Carlyle wrote for years before gaining prominence. Sartor Resartus (begun 1830, published 1836), his fictionalized autobiography, was not well received. He gained a wide readership close to the age of 40 with his history The French Revolution (written 1834-7, published 1837), after having written in a letter to his friend John Stuart Mill that the "right History" of the French Revolution would be "the grand Poem of our Time." This work, like most of Carlyle's writing, challenges the boundaries between genres by blending the essay and fiction, poetry and history, in an exuberant and provocative depiction of the the revolution. Later in life he became more conservative, alienating supporters like Mill and Matthew Arnold with such writings as "An Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question" (1849), in which he advocated harsh measures for the formerly enslaved West Indian labourers who were demanding higher wages. Despite the excessive and objectionable features of his work, however, he was considered by Elizabeth Barrett Browning the "great teacher" of the early Victorian generation, and Harriet Martineau, herself an important social thinker of the time, credited him above all others with having influenced the social and political improvements that were achieved in the mid-Victorian period.
Carlyle is one of the most important and influential of Victorian prose writers, a "sage" writer drawing on the tradition of German Romanticism, who represented himself and was received by many of his contemporaries as a prophetic voice. He sought alternatives to Christian faith in terms that many educated Victorians found compelling, for he represented the divine as immanent in human life. Carlyle's thought defies categorization: he critiqued both the laissez-faire capitalist doctrines of his day and the move towards democracy. He is in many respects valued today more for his expression of his ideas than for the ideas themselves. Carlyle brought together social criticism and historical writing in a new way and contributed greatly to the high status of non-fiction prose among Victorian genres. Elizabeth Barrett and R.H. Horne emphasized the uniqueness of his style when they wrote " . . . of him it is pre-eminently true, that the speech is the man. . . . He throws his truth with so much vehemence, that the print of the palm of his hand is left on it. Let no man scoff at the language of Carlyle--or if it forms part of his idiosyncracy, his idiosyncracy forms part of his truth."