On a memorable day in human history, February 12, 1809, two babies were born an ocean apart: Abraham Lincoln in a one-room Kentucky log cabin; Charles Darwin on an English country estate. It was a time of backward-seeming notions, when almost everyone still accepted the biblical account of creation as the literal truth and authoritarianism as the most natural and viable social order. But by the time both men died, the world had changed: ordinary people understood that life on earth was a story of continuous evolution, and the Civil War had proved that a democracy could fight for principles and endure. And with these signal insights much else had changed besides. Together, Darwin and Lincoln had become midwives to the spirit of a new world, a new kind of hope and faith.
Searching for the men behind the icons of emancipation and evolution, Adam Gopnik shows us, in this captivating double life, Lincoln and Darwin as they really were: family men and social climbers; ambitious manipulators and courageous adventurers; the living husband, father, son, and student behind each myth. How do we reconcile Lincoln, the supremely good man we know, with the hardened commander who wittingly sent tens of thousands of young soldiers to certain death? Why did the relentlessly rational Darwin delay publishing his “Great Idea” for almost twenty years? How did inconsolable grief at the loss of a beloved child change each man? And what comfort could either find—for himself or for a society now possessed of a sadder, if wiser, understanding of our existence? Such human questions and their answers are the stuff of this book.
Above all, we see Lincoln and Darwin as thinkers and writers—as makers and witnesses of the great change in thought that marks truly modern times: a hundred years after the Enlightenment, the old rule of faith and fear finally yielding to one of reason, argument, and observation not merely as intellectual ideals but as a way of life; the judgment of divinity at last submitting to the verdicts of history and time. Lincoln considering human history, Darwin reflecting on deep time—both reshaped our understanding of what life is and how it attains meaning. And they invented a new language to express that understanding. Angels and Ages is an original and personal account of the creation of the liberal voice—of the way we live now and the way we talk at home and in public. Showing that literary eloquence is essential to liberal civilization, Adam Gopnik reveals why our heroes should be possessed by the urgency of utterance, obsessed by the need to see for themselves, and endowed with the gift to speak for us all.
I've always had trouble reading Adam Gopnik. It's not due to lack of clarity or interest; Gopnik's mind is lively, his prose invariably tasty. He is perhaps our premiere bourgeois fabulist, and his writing spans the human career, comprehends our highs and lows, and hymns the apotheosis of the liberal arts in America. My vexation is small: I'm tripped by his parentheticals, in which whole worlds of thought and epochs of history are contrapuntally convoked, hyperbolically summarized, and breezily dismissed. Come to the end of a sentence, whatever the topic, and you'll find the sash thrown open to a brace of non-sequitur name-checks -- perhaps Emily Dickinson and the Doge of Venice -- tumbling arm in arm to a neat defenestration, close bracket. So I approached Gopnik's latest book with some trepidation -- for at first glance, Angels and Ages (subtitled A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life) would seem to take one of those parentheses (Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day in 1809) and stretch it, saltwater taffy-like, into a book. Long before the final parenthesis appeared, however, I was convinced that this elegant digression of a work will win itself a worthy place in the bicentennial bibliography of the two titanic figures it embraces.