Cover image for The book that changed America : how Darwin's theory of evolution ignited a nation / Randall Fuller.
The book that changed America : how Darwin's theory of evolution ignited a nation / Randall Fuller.
Publication Information:
New York, New York : Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, [2017]
Physical Description:
x, 294 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Part I: Origins -- The Book from Across the Atlantic -- Gray's Botany -- Beetles, Birds, Theories -- Word of Mouth -- Making a Stir -- A Night at the Lyceum -- The Nick of Time -- Part II: Struggles -- Bones of Contention -- Agassiz -- The What-Is-It? -- A Spirited Conflict -- Into the Vortex -- Tree of Life -- A Jolt of Recognition -- Wildfires -- Part III: Adaptations -- Discord in Concord -- Moods -- Meditations in a Garden -- The Succession of Forest Trees -- Races of the Old World -- A Cold Shudder -- Part IV: Transformations -- At Down House -- The Ghost of John Brown -- In the Transcendental Graveyard.
Traces the impact of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" on a diverse group of writers, abolitionists, and social reformers, including Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott, against a backdrop of growing tensions and transcendental idealism in 1860 America.


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1 Bob Harkins Branch 576.82 FUL Book Adult General Collection

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A compelling portrait of a unique moment in American history when the ideas of Charles Darwin reshaped American notions about nature, religion, science and race

"A lively and informative history." - The New York Times Book Review

Throughout its history America has been torn in two by debates over ideals and beliefs.  Randall Fuller takes us back to one of those turning points, in 1860, with the story of the influence of Charles Darwin's just-published On the Origin of Species on five American intellectuals, including Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, the child welfare reformer Charles Loring Brace, and the abolitionist Franklin Sanborn. 
Each of these figures seized on the book's assertion of a common ancestry for all creatures as a powerful argument against slavery, one that helped provide scientific credibility to the cause of abolition.  Darwin's depiction of constant struggle and endless competition described America on the brink of civil war.  But some had difficulty aligning the new theory to their religious convictions and their faith in a higher power.  Thoreau, perhaps the most profoundly affected all, absorbed Darwin's views into his mysterious final work on species migration and the interconnectedness of all living things.
Creating a rich tableau of nineteenth-century American intellectual culture, as well as providing a fascinating biography of perhaps the single most important idea of that time, The Book That Changed America is also an account of issues and concerns still with us today, including racism and the enduring conflict between science and religion.

Author Notes

Randall Fuller is the author of From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature , which won the Phi Beta Kappa's Christian Gauss Award for best literary criticism, and Emerson's Ghosts: Literature, Politics, and the Making of Americanists . He has written for The New York Times , The Wall Street Journal , and other publications, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is the Chapman Professor of English at the University of Tulsa.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this inventive work, which weaves two powerful events into a vibrant tapestry of antebellum intellectual life, Fuller (From Battlefields Rising), professor of English at the University of Tulsa, beautifully describes how the engagement by a group of Transcendentalists with Darwin's newly published On the Origin of Species deepened their commitment to the antislavery movement. Still reeling from abolitionist John Brown's 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Transcendentalists (and Brown supporters) Franklin Sanborn, Charles Loring Brace, Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau quickly devoured Darwin's book and recommended it to others. All people were biologically related, Darwin's work hinted, which Transcendentalists interpreted as a repudiation of the belief that "African-American slaves were a separate, inferior species." Fuller shares the Transcendentalists' knack for clearly presenting complex ideas. He nimbly traverses the details of the scientific debate between Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz and Asa Gray over the theories of polygenism and evolution. There's a glimpse of Louisa May Alcott, inspired by Darwin's book to write a daring story of interracial love. Elegant writing and an unusual approach to interpreting the time period make this a must-read for everyone interested in Civil War-era history. Illus. Agent: Marianne Merola, Brandt & Hochman Literary. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

