The printing press replaced religious leaders with writers, Thomas Carlyle writes in his 1840 essay, "The Hero as Man of Letters." The man who writes for a flock of readers must guide them as well as any good preacher, but he, the ever-invisible "wild Ishmaelite," never occupies a community's center in the same way. In the following passage, Carlyle discusses the literary hero's ghostly power.

Our pious Fathers, feeling well what importance lay in the speaking of man to men, founded churches, made endowments, regulations; everywhere in the civilized world there is a Pulpit, environed with all manner of complex dignified appurtenances and furtherances, that therefrom a man with the tongue may, to best advantage, address his fellow-men. They felt that this was the most important thing; that without this there was no good thing. It is a right pious work, that of theirs; beautiful to behold! But now with the art of Writing, with the art of Printing, a total change has come over that business. The Writer of a Book, is not he a Preacher preaching not to this parish or that, on this day or that, but to all men in all times and places? Surely it is of the last importance that he do his work right, whoever do it wrong; — that the eye report not falsely, for then all the other members are astray! Well; how he may do his work, whether he do it right or wrong, or do it at all, is a point which no man in the world has taken the pains to think of. To a certain shopkeeper, trying to get some money for his books, if lucky, he is of some importance; to no other man of any. Whence he came, whither he is bound, by what ways he arrived, by what he might be furthered on his course, no one asks. He is an accident in society. He wanders like a wild Ishmaelite, in a world of which he is as the spiritual light, either the guidance or the misguidance!

In a clever twist, Carlyle uses the importance of verbal communication to underscore the power of written communication. The writer, he writes, is a Superpreacher, free from the realistic constraints of time and location. He doesn't worry about a fire code restriction on an assembly hall, because his pews are filled with readers all over the world and across time.


1. Carlyle calls "Writing" an art, and verbal communication a "business." What effect does his labeling have on how we understand the relationship between writing and communication.

2. In the passage's last few sentences (beginning with "To a certain shopkeeper"), Carlyle ends long sentences with sharp, short clauses. But the passage's last sentence doesn't deliver the reader to a certain point -- a writer is both "a guidance or a misguidance," not one or the other. What does Carlyle do by giving us two ways of looking at a writer's purpose?

3. Is Carlyle's use of punctuation in this passage more similar to Samuel Johnson's use or Tom Wolfe's?

4. Johnson places longer sentences at the ends of his paragraphs (see Rambler No. 180). In this passage, Carlyle starts a paragraph with his longest sentence by far. How does this placement create an effect unlike Johnson's?

Last modified 11 October 2007