“May you live in interesting times,” the proverb goes, and it is an open question, still, whether those on the receiving end of the entreaty should consider themselves to have been just blessed, or just cursed. History itself, at any rate, is biased toward interestingness. It tends to favor, in its selective memory, the moments and the monuments, the stuff of revolutions and paradigm shifts. Its workings tend to sand away the rough edges of small lives, messily lived, to focus instead on singular instants of epochal change: Darwin found his finches, and Newton plopped down under the apple tree, and Galileo peered through glass to see the stars, and nothing would ever be the same again.
But history as it’s made is much more chaotic than history as it’s written might suggest. That is one of the ideas at play in The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation, Randall Fuller’s new exploration of how one particular paradigm shift—the one brought about by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published just before the start of the Civil War—affected the survival of the United States, as a nation and as an idea. Fuller is a professor of English (he is also the author of Emerson’s Ghosts: Literature, Politics, and the Making of Americanists and From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature), and his latest book is, like its predecessors, especially attuned to the human hums of history. It focuses on a small group of prominent thinkers—Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Charles Loring Brace, Louis Agassiz—as they wrestled with a theory that would help the young nation to struggle and adapt and evolve, finally, into something better than it was before.