Katherine Voyles »

Katherine Voyles lectured at the University of Washington, Bothell from 2010 to 2020. She holds a PhD in English from the University of California, Irvine.

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This article is © 2020 The Author and is the result of the independent labour of the scholar credited with authorship. Unless otherwise noted, the material contained in this journal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 (CC BY-NC-ND) International License.
Date of acceptance: 21 June 2019.

Referring to this Article

K. VOYLES. Review of Devin Griffiths, The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature between the Darwins (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780–1840, 23 (Summer 2020).

Online: Internet (date accessed): https://www.romtext.org.uk/reviews/rt23_r06/
PDF DOI:10.18573/romtext.88

Devin Griffiths, The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature between the Darwins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), xii + 339pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-2076-9; $55 (hb).

Begin at the beginning, with the first line of the ‘Introduction’ to Devin Griffiths’s The Age of Analogy: Literature between the Darwins: ‘In the summer of 1857, Charles Darwin unlocked the clasp of a new brown-backed journal, the first of a series of notebooks in which he scratched away at a radical new approach to the mutability of species’ (p. 1). A season and year, a person, a medium, an act of writing and a novel theory of life all rendered imaginatively; not only are these concerns present in the opening sentence, but they animate every page as Griffiths highlights how writing about theories of life, that is writing about change over time, changed over time by shining light on the powers of analogy. In Griffiths’s hands, analogy comes alive for its ability to underline similarities. What’s more, Griffiths brings his own experiences as an evolutionary biologist and writer about writing to a book that is itself an extended analogy. A book about how new knowledge is produced itself produces a lot of new knowledge that enlivens our understanding of the role imaginative literature plays in that making.

IndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentTo say that Griffiths begins with Erasmus Darwin is not quite right. But it’s also not wrong. He begins with the grandson, Charles, but the end of the paragraph turns to Erasmus. Foregrounding and receding, the elder Darwin is a crucial feature of the argument and the way it’s carried. The first chapter, after an intro and after a prelude, is Erasmus’s. The ‘Introduction’ limns the contours and stakes of the book—‘I understand comparative historicism as the exploration of how different literary modes and social sensibilities intersect in time, its defining feature being the rapprochement of historical accounts through explicit instances of analogy and comparison’ (p. 14)—while the ‘Prelude’ zeroes in on analogy itself, in particular, ‘why the so-called literary features of analogy are precisely what afford its ability to capture natural patterns’ (pp. 29–30). The grandfather, in Griffiths’ treatment, is a writer and thinker who uses analogy in a full and complex way in his own moment, but in a restricted way by later lights. Of Darwin’s achievements Griffiths states, ‘Darwin’s The Temple of Nature, a mature epic that continued to emphasize universal progress, could not resolve a more basic tension between the diversity of natural forms, the complexity of human history, and the thesis of consistent development’ (p. 55). His writings on life, defined as they are by a universalist Enlightenment understanding of human progress, are reanimated by his grandson, a man aided by developments and refinements in using analogy by writers of historical fiction, poetry and realist novels.

IndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentBeginning at the beginning doesn’t merely mean looking forward to what comes next, but holding on to what came before. The elder Darwin remains a touchstone for later writers who work with, through and beyond him: ‘Darwin’s works are important waypoints for strategies of analogical analysis that would later underwrite the comparative method’ (p. 57). Sir Walter Scott succeeds Darwin as Griffiths illuminates how comparativism works in Scott’s historical fiction. Scott is supple and flexible, not merely in his own right, but also relative to Erasmus Darwin: ‘Scott shaped the historical imagination of the nineteenth century, exchanging Enlightenment models of history for complexly graduated relations within and over time’ (p. 84). Alfred, Lord Tennyson is in the middle. In writing of poetic form and analogy Griffiths contrasts the bands around Darwin with the grace of Tennyson: ‘For these reasons, In Memoriam belongs at the center of this study, as it focuses our attention on analogy as a strategy of historical interpretation important to both the sciences and the humanities’ (p. 130). Tennyson makes full use of analogy: how writing about life is lifelike, how writing about the past is like writing about today, about how writing about today is like writing about the past. George Eliot succeeds Tennyson—‘it is in Eliot’s novels, particularly Middlemarch, where we find the most powerful statement of her belief that such comparisons, particularly in their ability to diagnose previous errors, produce new knowledge’ (p. 167). Working with and through analogy does not merely use writing to reveal natural patterns, but produces new ways of writing, new understandings of natural patterns.

IndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentCapping it off is Charles Darwin. Griffiths writes, ‘[w]hereas the Origin provided a series of imaginative sketches that suggested how natural selection might have operated, while parrying central objections to that theory, the Orchids showed how to organize a research program around the hypothesis that natural selection was real’ (p. 217). That realness is made real for a reader, Griffiths shows us, through the vivid depiction of ‘particular stories’. The power of imagination, always on display in the book, is fully engaged here. As Griffiths himself says, ‘I have emphasized the importance of imaginative projection for comparative historicism’ (p. 215). Charles gets the first word, and the last chapter, but not the final word. Griffiths’s ‘Coda’ makes ‘no-analog future’ his own as he looks to the past to meditate on his own labour of writing, his own novel theory about the powers of writing to think about change over time in the face of a future that presents no precise analogy, but will force us to think about analogy in new ways if we are to produce the new knowledge necessary to live into that future (p. 259).

IndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentBookending his book with chapters about men who constructed and recorded theories of life that were shaped and reshaped by the imaginative literature, and that shaped and reshaped imaginative literature makes Griffiths’s book itself a work of analogy. Analogy shows us how things are like one another, and in doing so doesn’t only show the nature of the thing or the relations between them, but produces insights that wouldn’t otherwise be available. New insights are produced over time, which recasts how we understand previous insights, as yesterday shapes tomorrow and tomorrow is shaped by how we see yesterday. Our future may be ‘no-analog’ but we are also still between.