By Ruth Nourse
Published April 1, 1990
Segments of this series have traced the subtle infiltration of anti-Christian philosophies into the mainstream of American education. During Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s lifetime, his universal fame as a writer was not dimmed in the least by his outspoken espousal of Christian values. Before his death a handful of vocal critics, at odds with Longfellow and the lifestyle he represented, determined to change the way Americans thought and what they liked to read.
Our last installment zeroed in on the educational advocacy of the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Their contempt for the Bible and the civilizing influences of Christianity shaped the minds of teachers trained in Europe. This month’s focus is on Charles Darwin and William Dean Howell’s, representatives of a horde of writers who have fully eclipsed those like the poet Longfellow.
Writers find motivation in a number of ways. Some, like the poet Longfellow use skill with a pen to enrich the lives of others. Because readers liked what he wrote, Longfellow became the first American poet to earn fame and fortune in this way. God is present in Longfellow’s poetry as Creator and Upholder of all things; Jesus as Savior and Friend of mankind.
Freedom of expression has opened the broad field of American education to writers of every kind for every reason. Some writers are remembered because they gave the world great books. It is to be doubted that all fame for writing has been gained in this way. Some writers may never have surfaced or survived had their work not been promoted and popularized by others, and sustained at tax payer expense, through public libraries and public education.
Honest people tend to judge fellow citizens by standards held for themselves. The concept of “instrumentalism,“1 for example, wholly escapes the honest mind. When an intellectually honest person encounters vital Truth, he must decide what to do about it. When an instrumentalist discovers any idea that might be labelled “truth,” his responsibility is to decide what to do with it. For some among us, truth is what one wants it to be.
Social designers in pursuit of Utopia without God, introduced a brand new concept of truth. The theory of evolution became the truest idea of all by Charles Lyell and Herbert Spencer under the patronage of their freind and mentor, John Stuart Mill.2 Evolution seemed to set man free to pursue Utopian dreams, and Darwin’s theory became foundational “truth” to a whole new breed of American writers. The forward to a 1964 edition of Origin of Species demonstrates the importance of the theory of evolution:
“The publication of the Origin of Species ushered in a new era in our thinking about the nature of man. The intellectual revolution it caused and the impact it had on man’s concept of himself and the world were greater than those caused by the works of Copernicus, Newton, and the greatest physicists of more recent times. Quite rightly, the Origin has been referred to as ‘the book that shook the world.’”
Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, gained fame as a naturalist by writing Evolution, New and Old. Charles grew up in the tradition of the Anglican Church. Although his mother died when he was only eight, he was surrounded by family and friends who accepted without question the Christian view of life.
Charles’ father wanted him to be a doctor, but the boy’s interest was all out of doors. The subject that attracted him most at Cambridge University was natural science, especially when field trips were involved. The young naturalist was well acquainted with his grandfather’s theory of evolution; and at Cambridge he learned of Lamarck’s views on the same subject. In later life, he did not remember that these ideas made any particular impression on him, but added: “Nevertheless it is probable that the hearing rather early in life such views maintained and praised may have favored my upholding them in a different form in my Origin of Species.“3
During his last year at Cambridge, Darwin had gained an interest in excursions abroad. In 1831, at age 22, he signed on as a naturalist aboard HMS Beagle sailed with a commission to collect and classify the flora and fauna of British territories in the southern hemisphere.
Although Darwin carried on his work with creditable energy and consistency, it seems he was not nearly so awed by its significance as he was by other developments observed in the southern hemisphere during the expedition. He wrote from the Beagle:
“From seeing the present state, it is impossible not to look forward with high expectation to the future progress of nearly an entire hemisphere. The march of improvement, consequent on the introduction of Christianity throughout the South Sea, probably stands by itself in the records of history.“4
Upon his return to England in 1836, Darwin prepared the manuscript for the first edition of his Journal. In it he outlined observations, among other things, of the apparent relationship between fossils and living sloths in South America and curious differences in beaks of finches on the several Galapagos Islands and the mainland. It was pointed out to him that tortoises from the different islands differed so much that natives, upon seeing one, could identify the island from which it came.
The second edition, in describing dead and living sloths, adds: “This wonderful relationship in the same continent between the dead and the living will, I do not doubt, hereafter throw more light on the appearance of organic beings on our earth, and their disappearance from it, than any other class of facts.“5
Twenty-two years after the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin seemed reluctant to go to press with an “evolutionist” point of view. He was still carrying on research, corresponding with farmers, and expanding his notebooks. He seemed to have no inner motivation to write a book, but explained: “Early in 1856, Lyell advised me to write out my views pretty fully. and I began to do so….“6
After “thirteen months and ten hard days of labor” Origin of Species was published in 1859. This is the book that “shook the world.”
Darwin did not write as a man burning with the enthusiasm of new discovery, rather he “shuddered” to think he might have been pursuing an illusion.7 The mystery unravels in the light of the utilitarian doctrine that every action must be directed toward a definite purpose.8 Darwinism was incubated, hatched and propagated by utilitarians who designed to assault the Judeo-Christian foundations of western civilization.
One cannot read about the development or the propagation of the theory of evolution without being impressed with the total “utility” of the notion. In the barest outline of the theory and in Darwin’s work to support it, one seldom gets far from argument with biblical creationism. Early proponents of evolution seem super-sensitive to the implications of their point of view as related to all aspects of Christian tradition. According to utilitarian and instrumentalist definition, the idea would seem “true enough.”
Truth in fiction
A relationship between Darwin’s work and that of the writer and editor, William Dean Howell’s may seem inappropriate. Yet they have an important aspect in common: Both suggested that “truth” was open for review. As a novelist, Howell’s caused his readers to contemplate the unthinkable and savor the socially unacceptable.
