Tuesday, November 24, 2009
A thought (on a particular anniversary):
ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES was published in London on 24 November 1859, while Darwin was taking the water-cure at Ilkley. It was a very ordinary-looking volume bound in sturdy green cloth, 502 pages long, and somewhat expensively priced at fourteen shillings, not nearly as gaily decked out as Murray's red-and-gilt version of Darwin's earlier Journal of Researches and nothing like the pocket-sized duodecimo Darwin had at first proposed.
The author's serious intent was obvious. There were no eye-catching natural history illustrations, no pedigree fatstock emblazoned in gilt on the cover, not even a frontispiece of an evocative prehistoric scene as there might be today in a book about evolution. For a volume that described the teeming fecundity of life on earth, the pages were curiously devoid of living beings. But it was a fair specimen of nineteenth-century typography, well printed on decent paper, and serviceably bound. The book's unassuming demeanour suited its author perfectly. "I am infinitely pleased & proud at the appearance of my child," Darwin told Murray when his advance copy arrived in Yorkshire. "I am so glad that you were so good as to undertake the publication of my book."
Unassuming or no, this book transformed his life. Of course, he expected controversy, although even in his gloomiest moments he could not have begun to imagine the convulsions of public opinion, praise, and denigration that would follow. From the start, he was prepared to go to any lengths to give his theory the best support that he could provide. But there was more than this. That November he chose the kind of man he wanted to be -- he chose to dedicate himself to his book, to placing his views as fully as he could before audiences that he as yet hardly envisaged, prepared to influence and urge to a degree that would become second nature to him, displaying a deepening of purpose and strength of character that he rarely acknowledged even in his most private correspondence and yet that marked the rest of his days. His active intervention in the post-publication process was hidden but intense. Paradoxically, the intimate process of writing personal letters, one individual speaking to another, became an integral part of his public voice, an activity that could be just as shrewd and tactical --even predatory-- as any polemic dreamed up by Huxley. Without moving out of his home, Darwin came to dominate through letters. Promoting the finished book became the directing theme of the life to come as completely as his earlier years had been governed by constructing the theory.
- Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 2 - The Power of Place