Transformations of the Vestiges of Creation in American Periodicals, 1845–1860
By Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D.
Paper presented for Mephistos 2000, University of Oklahoma, 4 Feb. 2000.
What happens when a man writes a book but denies having done so? What happens when, without that anonymous author’s permission, the book is reprinted on a different continent? Separated from its author, the book does not assume a life of its own but rather receives a new life from each publisher and each bookseller, from each reader and each reviewer, and from each author who cites it, whether with praise, criticism, or dry matter-of-factness. My paper discusses some of the lives Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation received when reprinted in the United States.
Historians of evolutionary theories know well that Vestiges, written anonymously by Scottish journalist and naturalist Robert Chambers, underwent many revised printings in England and in the U.S., thereby disseminating on both sides of the Atlantic a comprehensive theory of naturalistic development: from nebulous matter to solar systems; from a barren planet to the inhabited earth; from the simplest life forms to the human species and, potentially, beyond. These editions were widely reviewed in periodicals and frequently refuted in book-length counter-publications for several decades after the first printing of Vestiges in 1844. Although numerous scholars have investigated British responses to the work, focused explorations into the American scene have been less frequent.
My paper begins by briefly relating the publication history of American editions of Vestiges. Unlike British editions, some of these were printed with a disparaging review bound in the same volume. I then argue that although reviewers for American periodicals were nearly unanimous in rejecting Vestiges’s transmutation hypothesis, their arguments against it reveal sharp disagreements among reviewers as to what sort of life history the fossil record indicated. I conclude by suggesting that the long-lasting popularity of Vestiges in America cannot be easily explained.
If a book’s cultural meaning is to be understood by its cultural use, we find that Vestiges’s reputation was molded by American writers into multiple meanings. Their writings concerning it pursued such ends as demarcating the boundaries of legitimate science, elaborating the virtues of natural theology, arguing that slavery is moral precisely because it is unnatural, and promoting the settlement by Southerners of California. Whereas historians have cast Vestiges as a precursor to Darwin’s Origin, antebellum American writers also transformed it into a venue for advocating many other ideas.