Visitors to this site might be particularly amenable to a set of claims by Randall Fuller in
The Book that Changed America: How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation. "Books can change a life," he declares. "Books can also change the world." His delightful, elegant intellectual history charts the course of one earthshaking book, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, as it exploded onto American shores in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War. The publication of Origin was "nearly as seminal" as that cataclysmic event, Fuller ventures, even if initially it resonated for reasons that are not well remembered today. While the author's claim for the impact of books refers to the ideas contained therein, he also examines the outsize influence of one well-worn copy of Origin, which Darwin himself sent to Asa Gray at Harvard; Gray was America's preeminent botanist and became the English naturalist's greatest Stateside champion. From there Fuller traces the book's momentous path among early America's tight-knit intellectual elite. Gray loaned his copy to Charles Loring Brace, the social reformer who founded the Children's Aid Society. Brace, who eventually claimed to have read the 400-page Origin thirteen times, brought it to a dinner party in Concord, Massachusetts. There, he introduced the book to his host, Franklin Sanborn a radical abolitionist who had helped fund John Brown's failed raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, which was intended to arm slaves for revolt and to Sanborn's other guests, Transcendentalist philosopher Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May) and Henry David Thoreau. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, on a lecture tour of the western states, heard of Origin from Thoreau and wrote to his wife complaining that he had not been able to obtain a copy "in these dark lands.") The heavily annotated copy is now housed at Harvard. Because these intellectuals were prolific letter writers and faithful diarists, Fuller, an English professor at the University of Tulsa and author of From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature, is able to describe the immediate effects of Darwin's ideas on these early, important readers. We often think of Darwin's theory of natural selection, the process by which species change over time in order to adapt to their environments, as the opening salvo in the clash between science and religion. (The conflict between evolution and creationism was dramatized by the 1925 Scopes trial and continues to have stubborn relevance today.) Before Darwin, science and religion had coexisted peaceably, because most scientists saw themselves simply as charged with understanding the creations of God. But, as Fuller demonstrates, Darwin's first readers drew something else from his work: they "eagerly embraced the Origin of Species because they believed the book advanced the cause of abolition," Fuller writes. "By hinting that all humans were biologically related, Darwin's work seemed to refute once and for all the idea that African American slaves were a separate, inferior species." That notion had been advanced by the scholarly field of ethnology, which was deeply involved in debates over slavery. "Most American ethnologists believed that blacks had been separately created in Africa and endowed with lesser intellectual capacities than whites," Fuller notes. The abolitionist press praised Darwin for undermining that argument. It's fascinating, though, to read about the tightrope Frederick Douglass was compelled to walk when engaging with the new theory. The African-American writer and orator "embraced Darwin's vision of common inheritance," Fuller writes, but because racist narratives depicted black people as primates, he "consistently evaded that portion of evolutionary theory that linked human beings to nonhuman species." Darwin himself hadn't gone quite that far: he confined his claims to plants and animals, cannily avoiding the application of his findings to humans. "The tone of Darwin's book so reserved, so reasonable cloaked insights that were explosive and deeply unsettling," Fuller observes. It took time for some of those insights to sink in, but once they did, Fuller's protagonists wrestled with them in different ways. Brace, who had devoted his life to helping the poor and the weak, didn't want to accept that God had created a system in which only the fittest survived. But when Darwin wrote that natural selection worked for "the preservation and adding up all that is good," Brace inferred, in Fuller's words, that "human society was gradually headed toward perfection." After the Civil War, many saw that conclusion as having special application to America, a society characterized by intense competition and rapid change and one that viewed itself as a progressive force in history. Alcott ultimately believed, in Fuller's words, that "Darwin's ideas stripped life of its grandeur. They made a mockery of one's deepest certainties that the world had been wisely designed." Even Gray, Darwin's staunch defender and the one who introduced his theory to a wide American audience through a series of reviews in the Atlantic Monthly, was later beset by doubts. In struggling to reconcile Darwinism with his religious beliefs, he suggested that "natural selection . . . might be God's chosen method of creation," an idea eventually accepted by liberal clergy who found Darwin's science irrefutable. Thoreau, on the other hand, deeply moved by Origin, was convinced of "something almost as wondrous" in place of intelligent design: according to Fuller, he saw "a universe authored not by some abstract Almighty but by itself. The world, Thoreau suggests, is its own autobiography." Can a book still change the world? Right now a tweet would seem to have a better shot. But questions that are still asked today, and more urgently by some in recent months whether history is a narrative of progress, whether the arc of the universe bends toward justice have their beginnings in the heady times evoked in Fuller's exhilarating book. He has made them immensely instructive and enjoyable to ponder. Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.
Reviewer: Barbara Spindel
The Barnes & Noble Review
[Fuller's] account of how Americans responded to the publication of Darwin's great work in 1859 is organized as a series of lively and informative set piecesdinners, conversations, lectureswith reactions to
On the Origin of Species usually (but not always) at the center…Fuller is a lively, engaging writer, with an eye for fascinating details. His subjects wrote copious letters, kept diaries, gave speeches and recorded their conversations with one another. Fuller has mined this rich material with care and insight.
