Book Reviews - Winter 2017

Selective Memory

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Ideas do not always catch on right away

A recent Pew Research Center study revealed that only a minority of Americans accept the scientific validity of natural selection. (Lilly Library, Indiana University–Bloomington)

By Christoph Irmscher

December 5, 2016


The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation by Randall Fuller; Viking, 304 pp., $27

What a beautiful thought: that one book, and even a single copy of one book, can change the course of history! In December 1859, Harvard botanist Asa Gray received a copy of Origin of Species from his friend Charles Darwin. Weeks later, Gray’s marked-up copy had made its way to the radical abolitionist and schoolmaster Franklin Benjamin Sanborn in Concord, Massachusetts, delivered there just in time for dinner on New Year’s Day 1860, by Charles Loring Brace, Gray’s cousin and the founder of the Children’s Aid Society. Sanborn’s other guests that night were Bronson Alcott, the quirkiest of the transcendentalists, and Henry David Thoreau, easily the most original thinker of the lot. No one was interested in the food that night, writes Randall Fuller. Instead, the men in Sanborn’s Concord parlor, with the notable exception of the somewhat befuddled Alcott, fed upon ideas. They “supped,” says Fuller, on the power of Darwin’s theory. America was never the same again.

Or was it? Fuller has a compelling story to tell, and he tells it well. His narrative is lush with memorable detail, and his best sentences have the force of proclamations. He is a master at making his characters come alive. A few quick strokes of Fuller’s pen and we see Alcott before us, his face, with its watery blue eyes, resembling “a rumpled pillowcase.” And whereas Alcott drifts through life obliviously, beautifully, like one of Thoreau’s beloved water lilies, the permanently dour Emerson shows up at unexpected moments looking like a “stork in a frock coat.” My favorite character is Asa Gray, lithe, short, energetic, all of his 135 pounds vibrating and his head bobbing from left to right as he begins to talk, way too fast as always, “his tongue tripping over his thoughts,” as if there were a race to win.

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Christoph Irmscher is Provost Professor of English at Indiana university and the author of Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science. His new biography of Max Eastman will be published in 2017.

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