The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Heroes and Hero-worship

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HEROES AND HERO-WORSHIP. In 1837 Carlyle had produced ‘The French Revolution’ (q.v.), which established his fame, but brought him little money. Good friends rallied to his aid, and helped to set him on his feet by organizing courses of public lectures for him, drumming up an audience and selling guinea tickets. Between 1837 and 1840, Carlyle delivered four such courses; the proceeds tided him over his money difficulties, and put him definitely beyond the reach of want. The final course on “Heroes” was the greatest success of all, Carlyle's “crowning mercy,” as a lecturer. From the notes he had prepared for this course, he wrote out the book, ‘Heroes and Hero-Worship,’ reproducing the curious effects of the spoken discourses. The book was as suocessful as the lectures.

To describe ‘Heroes’ as an introduction to universal history might seem to overweight it; but the survey covers roughly the whole activity of man upon the planet. Carlyle was an historian dowered with a unique style, a penetrating and constructive imagination, and a sense of the picturesque vouchsafed to few. No previous book presented such a series of arresting, original generalizations on history, or such just appreciations of so many diverse careers and personalities. Mahomet, Dante, Shakespeare, Luther, Knox, Johnson, Rousseau, Burns, Cromwell and Napoleon are characterized in unforgettable terms as well as the movements they represented, or conducted. Carlyle's power of appreciation was catholic. For the first time in English, be showed that Mahomet was somethmg more than a sensualist and an imposter. For the first time, he pictured the real Oliver Cromwell. Following up this first pronouncement, with his monumental history of the great Puritan leader, he absolutely reversed English opinion and made possible the statue of the regicide in the Palace Yard at Westminster. Lord Acton says Carlyle invented Oliver Cromwell. On all these representative men, Carlyle had true and weighty things to say which had never been said before.

The book made its influence felt at once on current thinking. In 1849, an acute foreign observer wrote: “The rehabilitation of the hero is to-day of all Carlyle's ideas the most widely spread, and the one which has made head tnost rapidly. . . . This idea is the basis of Emerson's philosophy, and has inspired all his essays on confidence in oneself, and the power of the individual.’ Ruskin's determination to do something and be something has been attributed to his reading of ‘Heroes.’ It had also a great influence upon the life and character of Phillips Brooks. To aspiring youth with high hopes and lofty ideals it has a special appeal.

Archibald Macmechan.