The New York Times Book Review - Eric Foner
In this inventive work, which weaves two powerful events into a vibrant tapestry of antebellum intellectual life, Fuller (From Battlefields Rising), professor of English at the University of Tulsa, beautifully describes how the engagement by a group of Transcendentalists with Darwin’s newly published On the Origin of Species deepened their commitment to the antislavery movement. Still reeling from abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Transcendentalists (and Brown supporters) Franklin Sanborn, Charles Loring Brace, Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau quickly devoured Darwin’s book and recommended it to others. All people were biologically related, Darwin’s work hinted, which Transcendentalists interpreted as a repudiation of the belief that “African-American slaves were a separate, inferior species.” Fuller shares the Transcendentalists’ knack for clearly presenting complex ideas. He nimbly traverses the details of the scientific debate between Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz and Asa Gray over the theories of polygenism and evolution. There’s a glimpse of Louisa May Alcott, inspired by Darwin’s book to write a daring story of interracial love. Elegant writing and an unusual approach to interpreting the time period make this a must-read for everyone interested in Civil War–era history. Illus. Agent: Marianne Merola, Brandt & Hochman Literary. (Feb.)
Published during an extraordinarily turbulent time in the history of the United States—just prior to the Civil War and just after John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry—Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) would prove to have a significant impact on the country. Fuller (English, Univ. of Tulsa; From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature) introduces the subject, focusing on a dinner party consisting of four of the most important America intellectuals and abolitionists of the time: Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Charles Loring Brace, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. During the gathering, Brace presented a copy of Darwin's seminal work. The title would profoundly affect them all, especially because it seemed to support abolitionism and unsettle their personal beliefs. By positing a common ancestor for all living creatures and intimating that all human beings were biologically related, Darwin demonstrated to proponents of slavery that they could no longer justify the institution with the assertion that blacks belonged to a different species than whites. Fuller is a skilled author who expertly describes the setting and the tension of the era. His informative volume reads like a novel. VERDICT This fascinating account is recommended for those interested in literature, science, or 18th-century American history. [See Prepub Alert, 7/25/16.]—Dave Pugl, Ela Area P.L., Lake Zurich, IL
A vibrant history of the reception of Charles Darwin's ideas by American minds and spirits.With the theory of evolution still generating controversy, Fuller (English/Univ. of Tulsa; From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature, 2011, etc.), a Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, focuses on the immediate response to Darwin's On the Origin of Species by a handful of prominent American thinkers: Harvard botanist Asa Gray, first to read the book; his intellectual adversary Louis Agassiz; transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau; ardent abolitionist and educator Franklin Sanborn; Bronson Alcott, "the most radical idealist in America"; and Charles Loring Brace, a social reformer who shared his cousin Gray's copy with his New England friends. Drawing on his protagonists' public and private writings and letters, steeped in mid-19th-century culture, Fuller creates a rich tapestry of personalities and roiling ideas. In radiant prose, and with a sure eye for the telling detail, the author reveals the shattering impact of Darwin's book on religious thought, scientific inquiry, and especially on debates over slavery and, indeed, on the status of blacks on the evolutionary scale from beast to man. Even those who did not read the book itself, though it was easily available, had access to its ideas from reviews in important magazines, many of which "focused on the work's ethnological implications" to racial theories or criticized Darwin for undermining religion. Gray, who championed Darwin's ideas, tried mightily to reconcile them with his own theological convictions. Could natural selection "explain all of nature's marvels?" he asked. Surely it would take some omnipotent designer to create the human eye. Fuller asserts that "every nuance and involution in the book" refocused Thoreau's investigations into nature, and he shows how both pro-slavery advocates and abolitionists used Darwin's theories to defend their positions. Lincoln was vilified in pro-slavery cartoons, portrayed as a gorilla or "the missing link between blacks and whites." A fresh, invigorating history of philosophical and political struggles.
Fuller is a lively, engaging writer, with an eye for fascinating details. . .[he] has mined this rich material with care and insight. . .[His] most surprising revelation is the profound impact Darwin’s portrait of a ‘teeming, pulsating natural world’ exerted on Thoreau.”
