In Thomas Carlyle's "The Hero as Man of Letters," he eulogizes the writer, specifically Johnson, Rouseau, and Burns, to a nearly divine status. Originally given as a lecture, "The Hero as Man of Letters" clearly follows the four-part pattern of sage writing. Carlyle recognizes the phenomenon of mass printing, and interprets it as instigating the apotheosis of the written word in society, declaring that "books are our Church . . . literature is our parliament." Carlyle portrays writers as underappreciated harbingers of the word of God and books as unadulterated streams of human nature and thought. In a continuing criticism for the mechanical world of the utilitarians, Carlyle recognizes the departure from the way of God and Nature and laments that there is no place for the greater truth literature has to offer. Carlyle's prediction of disaster, "When millions of men can no longer by their utmost exertion gain food for themselves," is succeeded by his prophesy of a return to the heroic world, "a believing world; with many Heroes in it . . . a victorious world." After a round of societal prognosis, Carlyle returns to his first subject, the Man of Letters and grieves over their unappreciated brilliance.
Now it was under such conditions, in those times of Johnson, that our Men of Letter had to live. Times in which there was properly no truth in life. Old truths had fallen nigh dumb; the new lay yet hidden, not trying to speak. That Man's Life here below was a Sincerity and Fact, and would forever continue such, no new intimation, in that dusk of the world, had yet dawned . . . How different was the Luther's pilgrimage, with its assured goal, from the Johnson's, girt with mere traditions, suppositions, grown now incredible, unintelligible! Mahoment's Formulas were of wood waxed and oiled, and could be burnt out of one's way: poor Johnson's were far more difficult to burn . . . We need not wonder that none of those Three men rose to victory. That they fought truly is the highest praise. With a mournful sympathy we will contemplate, if not three living victorious Heroes, as I said, the Tombs of three fallen Heroes!
1. What is the effect of returning at such a time in the writing to the original subject of the piece?
2. What is the effect of comparing these three men to Luther and Mahoment, men of religious significance?
3. Why does he particularly choose these three men, Carlyle, Burns, and Rouseau as examples of his Man of Letters?
4. This piece was originally given as a part in a series of lectures. Is there a difference in style between this piece and his other writings?
5. What place can the Man of Letters occupy in a skeptical, godless world? What role is Carlyle himself playing?
6. How would Carlyle see himself in the company of Johnson, Rouseau and Burns?
Last modified 23 September 2003