Reading Notes: Adam Gopnik

Once upon a time in a freshman college course our professor asked us to name the three most influential people of the twentieth century. It was a trick question, because two of them died before 1900, but the three he wanted were Darwin, Marx and Freud. In an early chapter of Angels and Ages, Adam Gopnik references the same triumvirate but suggests a revision is needed for the twenty-first century. Darwin stays, but Marx and Freud get voted off the island. Then Gopnik adds Lincoln.

Darwin and Lincoln. The ostensible premise of Gopnik’s book – an abbreviated dual biography – is that “literary eloquence is essential to liberal civilization.” Darwin he presents as exemplar of the spirit of liberal scientific inquiry, Lincoln of the spirit of liberal (in the broad sense of the term) statecraft. More than what they had to say, it was their particular way of saying it that assured the victory of their causes and laid a foundation for modernity.

It’s a stretch, perhaps. Lincoln, in his oratory, is popularly acclaimed for a certain literary or quasi-literary eloquence, and we can imagine that his political victories might have been harder won without the solemn periods and flourishes. But Darwin, I think, is a different story. Selections from his letters – often witty and acerbic – suggest certain gifts. But the particular kind of eloquence displayed in his more famous work is – at least to my ear – hardly “literary.” On the Origin of Species is precise and considered, but not often read for its poetry.

The fact is that Gopnik never really argues for his own thesis. He only states it, and then seems to forget it. Taken on their own, the biographical chapters on Lincoln and Darwin are enjoyable enough, but the synthesis is weak. Apart from the fact that, in certain spheres, both his subjects exert considerable posthumous influence, what exactly unites them? Is there any one thing that we specially owe to Darwin and Lincoln together? Not really.

Gopnik could possibly have given us a diverting New Yorker article, but he gives us an awkward book instead. There’s too much strain in his comparisons, too much rhetorical blurring of his subjects’ radically divergent lives and concerns in order to present them as twinned souls. In the end, you get the feeling that if Lincoln and Darwin had not, by chance, been born on the same day, the idea of pairing them like this would never have occurred to Gopnik, or to anyone else.

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