Darwin’s Early Adopters

During the icy winter of 1860, Franklin Sanborn preferred to stay indoors. The bad weather in Concord, Massachusetts, was cause enough, but the young political activist had another reason: he feared ...

During the icy winter of 1860, Franklin Sanborn preferred to stay indoors. The bad weather in Concord, Massachusetts, was cause enough, but the young political activist had another reason: he feared that he would be arrested and put to death for his support of John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry months earlier. When Brown was executed for treason on December 2, 1859, Sanborn went underground. Nevertheless, on a frigid New Year’s Day he hosted a dinner party in his warm parlor for three guests: Charles Loring Brace, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau, all sympathizers with Brown’s zealous abolitionism. They were also men of letters, progressive intellectuals who “dined on theories, supped on philosophy.” As the evening wore on, the conversation of these four New England minds naturally turned from politics to books. Brace—a cousin of Harriet Beecher Stowe who ran charitable programs for underprivileged children—unwrapped a thick green volume he had brought with him from Cambridge. The smell of fresh ink still clung to the crisp pages, but the margins already contained pencil marks from the book’s actual owner, the Harvard botanist Asa Gray. Sanborn and his guests leaned forward to examine it, “their faces softening, their eyes lit with superb possibility.”

Randall Fuller begins The Book that Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation with this powerful scene. That book, of course, was Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in London on November 24, 1859. Less than two months later—on January 10, 1860—an American edition appeared in New York. Despite this quick turnaround, several members of the Boston literati were already reading and discussing the book in those intervening weeks. For instance, Charles Eliot Norton, an art historian and contributor to the new Atlantic Monthly magazine, had obtained a copy of the Origin of Species shortly after it was published and spoke admiringly of Darwin’s obvious erudition.1 Asa Gray, who had been Darwin’s chief American correspondent (and de facto literary agent), saw the book as a revolutionary scientific masterpiece. At Sanborn’s house, Brace, Alcott, and Thoreau were excited to find in the Origin a forceful argument against the pro-slavery rhetoric that had increasingly become a part of national politics. They could not know it for certain, but in fact they were poised at the brink of the greatest “struggle for existence” the nation had ever seen: the US Civil War.

Treating Concord as the epicenter of an intellectual earthquake, Fuller measures Darwin’s American aftershocks by exploring the various opinions and responses of his initial US readers, chiefly in the antebellum North in the calendar year 1860. The Book that Changed America comprises 24 short chapters, each of which tends to focus on an individual figure (though some figures are allotted multiple chapters). This colorful cast of characters keeps Fuller’s work continuously fresh and fascinating. Many of these 19th-century interlocutors—such as Moncure Conway, a native Virginian who briefly revived the famous Transcendentalist journal The Dial in Cincinnati—have been largely ignored by scholars because they don’t fit neatly into received literary, political, or philosophical histories. In a move similar to Louis Menand’s in his 2001 book The Metaphysical Club, Fuller collects these often overlooked thinkers—philanthropists, preachers, scientists, and literary artists—into an old-fashioned intellectual history, an analysis of the nation’s psyche at a tumultuous moment in its development. The Book that Changed America is not really about a book; it’s about a community of minds, minds organized around a thematic center but individually directed toward a panoply of important topics. Much like the Origin of Species, Fuller’s is a remarkably multidisciplinary work. It portrays an intricate network of readers and writers—what Darwin might have called a “web of life.”

Darwin’s work failed to capture the American imagination because of the untimely death of his most perceptive American student: Henry David Thoreau.

Fuller’s pages shine brightest when they highlight obscure figures like the Boston physician John Jeffries, “the first person to cross the English Channel by aerial balloon”—a feat he accomplished in the nude. A variety of such vignettes fleshes out a cultural moment now chiefly remembered for its proximity to the Civil War. But while the pacing relies on such cameo appearances, the tragic hero of this book is a major figure in US literary history: Henry David Thoreau.

