three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
By: 
Adam Gopnik
user_rating: 
0

A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life

A-Angels and AgesAdam Gopnik is a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the essay collection Paris to the Moon, a memoir of time spent abroad with his family. In Angels and Ages, Gopnik reexamines the lives and ideas of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln.

The Topic: It’s a quirk of fate, perhaps, that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, two of the most influential and controversial figures of the 19th century, were born on the same day—February 12, 1809—a continent apart and in much different circumstances. Considering and then stripping away the prevailing myths and historical revisionism that have come down to us over the last century and a half, Adam Gopnik shows why these two men are still relevant, what their legacies mean today, and why "literary eloquence is essential to liberal civilization." The book’s title comes from the confusion of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton’s response to Lincoln’s death—that Lincoln now belonged to the "ages" or the "angels." The phrase "angels and ages" neatly sums up the challenging philosophies, sometimes contradictory beliefs, and modern ideas that both Darwin and Lincoln held during their lifetimes.
Knopf. 211 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0307270785

Philadelphia Inquirer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In an atmosphere in which everyone is trying to ‘win’ some sort of God-science war, Gopnik says simply that both personal mysticism and its opposite make sense in the modern condition; both are responses to the permanent, unexplainable gap between what we see of life and what we know of it. 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." John Timpane

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"[Gopnik] offers an eloquent and elegant comparison of two great men, expounding on how they achieved their stature and what their accomplishments mean for us today. … This is an amazing work of scholarship and philosophical thought." John C. Ensslin

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Small books don’t necessarily have small ambitions. … [Gopnik] succeeds in this big task with wit and finesse, and then some." Max Winter

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The material comes from other writers, scrupulously acknowledged, but Gopnik has selected it with a novelist’s skill; and many of the most suggestive reflections are his own. … For the most part Gopnik’s writing is pungent, inventive and rich—sometimes to the point of excess and delighting too much in his play of phrase." Richard Eder

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"Gopnik casts fresh and honest light on two figures distorted by years of excessive comment, quotation, and ideological appropriation. … [He] wrongly conflates democratic process with moral purpose." Josh Burek

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"Angels and Ages has joined that genre of works that derive—devolve, some might say—from particularly fine New Yorker pieces. Which is not to say that it has not gained from the addition of more material; but I am not sure that it gained more than it lost." Paul Collins

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"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. … 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." Carolyn See

Critical Summary

Although Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln never met, Adam Gopnik forever links them in this collection of essays (some of the material first appeared in the New Yorker) that emphasizes the importance of two great men and reevaluates the role of 19th-century thinking in the modern world. Gopnik’s magazine work and essays have given him a well-deserved reputation as an astute observer and chronicler of modern life, and critics generally view Gopnik’s efforts in Angels and Ages as an admirable attempt to breathe new life into some dogmatic ideas. Other reviewers, however, note a familiarity and disjointedness to the pieces and wonder about the tenuous connection between Lincoln and Darwin. The book is worth reading, though, for the author’s unquestioned skill as a craftsman and the light he sheds on what has become, for many, settled history.