The Descent of Love: Darwin and the Theory of Sexual Selection in American Fiction, 1871-1926

The Descent of Love: Darwin and the Theory of Sexual Selection in American Fiction, 1871-1926

The Descent of Love: Darwin and the Theory of Sexual Selection in American Fiction, 1871-1926

The Descent of Love: Darwin and the Theory of Sexual Selection in American Fiction, 1871-1926

Synopsis

"Upon its publication in 1871, Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex sent shock waves through the scientific community and the public at large. In an original and persuasive study, Bert Bender demonstrates that it is this treatise, rather than any of Darwin's earlier works, that provoked the most immediate and vigorous response from American fiction writers. These authors embraced and incorporated Darwin's theories, insights, and language, creating an increasingly dark and violent view of sexual love in American realist literature. In The Descent of Love, Bender carefully rereads the works of William Dean Howells, Henry James, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, Harold Frederic, Charles W. Chesnutt, Edith Wharton, and Ernest Hemingway, teasing from them a startling but utterly convincing preoccupation with questions of sexual selection. Competing for readership as novelists who best grasped the "real" nature of human love, these writers also participated in a heated social debate over racial and sexual differences and the nature of sex itself. Influenced more by The Descent of Man than by the Origin of Species, Bender's novelists built upon Darwin's anthropological and zoological materials to anatomize their characters' courtship behavior, returning consistently to concerns with physical beauty, natural dominance, and the power to select a mate." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

Palpitant with the forces of life . . . she reminded him of some beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun.

--Kate Chopin, The Awakening

The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex:
The Darwinian Unknown in American Literary History

Darwin's influence in American literature is vaguely assumed but largely unknown. Yet it was immediate, profound, and long-lasting. Most readers would acknowledge that the Origin of Species initiated "the greatest of all scientific revolutions," and that Darwin has dominated the study of human nature over the last 135 years (Mayr 501). Thus, as one might expect, several fine books (over several decades) have examined the literary response to Darwin in British fiction from 1860 on into the twentieth century. But there is only a single, slim pamphlet on Darwin in American fiction. Discussions of American literary realism--especially those published during the last twenty years--often do not mention Darwin at all; and when they do it is to suggest, very briefly, that his thought was only faintly influential in the 1870s and 1880s. Our literary histories suggest that only the naturalists' work around the turn of the century reflects any compelling interest in Darwinian thought, and this is usually discussed in a very general way in the context of "social Darwinism." Building then on the literary histories, the broader studies of Darwinism in American culture in general have included chapters on some of the naturalists from around the 1890s, leaving the impression that somehow the literary import of Darwinian thought had been lost or perhaps stormbound--for a quarter century--in the Atlantic crossing.

With The Descent of Love I propose to correct this misconception by demonstrating that beginning in the 1870s and 1880s Darwin's influence was no less powerful in American fiction than it was in other fields of social . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.