Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"This Offensive and Alarming Set of Pamphlets": Thomas Carlyle's Latter-Day Pamphlets and the Condition of England in 1850

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"This Offensive and Alarming Set of Pamphlets": Thomas Carlyle's Latter-Day Pamphlets and the Condition of England in 1850

Article excerpt

"Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today" (1). So begins Ill Fares the Land, the final book published by historian and cultural commentator Tony Judt before his death in August 2010. The book's title, a reference to Oliver Goldsmith's 1770 poem The Deserted Village, signals the moral passion that drives this examination of the way we live now. "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey," Goldsmith laments of an earlier time, "Where wealth accumulates, and men decay" (lines 51-52). Judt felt strongly enough about the condition of America--and Britain, and Europe--to compose this book while enduring the final stages of Lou Gehrig's disease. It is not a happy book indeed, in many places it is an angry book--but against all odds it is a hopeful book, as Judt examines the sorry state of America and Europe in the wake of the financial crash of 2008, linking the widening ripples of economic collapse to political failings that themselves reflect a debased set of values: "for thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth.... We cannot go on living like this" (1-2).

And yet, Judt charges, we seem unable any longer to imagine alternatives to the status quo: "the rising generation is acutely worried about the world it is to inherit. But accompanying these fears there is a general sentiment of frustration: 'we' know something is wrong and there are many things we don't like. But what can we believe in? What should we do?" (3-4). For Judt, the response to this new age of anxiety and insecurity--an age of "private affluence, public squalor" marked by fear and a "scandalous gap separating rich and poor"--must be a strong and vibrant commitment to a re-imagined social democracy (12, 162). He asserts boldly what now runs against the grain in the United States as in Britain and Europe more generally: "the practical need for strong states and interventionist governments" (8). Arguing that questions of public policy must not be reduced to a narrowly economic calculus, Judt insists that "we cannot continue to evaluate our world and the choices we make in a moral vacuum" (37). If we are to solve the intertwined social and economic problems we face--if we do not wish "indefinitely to lurch between a dysfunctional 'free market' and the much-advertised horrors of 'socialism'"--we must devise a new language of social purpose that articulates complex human ends, and not just reductive economic means (34).

To a reader of the works of Thomas Carlyle and, indeed, much of Victorian literature from the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, Judt's analysis sounds eerily familiar. Judt himself is more likely to cite eighteenth- or twentieth-century analogues to the malaise of the present. But the tone of his extended essay, as well as the questions he ponders, evokes the mingled, sometimes conflicting, always engaged voices of Dickens and Disraeli, Mill and Gaskell, Ruskin and Arnold and George Eliot--and above all, of Thomas Carlyle. For it was Carlyle more than any other, more even than Marx and Engels, who defined the "condition-of-England question" in the mid-nineteenth century and then compelled his contemporaries to consider it; it was Carlyle who provided the language with which to consider it. Though Judt never says so, his powerful book is Carlylean to the core, never more so than when he inveighs against the state's abandonment of moral obligation in favor of a neutral cash nexus between person and person, or when he writes scathingly that "politically speaking, ours is an age of the pygmies" (165). The British House of Commons in 2010, says Judt, "is a sad sight: a parlor of placemen, yes-men and professional camp-followers--at least as bad as it was in 1832, the last time it was forcibly overhauled and its 'representatives' expelled from their sinecure"; the United States Senate, "once a bulwark of republican constitutionalism, has declined to a pretentious, dysfunctional parody of its original self" (164). …

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