The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Sartor Resartus

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Sartor Resartus
Edition of 1920. See also Sartor Resartus on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

SARTOR RESARTUS. Among autobiographies, Sartor Resartus (“the tailor patched”) remains unique. It was built up out of Carlyle's thinking and his experience of life during his first happy married years at Craigenputtoch. It is a thickly veiled autobiography. Thomas Carlyle appears in a mask as Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, professor of things in general in the German university of Weissnichtwo. The second book deals with the advent, education, love affair and spiritual development of this remarkable professor. This is the most easily understood portion of the book and contains the most famous passages, such as the noble chapter, “Natural Supernaturalism.” The first and third books profess to give translated excerpts from this imaginary professor's imaginary treatise on clothes, with comments and explanations by the “English editor.” These are Carlyle's radical opinions set forth, not in a complete system, but as fragments of a philosophy.

Most undeservedly ‘Sartor’ has the reputation of being in prose what 'Sordello' is in verse. The varied, impassioned, richly allusive style is supposed to be “German,” and the matter to be beyond ordinary human comprehension. This widespread misconception is due to the fact that ‘Sartor’ appeared at a time when “German” was a synonym for “mysterious.” Carlyle learnt his peculiar style in his father's house before he knew a word of German. There is difficulty in grasping Carlyle's unusual ideas, because they are unusual, not because they are presented feebly or obscurely. The narrative portions offer no difficulties. “It is a work of genius, dear,” was Mrs. Carlyle's criticism; and the world has come to agree with this verdict.

The spiritual experience delineated in the second book is typical. Teufelsdröck at the nameless university loses the simple creed of childhood and passes into doubt, denial, unbelief. He is in consequence utterly miserable. From this stage in his spiritual progress he passes, byway of the “Centre of Indifference” to “The Everlasting Yea,” or positive working philosophy. The main ideas of renunciation, duty, work are derived from Goethe, whom Carlyle reverenced.

America welcomed ‘Sartor’ before the writer's own country. Thanks to Emerson, an American publisher had the honor of producing the editio princeps. America also led in appreciation. The philosophy of 'Sartor' had no little share in bringing on the Transcendental movement in New England. It exerted a great influence over Carlyle's contemporaries. Such leaders of thought as Emerson, Huxley, Tyndall, Ruskin and Kingsley confess their debt. An edition of 30,000 copies sold before Carlyle's death. The first critical edition of the text with full notes and introduction by Archibald MacMechan appeared in 1896.

Archibald MacMechan.