Thomas Carlyle and the making of Frederick the Great
Stewart, Linda Clark
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Thomas Carlyle’s History of Friedrich II. of Prussia, called Frederick the Great was published in six volumes between 1858 and 1865 and was his last major work. Carlyle had a specific purpose in mind when he began writing Frederick. He believed that contemporary events had left Europe in disarray and the British nation fragmented. In his view, the nation needed to function as a family unit, with the older, more experienced members of the group instructing and educating the young. Carlyle’s attempt to address the situation with the publication of his Latter-Day Pamphlets in 1850 had failed, largely due to their aggressive tone. He adopted an entirely different approach when it came to writing Frederick. Chapter one explores Carlyle’s vacillation over his choice of Frederick as a suitable subject for his history and investigates his soul-searching over whether or not to proceed with the project. It examines the three-way relationship which Carlyle created between himself, Frederick and the reader and explores the various language techniques that Carlyle used to create and maintain this relationship. In chapter two, Carlyle’s style of writing in Frederick is investigated. It argues that Carlyle was engaged in the act of storytelling and explores the various literary techniques that he used to achieve this. Chapter three consists of an in-depth examination of Carlyle’s use of oral techniques in Frederick, investigating the variety of oral devices he employed in order to ‘speak’ to his readers and create a unified readership. Chapters four and five focus on Carlyle’s research methods. They examine the texts which Carlyle used for his research—original manuscripts, printed texts, letters, histories and biographies—investigating how these were incorporated into Frederick and evaluating whether or not Carlyle was true to his source material. Carlyle’s two trips to Germany in order to research material are also investigated. In Chapters six and seven, the contemporary reception of Frederick is explored. Chapter six focuses on the reaction to the first two volumes which were published together in 1858, whilst chapter seven investigates the response to the later volumes, exploring the ways in which the completed work influenced the public’s perception of Carlyle as a historian and ending by examining both Carlyle’s and Frederick’s places in posterity. Despite Carlyle’s labours on Frederick it never received the acclaim of his earlier productions but was regarded by many as a marker which signalled the end of Carlyle’s long and illustrious literary career.