Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born on February 12, 1809. By the end of the nineteenth century, they stood as skyscrapers of world thought to be approached only by intrepid biographers. Adam Gopnik, the longtime New Yorker writer and author of the new book Angels and Ages, comes at the task by considering them both as literary men. “They matter most because they wrote so well,” he writes. Where Gopnik’s Lincoln is a lawyerly speechmaker, taking his crowds through delicately-constructed arguments, his Darwin is a really Victorian novelist with a magnifying glass: “a craftsman of enormous resource and a lot of quiet mischief.” More than just a literary study, Angels and Ages allows Gopnik to think about what the two men might have been like to know. He talked to The Daily Beast about Lincoln’s Shakespeare fixation, Darwin’s parenting skills, and what Barack Obama learned from both men.
Of all the ways you could have approached Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, why approach them as writers?
I guess because a) because it’s the only thing I have any expertise in—putting down sentences; and b) because I thought that all the things that had done, in a funny way we remember them most because of what they wrote. If you think about it, if Darwin had not written a book like The Origin of Species, and The Descent of Man, which are masterpieces of English prose, and of reasoning, he would be part of the history of science, not part of the living consciousness of contemporary people. And similarly, we remember Lincoln for his words—for the speeches that he made. Had he been the same man, doing the same things, but an awkward or ineloquent speaker, he would not register in our heads in anything like the same way.
I think Lincoln scholars tend to clean up how estranged he was from his own father. He didn’t go to his father’s funeral, which is a pretty rough statement.
So how did Lincoln—who had little formal education—become a great writer of speeches?
It’s so hard to figure. I think it was that he had very pure models to work with, which sometimes works better for people.
He had basically the model of Shakespeare, the Declaration of Independence—Jefferson’s writing—and legal argument. And those, I think, are the three elements that go in and out of his speech. So there’s a certain purity of purpose to it, which creates that great directness of address. And I think, as I say in the book, what’s really beautiful in Lincoln’s speeches, and what I wasn’t prepared for until I sat down to read them right through, was the combination of pedagogy, at times picayune legal argument, and grand summary. Or not grand summary, but flat, memorable summary.
Lincoln had a lot of Shakespeare rattling around in his brain.
All the time. He read Shakespeare truly obsessively. Before he was President, [and] while he was President, and I think those rhythms got inside of him in an extremely natural way. It’s also kind of backwards frontier humor, and we know he loved that kind of stuff as well. And I don’t think you can begin to fully grasp what it means for a kid coming from an essentially illiterate background to discover writing and reading.
You know, my father’s father was a butcher. He could read, but it wasn’t his favorite pastime. I see in my own father, who was a professor of English—he’s retired now—that books are not furniture, books are the fireplace. Books are the sacred hearth of your existence. Clearly, Lincoln felt that way as well. He sort of couldn’t believe that he had managed to make an existence for himself where he actually owned books. That he owned all the books he wanted, and could read books whenever he wanted to. And I think that’s one of the great breaks in life, is people coming from a simple background who discover writing and reading, and find it as essential to them as breathing.
Lincoln was self-conscious about his father, even to the point of belittling him.
I think the Lincoln scholars—from whom I’ve learned everything I know about Lincoln—I think they tend to clean up how estranged Lincoln was from his own father. My own sense is that he did not like the old man, he saw him as an obstacle to his own self-emancipation. And he didn’t go to his father’s funeral, which is a pretty rough statement.
One daunting thing you set out to do in Angels and Ages is to describe, through the fog of history, what Lincoln was like. So what was Lincoln like?
In one word, he’s shrewd. And I think if we could go spend time with him, we’d find him not a sober, grave, Walter Huston-style animatronic puppet, but you’d find a very, very cagey, high-voiced, immensely shrewd, socially intelligent American politician. I think that he had a tough, tough core, and could read people incredibly well, incredibly skillfully. And he clearly was a man of deep feeling, as we know from his response from when his son died, and the concerns about his wife.
I think there was, as with all men of that kind, something finally unknowable about him. I think the people that came closest to knowing about him were [William] Herndon, his partner, and [John] Nicolay and [John] Hay, his two secretaries. But you can tell, that’s why they call him the “tycoon” later on. They mean there’s something fundamentally remote about Lincoln.
You describe your other subject, Charles Darwin, as, among other things, a more enthusiastic dad than Lincoln.
He was a truly devoted father. That’s not a sentimental back-read. As I say in the book, that’s true about some Victorian fathers. Dickens pretended to be a benevolent father, but he scared his kids half to death. Darwin had ten kids, they ran around the house all the time while he was working. They were clearly the event of his life. And Darwin was a deeply, deeply loving husband, almost to the brink of being self-destructive, by not publishing what he knew to be true.
At the same time, we know that Darwin was an Englishman. And I think we can miss Darwin if you don’t know what my friend Anthony Lane calls the “fundamental principal of embarrassment,” which governs the social life of most Englishmen.
I suspect that if we could be with Darwin at any time, we’d find him to be far more…reticent, easily embarrassed by uncomfortable declarations of devotion or great purpose than we would think. If Darwin ended up encircled by his American admirers of the day, I think he would be deeply, deeply humiliated and embarrassed and blushing.
Much to the relief of undergraduates everywhere, you argue that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, in which he laid out his theory of evolution, is actually a beach book.
It is such an entertaining book. And I never expected to find that. There’s a kind of a standard library of books that we all buy or borrow in June that we return unread in September. Paradise Lost and War and Peace and The Man Without Qualities, and the last six volumes of Proust. (We mostly get through the first two volumes, but not the last six.) And Origin of Species is another one of those. It’s a book I bought thinking, “I should read this,” about 25 years ago. It’s not just that it’s beautifully written in some abstract sense, but it’s such a passionate piece of pleading.
I remember sitting on the beach at the end of the day when I finally finished it. And genuinely I felt the world will never look the same again. You become aware of the endless mutability of the universe, and you become aware of the central role of variation. That variation is what counts. That’s another one of Darwin’s great themes. And so, you never see the world quite the same way again after you read Origin. At least I didn’t.
I will not be first person to ask you about any obvious parallels between the writing of Lincoln, and another literarily-inclined lawyer from Illinois turned-President?
As you may notice, I eschewed mentioning Obama anywhere in the book. There is no mention of him. There is no parallel drawn, and there is no comparison made. Partly because I didn’t want to burden the book with that comparison, and partly because I didn’t want to date the book instantly by making that significant.
The greatest speech Obama’s ever made, and I think the key speech of his career, was not the Convention Speech, nor the “Yes, We Can” speech—eloquent as those were—but the Race Speech that he made in Philadelphia. The “More Perfect Union” speech. Because if you look at that speech again, the inevitable thing was—the demanded thing was—denunciation. “Reject and condemn” as Hillary demanded. Instead he said, Listen, I know what this man is saying are bad things, and yet I know him to be a good man. So how can we square his being a good man with him saying bad things? Well, if you understand the history that made this man, you’ll understand how that’s possible.
That was a very complicated argument about history, context, possibility, and empathy. And when he was finished with it, I thought that was the best political speech I’ve ever heard. And that he’s totally screwed. We live in an age of sound bites and image bites, and nobody will be able to take seriously an argument that complex and sophisticated. And just the opposite was true. People on the whole—not universally—but people on the whole said, “Yeah, he’s saying something sensible there.” And it saved his campaign, and in effect made him President. That was a truly Lincolnian speech, because it took a very complicated claim and made it very articulate. And that for me is the eloquence of explanation. And that is what Darwin and Lincoln share, and what they pass on to us.