Rejuvenating English Literature with German Humour: De Quincey, Jean Paul, and Thomas Carlyle


In an article published in London Magazine in December 1821, De Quincey begins by stating that French literature is now in ‘the most abject state of senile . . . imbecility’ because of having isolated itself from any intercourse with foreign literature. To rejuvenate itself, English literature should implant into itself German literature after 1789, whose future excellence is guaranteed by ‘the originality and masculine strength of thought which has moulded the German mind since Kant.’ De Quincey particularly champions Jean Paul’s works as ‘the galaxy of the German literary firmament’ and celebrates his use of warm humour to cultivate human nature and a nation sate. This implantation, though, bears fruit not in De Quincey but in Thomas Carlyle. De Quincey brings Jean Paul to the attention of Carlyle, who is particularly attracted to Jean Paul’s tender humour, ‘the central fire that pervades and vivifies his whole being.’ Carlyle admires Jean Paul so much as to write his Sartor Resartus (1833-34) à la Jean Paul. Critics such as Henry Traill and Peter Sabor have noted that the novel is indebted to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, but I seek to argue that Carlyle engrafts Jean Paul’s attitude on Sartor Resartus. For one thing, style-wise, both Jean Paul and Prof Teufelsdröckh tend to arrange texts in a Romantic confusion, so playfully eccentric as to leave readers at once amused and dumfounded. For another, temperament-wise, both Jean Paul and Prof Teufelsdröckh are governed by tender humour.

Author Information
Shun-Liang Chao, National Chengchi University, Taiwan

Paper Information
Conference: ECAH2023
Stream: Literature/Literary Studies

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Posted by James Alexander Gordon