Friday, March 22, 2013

Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America

By Cannon Schmitt

Cambridge University Press, 2009; paperback issued 2013

When the young Charles Darwin landed on the shores of Tierra del Fuego in 1832, he was overwhelmed: nothing had prepared him for the sight of what he called "an untamed savage." The shock he felt, repeatedly recalled in later years, definitively shaped his theory of evolution. In this study, Cannon Schmitt shows how Darwin and other Victorian naturalists transformed such encounters with South America and its indigenous peoples into influential accounts of biological and historical change. Redefining what it means to be human, they argue that the modern self must be understood in relation to a variety of pasts--personal, historical, and ancestral--conceived of as savage. Darwin and the Memory of the Human reshapes our understanding of Victorian imperialism, revisits the implications of Darwinian theory, and demonstrates the pertinence of nineteenth-century biological thought to current theorizations of memory.

“This is a brilliant, original, often difficult, but ultimately satisfying book. It is also very ambitious, for it sets out, by focusing on South America as an object of European travels and voyage narratives, to analyze and indeed reconstruct the construction, or ‘invention,’ as Schmitt puts it, of ‘the human as natural.’ . . . The payoff emerges from the strength of the argument, the ultimately moving engagement with the subject, the freshness of the material considered, and the unequivocally brilliant analyses of language that mark every chapter.”
— George Levine, NBOL-19

“Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America is a beautifully written, elegantly conceived contribution to the study of nineteenth-century evolutionary theory’s cultural implications. . . . [The book is] radically different from any other scholarly work I know. It gives new meaning to the term ‘literary criticism’ by making its literariness part of its critical method. The incantatory beauty of Schmitt’s prose is not an incidental feature, a decorative belle-lettrism. Rather it is designed to re-represent the lost savage Victorians, to make them alive in us again, as we read Schmitt who . . . calls forth the ways of dwelling in the lost past that makes such continuing presence possible.”
— Kathy Alexis Psomiades, Criticism

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