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Titans of History: On the Road with Darwin and Lincoln


Reviewed by Richard West

    Remarkable, isn’t it, that Abraham  Lincoln, savior of democracy and the United States, and Charles Darwin, founder of modern biology and the world’s most influential naturalist, were born on the same date: February 12, 1809. And to think people still scoff at the notion of evolutionary natural selection! Two recent travel narratives revisit the lives and many places associated  with these two titans of history: Eric Simons’ Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin’s South America and Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America.

    In 1831 the 22-year-old Darwin joined His Majesty’s Ship Beagle as the resident naturalist for a five-year, round-the-world voyage that included charting much of the coast line of South America. It was during this journey that he discovered the first real clues that culminated not only in his theory of evolution but something larger: that the universe was governed by laws, not divine fancy. Once home he wrote a best-selling travelogue, The Voyage of the Beagle, Newtonian in its lucidity, that  has never been out of print; in fact, the rest of Darwin’s life revolved around this voyage.

Having  graduated in 2008  from UC Berkeley’s environmental and science writing program and with Darwin’s birth bicentennial approaching, Eric Simons thought a good first-book idea would be to follow in the great man’s footsteps along the east and west coasts of South America as well as Darwin’s two ventures into the interior of the continent. Well, not really.

    Many of the book’s problems are not Simon’s. In the places he visited, little if any evidence remains that Darwin was ever there except Darwin-named businesses and the occasional Darwinian tours to see fossilized cliffs and penguins. And there’s the land itself, not exactly France or Switzerland. South of Buenos Aires coastal towns like Port San Julian and Port Desire seem to have an anti-magic that makes everything repellently mundane.
    Thus the not infrequent phrases that ruin a tourist official’s day: “not only was it an out-of-the-way and frankly, largely uninteresting  place”… (Port Desire)…”scenery gets monotonous in a hurry”… (River Santa Cruz). Rather similar to  Darwin’s own comment regarding Patagonia, “The curse of sterility is on the land.”
    Simons found South America’s west coast a bit more inviting, the green, rain-soaked island of Chiloe; the Chilean town of Concepcion where Darwin arrived shortly after the 1835 devastating earthquake still known as “La Ruina”; and finally, near the northern Chilean mining town of Copiapo, the Amolanas Hacienda, a crumbling adobe building where Darwin perhaps spent  the night.
    What of the 1,529 species bottled in alcohol and 3,907 dried specimens Darwin sent back to England during his trip? Simons mentions a few but unaccountably omits two of the most famous:  the remains of Megatherium, an elephant-size ground sloth found near Punta Alta, Argentina, and the head of a hippo-size animal Darwin  bought in Uruguay, a country Simons skipped. As he did the Galapagos Islands so the subtitled “Swimming Iguanas” is a Darwinian anecdote, merely a nifty way to start the book.
    Not finding evidence of his subject definitely was not one of Andrew Ferguson’s problems. At last count, 35 U.S. towns, 22 counties, a luxury car, tomato, a Hudson River tunnel, opera house, submarine, aircraft carrier, rocking chair, and battalion of volunteers in the Spanish-American War were all named after Abraham Lincoln. He’s the subject, so far, of 125 statues, 130 movies, and at least 15,000 books, surpassed only by Jesus and Napoleon.

Land of Lincoln began  when Ferguson read about the anger of some Richmond citizens regarding the unveiling of a new statue of Lincoln and his son Tad. Abephobia seemed a non sequitur to him–the man, not the car?– so he traveled around the country looking for Lincoln to see how others considered this national icon. He visited places like the Chicago Historical Society, once a vast collection of Lincolniana, no longer; Springfield’s Disneyfied $150-million Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; discovered the now abandoned three-state Lincoln Heritage Trail was cooked up in the early 1960’s by the American Petroleum Institute to get people to travel and buy gas; saw  “a sea of  Lincolns” at the annual Association of Lincoln Presenters convention; and visited the best private collection of Lincolniana in the home of ultra-wealthy Louise Taper in that well-known hotbed of Lincoln worshipers, Beverly Hills.

    A few other wonders he found:
…Tackiest Lincoln souvenir: chocolate candy coffins ($1.50 each) at the Museum of Funeral Customs near Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield.
…Best Source of Lincoln Books: Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln Bookshop.
… Biggest Lincoln Disappointment: the logs of the Lincoln birth cabin in Hodgenville, Kentucky, date from the 1850’s, 40 years after Abe’s birth.
…Raciest Lincoln Fact: The Lexington, Kentucky, girlhood home of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln,  was a brothel in the 1940’s.
…Best Lincoln Statue: Lincoln on horseback reading a book, known as “On the Circuit”, at the entrance of New Salem State Park, Illinois.
…Town Most Hog-wild Over Lincoln: Taylorville, Illinois, home of the world’s only statue of Lincoln with a pig.

Post Script:
…Online resources: All things Darwin can be found at www.thedarwinproject.com. The best Abraham Lincoln site I have found–books, biography, current Lincoln events, photos of sites, statues, etc.– is www.abrahamlincolnonline.com.
…The newest Lincoln Museum, opened on February 12th, is in Gettysburg, PA., the National Park Service museum in the David Wills house where Lincoln stayed before delivering the Gettysburg Address.
… An excellent new book on both men is Adam Gopnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life

Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin’s South America

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America

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