– The New York Times Book Review “A stimulating chronicle of a group of New England thinkers who responded to the Origin of Species in the years following the book’s first appearance. . .Fuller can be commended for illuminating Darwin’s early effect on America in ways that lead us to think about later repercussions, including today’s debates over creationism and science-denial.” The Wall Street Journal “An intellectual history that reads as a drama. . .Fuller’s tale is of Darwin and abolition and moral battles that led to literal ones; it is also, more simply, the story of humans wrestling with insights that would change the world and their place in it. The story is evocatively told: Fuller is an excellent writer, with an eye for irony and a unique ability to inject suspense into a story.” The Atlantic “A vivid snapshot of American intellectual life on the verge of the Civil War. . .Fuller draws lively character sketches. . .displaying a flair for evocative scene setting.. .the book’s loveliest passages show Thoreau embracing Darwin’s celebration of nature’s abundance and turning it to his own purposes.” The Boston Globe “Fuller’s book offers us a vivid portrait of how On the Origin of Species debuted in America’s intellectual culture during a watershed moment in the nation’s history. . .Moving deftly amid a diversity of familiar American figures, including novelists, poets, philosophers, zoologists, and botanists, Fuller captures their excitement, as well as their debates over Darwin’s ideas.” Science “Fuller’s book is a timely one. . .[he] has a compelling story to tell, and he tells it well. His narrative is lush with memorable detail, and. . .he is a master at making his characters come alive.” – The American Scholar “A vibrant history of the reception of Charles Darwin’s ideas by American minds and spirits . . . Fuller creates a rich tapestry of personalities and roiling ideas. In radiant prose, and with a sure eye for the telling detail, [he] reveals the shattering impact of Darwin’s book on religious thought, scientific inquiry, and especially on debates over slavery . . . A fresh, invigorating history of philosophical and political struggles.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred) “In this inventive work, which weaves two powerful events into a vibrant tapestry of antebellum intellectual life, Fuller beautifully describes how the engagement by a group of Transcendentalists with Darwin’s newly published On the Origin of Species deepened their commitment to the antislavery movement. . .Elegant writing and an unusual approach to interpreting the time period make this a must-read for everyone interested in Civil War-era history.” – Publishers Weekly (starred review) “Charles Darwin's Origin of Species burst upon America at the same time that the nation was descending into disunion and civil war. Randall Fuller has ingeniously combined these stories in this fascinating study of Darwin's impact especially on the Transcendental intelligentsia of Concord: Thoreau, Emerson, Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May. These and other famous contemporaries emerge in a fresh perspective in this stimulating book.” James M. McPherson, author of The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters “Randall Fuller’s ingenious The Book That Changed America draws together seemingly disparate strains of American thought and activism by charting the progress of Darwin’s masterwork as it was literally passed from hand to hand by eager readers during its first year of publication. There are dark stories here of the ‘developmental’ theory—evolutioninspiring notions of racial superiority; yet those who read Darwin with open minds were thrilled to find, as Thoreau wrote, evidence of ‘a sort of new creation,’ or as Frederick Douglass foresaw, hope for ‘the magnificent reunion of mankind in one brotherhood.’ With its cast of vivid characters and the fate of the nation in the balance, Fuller’s utterly convincing narrative gives science a starring role in the run up to the Civil War.” Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life “Randall Fuller makes Concord glow with this beautifully-written account of what happened in 1860 when somebody brought a new book along to a dinner party. It was the very first copy of Darwin’s Origin of the Species to reach these shores, and in tracing its influence on Thoreau among others Fuller shows both the web of friendship through which scientific knowledge spread, and its inseparability from the politics of its day.” Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of An American Masterpiece “Fuller’s eye-opening account of the arrival of Darwin to America holds many surprises, above all that Origin of Species was greeted joyfully by its first American readers not as evolutionary science but as a revolutionary exposé of the racist thinking behind Southern slavery. Even as the Civil War remade their world, these earliest readers wrestled with Darwin’s ideas: some doubted, many accepted (more or less), and a few—like Thoreau—embraced the beauty of Darwin’s view of life. Fuller shows how ideas come to life, shaped by chance meetings, life-changing enthusiasms, perverse misunderstandings, cataclysmic events, and sudden betrayals. If you ever doubted that ideas can change the world—or if you ever wondered how—read this book!” Laura Dassow Walls, author of the forthcoming Henry David Thoreau: A Life “The Book That Changed America offers a lively, wide-ranging, informative account of the enthusiasm—and consternation—provoked by Darwin’s masterpiece among his first influential American readers.” Lawrence Buell, Harvard University, Powell M Cabot Professor of American Literature Emeritus “Randall Fuller has produced a vibrant and ingenious intellectual history of Civil War-era America by tracing the coterie circulation of a single copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species. Read and discussed by five of antebellum America’s most conspicuous intellectuals, this copy of Darwin’s ‘dangerous’ book transformed how Asa Gray, Charles Loring Brace, Franklin Sanborn, Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau thought about a range of contemporary issues, especially race, slavery, and increasing sectional tension in the United States. Fuller’s beautifully written book promises to reignite a number of debates about evolution, the history of science, and the role of books and reading in the nineteenth century.” Coleman Hutchison, author of Apples and Ashes: Literature, Nationalism, and the Confederate States of America “This is one of the most original and important books on the Civil War era to appear in years. Brilliantly conceived and elegantly written, Randall Fuller shows how and why Darwin’s Origin of Species emerged at the center of intellectual and cultural debates that transformed the nation.” – John Stauffer, author of The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race