Book Review: Charles Darwin: The ‘Beagle’ Letters by Frederick Burkhardt (Editor)

Review by Tom Siegfried

Charles Darwin was a prolific letter writer — not unusual in his day, of course, before telephones, e-mail and Facebook. A little less usual is the degree to which his correspondence has been preserved, and so widely read.

Charles Darwin: The ‘Beagle’ Letters, Frederick Burkhardt, editor

Darwin died in 1882, and collecting and assessing Darwinabilia has been a passion for historians of both science and culture ever since. The bicentennial of Darwin’s birth has inspired renewed attention and new collections — in this case, a thorough catalog of the letters written by and to Darwin shortly before and during his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle, a ship that circumnavigated the globe during the period 1831–1836.

These pages offer much science, from descriptions of South American geology to accounts of Galápagos fauna. “Geology is a capital science to begin,” Darwin wrote to a cousin, “as it requires nothing but a little reading, thinking, and hammering.” His letters offer personal insights as well: “If it was not for seasickness, the whole world would be sailors.”

Depending on your interests (the history of biology, primitive cultures or relationships between 19th century siblings), some of these letters will be more engaging than others. But all are enriched by the late Frederick Burkhardt’s copious footnotes, which offer context and further identifications for the ideas and people that Darwin describes.

Darwin scholar Janet Browne provides an enjoyable and perceptive introduction that surveys Darwin’s life and work and the importance of the Beagle voyage to both. These letters “are truly unique for the glimpse they allow into Darwin’s thoughts,” she writes. “We can accompany Darwin on his voyage of the mind.”

Cambridge Univ., 2008, 500 p., $32