Adam Gopnik sees Abraham Lincoln & Charles Darwin as writers.
Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life by Adam Gopnik. Vintage, 235 pp.
Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, born on the same day in 1809, changed the world with their actions and their ideas. That they continue to influence our lives and perspectives today proves their historic and even evolutionary importance. And it actually all rests on their writing ability, argues Adam Gopnik: “They matter because they wrote so well.”
In Angels and Ages, an engrossing history and analysis of Lincoln and Darwin as writers, Gopnik calls Darwin’s On the Origin of Species “a long argument meant for amateur readers.” But the book is “so well written,” he adds, “that we don’t think of it as well written, just as Lincoln’s speeches are so well made that they seem to us as natural as pebbles on a beach.”
Both loners, Lincoln and Darwin cut through the cant of their day with original thought expressed in compelling sentences. This impels Gopnik to define strong prose, maybe nailing its definition, at least for idea-driven nonfiction:
Writing well isn’t just a question of winsome expression, but of having found something big and true to say and having found the right words to say it in, of having seen something large and having found the right words to say it small, small enough to enter an individual mind so that the strong ideas of what the words are saying sound like sweet reason.
We also get to know Lincoln and Darwin as men whose identities seem inseparable from their efforts to communicate. The shrewd Lincoln, who had a “tragic sense of responsibility,” was an unbeliever who evolved during the Civil War toward an “agonized intuitive spirituality.” The hypersensitive Darwin possessed a “calm domestic stoicism,” his own private code, but worried about the effect of his ideas on the faithful—especially on his beloved wife, who was grieving their loss of their daughter.
Lincoln served as an avenging angel who loosed a bloody sword, but his puzzled spirituality in response seems a distilled expression of our species’ very essence—as does the transcendent goal of his tragic bloodletting, justice for all, black and white alike. Darwin also is emblematic, an avatar of our species’ restless spirit to know itself. Darwin’s genius cracked the foundation of the church, as he feared it would. Yet his insights did not destroy religion, broadly defined. He actually deepened religion’s animating mystery, human nature: what is it? where did it come from? why are we mostly good? why does evil exist?
Gopnik fulfills his subtitle’s “about modern life” promise with his own stimulating, hard-won insights about human nature. Take this aside:
Well, who’d care to argue?
Marriages are made of lust, laughter, and loyalty, and though the degree of the compound alters over time, none can survive without a bit of each one. We can usually infer the presence of all three from the presence of one; people are loyal to each other because of remembered pleasures, and they remember social pleasures because they remember sexual ones. All good marriages are different, but they are all alike in having the three elements in some kind of functioning, self-regulating balance.
I knew Gopnik previously only through his New Yorker essays on diverse topics. Angels and Ages and his recent fierce essays on Trump, such as “The Dangerous Acceptance of Donald Trump,” have cemented my admiration of him as a writer, a thinker, and a passionate citizen of our troubled republic. Speaking of which, I’ve lately become a fan, as well, of Amy Davidson, who also contributes brilliantly to the magazine’s election coverage on its web site. Gropnik and Davidson have joined New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane on my short list of favorite nonfiction writers now working. Lane has informed and amused me for years, and though his wit is hard to emulate, his parenthetical asides influence my own syntax.
In its own casual, learned asides, Angels and Ages is evidence of the benefits of lifelong reading that stocks one’s mind and feeds one’s intellect. What remains is what you learned—and what you end up saying or writing. Gopnik’s book also models deep inquiry for the project at hand. And also of just trying to figure out life for oneself from experience. A modest enough task in the wake of Lincoln and Darwin, it’s a task inescapably and essentially human.
[Gopnik excerpted Angels and Ages in an essay for Smithsonian.]
Responding to a question on Charlie Rose’s “Green Room” show, Adam Gopnik listed his five desert island books:
• James Boswell’s Life of Johnson because it’s the “most entertaining biography in the language.”
• Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations because it’s the “most perfect work of art of any novel in the language.”
• J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories because they are the “most perfectly formed of American stories.”
• James Thurber’s The Thurber Carnival, his anthology of his writing because “it’s the first book I loved, at the age of seven, and it continues to illuminate and inform what I try to do.”
• And the works of Shakespeare because “if you have all of Shakespeare you have all of life.”