Angels and Ages

Paperback $15.00

Feb 09, 2010 | 256 Pages

Ebook $11.99

Jan 27, 2009 | 224 Pages

  • Paperback $15.00

    Feb 09, 2010 | 256 Pages

  • Ebook $11.99

    Jan 27, 2009 | 224 Pages

Praise

A New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller

“A succinct, convincing, and moving account of how two men ripped mankind out of its past unreason and thrust it into a more enlightened age.”
Time

“Gopnik is a vivid and charming writer. . . . He moves from the personal to the political with ease, and his writing hums with authenticity. I cannot think of a better introduction to either of its protagonists, for it makes clear the scale of their achievements, and their historical significance.”
—Peter Aspden, Financial Times

“An elegant, intelligent meditation on skepticism and the making of the liberal mind.”
The New York Observer
 
“A scintillating synthesis of history, biography and cultural commentary. . . . Gopnik is a writer of dazzling skill and daunting accomplishment.”
Chicago Tribune
 
“This is the essay every essayist would like to have written. . . . “Gopnik has taken a coincidence and turned it into a theory of everything, or at least of everything important—death, progress, belief and language.”
The Daily Telegraph (London)

“[An] elegant and engrossing bicentennial twin portrait. . . . By advancing political and scientific liberalism, Lincoln and Darwin left as legacies an American century and a Darwinian world. Their principles, Gopnik maintains, still ‘shine light on the kind of place we’ve made, and the way we can make it better.’”
The Boston Globe
 
“Gopnik draws vividly characterized personal and intellectual portraits of each man. . . . Throughout, he seeks to entertain even as he provokes and, sometimes, moves. . . . [His] writing is pungent, inventive and rich.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
 
“Ambitious. . . . Gopnik casts fresh and honest light on two figures distorted by years of excessive comment, quotation, and ideological appropriation.”
The Christian Science Monitor
 
“Gopnik revels in the revolutionary ideas that helped create our ‘moral modernity’ as he reveals the complex characters who unearthed startling truths about nature, human and otherwise.”
O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“Profound. . . . An amazing work of scholarship and philosophical thought. . . . Gopnik’s examination of these two men leads to nothing less than the exploration of what it means to live a meaningful life.”
Rocky Mountain News
 
“Exquisite. . . . Powerful. . . . Angels and Ages makes a persuasive case that our liberal, bourgeois lives, resting on reason, law, and the primacy of science, rest also on Darwin and Lincoln.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Gopnik makes his points with a grace and intelligence that remind us, 200 years on, how much the two men continue to shape our thinking and our discourse.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
 
“First Gopnik makes this odd couple look even odder. Then he brings them hauntingly near us.”
—Garry Wills, author of Lincoln at Gettysburg
 
“Gopnik’s commentary, when it focuses on the fine points of Darwin’s rhetorical style, or the significance of Lincoln’s earliest speech, feels both effortless and edifying.”
The Oregonian
 
“Wide-ranging and thought-provoking reading. . . . Gopnik’s intelligence, fluid style and elegant observations pour forth.”
The Wichita Eagle
 
“Astonishing. . . . This is a book of no small learning, research and derring-do. . . . Gopnik has, quite brilliantly triangulated all of us, with the two men born on Feb. 12, 1809.”
The Buffalo News

“Two giants come humanly to life in these pages, and the deeds that made them giants are wisely appreciated. But, most of all, Angels and Ages is a hymn to liberal thinking—to its modesty, its openness, its occasional courage, its honesty about our transience, its loyalty to the pleasures and virtues of the everyday. And, like everything that Adam Gopnik writes, this book has a heart.”
—Louis Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club

“Illuminating. . . . [An] extremely elegant work.”
The Guardian (London)

“Places Lincoln and Darwin in their rightful places as giants of intellectual history.”
The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky)

“Darwin and Lincoln shared far more than a birthday. With succulent prose and incisive reasoning, Adam Gopnik shows that both men were wordsmiths of the highest order, emancipating minds with rhetorical skills that were wedded to moral and scientific truths. Always worth reading, Gopnik has produced a engaging and novel celebration of the Darwin/Lincoln bicentennial.”
—Jerry Coyne, Professor of Ecology and Evolution, The University of Chicago, and author of Why Evolution is True

“Ambitious. . . . Gopnik brings to his narrative not only passionate faith in the importance of the how . . . of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Lincoln’s politics of emancipation, but also an intellectual rigour and deftness, along with a kind of discursive bravado. . . . Angels and Ages certainly walks the walk of the glorious talk and prose it explores.”
The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“One could spend a couple of years just dipping into some of the hundreds of books about Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, and Adam Gopnik has. He distills all that knowledge with his usual verve and insight in Angels and Ages. . . . Convincing.” —St. Petersburg Times

Author Q&A

Q: How did you fifirst discover that Lincoln and Darwin share a birthday—February 12th, 1809? What made you decide to write about their lives?