Recent scholarship on Thoreau—who enjoys a bicentennial this summer, having been born on July 12, 1817—has stressed the influence of Darwin’s writing upon his work. Robert Thorson claims that a reading of Darwin’s Journal of Researches (from his voyage on the Beagle) in 1851 effectively transformed Thoreau from a poet into a geologist.2 Laura Dassow Walls (whose forthcoming biography of Thoreau promises to be the new standard) has for many years championed Thoreau as one of Darwin’s earliest and most passionate American adopters.3 Her 1995 book Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science, which argues that the scientific paradigms set both by Alexander von Humboldt and by Darwin were for Thoreau more significant than the religious and philosophical teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, remains an important touchstone for scholars of American literature.4 Fuller adds to such work by carefully explaining how the period between January 1860, when he first read the Origin, and May 1862, when he died, constituted a revolutionary development in Thoreau’s career. After years of recording measurements of natural phenomena and seasonal changes around Concord into his journal, Thoreau suddenly began collecting and organizing these facts into spreadsheets. This magisterial “Kalendar” has only begun to be appreciated by scholars; an exciting digital project has recently made it available online. Fuller further reveals a deep debt to Darwin in Thoreau’s final essays, works such as “Wild Apples” and “The Succession of Forest Trees.” Critics have long celebrated “Civil Disobedience” (1849) and Walden (1854), staples of the 20th-century American curriculum, but have generally overlooked how the winter of 1859–1860 brought renewed vigor and insight to Thoreau’s writing.5 The exploits of John Brown and the arguments of Charles Darwin revitalized his daily work. The Origin of Species in particular “inserted itself into his life and permanently reoriented his understanding of the woods and meadows surrounding Concord.” Unfortunately, the life remaining to him was short.

Thoreau’s death from tuberculosis at the age of 44 strikes Fuller as a tragedy—not merely because he died young but because he died on the verge of a visionary project. Fuller here makes his boldest claim. A standard historical account of Darwin’s reputation in America insists that, due to bad timing, it only gradually rose to prominence in the later years of the 19th century. The Origin appeared as the nation was falling apart, and the Civil War left a much deeper and more immediate impression on the American mind than the English naturalist’s rationale for biological evolution. On the surface, Fuller’s book argues that this is not the case—that indeed, Darwin’s book left a profound mark, that it “changed America.” But Fuller, who is also the author of From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature (2011), knows that the transformative power of the Origin was dwarfed by that of the War, at least in the 19th century. His more persuasive argument is that Darwin’s work failed to capture the American imagination in the same way that it did England’s because of the untimely death of his most perceptive American student. In England, Darwin’s “bulldog” T. H. Huxley long kept natural selection topical, but in America his shaggy stalwart passed away prematurely. “We will never know how far Thoreau might have absorbed and extended Darwin’s theory,” Fuller laments. “Nor can we know what insights he might have extracted from applying the principles of variation and natural selection to his beloved woods and fields.”

Nevertheless, Fuller succeeds in suggesting that the Origin began exerting a perceptible influence on US writers immediately upon publication. Much extant scholarship has maintained that Darwin only became relevant for American authors in the 1890s, when a new generation of novelists, collectively known as literary naturalists (especially Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser), were reading Darwin and crafting characters as mechanistic creatures governed entirely by natural forces. In contrast, the earlier generation of literary realists—headed by Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James—were relatively uninfluenced by evolutionary theory, at least in their early and middle careers.

Fuller pushes back Darwin’s influence 30 years by considering not only the nature writing of Thoreau, but also the fiction of Bronson Alcott’s daughter Louisa May—especially her 1863 story “M. L., An Abolition Tale” and her 1864 novel Moods. (Little Women is a tougher sell for evolutionary theory.) Along with Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron-Mills” (1861), Alcott’s Moods “forecasts a darker literary naturalism that we typically consider a by-product of the Civil War.” And while Fuller admits that Nathaniel Hawthorne was never really a Darwinist, he is quick to point out that the author’s interest in prelapsarian satyrs in The Marble Faun (1860) may owe something to popular talk about a “missing link” between apes and men. This prehistory of American naturalism remains a somewhat minor emphasis in The Book that Changed America, but it is a significant criticism that will reverberate among US literary historians.

