Review: Angels and Ages


Kevin J. Hayes

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 117 in February, 2009.

Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (New York: Knopf, 2009)

by Kevin J. Hayes

Growing tired of the academic books that I am typically asked to review, tired of the critical jargon, the convoluted syntax, the four-hundred-word paragraphs, the discursive footnotes, I came to Adam Gopnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life with excitement. Though I had not read Gopnik’s earlier work, I recognized his name from his best-selling personal memoir, Paris to the Moon. I began reading Angels and Ages with a willingness to sacrifice scholarly rigor for the sake of keen insight and good writing. The book proved a disappointment on all counts.
Gopnik justifies writing about Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin within the covers of a single book because both men happened to be born on the same day and because February 12, 2009 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of that day. Angels and Ages started as two separate New Yorker essays, one about Darwin, the other about Lincoln. For the book, Gopnik has combined the two essays, but they do not fit together very well, nor does the title suit his purpose. It alludes to something Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said at Lincoln’s deathbed: “Now he belongs to the ages.” Or, as others recorded, “Now he belongs to the angels.” Had Gopnik been able to resolve this discrepancy, he might have had something to write about, but he never does. Instead, the angels and ages merely provide a way to introduce his subject. Neither refer to Darwin. Perhaps Gopnik should have called the book “From Apes to Angels.” Or, to avoid the implicit causality, “Of Apes and Angels.” Or, even better, “Abe’s Ages, Charlie’s Angels.” I’m getting silly now, but after Gopnik’s first couple chapters it is difficult to take his book seriously.
What I expected most – fine writing -- proved almost absent. Gopnik writes with an inflated sense of self importance. Take his opening sentence for example: “We are all pebbles dropped in the sea of history, where the splash strikes one way and the big tides run another, and though what we feel is the splash, the splash takes place only within those tides.” He apparently expects us to take this as a profound truth about man’s place in history, but it’s altogether too much splash and not enough flash. Speaking of the end of the Civil War, he observes, “Slavery in the Western world was, for the first time in thousands of years, finished (although racism wasn’t)” (6-7). Do we really need Gopnik to tell us the Civil War did not end racism? And the way he says it -- in a parenthetical aside -- is especially annoying.
Gopnik’s writing abounds with such facile parenthetical asides. Observing that Darwin did not exactly invent the idea of evolution, he adds a parenthesis explaining that Darwin took another’s idea “and put an engine and a fan belt in it” (8). Gopnik’s metaphor is awkward, partly because it is anachronistic. When Darwin made his discoveries, the internal combustion engine had not been invented. Angels and Ages contains much awkwardness and anachronism. Characterizing Lincoln’s early speaking style, Gopnik identifies a two-part rhetoric, which he labels “the windup and the pitch.” Here, Gopnik uses a baseball metaphor to characterize something that predates baseball: another distracting anachronism. Elsewhere, Gopnik figuratively compares Lincoln’s thought to “playing footsie.” This metaphor is anachronistic as well: the word “footsie” would not be coined until the twentieth century. Worse, the metaphor is demeaning and tasteless. Writing Paris to the Moon, Gopnik did not need to worry about anachronism. Switching from memoirist to historian, he should worry about being anachronistic.
What may me the strongest aspect of Angels and Ages is Gopnik’s discussion of Lincoln’s stylistic technique. Often Lincoln would elaborate his argument with fanciful rhetoric and then restate that same idea in a brief, plain, forceful way. Though a good point, Gopnik detracts from it with another parenthetical aside: “Today we say it fancy in professional language, plain in popular books. That’s our division of labor” (44). Though irrelevant to his subject, Gopnik’s comment reveals much about his approach. He scrupulously follows this division of labor, distancing himself from the scholars and assuming the role of popularizer.
Take for example what many consider Lincoln’s earliest known piece of writing, a schoolbook inscription: “Abraham Lincoln / his hand and pen / he will be good but / god knows When.” Gopnik comments: “Those words are, the scholars tell us, probably not original, one of those bits of schoolboy doggerel that nobody teaches and everyone learns (although no one has found any just like it, and Lincoln, young and old, loved to write rhymes, verse -- so maybe the joke was his own)” (30). The scholars do the research; Gopnik summarizes what they say and then adds his personal opinion. Assuming he cannot find any new information himself, he does not even try. Assuming his personal insight can contribute something worthwhile to the historical discourse, he conjectures that Lincoln’s poem may be original. He’s wrong. Lincoln’s schoolbook inscription is a good example of a traditional flyleaf rhyme; numerous instances of this rhyme survive. Irish novelist Lady Morgan once inscribed a book: “Sydney Morgan, her hand and pen -- She will be good, but God knows when.”
It is high time to challenge Gopnik’s so-called “division of labor,” to break down the traditional barriers that separate scholar and popularizer. Scholars should tone down their critical jargon and clean up their prose to make their writing more accessible to general readers. And popularizers like Gopnik should not assume that they cannot find any new information -- because they can. All they have to do is look. If Gopnik had given us some new information instead of falling back on “what the scholars tell us,” his clumsy metaphors may have been easier to take and his personal insights could have been more informed. As it stands, Angels and Ages contains little to recommend it.