, he was opened to the opprobrium of those very same idle, chattering classes who had listened so intently as he ranted against them. Yeats recounted a conversation he had in the 1890s in which he noted with satisfaction that Carlyle, already, was “as dead as Ossian”. Later, as the conversation moved onto Walpole, Yeats’ dialogist noted “Walpole is exactly the sort of man Carlyle would have hated, and called a sham, yet Carlyle himself was the most insincere of all” (from memory, citation not to hand). The most insincere of all – for a man who had spent his long writing career denouncing cant, quackery and sham, to be so remembered was somewhat ironic. Carlyle had been painted by Froude as a constantly self-absorbed, self-pitying, hypochondriacal, selfish-to-the-point-of-cruelty, probably-sexually-impotent fraud who had married one of the most accomplished and intellectual women of the age and used her belief in his genius to turn her into a drudge and maid-of-all-work, while ignoring her emotional and intellectual needs, driving her nerves to breaking point, till she took refuge in that old Victorian staple of “delicate health”, and died before her time. Simon Heffer’s biography of Carlyle (1995) tells the story of Carlyle’s reputational demise in his Introduction. Many have since argued that Froude’s picture was totally unfair, and that he was blinded by his own admiration/ love for Jane Welsh Carlyle and his vision of her as tragic martyr. In any case, Froude’s book was a sensation, read by all of Gigmanity, and Carlyle’s writings, in this new light, began to seem like the greatest sham perpetuated on the reading public since Ossian’s heyday.

As I make my slow way through Froude’s opus, I read today a review of the new David Foster Wallace bio, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by DT Max. Strange as it may seem, Wallace is something of a latter-day Carlyle. Only consider the following, from a review of Carlyle’s last major work Frederick the Great:

His power, though, we trust, lessening, is still great – especially in three classes – litterateurs, the more intelligent of our working men, and thoughtful young people generally.

Apart perhaps from the second class mentioned, this is very much Wallace’s readership as well: the literary classes – he’s very much a “writer’s writer”; writers and young intellectuals and students are his readership. He is an intellectuo-moral touchstone for a generation: smarter than everyone else, but constantly debating and evaluating the moral fundamentals of life in our time. As he says himself

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day…. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t…. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.

Having no DFW to hand, I have pasted the above from Wikipedia. This much admitted, I wish to draw attention to the sage quality of Wallace’s writing, to the fact that the implied author here is a sage in the Carlyle sense, one who meditates deeply on how we must live our lives and speaks with a moral authority that is absolute. Where Carlyle raged, Wallace maintains a reasoned tone, but the implied author as holder of the keys to moral truth, as wanderer in the desert and martyr for the people (note the use of the word “sacrifice”), who is wise that the general populace may be happy, is the same.

Max’s book, at least as presented in the Sunday Times Culture review of 16.09.12 by Robert Collins, explodes all this. Wallace is “exhaustingly erratic, petulantly self-regarding, obsessively jealous, etc.” It will be interesting to see if this has any effect on Wallace’s reputation. It is unlikely to go with him as it did with Carlyle, mainly, I think, because we have a very different attitude to our heroes and idols now. An idol should have feet of clay. The human being is not perfectible. Further, it is such a commonplace now to regard society as the oppressor that individual neurosis is health: a reasonable response to an unreasonable world. One must also remark that despite Collins’s determined efforts to portray Wallace as unpleasant, the actual facts he cites to support his contention are not so prejudicial: neurotic Wallace obviously was, but not so clearly morally reprehensible as Collins seems to think. Therefore thoughtful young persons will no doubt continue to look to DFW for guidance, a great reader of the Signs of the Times, and a “sacrifice” to those times, too sensitive, it may seem, for this harsh world.