Book Review: 'Angels and Ages' by Adam Gopnik

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By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, January 23, 2009

ANGELS AND AGES

A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life

By Adam Gopnik

Knopf. 211 pp. $24.95

Although this is Adam Gopnik's sixth book, he is best-known for his charming and intelligent pieces in the New Yorker about almost any and every subject: the process of psychotherapy (which blew me away so completely I wrote him a fan letter about it), the experience of getting married, of having children, of moving to Paris and living there, moving back and everything you can think of in between. He is a master of the familiar essay, a modern-day, very sophisticated Charles Lamb.

And in that spirit, he has written this "short book" on Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, both born on the same date, Feb. 12, 1809 (one in a cabin, one in a country house), both of whom radically changed the way Americans and Englishmen think about the modern world.

We all know what they did: Lincoln saved the Union and freed the slaves; Darwin closely examined the natural world for years and came up with the theory of evolution, which wasn't exactly a theory but an enormous body of evidence suggesting that Earth wasn't just a few thousand years old, as Scripture stated, but older than we could imagine or exactly measure. Not only that: Man and woman had not been fashioned in a couple of days directly by God but had evolved, over many years, from hairy primates, monkeys and apes.

If we managed to stay awake in high school, we all know that. The task Gopnik has set for himself is to make this material new for us, to get us thinking or -- if we're too lazy to do that -- to at least be comforted by the fact that someone else is doing the thinking for us.

But there's some trouble in comparing these two great men. Lincoln was a politician and, though a great one, was making political decisions in just one country. To say he freed the slaves isn't even altogether true. After the Civil War, African Americans enjoyed a couple of years of freedom before Southern whites managed to grind them down to perhaps a worse position than they had been in before. It took almost a hundred more years before the civil rights movement began the process of real emancipation again. And (much as we might like to think so), the United States is not the world. Slavery still exists in parts of Africa and Asia; right here in Los Angeles, from where I write, there's a gleaming condominium on Sunset Boulevard that recently housed dozens of sex slaves imported from all over the world. But still, Lincoln abolished slavery as a legal institution in this country.

To compare him to Darwin, though, in any way except by shared birthdays seems arbitrary. Darwin asks us to change the way we think about how and why every human exists and -- if we are Christian -- to change our way of thinking about creation and the afterlife. To put these two men in the same category is like comparing a saddle shoe to a saddle. One is noticeably bigger than the other.

The title "Angels and Ages" comes from the controversy over whether Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's secretary of war, cried out over the president's dead body, "Now he belongs to the ages" or "to the angels." In other words, do we live in a secular or supernatural world?

The book is divided into six essays: two on Darwin, two on Lincoln, and an introduction and a conclusion in which the author organizes his thoughts about these great men. Gopnik makes the point that Lincoln was a very successful lawyer who thrived on negotiation and compromise. And Lincoln loved that he had been able to acquire a lovely home, an expensive wife and a passel of darling sons. He was a family man and liked it that way. He tried to steer clear of the hotheaded Southern code of honor that led to duels and conflict; a person could get hurt going down that tempting path. These Lincoln essays are laudable, but it's hard to be new about him. He's been as hard-used by scholars and writers as a bar of hotel soap.

The Darwin essays, on the other hand, are delightful. He was so crazy about collecting beetles, for instance, that on seeing and wanting to capture three of them, he put one in each hand and another in his mouth. He went on that amazing five-year trip around the world on the Beagle. He had 10 children with his loving wife, and he induced his kids to help in an experiment about whether earthworms could hear, by playing bassoons to check out the worms' responses. All this is wonderful stuff, tempered by the heartbreaking fact that both men lost a beloved child at a young age. When "On the Origin of Species" was published in 1859, it was remarkably and easily assimilated into the culture, Gopnik tells us. Evolution as a concept was pretty much a done deal; other scholars had done much of the groundwork already, and at the time of publication, less than half of all Englishmen were regular churchgoers.

The other half were, though. Gopnik seems to think that belief in a personal God who cares about human beings is an utterly passe idea that went out with the advent of the Enlightenment. Of contemporary Americans, he says, "Only very simple people of faith any longer live by an unquestionable divine covenant. . . . The hold of fear and superstition has lessened. We know how men got here. Science has revealed many things, if not everything." That's when you have to remember that Gopnik is a New Yorker who writes for the New Yorker. His knowledge of the ordinary world is limited. He's like George H.W. Bush, bewildered in the supermarket, baffled by a bar code. Hasn't Gopnik ever seen a mega-church? Isn't he aware of all those books about the Rapture that have outsold his own by the millions? Doesn't he know that grants for the pursuit of science have decreased markedly in the last couple of decades -- partly because of the sticky matter of the theory of evolution? Because of his intellectual provincialism, his high-handed dismissal of conventional Christianity (which dismisses evolution in turn), the author has lost the opportunity to write what could have been an extremely important book and given us, again, six charming, familiar essays.

Sunday in Book World

· Jayne Anne Phillips's "Lark and Termite."

· Louise Erdrich's collected stories.

· Joseph Kennedy's movie mania.

· Other people's kinky sex lives.

· And food books to ruin your appetite.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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