The coincidence of a birthday shared by two titans of modern history yields an absorbing joint appreciation of the politics of emancipation, evolutionary science and their respective contributions to the world we know now.
Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same winter day in 1809. New Yorker contributor Gopnik (Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York, 2006, etc.) seizes that day to muse on the meaning of their lives and ours. Reworked from a pair of previously published essays, his pensive exegesis describes how humankind’s worldview was permanently altered by an iconic American’s upward mobility and a well-born Briton’s discerning and skeptical eye. By 1838, Darwin had come to his understanding of natural selection, and Lincoln had delivered his crucial Lyceum lecture. The sensitive observer and the astute lawyer each suffered the loss of a beloved child, a blow no less devastating for being a common one in the 19th century. Both were masters of rhetoric—spoken persuasion in Lincoln’s case, written inducement in Darwin’s—and their words changed our beliefs. They made us beholden to the future, declares Gopnik, as we once were only to the past. The rigors of democracy and science became part of civilization’s habit. Logic and fact, including the fact of death, did matter after all. The author aspires to philosophical flights as he considers the question of what precisely Edwin Stanton said at the Emancipator’s deathbed. Did he aver that Lincoln “belongs to the ages,” or “to the angels”? Perhaps both apply, writes Gopnik, since this world embraces both the mundane and the evanescent.
Despite indulging in such bombastic statements as, “all their angels are ages, and the ages held out a distant halo of angels,” this talented, skillful critic achieves considerable new, heartfelt depth.