Getting to know Charles Darwin in person

Martin Amis on the latest volume of letters by the poet Philip Larkin in Saturday's Guardian:

The age of the literary correspondence is dying, slowly but surely electrocuted by the superconductors of high modernity. This expiration was locked into a certainty about 20 years ago; and although William Trevor and VS Naipaul, say, may yet reward us, it already sounds fogeyish to reiterate that, no, we won't be seeing, and we won't be wanting to see, the selected faxes and emails, the selected texts and tweets of their successors.

Larkin touched upon the death of literary correspondence himself in early 1981, writing to his friend Judy Egerton, "We may be the last generation to write to each other." This was in the days before ubiquitous email, but I'm with Amis: faxes, emails, texts and tweets can't compare to a traditional letter.

I'm no poetry groupie, but I can't resist a good collection of letters. Larkin's previously published letters are riveting. His correspondence with Martin Amis's father, Kingsley, in particular is a joy to read: humorous, warm, opinionated, and frequently filthy. Anyone only familiar with the two literary giants' published works has no idea what they were really like.

As a self-confessed Darwin groupie who loves reading other people's letters, the Correspondence of Charles Darwin is, quite simply, a must-possess, as far as I'm concerned. I own every volume published so far, and am slowly working my way through them.

Darwin groupie's bookshelf

A Darwin groupie's bookshelf.

One thing is for certain, Charles Darwin wrote and received an awful lot of letters. And the wonderful people at the Darwin Correspondence Project have done a frankly magnificent job researching each letter, and annotating them with with copious footnotes. I genuinely believe they should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature when they eventually complete their mammoth task. I just hope I live long enough to see it! Forget the biographies. Forget the published works. If you really want to get to know Charles Darwin in person, you need to read his correspondence.

Last week, I began reading volume 8 of the Darwin correspondence, which covers the year 1860—the year following the publication of On the Origin of Species. So expect to see a few more Red Notebook posts about Darwin's 1860 correspondence over the next few months.

One comment on “Getting to know Charles Darwin in person

Leave a Reply