My plan to start spending a lot less time weblogging has run smack up against the intriguing coincidence of today’s joint birth bicentennial for Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Some commentators think it’s too much of a stretch trying to link the two great men based merely on their birth date. As with the use of juxtaposition in good haiku, however, I’ve found the comparison — including contrasts, similarities, and differences – to be an interesting and illuminating way to recall what each man has meant to their own times and to ours, and to look at both men in new ways.
There have been two recent books focusing on Darwin and Lincoln together, as unique human beings and towering historical figures:
- “Rebel Giants: The Revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln & Charles Darwin“
by David R. Contosta (Prometheus Books, 2008)
- “Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life” by Adam Gopnik (Knopf, 2009)
If you’re too busy Twittering, actually working, or merely napping, to find and read either or both of them, I’d suggest making the time for two articles that do a good job with the task of comparing Lincoln and Darwin:
“Who Was More Important: Lincoln or Darwin?” by Malcolm Jones (Newsweek, July 7, 2009)
Illustration: Bryan Christie Design; photos: Corbis … ..
.. “How Lincoln and Darwin Shaped the Modern World” by Adam Gopnik (Smithsonian Magazine, February 2009; illustration by Joe Ciardiello)
Also see the first 16 minutes of Gopnik on Charlie Rose (Feb. 4, 2009; the remainder of the interview is an Appreciation of John Updike)
Lincoln and Darwin are both known for ideas (emancipation and evolution, respectively) that threatened powerful vested interests and deep-held beliefs. The books and articles mentioned above describe the importance of their theories — and the importance of the personal characteristics and social environment of each man in shaping their life’s work. I’m going to focus here on another important similarity. As Adam Gopnik says:
“Darwin and Lincoln helped remake our language and forge a new kind of rhetoric that we still respond to in politics and popular science alike. They particularized in everything, and their general vision rises from the details and the nuance, their big ideas from small sightings. They shared logic as a form of eloquence, argument as a style of virtue, close reasoning as a form of uplift. Each, using a kind of technical language—the fine, detailed language of naturalist science for Darwin; the tedious language of legal reasoning for the American—arrived at a new ideal of liberal speech.”
In Newsweek, Malcolm Jones wrote:
“Lincoln united the North behind him with an eloquence so timeless that his words remain fresh no matter how many times you read them. Darwin wrote one of the few scientific treatises, maybe the only one, worth reading as a work of literature. Both of them demand to be read in the original, not in paraphrase, because both men are so much in their prose. To read them is to know these elusive figures a little better. Given their influence on our lives, these are men you want to know.”
” . . . The quality of Darwin’s mind is in evidence everywhere in this book, but so is his character—generous, open-minded and always respectful of those who he knew would disagree with him, as you might expect of a man who was, after all, married to a creationist.”
“. . . Lincoln, no less than Mark Twain, forged what we think of today as the American style: forthright, rhythmic, muscular, beautiful but never pretty. As Douglas L. Wilson observes in “Lincoln’s Sword,” his brilliant analysis of the president’s writing, Lincoln was political, not literary, but he was, every bit as much as Melville or Thoreau, “perfecting a prose that expressed a uniquely American way of apprehending and ordering experience.” What Lincoln says and how he says it are one. You cannot imagine the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural in words other than those in which they are conveyed.
In addition to the notion of their “beautiful but never pretty” writing style, Jones also describes characteristics of the two men that remind me very much of some of my favorite haiku poets:
” . . . Like Darwin, Lincoln was a compulsive scribbler, forever jotting down phrases, notes and ideas on scraps of paper, then squirreling the notes away in a coat pocket, a desk drawer—or sometimes his hat—where they would collect until he found a use for them in a letter, a speech or a document. He was also a compulsive reviser.”
Putting yourself in your writing; valuing logic and clear prose; paying attention to details and being open to new ways of looking at the world; and advocating strongly-held beliefs even when some of your closest kith and kin disagree: these are all characteristics worth emulating, as we think of two famous men who were born two hundred years ago today.
p.s. If you’re interested, we’ve written quite a few times on Lawyer Lincoln.
Our time is up for blogging today. We’ll leave you with the next installment in our project presenting poems from past issues of Modern Haiku written by poets who later became members of our f/k/a Honored Guest family.
Here are three from Modern Haiku Vol. XXVIII: 1 (Winter-Spring 1997), written by our haiku friend Tom Clausen. We’ll delve further into XXVIII:1 over the next few days.
freed from the cat–
baby meadow lark
all the panes broken–
in and out of the mill
garage door open
at the funeral home—
… by Tom Clausen – Modern Haiku Vol. XXVIII: 1