November 24, 1859: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is published.
On this day in 1859, Charles Darwin brought into the mainstream the theory of evolution by natural selection with the publication of On the Origin of Species, which was the product of at least two decades of research and experimentation. In late 1831, HMS Beagle embarked on what would become a five-year survey voyage across the Atlantic and around the coasts of South America, with Charles Darwin aboard. Darwin served as the captain’s gentleman companion and the ship’s naturalist. Over the course of that five-year voyage between sea and land, Darwin collected samples and made observations, some of which would, upon his return to England, become the foundation for the basic theories promulgated in On the Origin of Species. During the period after his return from the Beagle voyage, Darwin continued to develop his theory and amass through independent research and experimentation a thorough body of evidence that would be included in his publication.
Darwin was not the first to suggest a theory of evolution, or the first to theorize a mechanism by which evolution might occur, or the first to propose natural selection as that basic mechanism (Alfred Russel Wallace independently conceived his own theory of evolution through natural selection). However, On the Origin of Species was widely read by the public, and Darwin, unlike many others of the time who proposed scientific theories that contradicted preexisting scientific notions, was already a respected and established figure in the scientific community of England. Still Darwin’s vague references to human evolution sparked much controversy and especially Biblical debate, although attempts to secularize science were underway and were likely aided by the debate over Darwin’s propositions. Within a few decades of his book’s publication, evolution - though not necessarily natural selection - was generally agreed upon by the scientific community to be a given.
September 24, 1896: F. Scott Fitzgerald is born.
That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.
August 4, 1792: Percy Bysshe Shelley is born.
Though he died before he reached the age of thirty, Percy Bysshe Shelley produced during his short life a substantial collection of poetry, dramas, and prose that, after his death, cemented his status as one of the great craftsmen of Romantic literature. Born in West Sussex, Shelley published his first work in 1810 - a Gothic novel entitled Zastrozzi; through the eponymous villain, he made clear his own atheistic worldview, which he expanded upon in his 1811 treatise “The Necessity of Atheism”. His first major poetic work, Queen Mab (1813), also addressed radical themes such as atheism and revolution; in addition, his political poem The Masque of Anarchy (1819) is considered an early statement on the principles of nonviolent resistance.
In 1816, Shelley married the daughter of a political philosopher he admired greatly, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft: the future Mary Shelley, herself an author (most famously of Frankenstein). He and Mary befriended the poet Lord Byron, another important figure of the Romantic movement, and Leigh Hunt, another author with connections in the literary circle that also included men like John Keats, Charles Lamb, and William Hazlitt. Unlike Byron, Shelley’s works were not enormously popular until after his death in 1822, and even then he remained most popular with particular groups: Pre-Raphaelites, socialists, and laborers. His popularity and reputation among the foremost literary critics fluctuated as time passed, but his literary output and political ideals were nevertheless highly influential.
His most famous works, apart from those already listed, include Ozymandias, Prometheus Unbound, Ode to the West Wind, To a Skylark, Alastor, Adonais, The Cloud, and The Cenci.
July 30, 1818: Emily Brontë is born.
Few details are known about the relatively short life of the middle Brontë sister, due in part to her reclusive and shy personality; according to most who knew her (and few outside her family knew her well), Emily was typically silent, a lover of nature, but unsociable. She was born in Yorkshire, England, two years after Charlotte Brontë and two years before Anne, and she, like both her sisters, wrote under a pen name - according to Charlotte, the sisters ”had a vague impression that authoresses [were] liable to be looked on with prejudice”.
Emily was Ellis Bell to Charlotte’s and Anne’s Currer and Acton Bell. Before she died at age 30 in 1848, she published several poems and a single novel - the classic Gothic novel Wuthering Heights, which initially received mixed reviews when it was first published at the beginning of the Victorian era. The novel was criticized for being too bleak, too gloomy and and wild and dark, and with one magazine writing:
How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery.
Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre was an immediate commercial (and to an extent critical) success, regarded until the end of the century as far superior to her sister’s work, but critical appreciation for Emily’s work grew throughout the 20th century.
July 24, 1802: Alexandre Dumas is born.
This prolific French author of, most famously, The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was born in Villers-Cotterêts in Aisne, France, to Marie Louise Labouret and General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, France’s first black general. On his father’s side, Dumas was of both white French and black/Afro-Caribbean ancestry - his grandmother was a slave from Santo Domingo.
Dumas began his career after the Bourbon Restoration, whereupon he moved to Paris and secured a job under Louis Philippe, future and final king of France. During this time, he published his first plays - Henry III and His Courts (1829) and Christine, both sweeping pieces of Romantic drama; both were also commercial successes and together, allowed him to take up a career as a full-time writer and spend extravagantly. Much of his work falls into the realm of Romanticism and historical fiction (such as his most famous novels), but Dumas was endlessly productive and worked in many different genres throughout his career; of all French authors Dumas is considered one of the most widely-read, having written dozens of novels, several dramas, and non-fiction works ranging from history books to journal articles to culinary encyclopedias.
Despite his success as an author and aristocratic background, Dumas was not immune to racial discrimination. He rarely wrote on the subject, but his 1843 novel Georges, set on the island of Mauritius, centered on racial conflict and featured a light-skinned mixed-race protagonist. To one man who targeted his African ancestry as a personal attack, Dumas made the famous retort:
My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.
June 26, 1892: Pearl S. Buck is born.
Pearl S. Buck was a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author most famous for her 1931 novel The Good Earth, and for her advocacy of the rights of women and minorities; in 1938, she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, a feat which attracted her much derision from male authors, one of whom remarked “if she can get it, anybody can”. She is also one of two American women to have received both Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes. Buck was also notable and unique in the subject matter of many of her novels. Born to American missionaries, Buck grew up near Nanking, China, and incorporated her direct experiences within the culture into her novels during a time when the most common depictions of the Chinese came in the form of “Yellow Peril” cartoons and fiction, when they were depicted at all. The average American knew little about China, and what they did know was based on an amalgam of unfavorable stereotypes. When The Good Earth (which featured - with no exoticism - a family of Chinese peasants) was published, the Chinese Exclusion Act was nearly fifty years old, but her popular novel helped to facilitate its repeal by presenting a different image of China to the average American and “demythologizing China and the Chinese people in the American mind”.
And, although she was the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, she was not hesitant to criticize Christian evangelism in China, specifically noting in her 1932 public talk “Is there a Case for the Foreign Missionary?” that Western evangelists ignorant of Chinese culture and philosophy often held themselves above the evangelized, concluding that there was no place for this sort of mission in the life of the average Chinese person. For these sentiments she was labeled “psychopathic" by the general secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions.
Buck was a prolific writer after the publication of The Good Earth, but none of her later works achieved the same success as her earlier novel. However, she remained a prominent activist, contributing to NAACP and National Urban League magazines regularly, protesting colonialism with W.E.B. Du Bois, speaking out against Japanese internment, and promoting modern birth control and the Equal Rights Amendment. Her activism even earned the attention of the FBI, who suspected she might be an agitator (although she was also anti-communist), and her FBI file eventually reached nearly 300 pages. Her activism continued until her death in 1973.