Introduction to the Exhibit.
When Charles Robert Darwin’s Origin of Species, over twenty years in the making, was offered to booksellers on November 22, 1859, the original print run of 1250 copies was quickly exhausted. By November 24, usually cited as the official publication date, Darwin’s publisher, John Murray, had already committed to a new and corrected edition. The advance publicity given to the book by supporters such as the geologist Charles Lyell had helped, but so had the fact that Mudie’s Circulating Library, which lent out popular volumes for a subscription fee, had purchased 500 copies. Darwin was exhausted, but apparently not enough not to care about how the book—his “abominable volume,” as he had called it in a letter to his cousin William Darwin Fox (September 23, 1859)—was received. He was thoroughly pleased by Mudie’s purchase. “Your father says he shall never think small beer of himself again,” wrote Emma Darwin to her son William (late November, 1859), and she added, “Candidly, he does think it very well written.”
Rather than the heroic near-saint promoted in a flurry of books written for the Bicentennial, the Darwin highlighted in this exhibition, drawn from the holdings of Indiana University’s Lilly Library, is a thoroughly social and sociable being, a man equipped with an excellent sense of humor, a keen awareness of his popular appeal, and an urgent desire to set his enemies right. The exhibition tracks his career from the publication of Darwin’s first bestselling book, the Journal of Researches, popularly known as the Voyage of the Beagle, to his last popular success, a book about earthworms. Unpublished letters (one of them even unknown to Darwin scholars) round off the image of a fluent writer who rebelled against the idea that scientific writing had to be, in the caustic words of Darwin’s admirer Stephen Jay Gould, “boring, inaccessible, illiterate, or unreadable” (introduction to the Modern Library Science Series).
This exhibit was originally on display at the Lilly Library from November 18 to December 19, 2009, in celebration of the Darwin Bicentennial.
Bibliographical descriptions follow R.B. Freeman, The Works of Charles Darwin: An Annotated Bibiliogaphical Handlist (Folkestone, Kent, 1977), hereafter abbreviated as “Freeman.”
For biographical information, this exhibit relies on: Peter Brent, Charles Darwin: A Man of Enlarged Curiosity (NY: Norton, 1981); Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (NY: Knopf, 1995) and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002); and Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (NY: Norton, 1991) and Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009).
All letters are quoted from the online archive of the Darwin Correspondence Project. For the view of Darwin presented here, see also Christoph Irmscher, “Darwin’s Beard,” Old Age and Ageing in British and American Literature, ed. Christa Jansohn (Münster: LIT, 2004), 87-106, and Christoph Irmscher, Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).