THE FIRST BOOK by Richard Hofstadter, the leading historian of his generation (and, decades ago, my Ph.D. supervisor), was "Social Darwinism in American Thought," a study of the impact on American intellectual life of the scientific writings of Charles Darwin. Hofstadter related how businessmen, free marketeers and opponents of efforts to uplift the poor seized upon Darwin's seminal work, "On the Origin of Species," to justify social inequality during the Gilded Age. They invoked Darwinian ideas such as "natural selection," "survival of the fittest" and "the struggle for existence" to assert the innate superiority of the era's 1 percent and to define people at the bottom of the social order as innately ill equipped to succeed in the competitive race of life. "Social Darwinism" has remained a byword for racism and a dog-eat-dog vision of society. But as Randall Fuller shows in "The Book That Changed America," this was not the only way Darwinian precepts were assimilated into American life and thought. Fuller, who teaches English at the University of Tulsa, is the author of a prizewinning study of the Civil War's impact on American literature. His account of how Americans responded to the publication of Darwin's great work in 1859 is organized as a series of lively and informative set pieces - dinners, conversations, lectures - with reactions to "On the Origin of Species" usually (but not always) at the center. Fuller focuses on a group of New England writers, scientists and social reformers. He begins with a dinner party on New Year's Day, I860, at the home of Franklin B. Sanborn, a schoolmaster in Concord, Mass. The guest of honor was Charles Loring Brace, a graduate of Yale and founder of the Children's Aid Society, which worked to assist the thousands of orphaned, abandoned and runaway children who populated the streets of New York City. Also present was Amos Bronson Alcott (Louisa May Alcott's father), a local school superintendent so garrulous that his neighbors would start walking in the opposite direction when they saw him coming to avoid an interminable discourse on one subject or another. Henry David Thoreau was there as well, taking a break from his hermit-like existence on Walden Pond. Brace brought to the gathering a copy of Darwin's new book, which he had borrowed from his cousin Asa Gray, a professor of natural history at Harvard. Fuller explores how these and other figures reacted to their encounter with Darwin's ideas. Because of the Scopes trial of 1925, not to mention more recent controversies about teaching evolution in public schools, we are accustomed to thinking of Darwin's theory of evolution as antithetical to religion. Darwin rejected the biblical account of creation and proposed a natural mechanism based on accidental improvements in species to explain why some flora and fauna survived and others perished. Darwin, as Emily Dickinson observed, had "thrown 'the Redeemer' away." Asa Gray, however, who had been "born again" as a young man in upstate New York, viewed evolution as compatible with religion. Or at least he tried very hard to reconcile them. Through magazine articles and lectures he did more to popularize the idea of evolution than any other American. Eventually, however, Gray began to worry that Darwin had made belief in God superfluous. To create a bridge between divine purpose and science, Gray proposed that God had created all the species and chosen evolution as the mechanism for their subsequent development. In a letter to Gray, Darwin pointed out that this idea was thoroughly unscientific. Science, he wrote, must deal in evidence, not speculation. But many Americans seized on Gray's formulation to embrace Darwin without sacrificing their religious convictions. Fuller's most surprising revelation is the profound impact Darwin's portrait of a "teeming, pulsating natural world" exerted on Thoreau. In the years before he encountered the book, Thoreau had become "obsessed with the workings of nature," filling notebook after notebook with drawings and descriptions of the birds, plants, animals and trees he encountered in the Massachusetts woods. But not until he read Darwin did Thoreau attempt to create order out of the mass of information he had compiled. He began organizing the thousands of pages of his journals into what today would be called a giant spreadsheet. Thoreau died in 1862, l eaving behind an unfinished manuscript on natural history inspired in large measure by reading Darwin. Darwin's book said nothing about the origins and evolution of human beings. But, as Fuller notes, "it was almost impossible not to extrapolate his theory to people." Appearing on the eve of the Civil War, "On the Origin of Species" inevitably became caught up in the gathering storm over slavery and the place of blacks in American life. Nearly all of Fuller's cast of characters were abolitionists of one kind or another. Unlike later social Darwinists, they interpreted evolution to mean that progress was decreed by nature. Disadvantaged people, black as well as white, were no more fixed in their condition than other forms of life in a continuously improving world. The 1850s was a decade when belief in blacks' innate inferiority was widespread. Some scientists insisted that the races had been created separately and remained unequal and unalterable. This view was not confined to the South. At Harvard, the Swiss-born biologist Louis Agassiz preached separate creation and strenuously denounced Darwin for implying that races could evolve. But others interpreted Darwin to mean that blacks and whites were members of the same ever-progressing species. Four years after the dinner party that begins the book, Charles Loring Brace published "The Races of the Old World," a rambling work of ethnography meant to demonstrate, among other things, that blacks were not "radically different from the other families of man or even mentally inferior to them." But, Fuller shows, Brace could not envision living in a biracial society. Blacks, he insisted, were permanently adapted to warm climates - a very un-Darwinian idea - and therefore should remain in the South after slavery ended. Fuller is a lively, engaging writer, with an eye for fascinating details. His subjects wrote copious letters, kept diaries, gave speeches and recorded their conversations with one another. Fuller has mined this rich material with care and insight. Sometimes, to be sure, the desire to tell a good story leads him down detours that have little apparent connection to Darwin and his reception - discussions, for example, of 19th-century views of orphans and of Abraham Lincoln's emergence as a presidential candidate in 1860. Hovering over the account is the abolitionist martyr John Brown. Some of Fuller's subjects had a connection to Brown - Sanborn gave him financial assistance, and Thoreau delivered a widely reprinted eulogy. Brown's execution in December 1859 took place just as "On the Origin of Species" arrived in America. But what all this has to do with the reception of Darwin remains unclear. Fuller's rather grandiose title promises more than a study of a few New England intellectuals can reasonably deliver. What was the reaction to Darwin in the South and West? What about among African-Americans? Writers for the black press, it should be noted, cited "On the Origin of Species" as proof of mankind's "progressive development," which would lead inevitably to the abolition of slavery. They saw the Civil War as the nation's own evolutionary struggle for existence. Surely, they too form part of the American response to Darwin. The theory of evolution was not perceived as a threat to religion at first. ERIC FONER is the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of "Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad".

