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Tim Sommer, Carlyle, Emerson and the Transatlantic Uses of Authority: Literature, Print, Performance

Tom F. Wright
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Tim Sommer, Carlyle, Emerson and the Transatlantic Uses of Authority: Literature, Print, Performance, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2020, ISBN: 9781474491976 (ebook), £85.00.

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1The bond between Thomas Carlyle and his younger American mentee Ralph Waldo Emerson was for a long time seen as the defining transatlantic partnership of the Anglophone nineteenth century. The productive tension between irascible Scot and enigmatic Yankee was seen as the era’s inescapable double act. The frenemies that helped explain both Old World and New.

2For F.O. Matthiessen in American Renaissance (1941), they were the channel through which Kantian thought flowered into New England Transcendentalism. For first wave transatlantic scholarship such as Robert Weisbuch’s foundational Atlantic Double-Cross (1986) this status was only amplified. Even when second wave works such as Paul Giles’s Virtual Americas (2002) and Atlantic Republic (2006) aimed to dismantle what they saw as a limiting focus on these authors, their pairing continued to exert an inevitable pull.

3In recent years, however, this relevance has been widely questioned. Carlyle’s social views seem violently at odds with the contemporary moment, and his style ever more opaque. Emerson’s reputation has also declined, with his status as the era’s nonconformist lodestar less exalted than before. Moreover, with the latter now most often read as part of conversations about identity and ecology, the Carlyle connection seems far less urgent than it once did.

4Other nineteenth-century pairings now seem just as relevant and compelling. Harriet Martineau and Margaret Fuller; George Eliot and Herman Melville; Frederick Douglass and John Stuart Mill; Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Henry David Thoreau. Parings such as these have recently been used as the starting point for thematic explorations that are more than the sum of their comparative parts. Did Carlyle and Emerson crowd out more creative ways of thinking about the transatlantic all along?

5In his rich and thoughtful new book Tim Sommer makes a persuasive case that there is much more to say about this pair. Carlyle, Emerson and the Transatlantic Uses of Authority is an ambitious mixture of literary criticism, book history and cultural sociology that reveals new dimensions not just to our understanding of each writers’ works but the place they occupied within a complex literary marketplace. Sommer goes about it through highly conscientious archival work, offering a subtle sense of what “authority” could mean in nineteenth-century culture: not just internally to the texts, or within the literary scene, but within structures of publishing and lecturing, and lastly within the contours of a literary legacy.

6The book’s opening chapters establish the debates over identity and history that both writers helped to reshape, and lay out a theoretically sophisticated version of “authority.” Challenging what he sees as the blind spots of Weberian formulations Sommer instead draws upon Richard Sennett and Frank Furedi to develop a flexible model that will enlighten the readings that come. In these analytical chapters, he reveals himself to be a shrewd reader of both authors, exploring how both navigated between and across the various scales of aggregation” and how their nationalist and cosmopolitan vocabularies led them to “conjure up the idea of transatlantic kinship.” And as one might expect from a German scholar, Sommer is particularly perceptive on the mutual influence of the literary culture of authors such as Johann Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Schlegel, Germaine de Staël and Victor Cousin.

7But the book’s most distinctive and important contribution is its detailed attention to two cultural networks too often discussed apart: the publishing market and the popular lecture circuit. By doing so Sommer takes Emerson and Carlyle seriously not as isolated towering figures, but as cultural producers deeply and consciously embedded in multiple networks. His immersion in the details of both markets allows him to reveal how multiple dimensions to both authors’ ideas and practices of authority were conditioned by concrete cultural formations. This enriches our understanding of transatlantic lecturing, building constructively on recent work by Angela Ray, Paul Stob and myself. Even more so, Sommer’s work on print networks can be added to work by Joseph Rezek and Katie McGettigan as models of transatlantic book history at its sharpest.

8This is an ambitious book that attempts to synthesise a host of important methods and approaches. At times, the strain shows in the structure and style. Though for the most part the book juggles its tasks well, the dense weaving of primary and secondary sources results in prose almost as thorny as the Carlylese of the Scotch author.

9But though sometimes a challenging read, the result is worth it. The book is at pains to not merely add to the oppressive atmosphere around both writers, but instead aims to interrogate the foundations and subtle complexities of this greatness itself. By doing so, Sommer successfully reimagines this transatlantic partnership from a range of new perspectives. It will be a clear value to Victorianists, Americanists, and even ultimately to those in transatlantic studies that thought they had left this fascinating odd couple behind.

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FUREDI, Frank. Authority: A Sociological Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

GILES, Paul. Virtual Americas: Transnational Fictions and the Transatlantic Imaginary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

GILES, Paul. Atlantic Republic: The American Tradition in English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

MCGETTIGAN, Katie. Herman Melville: Modernity and the Material Text. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, 2017.

MATTHIESSEN, F.O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.

RAY, Angela G., and Paul STOB, eds. Thinking Together: Lecturing, Learning, and Difference in the Long Nineteenth Century. College Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018.

REZEK, Joseph. London and the Making of Provincial Literature Aesthetics and the Transatlantic Book Trade, 1800-1850. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

SENNETT, Richard. Authority. New York: Knopf, 1980.

WEISBUCH, Robert. Atlantic Double-Cross: American Literature and British Influence in the Age of Emerson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

WRIGHT, Tom F. “Carlyle, Emerson, and the Voiced Essay.” On Essays: Montaigne to the Present. Eds. Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020, p. 206-222.

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Tom F. Wright, « Tim Sommer, Carlyle, Emerson and the Transatlantic Uses of Authority: Literature, Print, Performance »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2022, consulté le 27 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Tom F. Wright

University of Sussex

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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