Friday, April 11, 2008
Darwin and the Beagle
Our book today is Alan Moorehead's Darwin and the Beagle, his 1969 tour through Charles Darwin's 1836 unexpected classic The Voyage of the Beagle, which was originally put out as just another memorandum in scientific circles. It was publisher John Murray who saw immediately that the book is something more than a valuable scientific treatise - it's also one of the most rip-snorting travel yarns ever written. Murray bought the rites to the book for a song, and it's been in print ever since, more popular with every passing generation. Anybody who reads the book can instantly tell you why: when Darwin got consumed in writing about evolution and the natural sciences, the literary world lost one heck of an adventure-writer. The Voyage of the Beagle is one of the world's small company of inexhaustible treasure-troves.
But for those of you who feel a little intimidated by it - and for all the rest of you, who are quite rightly of the opinion that no excuse is needed to revel in more of Alan Moorehead's prose - Darwin and the Beagle is the perfect compromise. Here is one of the greatest travel-writers of the modern era taking you carefully through Darwin's great book, giving you all the best bits, leaving out the spots where river-measurements might get a little tedious for the uninitiated, and serving the whole thing up in impeccable, nimble prose.
Moorehead is the author of a good many great books, including The Blue Nile and The White Nile, and he's very much worth your time as a writer in his own right. Our present book was almost certainly what the harried British legal profession used to call a 'money brief,' but forty years ago, that didn't necessarily mean it must stink (unlike the present age, where it's a mathematical certainty that any movie 'novelization' done by Peter David will, in fact, stink)(in the fullness of time, we here at Stevereads will be getting to the whole sub-genre of movie 'novelizations,' never you fear ...). Just look at Anthony Burgess' Shakespeare, written a year later than Darwin and the Beagle: it, too, is a genuine honest-to-gosh book, not just some mocked-up approximation of one.
Of course, the chief glory of Darwin and the Beagle isn't the prose, nor was it ever meant to be. No, the main selling-point of the book is its extremely copious illustrations - some in full color, many, many more in black-and-white, as full a pictorial representation of that epic voyage as any reader could want (and, incidentally, one that is entirely, proudly disdainful of including photographs). These are all contemporary illustrations, betraying no greater knowledge of the world than Darwin and his contemporaries had.
His contemporaries, in this case, meaning first and foremost his fellow voyagers in the Beagle. She was a little ship but intensely seaworthy, helmed by Captain Robert FitzRoy, a young, charming, mercurial man who took an instant liking to the 21-year-old naturalist Charles Darwin, who joined the crew for its circumnavigational voyage while having as little knowledge of what they'd be facing as anybody else.
What they'd be facing would include dozens of previously unknown animal species (all of which would be carefully, painstakingly described and sketched), dozens of previously unexamined aboriginal races (most of which FitzRoy sketched himself, betraying a typically Victorian talent for many trades), and the germs of ideas that, when fully realized, would completely change the world.
Moorehead keeps his eye on that prize, but he's happy to delineate its high and low points for his readers. And his sense of wonder never flags:
The Atlantic, now that they were about to leave it, made them a gift of some magical moments. One calm, dry day a myriad butterflies came streaming past them from far out at sea. It was like a snowstorm; as far as one could see, even with the aid of a telescope, the sky was filled with soft, white, fluttering wings, and it was not until evening that a wind came up and blew them away.
Such innocent wonder wasn't all of it, of course: a voyage to the ends of the Earth and back would hold many private awakenings for the sheltered young man the crew referred to affectionately as 'our flycatcher.' Later writers have made free to link each one of these little moments to the big theories Darwin would later hatch, and Moorehead is no exception, although the crackling immediacy of his prose saves him from being unbearable about it:
And now abruptly Darwin was made aware that the brutality in nature, the persecution of the weak by the strong, applied to human beings as well. They had entered a part of the forest where the track had become overgrown, and a negro slave with a sword had been sent ahead to cut a way through. Darwin was trying to speak to this man in broken Spanish, and was gesticulating to emphasize his meaning when he observed with a sense of shock that the man thought he was about to be struck. He cringed, dropped his hands, and held up his face, waiting submissively for the blow to fall. Darwin was horrified. Were all the slaves as terrified as this, so broken in spirit?
Contrarily, it seems fitting that the conception of evolution should have come upon Darwin as slowly and gradually as the reality of evolution by natural selection takes place in the world, but still, popularizers love their bright lights on the road to Damascus, and in a way it's comforting - great ideas are inherently dramatic, they should crack like thunderbolts, not creep like moss. And if Moorehead succumbs to this particular temptation a couple of times, those times certainly do his wonderful book no harm. Here you'll get the fascinating story of the Beagle told to you by an enthusiastic guide who wants to make sure you miss nothing good, and surely that's reason enough to read the book? It's currently out of print, but second-hand copies turn up regularly at the four great used bookstores still left in the United States. So give a look - you'll be pleased you did.