Library Journal Review

Published during an extraordinarily turbulent time in the history of the United States-just prior to the Civil War and just after John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry-Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) would prove to have a significant impact on the country. Fuller (English, Univ. of Tulsa; From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature) introduces the subject, focusing on a dinner party consisting of four of the most important America intellectuals and abolitionists of the time: Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Charles Loring Brace, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. During the gathering, Brace presented a copy of Darwin's seminal work. The title would profoundly affect them all, especially because it seemed to support abolitionism and unsettle their personal beliefs. By positing a common ancestor for all living creatures and intimating that all human beings were biologically related, Darwin demonstrated to proponents of slavery that they could no longer justify the institution with the assertion that blacks belonged to a different species than whites. Fuller is a skilled author who expertly describes the setting and the tension of the era. His -informative volume reads like a novel. VERDICT This fascinating account is recommended for those interested in literature, science, or 18th-century American history. [See -Prepub Alert, 7/25/16.]-Dave Pugl, Ela Area P.L., Lake Zurich, IL © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Part I Origins
1 The Book from Across the Atlanticp. 3
2 Gray's Botanyp. 13
3 Beetles, Birds, Theoriesp. 18
4 Word of Mouthp. 29
5 Making a Stirp. 43
6 A Night at the Lyceump. 51
7 The Nick of Timep. 63
Part II Struggles
8 Bones of Contentionp. 79
9 Agassizp. 84
10 The What-Is-It?p. 96
11 A Spirited Conflictp. 107
12 Into the Vortexp. 116
13 Tree of Lifep. 128
14 A Jolt of Recognitionp. 136
15 Wildfiresp. 147
Part III Adaptations
16 Discord in Concordp. 161
17 Moodsp. 172
18 Meditations in a Gardenp. 181
19 The Succession of Forest Treesp. 190
20 Races of the Old Worldp. 196
21 A Cold Shudderp. 204
Part IV Transformations
22 At Down Housep. 219
23 The Ghost of John Brownp. 231
4 In the Transcendental Graveyardp. 242
Acknowledgmentsp. 257
Notesp. 258
Selected Bibliographyp. 277
Indexp. 285

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