The Book that Changed America is not really about a book, it’s about a community of minds.

Fuller’s main emphasis is on the role the Origin of Species played in the American abolitionist cause, and this role indeed deserves our renewed attention. By the end of the 19th century, the name of Darwin had become associated with social politics in what we would now consider an unfortunate way. Under the banner of “Social Darwinism,” a “survival of the fittest” ideology promoted unregulated markets and social eugenics, favoring industrial corporations over labor unions and Anglo-Saxon communities over nonwhite peoples. Yet in the 15 months between the Origin’s initial publication and the shots fired at Fort Sumter, many American readers understood Darwin’s theory to apply to social politics as a powerful tool in the argument against slavery.

In the first year of its reception, Darwin’s book “was almost always discussed and debated as an important commentary on racial issues that had long smoldered at the heart of American society.” The ethnological study of race flourished in the United States in the 1840s and ’50s, and the central question at the heart of this scientific enterprise regarded whether all human races descended from one common prototype (à la Adam and Eve) or whether the various races could be traced to entirely separate origins. In the terms of the time, this was a debate between monogenesis and polygenesis. Polygenesis was obviously popular in the South, where it served the defense of race-based slavery. But it found many adherents in the North, where books such as George R. Gliddon and Josiah C. Nott’s Types of Mankind (1854) were bestsellers, and where Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz, America’s foremost man of science (and eventual enemy of Darwin’s theory), affirmed the separate creation of human races. But readers like Charles Loring Brace understood Darwin to be affirming a clearly monogenist position, with members of the species Homo sapiens all sharing a single origin.6

This debate was not confined to the airy theories of academics. Of the various abolitionists Fuller features, the breakout star is Franklin Sanborn, one of Darwin’s earliest American acolytes. Sanborn was a young man in 1860, only 28 years old, but he was already making a name for himself in Concord; in his later years he would be known as the “Last Transcendentalist.” (He would also gain local infamy for “fertilizing his garden with his own sewage.”) Sanborn had offered financial assistance to John Brown, and for thus aiding and abetting a convicted traitor to the United States he became a suspect in a federal investigation. Accordingly, he several times fled to Canada to escape arrest. Fuller’s most exciting chapter vividly describes a moment in April when Sanborn, returned to Massachusetts, is surprised and accosted by US Marshals, dragged kicking and screaming toward a carriage in the middle of the night. Alarmed by the ruckus, his neighbors rush out and join the melee, obstructing the Marshals’ designs long enough for a local judge to hastily scribble out a writ of habeas corpus—thus effectively saving Sanborn from the scaffold. The scene has little to do with Darwin; like many of Fuller’s anecdotes, it pertains more specifically to the New England intellectual climate of 1860 than to the American reception of the Origin of Species. But it was certainly a significant episode for the first wave of Darwin’s avid American readers.

In the months before the shots fired at Fort Sumter, many American readers understood Darwin’s theory as a powerful tool against slavery.

Fuller’s characters are compelling and his scholarly contributions estimable, though his title is, of course, hyperbolic. The Origin of Species may be a book that changed America, but it is certainly not the book that changed America. One can easily think of other titles from the same era that exerted as much if not more of an influence on national affairs: for example, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), Emerson’s “The American Scholar” (1837), or The Book of Mormon (first published in 1830). Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop nearly caused a riot in New York in 1841 (and performances of Macbeth in fact did lead to one eight years later). While Darwin’s book was certainly popular with American readers, so were a host of other important scientific texts from across the Atlantic by celebrated figures such as Charles Lyell, Alexander von Humboldt, and Herbert Spencer. Furthermore, Darwin was not the only mid-century figure promoting a version of biological evolution. Spencer’s own 1862 account, unmentioned by Randall Fuller, shortly became more popular in the United States than Darwin’s.7 Fuller at times conflates evolutionary theory in general with Darwin’s specific model of natural selection, reducing a complex historical field of scientific inquiry to the revelations of a single luminary.