While truth in fiction seems an anomaly, the novel was first used as a means of conveying “great ideas in an attractively romantic form.” The earliest novels were based on Christian themes from the miracle plays of the middle ages. Milton’s Paradise Lost and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress use a fictional plot to present Christian truth. A similar technique was used by Daniel Defoe to bring Christian witness in Robinson Crusoe. Later during the 19th century, the novel was used more and more to popularize atheism and immorality.
Howells, who was a leading member of the new cultural elite, moved with his wife and children to Cambridge in 1866, three years before Eliot’s “turned the flapjack” at Harvard. As editor of the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Weekly, his influence spanned the decades from 1880 to 1920. Yearly novels written under contract for Harper’s dealt with such themes as marriage on the rocks (in an era when divorce was almost unheard of), spiritualism, communal living, and crime in society “that in itself is the primary felon.” Because Howells became a prime mover in America’s social revolution and its new literature, his story must be told.
The Black Heart’s Truth, by John W. Crowley (1985), unfolds William Howell’s early life. Chapter titles identify another unhappy, misaligned young American: “A Very Morbid Childhood,” “The Blackness of Insanity,” and “Complicated Purposes.” Crowley writes: “I saw in Howells one of the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked … Most of Howell’s childhood recollections had a hellish cast.“9
Howells’ impressions of childhood were not gained from a home like Longfellow’s. He wrote: “If heaven lies about us in our infancy … hell borders hard upon boyhood … and the air of its long summer days which men look back on so fondly is foul as with exhalations from the Pit.“10
Howells skimmed the surface of life in such a way as to avoid eruptions from the depths of his deeply troubled psyche. He was more apt to be shallow than despondent. The first series of his articles to be widely circulated told about his life as consul in Venice and left no doubt that he was the traditional man of letters. The Atlantic was a prestigious journal and when he became its editor, Cambridge friends accepted him as “heir apparent” to literary leadership. They were not surprised when he was offered Lowell’s chair as professor of literature and modern languages at Harvard.
Howells recalled in Literary Friends and Acquaintances that he moved to Cambridge in the summertime: “In those days, the men whose names had given splendor to Cambridge were still living there.” James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Richard Dana, Charles Norton, Nathaniel Greene, Howells, and occasionally others, enjoyed convivial sessions that always ended around Longfellow’s well-laid table.
Howell’s memoirs include a charming description of Longfellow as the gracious host, thoughtful of the happiness and comfort of his guests, speaking little himself, but guiding the conversation skillfully to include everyone. Indeed, the young man from Ohio added his unqualified approbation to the testimony of others: “He would not judge evil or think evil … I never saw a fault in him.”
It seems somehow incongruent that this author and literary critic, who was to do much to change the face of American literature, spent the happiest times of his life in company with Longfellow in old Cambridge.11 Perhaps Howells never dreamed millions of Americans shared Longfellow’s faith in the work of Providence among men. Having been brought up to believe that the government was somehow responsible for the happiness of its citizens, he must have imagined that he could help to bring about a Utopia where such happiness as Longfellow’s could be generally known among the masses.
When he could have stepped into Lowell’s place at Harvard under Eliot’s administration, Howells chose instead the role of editor, novelist and literary critic. By 1890, he was recognized as “dean of American letters.” He became America’s first great literary critic; but unlike Poe, he only had praise for Longfellow.
Reformers in Boston in the 1880s were no longer viewed as wild-eyed radicals. They had learned to mingle with the right people and apply for the right jobs. Harvard professors, William James, Howells, Oliver W. Holmes, Jr., Charles S. Peirce and others talked about the new America and the new ideas leading thereto. They noted that educated Americans were losing interest in public life and purposed to rally the younger generation to awareness of the issues. Darwinism, progressivism, world peace, and even dietary reform became their causes.
Harvard professor, William James, urged adherents to the new thought to be emancipated from “chauvinistic patriotism” and to be “bound by no party allegiance.” He called on new era activists to use their vote to tip the scales in “favor of rationality and righteousness.” Addressing the Harvard Graduate School in 1902 on the critical function of the educated class in public affairs, James suggested they were responsible to offer “small but incessant criticisms.” On another such occasion, he counselled his hearers to “manipulate catch words.“12
Whatever forwards the liberal cause, in the mind of a true pragmatist or instrumentalist, is righteousness. For them, words become “truth” as they accomplish the purpose of the speaker. “Truth” is in this way disassociated from its historical roots and becomes related to purpose rather than to reality. Evolution in this way became both a theory of origins and a new orientation to life – life with no absolutes and no ultimates.
1. Perry, Ralph Barton, The Thought and Character of William James, Harvard University Press, 1948, Vol. 2, p. 322.
2. Packe, Michael St. John, The Life of John Stuart Mill, The Macmillan Co., 1954, p. 434.
3. Darwin, Charles, The Darwin Reader, Bates, Marston and Humphrey, editors, Charles Schribners & Sons, New York, 1956, p. 9.
4. Ibid., p. 94.
5. Darwin’s Journal of Researches (Intro. by Gavin DeBeer), The Heritage Press, 1957, Introduction, p. xiv, pp. 361, 363.
6. Darwin, Charles, Autobiography, Edited by his granddaughter, Nora Barlow, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1959, p. 121.
7. Clark, Ronald W., The Survival of Charles Darwin, Random House, New York, 1984, p. 122.
8. Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism, The Library of Liberal Arts, Oskar Piest, Founder, p. 4.
9. Crowley, John W., The Black Heart’s Truth, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1985, p. 1.
10. Ibid., op. cite
11. Howells, William Dean, Literary Friends and Acquaintances, Harper & Bros., New York, P. 194.
12. Perry, Ibid., p. 240.
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