October 18, 2012


Darwin: Portrait of a Genius. By Paul Johnson. Viking. $25.95.

The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen. By Stephen R. Brown. Da Capo. $27.50.

      Biographies of great historical figures tend to be weighty, lengthy and packed with as much detail as an author can cram into them.  Paul Johnson’s Darwin is an exception.  It has fewer than 150 pages of text, and is written in a breezy and accessible style: Darwin “took great delight in investigating, dissecting, classifying, and recording organic things and creatures. And the smaller they were, he more he liked it. It is a curious reflection on the emphasis of his research that he never did any serious research on vertebrates.” It was Darwin’s predilection for the small and for detail that, according to Johnson, brought him both his greatest triumph and into ultimate trouble.  For if The Origin of Species is a work of genius, carefully informed by meticulous research and a lifetime of thought and analysis, Johnson argues that The Descent of Man is a lesser work, because Darwin’s knowledge of anthropology was far less than his understanding of plants and animals, his research was less meticulous, and as a result he created a book that gave a scientific or pseudo-scientific basis to the eugenics movement and the ideology that came to be called Social Darwinism.  Johnson, who has written numerous biographies (of Jesus, Churchill, Socrates, George Washington and others), strains a bit to find negatives about Darwin, tending to attribute to the man himself the excesses to which his writings were put by others.  But at the same time, Johnson offers some remarkably well-thought-out analyses of what Darwin really did say.  For example, he writes about Darwin’s literary style, “What he does do, and it is highly effective in conveying an impression of endless antagonism within and between species, is to use a selective, repetitive and emotional vocabulary of strife. …The word struggle is found on almost every page, sometimes two or three times. The ‘struggle for existence,’ the ‘race for life,’ the ‘battle for life,’ and ‘great battle for life’ crop up continually. We hear again and again of ‘forces,’ ‘war between insect and insect,’ ‘invasion,’ ‘intruders,’ of ‘foreigners’ who are ‘taking possession of the land,’ of plants and animals being ‘rigidly destroyed,’ of constant ‘attacks,’ of species being ‘beaten’ or being ‘victorious.’”  Johnson does lay this on rather thickly – what alternative verbiage would he suggest Darwin have used in a popularizing work in the mid-19th century?  But the explication remains fascinating, giving hints as to why Darwin’s theories took the world by storm and, by implication, continue to cause tempests today. Johnson’s biography is by no means the last word on Darwin and his work, but as a short study with a focus on the different effects of Darwin’s two great books, it is a worthy read and often a fascinating one.

      Stephen R. Brown’s study of Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) is a weightier book, more than twice the length of Johnson’s and more traditional in approach, tracing Amundsen carefully from boyhood through the explorations that brought him worldwide fame and to the fading glory at the end of his life.  Amundsen was the first person to reach the world’s four great geographical mysteries: South Pole, North Pole, Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage.  But because he was a prickly personality, a stickler – almost a martinet – when it came to details, and a man hounded by creditors for borrowing money he did not repay, he has come through time with a less-than-sterling reputation.  It is one of history’s ironies that Amundsen, who made it to the South Pole thanks to meticulous planning and careful execution, frequently comes across as less heroic than Robert F. Scott, the British explorer whose expedition arrived later and perished on the return trip.  Brown does not demonize Amundsen and tends, if anything, to romanticize him a bit, as when he writes about a friend watching Amundsen board the plane in whose crash he was soon to die, “When [Fritz] Zapffe saw Amundsen crawl into the fuselage of the biplane, he saw a man already defeated.”  Brown could just as easily have made the scene heroic by focusing on the fact that Amundsen, despite a series of personal slights that he must have found hard to bear, was about to set out to try to rescue a rival explorer whom he disliked.  But Brown does not seek nobility for Amundsen, telling the explorer’s story in a mostly straightforward way.  In addition to the tales of Amundsen’s triumphs, which the explorer himself wrote about in half a dozen books, Brown discusses his money troubles, his impatience with routine and constant desire for new adventures, and his pursuit not only by men who wanted to join his expeditions but also by women (often married ones) who found him and his heroism compelling.  Brown’s biography, which surprisingly is the first full-length one of Amundsen, breaks some new ground in detailing the explorer’s time spent in New York and the evidence of his sense of humor, which stands in contrast to the usual picture of him as cold, methodical and harsh (a view reinforced by the book’s cover portrait and its 16 pages of photos, even the one of him as a young child).  Amundsen generally comes across as being nearly as cold as the polar regions he explored, but with occasional bursts of warmth and humanity that make it possible to see the driven, imperfect but ultimately highly accomplished man who went to so many places where no man had gone before.

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