Academic journal article American Studies

AMERICA'S DARWIN: Darwinian Theory and U.S. Literary Culture

Academic journal article American Studies

AMERICA'S DARWIN: Darwinian Theory and U.S. Literary Culture

Article excerpt

AMERICA'S DARWIN: Darwinian Theory and U.S. Literary Culture. Edited by Tina Gianquitto and Lydia Fisher. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 2014.

America's Darwin is a compilation of essays that broadly examines how Darwin's theories became a dominant cultural narrative influencing literature, ideas, and conversations. Furthermore, as the varied essays suggest, Darwin's theories could be appropriated and interpreted according to individual perceptions and historical circumstances. The editors of this collection, Tina Gianquitto and Lydia Fisher, successfully chose essays from a wide range of disciplines, yet managed to thread the articles into a strong and coherent text. The book is organized around three key themes: the influence of Darwin's theories, the meaning behind the concept of evolution, and the interpretation of these ideas and theories in American literature.

In Part I, "American Spiritual, Aesthetic, and Intellectual Currents," the essays collectively reveal the impact of evolutionary theory, not just in providing the necessary foundation for further scientific development, but the spiritual and cultural implications. The narratives in this section uniquely address the internal conflicts that surfaced in response to Darwin's ideas. From Edith Wharton's fiction that oftentimes grappled with nature's link to culture and Melville's considerations of temporality, to shifts in religious and pragmatic thinking, the essays all center on individual struggles to apply new meaning to aspects of traditional knowledge.

Building off of the previous section, the essays in Part II, "Progress and Degeneration, Crisis and Reform" illustrate how Darwin's ideas became tied to feminist and socialist agendas, yet also awakened anxieties that society could regress instead of progress. For American literary novelists and feminists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Mary Bradley Lane, Darwin's theory of sexual selection meant that women could be empowered through reproductive choices, and these choices may ultimately lead to a more just society. Yet, at the same time, there was also an undercurrent of trepidation as poets, novelists, and botanists reflected on the dark qualities humans shared with plants and animals, such as competition and murder, and the possibility of atavistic degeneration. …

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