Excerpted from Angels and Ages by Adam Gopnik. Copyright © 2009 by Adam Gopnik. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Author of the beloved best seller Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986. He is a three-time winner of the National Magazine Award for Essays and for Reviews and Criticism and of the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting. He lives in New York City with his wife and their two children.
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
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.