 

A: I wrote first about Darwin as a “natural novelist,“ a born writer and stylist, then about Lincoln’s language and its legacy, both for The New Yorker, and though I had some general intimation that those two essays had a shared topic—the emergence, let’s say, of an eloquence of explanation, rather than inspiration—I didn’t know yet about the strange and serendipitous accident of their birth. Curiously, I can’t call to mind when I did learn of it; a nice example of the amnesia of inspiration. But when I fell on it, and realized that we were arriving at a double bicentennial, my sense that there was a real subject here became stronger—understanding that this subject wasn’t any exact parallel between their lives but the beginnings of a part of our lives, the beginnings of new ways of thinking and, particularly, speaking and writing, that are part of what it means to be modern.

 

Q: What kinds of research did you conduct for the book?

 

A: The literature on both men is so immense that no one can claim to master it all—but I did my best, reading much as I could of the Darwin commentaries and as many as possible of the Lincoln biographies, one book leading on to the next, by the trail of footnotes. My own investigation of one small log in the Lincoln edifice—what were Stanton’s words at Lincoln’s deathbed, did he say “Now he belongs to the Ages” or ”Now he belongs to the Angels”?—is I think original; I certainly followed the trail of footnotes and sources as close to the truth as I think anyone can hope to arrive. With Darwin, I turned again and again to his original words. To his finished books, of course—his final book, on earthworms, was a revelation to me—but also, and particularly to his letters, and above all to his notebooks of 1838, which are the bedrock of evolutionary thought, and a lot of fun to read besides.

 

Q: In the course of learning about Lincoln and Darwin, what surprised you most about

either figure?

 

A: I suppose it must have been the ferocity of Darwin’s political liberalism. A certain amount of malicious energy has been poured, in America particularly, into pretending that Darwin was the “father of eugenics”, or that he believed in a war of races. It’s true that he played footsie, briefly and hesitantly, with ideas about advanced and backwards races. But from the very beginning of his work, he was as passionate an abolitionist as any man alive, and his belief in the equality of man was nearly absolute. His central idea about the origins and operation of human altruism was original and powerful—that the capacity for sympathy with others has evolved for a reason, to encourage the narrow in-group solidarity necessary for the social life of the higher primates—but that once it exists, it can be turned and applied however we want, and just as broadly as we wish. We can broaden out circles of compassion just as we choose. No one has gotten, or needs to get, much farther than that.

 

Q: The book is very conversational—the reader comes away from it feeling as if they’ve

just sat down for a long chat with you. Did you set out to write it in this style, or did it

happen on its own?

 

A: Like every writer, I write with difficulty, pain and a desire to be anywhere but at my desk. But about halfway through this book, I found myself humming in places, rather than stalling, and a tone of grab-the-reader-by-his-lapel, or anyway sit him down at the kitchen table and tell tales, overcame me. Perhaps it’s simply that articulating your own experience, or those of your near relations, as I’ve done in Through the Children’s Gate, or telling a long and elaborate narrative, as in The King in the Window, demands a continual element of invention— you’re always trying to make a joke or a point. But in a book of this sort the principle of selection and explanation rules—which facts matters most, and what do they mean? Writing a book like this is more like distilling whiskey for a living and less like inventing the wheel for the rest of your life. And you get to sip it, too. And then, I come from an academic family, and though I ran as fast as my feet could take me away from academe, being I think the only one of my six siblings without a Ph.D., some buried teacher, or anyway graduate assistant, in me still struggles to get out, and make yellow highlight markings in a textbook.

 

Q: So, who would you rather take out to lunch: Charles or Abe?

 

A: Oh, Charles, definitely, to get him caught up on everything that has happened to his great idea in the years since his death—but then Abe, too, to have him opine on everything that’s happened to us. I suspect that Darwin would be more “English” than his American admirers would like—more hesitant in generalization and less visibly brilliant. And that Abe would be more nineteenth century than twenty-first century admirers would like, more a shrewd man of his time and less a wise man for all time.

 

Q: There’s a lot of discussion today about Barack Obama as a Lincoln-like leader. Do you think that’s a fair comparison? What kinds of things will be in store for our President-elect in that respect?

