The Carlyle-Emerson Correspondence

by Mark Wallace

The good people at Amazon Kindle have included among their collection of free out-of-copyright books for their reader the collected correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, available in two volumes. They first met in 1833, when both were struggling unknowns, pondering the future direction of human spirituality in the wake of the apparent collapse of judeo-christian theology as a credible weltanschauung. Emerson had read some of Carlyle’s early essays and, on arrival in Britain sought out the Scottish sage in his extremely remote home in Ecclefechan. They immediately found in each other kindred spirits, and on Emerson’s return to Yankeeland (as Carlyle sometimes called it) he initiated a correspondence that was to endure until 1872, albeit the initial intimacy and camaraderie begins to fade out in the 1840s, and is conspicuously absent from about 1850.

If the initial meeting between the two Sages-to-be in 1833 was monumental for both, their second meeting on Emerson’s return to England in 1847, by which time Carlyle was ensconced in Cheyne Row, Chelsea, was the effective end. They found themselves at variance on many subjects, and Carlyle revised his opinion of Emerson downwards: “He is a pure high-minded man, but his talent is not quite so high as I had anticipated” (Froude, Carlyle (1882-1884), III: 416). Emerson, though never one to speak ill of a friend, seems to have had a similar reaction. Their correspondence almost ground to a halt in the following years as Emerson’s responses became fewer and further between, especially in the wake of Carlyle’s childish attack on America as the land of “Eighteen Millions of the greatest bores ever seen in this world before – that hitherto is [America’s] feat in history” in the first of the Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850). In the early 50s, Carlyle’s  letters to Emerson often went without reply, and he frequently pleads with his old friend to renew their former relations:

[Y]ou must get into the way of holding yourself obliged as formerly to a kind of dialogue with me; and speak, on paper if not otherwise, the oftenest you can. (25 June 1852 [vol 2; loc 2114])

The sight of your handwriting was a real blessing to me, after so long an abstinence. You shall not know all the sad reflections I have made upon your silence within the last year. (13 May 1853 [vol 2; loc 2159])

I perceive you will not utterly give up answering me, but will rouse yourself now and then to a word of human brotherhood on my behalf, so long as we both continue on this planet. And I declare, the Heavens will reward you; and as to me, I will be thankful for what I get, and submissive to delays and to all things. (8 April 1854 [vol 2; loc 2323])

Yet the correspondence never recovers its former intimacy, and it is clear that the two men had grown very far apart in their opinions on life, the universe and everything. Carlyle, however maudlin in his private correspondence, was increasingly vicious in his public writings, lashing out against all and sundry, while Emerson remained the proto-hippie, full of peace and love for all things. Yet their correspondence of the 1830s shows that, for a time at least, they were of great importance to each other as fellow travellers towards “the new faith” (vol 1; loc 402) the world was in such need of, prophets scarcely recognized except by each other, but drawing sustenance from their reciprocal admiration – until, finally, the world began to listen.

Carlyle & Emerson, The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson ([1884] Kindle edition, 2011)