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Adam Gopnik Casts His Gaze on Abe Lincoln and Charles Darwin


In Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, Adam Gopnik calls Charles Darwin a “pointillist” because he made grand theory out of tiny details, a method with which I suspect Gopnik identifies.

In his New Yorker essays on large events and great men’s lives (Shakespeare, John Stuart Mill, the Terror), Gopnik works from minutiae: Leonardo Da Vinci’s chickens, James Whistler’s pancake breakfasts, Audubon’s “Clouseau” accent, and so forth. This whisks some of the scholarly cobwebs from his subjects and sometimes yields real insights, though it more reliably makes easy reading in the space between Talk of the Town and the film reviews.

In his introduction to Angels and Ages, Gopnik suggests he will take a similarly small-bore approach with Lincoln and Darwin, too, using anecdotes to answer the question that, he says, “scholarship, strangely, can pose but can’t in its nature help much to resolve”—that is, “What were they like?” But a book-length study (which is new for Gopnik—aside from a children’s book, he has mainly published commentary and collections of essays, including the bestselling Paris to the Moon) asks more of him and us than does the short form. The ideas have to get bigger, and the minutiae have to accumulate in their favor. Otherwise, it’s just an oversize magazine article—as we may already suspect of Angels and Ages going in, since it was drawn from a 2007 Gopnik New Yorker essay on Lincoln’s deathbed scene.

Gopnik hedges from the start: Of course, his two subjects were different men in different circumstances—Darwin born to wealth and comfort, Lincoln to poverty and ambition; Darwin increasingly atheistic, Lincoln (at least in public) increasingly not so, etc. But by the ends of their lives, Gopnik says, “the shape of history had changed.” Gopnik sees another commonality: They expanded the roles of science and democracy so that they encompassed one another, and the resulting “marriage of science and democratic politics represents for us liberal civilization, the twinned note of our time.”

This is tantalizing, but steers Gopnik away from the biographical fine work that is his specialty. For much of the book, he is obliged to concentrate on the words and ideas of the two men rather than on their personalities. He’s game to take his pointillist approach to their intellects, too, but the artful disintegration and reconstruction of big ideas, as opposed to big men and movements, seem to require a different skill set than Gopnik possesses.

Gopnik’s Lincoln is, more or less, that of legend. He could cite “both Petroleum Nasby and Shakespeare as references”; “he knew how to make people like him.” Lincoln’s environment is shown to affect his style, but his reasoning seems impervious to influence. Northern speakers engage in “alliterative, orotund eloquence,” and Southerners tend toward ferocious scriptural certainty, but for Lincoln, “the language of legal argument was the true language of liberal eloquence”—”the broad highway of reason,” as opposed to the “snaking one of special pleading.” Gopnik describes this as if Lincoln’s style of argument were his own invention. But certainly in his Blackstone, Lincoln noticed there was a place called Parliament where men had argued right and law for centuries. He may have noticed it occasionally in county courthouses, too.

Darwin also gets special credit for being reasonable. Gopnik praises Darwin’s devotion to the “principle of charity,” that is, “that a counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form.” Gopnik says this principle “is almost never practiced” outside of Darwin’s work, which may come as a shock to many readers. Don’t classical dialogues fulfill this principle? Maybe Gopnik finds their authors less sincere than Darwin, whom he says “not only posits the counterclaims; he inhabits them. He moves beyond sympathetic summary to empathetic argument.” (As opposed to The Consolation of Philosophy?) Darwin’s even-handedness Gopnik regards as a decisive break: “Reporting an objection or contrary argument fully and accurately” is, “since Darwin the touchstone, the guarantee of what we call seriousness.” Had Darwin never written, would our scholars and scientists today avoid reporting objections and answering arguments?

Gopnik is on surer ground analyzing his subjects’ writing styles. His close reads of Lincoln’s speeches are sharp, and he does even better examining “Darwin’s gift as a ‘natural novelist'” and “sly choice of words,” as in the description of our simian ancestor as ” ‘the hairy quadruped’ (unnecessary for the point but necessary to make the image maximally disturbing). . . .” When Gopnik links Darwin’s childlike interest in pure observation with scenes from his cheerful family life, he achieves the kind of vigor that we recognize from his essays.

Other connections, alas, are more forced. Gopnik makes much of the fact that “like Darwin, Lincoln knew death through the passing of a favorite eleven-year-old child.” This is allegedly important because the finality of death they faced also plagues us—or at least Gopnik, requiring that worrisome third title topic and final section, “Modern Life.” After the God-killing theories of Darwin and the mass-killing Civil War, Gopnik says, “We can’t look up to know how to act. But we can’t look back, either.” Therefore, we are compelled to go forward—into modern liberal progressivism. Suddenly, Gopnik, heretofore approving of Lincoln and Darwin’s “heretical thoughts,” worries that we may take them too far—to the “callow triumphalism” of unnamed radical biologists and the horrors of Marxism. He counsels that we include in our progressivism, despite Lincoln and Darwin’s presumed atheism, religion (“a life without Christmas would be a life without stars”), though of the reasonable sort found in Unitarian kindergartens. The legacy of Lincoln and Darwin, with their “profound knowledge of the common experience of death,” turns out to match closely the general attitudes of a typical New Yorker subscriber.

Angels and Ages is similarly confused, though seldom as badly, in many places. But readers may not mind it much, because Gopnik’s style remains lucid even when his thoughts aren’t; when his struggles with his own thesis grow wearisome, he digs up one of his details and pans out some quality prose. This is pleasing even when otherwise unproductive and, for some of us, makes the book worthwhile, even if we get from it only a brilliant array of dots instead of a Seurat.