 

A: Poor Obama! This is a lot to hang on a man; obviously, any comparison is not merely premature but slightly deranged—and also misses the fundamental Lincolnian fact that he was not a conciliatory figure, or one who bridged bipartisan divides. Not remotely. He ended the long-running attempt at conciliation on the slave and secession question—fire on Fort Sumter, and we make war.But in another way, Obama is a Lincoln-legatee—not as some reincarnation, but as one more inheritor of the common legacy that Lincoln (and Darwin) helped to invent. Obama is impressive for his eloquence of inspiration—the “Yes, We Can” speeches, the musical side of his oratory—but he is most impressive for his eloquence of explanation, of observation and argument. That key speech of his at Philadelphia on racism—a “teaching moment” as he described it—was a complicated argument, far from obvious in its points, and complexly intertwined to make a clear but complex case: that one can renounce African-American racism and still understand it. Lincoln’s speeches, as his best analysts have explained, are usually very complex arguments, too—about, say, why the legal principle of union is related to the moral principle of emancipation—that still ring like bells. This side of Lincoln’s legacy Obama shares with the rest of us.

 

Q.You share a lot of information with the reader about Lincoln and Darwin’s personal lives—not just the things that happened to them (family, love, loss) but how they felt about them; their emotions, passion and grief among them, were not so different then. Did you find yourself relating to either man on a personal or professional level?

 

A: A wise friend of mine teases me that I am drawn to people of the past who I unconsciously paint as a replica of, alley-oop, myself—i.e. family men with scruples and anxieties. Lincoln’s inner life, I should say, his melancholy and decisiveness both, his strength and his sadness, is alien to me, and I see it from an admiring distance. But I won’t pretend not to have been stirred and moved by the discovery, unalloyed by wishful thinking, that Darwin was one of the founders of modern parenting, the first scientist to study “the natural history of babies” as he called it, whose pleasure in his children (and wife) was the first pleasure of his life. And Lincoln too, let it be said, was an schande to the neighbors for his indulgence of his kids.

 

Q: Lastly, do you think your readers will be able to make a decision on whether Stanton’s famous epitaph was “angels” or “ages” after all?

 

A: I hope so; my own choice, cunningly ambiguous, need not be the readers’. Often, the idea that history is undecidable seems to be mistaken for the notion that all history is invented; I hope that reading this essay in history will help readers to recall that history is just as “relative” or “indeterminate” as all the rest of life. It isn’t that we don’t know what happened in the past, but that we don’t know what’s happening now—the forces of narrative and desire and wishful thinking weigh on all of us all the time. The job is not to pretend that all guesses are equal, but to make the best guesses we can with an eye to making a better guess tomorrow That’s what the society of the “Ages,” of liberal civilization—a science-based society, if you like—is, modestly but potently, all about.

 

Q: How did you fifirst discover that Lincoln and Darwin share a birthday—February 12th, 1809? What made you decide to write about their lives?

A: I wrote first about Darwin as a “natural novelist,“ a born writer and stylist, then about Lincoln’s language and its legacy, both for The New Yorker, and though I had some general intimation that those two essays had a shared topic—the emergence, let’s say, of an eloquence of explanation, rather than inspiration—I didn’t know yet about the strange and serendipitous accident of their birth. Curiously, I can’t call to mind when I did learn of it; a nice example of the amnesia of inspiration. But when I fell on it, and realized that we were arriving at a double bicentennial, my sense that there was a real subject here became stronger—understanding that this subject wasn’t any exact parallel between their lives but the beginnings of a part of our lives, the beginnings of new ways of thinking and, particularly, speaking and writing, that are part of what it means to be modern.

Q: What kinds of research did you conduct for the book?

A: The literature on both men is so immense that no one can claim to master it all—but I did my best, reading much as I could of the Darwin commentaries and as many as possible of the Lincoln biographies, one book leading on to the next, by the trail of footnotes. My own investigation of one small log in the Lincoln edifice—what were Stanton’s words at Lincoln’s deathbed, did he say “Now he belongs to the Ages” or ”Now he belongs to the Angels”?—is I think original; I certainly followed the trail of footnotes and sources as close to the truth as I think anyone can hope to arrive. With Darwin, I turned again and again to his original words. To his finished books, of course—his final book, on earthworms, was a revelation to me—but also, and particularly to his letters, and above all to his notebooks of 1838, which are the bedrock of evolutionary thought, and a lot of fun to read besides.

Q: In the course of learning about Lincoln and Darwin, what surprised you most about
either figure?

A: I suppose it must have been the ferocity of Darwin’s political liberalism. A certain amount of malicious energy has been poured, in America particularly, into pretending that Darwin was the “father of eugenics”, or that he believed in a war of races. It’s true that he played footsie, briefly and hesitantly, with ideas about advanced and backwards races. But from the very beginning of his work, he was as passionate an abolitionist as any man alive, and his belief in the equality of man was nearly absolute. His central idea about the origins and operation of human altruism was original and powerful—that the capacity for sympathy with others has evolved for a reason, to encourage the narrow in-group solidarity necessary for the social life of the higher primates—but that once it exists, it can be turned and applied however we want, and just as broadly as we wish. We can broaden out circles of compassion just as we choose. No one has gotten, or needs to get, much farther than that.

