The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation

Randall Fuller. Viking, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-525-42833-6
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.)
Reviewed on: 11/07/2016
Release date: 01/24/2017
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