CHARLES DARWIN: A Man of Enlarged Curiosity by Peter Brent

CHARLES DARWIN: A Man of Enlarged Curiosity

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If only this oh-so-solid biography were leaner and more taut, it would be a generally commendable if non-controversial portrait of the Great Neutralist. As it is, we have a life of Darwin--and every last relative--that reads as if it were written a century ago (but is probably timed to commemorate the centennial of Darwin's death in 1882). Of Beagle Captain Fitzroy, we read, for instance: ""Yet, equally, it is true that the violence of that imperious temperament was always threatening to erupt."" Brent states that he wanted to right a few historical misreadings or to modify certain interpretations. So we learn that young Charles was not the repressed, rebellious son of a stern, uncompromising father: the eminent Dr. Robert was really a good egg who didn't protest too much when Charles wanted to board the Beagle. And we learn that the notion of Darwin as an indifferent, if not dull, student is also a myth: the young man had already shown his flare as a naturalist in his youthful ""beetlemania"" and his collections at Cambridge. Nor was setting eyes on the Galapagos the moment of revelation: that came later in the quiet, searching isolation of his study. With all the revisionism of recent years, however, none of this is particularly startling. Yet despite the asides and adumbrations and envisioned moments (""One can see now. . .""), Brent's prodigious scholarship does make itself felt. Through quotes from the diaries, notebooks, and other primary sources, a well-rounded portrait of Darwin slowly but surely emerges. Best is the section on the Beagle, possibly because here the skillful insertion of letters to and from home catches the young Darwin at his most exuberant and engaging, still carrying a torch for Fanny Owen, astonished by the new, ready to voice strong opinions on slavery and political issues, if not on religion and science. Later, domestic life, illness, controversy, and success becloud the persona as much for Brent as for other biographers. At its best, then, a Victorian-style portrait of a Victorian gentleman and scholar.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Harper & Row