Adam Gopnik is on a whirlwind visit to London. He has been to watch Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, to the National Theatre and to the BBC, to appear on Radio 4’s Start the Week. The range is typical. In 1986, he wrote his first article for The New Yorker, his professional home for more than 20 years. It was about baseball, childhood and Renaissance art.
Since then, he has written a bestselling book about living in France, From Paris to the Moon, a New York Jew’s love affair with Paris, based on five years he spent there for the magazine, followed by Through the Children’s Gate, an acclaimed account of being a parent in New York, prompting Madeleine Kingsley on these pages to describe Gopnik as possessing “the jewelled refinement of Klimt”.
Angels and Ages, his new book, is different again. It is also a book of essays but about the history of ideas, flowing from the coincidence of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln having been born on the same day in 1809. “I am, first and foremost, an essayist,” he says. Someone less modest might add that he is one of America’s leading essayists, but Gopnik is as modest as he is smart. A crude Darwinian might say it’s inherited. His parents were both professors at McGill University in Montreal (where Gopnik studied) and his five siblings include the art critic for The Washington Post and a professor of child psychology at Berkeley.
But it wasn’t scientific natural selection that drew Gopnik to Darwin. It was Darwin’s writing. Darwin wasn’t just a great scientist, he was a great writer. “I first read Darwin on a beach holiday, and was overwhelmed by his gift for narrative. He is a great storyteller, up there with Trollope.” Lincoln, too, was a master of language. But where did his famous oratory come from? Gopnik traces the different elements: legal, classical, biblical, Shakespearean.
“Darwin and Lincoln changed our world,” Gopnik says. “They were makers of ‘the great change’, that, for good or ill, marks modern times.” This is the change, “from the vertical to the horizontal, from the verdict of heaven to the verdict of history.” When Lincoln died, his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, said: “Now he belongs to the ages.” Or did he? “Some say Stanton said, ‘Now he belongs to the angels,’” Gopnik points out.
Angels or Ages? Why does it matter? Because, argues Gopnik, “on one side, there is a view of the world which sees man as made by God, living in the world described in Genesis. On the other, there is a natural world, stretching back millions of years.” This idea of time, central to modern geology and biology, is at the heart of his account of Darwin. Ages, indeed.
In six chapters, the book brings both men to life. Gopnik has read hugely but wears his learning lightly. There are no footnotes, no index and no jargon. The book started out as two essays in The New Yorker and it reads like the best kind of literary journalism.
His Lincoln and Darwin were great liberals, but they are very modern liberals. Lincoln knew about the costs of war. “He was a killer of men,” says Gopnik firmly. Darwin’s nature was famously red in tooth and claw. “It is a tragic vision of life,” says Gopnik, and now “it is our vision.”
Gopnik doesn’t have time for the more simplistic fundamentalism of some of his fellow-citizens. Some might say his liberalism is out of touch with modern America, the world seen from the Upper East Side: wishy-washy liberalism. Hardly; at its best it is liberalism which has seen the bodies piled up in the Civil War, described by someone who has worried over the bodies piling up in Iraq. It is a very modern book about men who made our world.