Friday, July 9, 2010

Reading Charles Darwin's letters

I've just finished reading a selection of Charles Darwin's letters, edited by Frederick Burkhardt. It took me a long time to read even this small selection in its tiny print: reading, detouring to other books, reading again. Suddenly at some point I was hooked; it felt like a scientific thriller in the form of letters; I read whenever I could.

Towards the end, I was aware of the letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, floating towards Darwin slowly, by sea. I knew friends would work out a way for Darwin to acknowledge Wallace's brilliance and still assert his own primacy. I knew that Darwin would survive the panic of exposure, and take his ideas further. But I read with urgency, all these years later: I had to see how he himself would describe it.

Other peoples' letters to Darwin are quoted, or implied in his answers, so we get some sense of all of them, all their lives.

At first, it's mostly family, as he voyages on the Beagle, calling out to them in England, out of his plaintive homesickness (and seasickness)--but also out of his wild enthusiasm for what he was seeing: rocks and plants and fossils; mussel shells high on the ledges of mountains.

Later he wrote to a widening circle of geologists and botanists and pigeon fanciers; to Asa Gray at Harvard; to clergy in their country villages, whom Darwin urged to collect whatever specimens he needed. "Send them soon," he said, and promised to pay for the postage. Once, at the beginning of a letter, he promised not to beg for anything, and then begged after all, at the end.

In return, he offered his own results: strange tales about the sex lives of barnacles; how long dried seeds would float on sea water, and what proportion would germinate afterward; small sketches of flowers visited by bees.

He also crowed about his growing family, blessed the relief of chloroform for Emma's later childbirths. He mourned the loss of the children who died. He worried about his own health.

Above all, he thought. He thought, in the form of fairly awful handwriting.

All those letters, carried by horses, by boats, gave Darwin another village besides Down. A slower village than our electronic one, but a village composed of words and imagination (and some skeletons, carefully wrapped.) He made his discoveries partly because he could write, and use writing: to beg for what he needed; to summarize the evidence that increasingly convinced him; to argue; to admit to bafflement.

In a famous early letter Darwin says he is "dying by inches, from not having any body to talk to about insects." But the letters gave him, over time, people to talk to about insects, about all that detail of life in which he kept himself so gleefully immersed. Eventually, in fact, the letter-writing gave him vital contact with the few people to whom he could confide what he thought it all meant. In all his virtual village there were just two or three houses with knowledge of what was actually going on in Darwin's study. But there were those few, and letters gave them to him, and him to them.

If he were living and working now, would Darwin be writing a blog? Not necessarily. Maybe just a lot of emails--because he was so careful in the choice of his audience, and so concerned about being overheard by people who would not agree. He had less courage than his few close supporters wanted him to have, but enough courage to keep doing a very basic thing: to think, and follow the path of his thoughts.

Frederick Burkhardt, fellow of Clare College, patient decipherer and editor, is gone, having died in 2007. Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote a wonderful forward which I read again after I'd finished the book, is also gone. Darwin himself, of course, is gone. I can't thank any of them. But here I am, along with others keyboarding at this very moment, treating these words formed of electrons as a kind of heaven we can address, a sort of garden in which we can place a few flowers and hope that somebody will see and smell them. A village in which all times can live together.