But the extended meditation on influence is also what makes Fuller’s work important. Darwin’s theory was difficult and profound because it entailed a remarkably elaborate system of causality. Innumerable factors influenced the gradual development of species over millennia. Similarly, Fuller appreciates the difficulty of revealing the Origin’s influence on the American (or, at least, New England) mind. It may be telling that his subtitle employs the term “ignited” rather than “influenced,” as the progression from spark to flame to fire is impossible to describe as a chain of separate, coherent events. Unlike a volume of poetry, the lines and verses of which can be quoted and reprinted across a host of other texts, the Origin of Species is a complicated set of ideas whose influence cannot be recorded through citations alone. Public reviews, private conversations, and personal journal entries were just as important, and often offered idiosyncratic interpretations and perspectives. Rather than a single idea that traveled in a straight line, it was a potent compound with a three-dimensional dispersal, like a drop of dye in a pool of water. As one New York critic noted in 1873, Darwinism had become “the ultimate, dominant tinge in our era.”8 “Dominant tinge” is a useful oxymoron, describing a slight contribution that nevertheless plays a major role.

Many years later, Charles Eliot Norton reflected that Darwin’s book was “as important, not only in its immediate but in its remote effects, as any ever issued from the press.”9 Fuller’s primary focus is on the immediate effects in 1860, but The Book that Changed America gains strength by reminding us that the best books work far and wide. The Origin of Species didn’t lead directly to the US Civil War, it didn’t alter the constitutional basis of our democratic republic, and it didn’t reconfigure American literature overnight. But it brought together a vibrant intellectual community, putting men and women from various walks, fields, and locales into productive conflict and conversation. This meeting of minds was responsible for a significant transformation—slower than that advanced by the War, but perhaps equally profound. “The idea of the age is slow growth,” wrote Brace in 1869, a quotation Fuller offers on two separate occasions. More than any other intellectual historian before him, Fuller makes a convincing case that what Norton called the “remote effects” of Darwin’s book owe their origins to its earliest American readers. icon

  1. His biographer claims that Norton possessed the first copy of the Origin of Species in Boston. James Turner, The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), p. 154.
  2. Robert M. Thorson, Walden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science (Harvard University Press, 2014), especially pp. 119–123.
  3. Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2017). It has been 30 years since the last published major biography: Robert D. Richardson’s Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (University of California Press, 1986).
  4. Laura Dassow Walls, Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).
  5. Bradley P. Dean’s editions of Thoreau’s Faith in a Seed (Island Press, 1993) and Wild Fruits (Norton, 2000) were important contributions that alerted readers to the fecundity of Thoreau’s thought in the years just prior to his death.
  6. Asa Gray referred to these camps as the “uni-humanitarians” and the “multi-humanitarians,” concluding that “probably there is some truth on both sides.” Gray, Darwiniana: Essays and Reviews Pertaining to Darwinism (Appleton, 1876), pp. 90–91.
  7. Herbert Spencer, First Principles (Williams and Norgate, 1862). Spencer’s American popularity was “without parallel,” observed Malcolm Cowley. “In the memoirs of many famous Americans born in the 1860’s and 1870’s, one finds the reading of Spencer mentioned as an event that changed the course of their lives.” Cowley, “Naturalism in American Literature,” Evolutionary Thought in America, edited by Stow Persons (Yale University Press, 1950), pp. 300–33, 302.
  8. Philip Quilibet, “Darwinism in Literature,” The Galaxy, vol. 15, no. 5 (May 1873), 695–98, 695.
  9. Charles Eliot Norton, “The Launching of the Magazine,” Atlantic Monthly (November 1907), pp. 579–81, 580.
Featured image: Walden Pond, 1908. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress