Charles Darwin’s Letters

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Charles Darwin is one of the half dozen or so scientists whose name is known to anyone who claims to be an educated person in the Western tradition. His theory of evolution through natural selection is one of the landmarks of Western thought. Like many modern scientists, Darwin left behind an abundant paper legacy. In addition to his many publications, he filled pages of notebooks and wrote thousands of letters to family, friends, and fellow scientists. He also received thousands of letters. A Calendar of Correspondence of Charles Darwin, 1821-1882 (1985) lists nearly fourteen thousand items, some of which were published in his son Francis’ Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887) and More Letters of Charles Darwin (1903). Much of his correspondence remained unpublished, however, for a century after his death.

The second half of the twentieth century witnessed the establishment of a large number of documentary editing projects, each dedicated to the collection and publication of the correspondence of either an individual, a group of individuals, or a social movement. In some cases, these editions were designed to replace nineteenth century life and letters volumes—which were often filled with silently corrected, silently edited, or even bowdlerized letters—with collections of correspondence which reproduced as closely as possible in printed form the manuscript document.

The correspondence of Darwin has been caught up in this documentary editing revolution. His most important correspondence began being published in 1985 in a multivolume edition, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, edited by Frederick Burkhardt, who has been assisted by a staff in England and the United States. This edition targets a select scholarly audience of historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science, as well as biologists. In addition to providing contextual annotations drawing upon the most recent historical scholarship, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin has an elaborate editorial apparatus which furnishes a clear, easily readable version of the letter, while enabling readers, if they so desire, to reconstruct the manuscript version of the letter down to every cross-out, alteration, false start, and interlineation; hopefully, the reader can see the letter as the original recipient saw it. This edition has been highly praised for both its editorial policy and annotations.

Most nonspecialists do not need either the quantity of letters nor the elaborate editorial apparatus that appear in the volumes of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin to understand and appreciate Darwin through his correspondence. Fewer letters and a simpler apparatus would suffice. To serve an audience of casual readers of Darwin’s correspondence, Burkhardt has selected a tiny fraction of Darwin’s outgoing letters (no incoming correspondence is included in Charles Darwin’s Letters) from the first seven volumes of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin (1985-1991). The sampling represents approximately 10 percent of Darwin’s outgoing letters that appear in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Burkhardt presents this sample without most of the editorial apparatus of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. The texts retain the original spelling and punctuation, but no effort is made to signal deletions or interlineations. The number of notes has also been reduced to a bare minimum. Editorial commentary between documents supplies missing facts, chronology, and context which would have been provided by annotation or documents in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin.

To assist the nonspecialist further, Charles Darwin’s Letters includes a biographical register with succinct identifications, a bibliography of Darwin’s publications, and some further readings—some historical, some scientific, and some biographical. The biographical register successfully captures the essence of an individual, at least in the context of Darwin’s life, in a sentence or two. The list of readings—limited to books—is adequate for the general reader.

The index includes both names and subjects and is fairly detailed and analytical. It is also inconvenient, because it fails to highlight individuals as recipients of...

(The entire section is 1768 words.)