Q: The book is very conversational—the reader comes away from it feeling as if they’ve
just sat down for a long chat with you. Did you set out to write it in this style, or did it
happen on its own?

A: Like every writer, I write with difficulty, pain and a desire to be anywhere but at my desk. But about halfway through this book, I found myself humming in places, rather than stalling, and a tone of grab-the-reader-by-his-lapel, or anyway sit him down at the kitchen table and tell tales, overcame me. Perhaps it’s simply that articulating your own experience, or those of your near relations, as I’ve done in Through the Children’s Gate, or telling a long and elaborate narrative, as in The King in the Window, demands a continual element of invention— you’re always trying to make a joke or a point. But in a book of this sort the principle of selection and explanation rules—which facts matters most, and what do they mean? Writing a book like this is more like distilling whiskey for a living and less like inventing the wheel for the rest of your life. And you get to sip it, too. And then, I come from an academic family, and though I ran as fast as my feet could take me away from academe, being I think the only one of my six siblings without a Ph.D., some buried teacher, or anyway graduate assistant, in me still struggles to get out, and make yellow highlight markings in a textbook.

Q: So, who would you rather take out to lunch: Charles or Abe?

A: Oh, Charles, definitely, to get him caught up on everything that has happened to his great idea in the years since his death—but then Abe, too, to have him opine on everything that’s happened to us. I suspect that Darwin would be more “English” than his American admirers would like—more hesitant in generalization and less visibly brilliant. And that Abe would be more nineteenth century than twenty-first century admirers would like, more a shrewd man of his time and less a wise man for all time.

Q: There’s a lot of discussion today about Barack Obama as a Lincoln-like leader. Do you think that’s a fair comparison? What kinds of things will be in store for our President-elect in that respect?

A: Poor Obama! This is a lot to hang on a man; obviously, any comparison is not merely premature but slightly deranged—and also misses the fundamental Lincolnian fact that he was not a conciliatory figure, or one who bridged bipartisan divides. Not remotely. He ended the long-running attempt at conciliation on the slave and secession question—fire on Fort Sumter, and we make war.But in another way, Obama is a Lincoln-legatee—not as some reincarnation, but as one more inheritor of the common legacy that Lincoln (and Darwin) helped to invent. Obama is impressive for his eloquence of inspiration—the “Yes, We Can” speeches, the musical side of his oratory—but he is most impressive for his eloquence of explanation, of observation and argument. That key speech of his at Philadelphia on racism—a “teaching moment” as he described it—was a complicated argument, far from obvious in its points, and complexly intertwined to make a clear but complex case: that one can renounce African-American racism and still understand it. Lincoln’s speeches, as his best analysts have explained, are usually very complex arguments, too—about, say, why the legal principle of union is related to the moral principle of emancipation—that still ring like bells. This side of Lincoln’s legacy Obama shares with the rest of us.

Q.You share a lot of information with the reader about Lincoln and Darwin’s personal lives—not just the things that happened to them (family, love, loss) but how they felt about them; their emotions, passion and grief among them, were not so different then. Did you find yourself relating to either man on a personal or professional level?

A: A wise friend of mine teases me that I am drawn to people of the past who I unconsciously paint as a replica of, alley-oop, myself—i.e. family men with scruples and anxieties. Lincoln’s inner life, I should say, his melancholy and decisiveness both, his strength and his sadness, is alien to me, and I see it from an admiring distance. But I won’t pretend not to have been stirred and moved by the discovery, unalloyed by wishful thinking, that Darwin was one of the founders of modern parenting, the first scientist to study “the natural history of babies” as he called it, whose pleasure in his children (and wife) was the first pleasure of his life. And Lincoln too, let it be said, was an schande to the neighbors for his indulgence of his kids.

Q: Lastly, do you think your readers will be able to make a decision on whether Stanton’s famous epitaph was “angels” or “ages” after all?

A: I hope so; my own choice, cunningly ambiguous, need not be the readers’. Often, the idea that history is undecidable seems to be mistaken for the notion that all history is invented; I hope that reading this essay in history will help readers to recall that history is just as “relative” or “indeterminate” as all the rest of life. It isn’t that we don’t know what happened in the past, but that we don’t know what’s happening now—the forces of narrative and desire and wishful thinking weigh on all of us all the time. The job is not to pretend that all guesses are equal, but to make the best guesses we can with an eye to making a better guess tomorrow That’s what the society of the “Ages,” of liberal civilization—a science-based society, if you like—is, modestly but potently, all about.


From the Hardcover edition.

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