George Levine Darwin the Writer

George Levine, Darwin the Writer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) xvii+272pp. £19.99 hb ISBN 9780199608420

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All of the world is a rastro, Darwinian eyes will trace it, Darwinian exuberance and wonder precede and follow from it. (217)

The aim of Darwin the Writer is to prove that Darwin is worth reading for his readability alone. George Levine has worked extensively on Darwin, and despite the plethora of materials which appeared for the Darwin bicentenary celebrations in 2009, the primary focus is on his ideas, rather than in the way which he expressed them. The intention is not to diminish the significance of Darwin’s ideas, but more to draw focus to Darwin’s writing. In order to do this, he examines the way in which Darwin wrote, how this impacted on the conveyance of his ideas and also how his work influenced other, more literary authors such as Hardy and Wilde. Moreover, it illuminates the reasons which fixed Darwin’s On the Origin of Speciesas a cultural and – more crucially – a literary phenomenon.

Levine begins with an overview of the need for a work focusing on Darwin’s writing. The passion with which he writes is engaging and, while enthusiastic, never excessive. Like Darwin, he carefully constructs his case, elucidating why it was so important for Darwin to convey his argument accurately using extensive evidentiary support and how he used the language and literary devices to control the way his ideas were voiced. The opening chapter is essential not only because it provides an introduction to the following chapters, but more vitally Levine here details the significant “double-movement” idea of Darwin’s prose which is thematic in the Origin and reiterated throughout Darwin the Writer.

The structure of the remaining text is divided into elements regarding Darwin’s writing style, covering the development and application of his writing, and the ensuing influence it had. Though there is inevitably some overlap between chapters they are woven together so as to form a coherent whole. Chapter two focuses on Darwin’s ability to observe and the meticulous way in which he recorded those observations, followed by a detailed analysis of On the Origin of Species in chapter three; chapter four is devoted to Darwin’s use of paradox; and chapters five and six explore the Darwinian influence on Oscar Wilde and Thomas Hardy. By focusing on elements of Darwin’s writing in this way, Levine frees himself to select the richest, most engaging examples and negates the risk of diluting his argument, as those which he chooses are ones in which Darwin is at his most persuasive and eloquent. The structure of the text means that Levine succeeds in providing an overarching literary analysis of Darwin’s work as an author, while the ordering of these elements gives a sense of progression.

Chapter two explores the influence of Darwin’s time on the Beagle on his writing, demonstrating thoughtfully how his careful observations influenced the way he constructed his argument in the Origin. While not self-consciously poetic, Levine asserts that Darwin’s prose is nonetheless elevated to a form of poetry through the detailed observations honed on the Beagle. Levine cites Darwin describing spiders on board the Beagle, noting the ‘implicit humanity’ (50) with which the spiders are imbued, using metaphorical allusions to strengthen his case and create an empathetic link between the reader and the “characters” of the spiders.

Chapters three and four focus on On the Origin of Species and Darwin’s use of paradox respectively. Darwin uses paradox in most of his writing, but more so in the Origin because he is painfully aware of the ramifications implied by his ideas. It is interesting that some of Darwin’s fervour is evidently translated to Levine at this point in the book, as he reiterates Darwin’s use of double movement several times here himself in order to emphasise the effect that this has on Darwin’s argument. Levine, too, places himself in the position of the reader, and while he does not necessarily relay the same level of scepticism that Darwin felt he had to face, Levine works here (and indeed throughout the book) to circumvent the aversion that occurs naturally in many modern readers approaching Darwin.

Chapters five and six Levine devotes to discussing Darwinian influence on the writing of Wilde and Hardy. In chapter five Levine expands the current field of Darwin and literary studies by exploring Darwin’s double-movement expression of paradox against Wilde’s use of paradox for comic effect, indicating that it was in fact possible to read the comic in Darwin’s style of writing, and in fact to find it in theOrigin. In chapter six Levine argues that the Darwinian influence on Hardy is not solely in the Darwinian idea of an indifferent nature – citing Jude the Obscure andTess of the d’Urbervilles – but that it is also in the way in which Darwin presented those ideas, for example in his expression and exploration of the grotesque. Levine’s use of The Woodlanders is particularly pointed, as the novel subverted the normative expectations of Victorian readership, unsettling them in much the same way the representation of an indifferent nature did; and moreover the use of grotesque juxtapositions within the text heighten and mirror the sense of discomfort produced by Darwin’s writing. In these chapters Levine presents a convincing case for the Darwinian influence on both Hardy and Wilde.

Levine’s ‘Coda’ explores the comic nature and effect of Darwin’s writing, intending to reproduce ‘the double-movement pattern that shapes the Origin and all the fundamental arguments of that great book’ (211). Here Levine reaffirms the wonder present in Darwin’s writing and the counter-intuitive positive nature with which he represented his vision of the world. Levine concludes by looking in detail at the ‘Conclusion’ of the Origin in which Darwin’s passion reaches a climax, where he asserts the likelihood of one primordial origin as the culmination of all his minute observations. Here the focus is on Darwin’s voice, more specifically on the confident tone with which Darwin presents his argument. In communicating Darwin’s passion, Levine also reaches a climax, culminating in an analysis of the conclusion of the Origin – almost declaring that it is against his will, but it is necessary, even though concluding with this is to follow in the footsteps of many others. It is necessary because it is here, in his conclusion, that Darwin reaches his climax, imbued with that confident tone.

In Darwin the Writer, Levine not only presents Darwin as a significant cultural figure due to his scientific ideas – which was, after all, the intention of the 2009 bicentenary celebrations – but also due to his writing, to affirm Darwin as someone who is as readable as his literary contemporaries. Moreover, through his analysis of key elements of Darwin’s writing and showing how they impacted on other literary authors, Levine is able to demonstrate a new way to read Darwin’s works – as literature. After all, evolutionary theory has itself evolved considerably since 1859, as has scientific writing. Levine’s approach enables Darwin to be examined for his prose alone and demonstrates why the way in which Darwin’s ideas were presented was, and remains, so significant. The cruel indifference of nature is tempered by a sense of wonder in knowing and describing the true nature of the world, something which is so often lost in the translation of Darwinian ideas. By not reading Darwin’s original works, and simply operating on ‘”knowing” his ideas, we are losing the wonder which Darwin saw in our world, wonder which Levine is determined to put back. Through this passionate and tireless work, he puts forward an excellent case for simply reading Darwin.

Katherine Ford, University of Reading