Category: Letters

Charles Darwin — Natural Selection was like Confessing a Murder

Darwin to Hooker

On this day in 1859, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published.

In Letters of Note we find an interesting letter from him to Joseph Hooker 15 years before what would later be called natural selection, he mentions his theory and likens it to “confessing a murder.”

Bromley Kent Thursday

My dear Sir

I must write to thank you for your last letter; I to tell you how much all your views and facts interest me.— I must be allowed to put my own interpretation on what you say of “not being a good arranger of extended views”— which is, that you do not indulge in the loose speculations so easily started by every smatterer & wandering collector.— I look at a strong tendency to generalize as an entire evil—

What limit shall you take on the Patagonian side— has d’Orbigny published, I believe he made a large collection at the R. Negro, where Patagonia retains its usual forlorn appearance; at Bahia Blanca & northward the features of Patagonia insensibly blend into the savannahs of La Plata.— The Botany of S. Patagonia (& I collected every plant in flower at the season when there) would be worth comparison with the N. Patagonian collection by d’Orbigny.— I do not know anything about King’s plants, but his birds were so inaccurately habitated, that I have seen specimen from Brazil, Tierra del & the Cape de Verde Isd all said to come from the St. Magellan.— What you say of Mr Brown is humiliating; I had suspected it, but cd not allow myself to believe in such heresy.— FitzRoy gave him a rap in his Preface, & made me very indignant, but it seems a much harder one wd not have been wasted. My crptogamic collection was sent to Berkeley; it was not large; I do not believe he has yet published an account, but he wrote to me some year ago that he had described & mislaid all his descriptions. Wd it not be well for you to put yourself in communication with him; as otherwise some things will perhaps be twice laboured over.— My best (though poor) collection of the Crptogam. was from the Chonos Islands.—

Would you kindly observe one little fact for me, whether any species of plant, peculiar to any isld, as Galapagos, St. Helena or New Zealand, where there are no large quadrupeds, have hooked seeds,—such hooks as if observed here would be thought with justness to be adapted to catch into wool of animals.—

Would you further oblige me some time by informing me (though I forget this will certainly appear in your Antarctic Flora) whether in isld like St. Helena, Galapagos, & New Zealand, the number of families & genera are large compared with the number of species, as happens in coral-isld, & as I believe? in the extreme Arctic land. Certainly this is case with Marine shells in extreme Arctic seas.—Do you suppose the fewness of species in proportion to number of large groups in Coral-islets., is owing to the chance of seeds from all orders, getting drifted to such new spots? as I have supposed.—

Did you collect sea-shells in Kerguelen land, I shd like to know their character.? Your interesting letters tempt me to be very unreasonable in asking you questions; but you must not give yourself any trouble about them, for I know how fully & worthily you are employed.

Besides a general interest about the Southern lands, I have been now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work & which I know no one individual who wd not say a very foolish one.— I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c & with the character of the American fossil mammifers, &c &c that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which cd bear any way on what are species.— I have read heaps of agricultural & horticultural books, & have never ceased collecting facts— At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a “tendency to progression” “adaptations from the slow willing of animals” &c,— but the conclusions I am led to are not widely different from his— though the means of change are wholly so— I think I have found out (here’s presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.— You will now groan, & think to yourself ‘on what a man have I been wasting my time in writing to.’— I shd, five years ago, have thought so.— I fear you will also groan at the length of this letter— excuse me, I did not begin with malice prepense.

Believe me my dear Sir
Very truly your’s
C. Darwin

Charles Dickens to The Times — I Stand Astounded and Appalled


On November 13, 1849 a crowd of over 30,000 people gathered outside a prison in South London to witness the public execution of Marie and Frederick Manning. Marie and Frederick, a married couple, had recently murdered Marie's wealthy former lover, Patrick O'Connor. Given that this was the first married couple to be hanged in over a century, the publicity was intense, and it became known as “The hanging of the century.” The event also attracted the pen of Charles Dickens, who shared his opinion with The Times and its readers.

Devonshire Terrace,
Tuesday, Thirteenth November, 1849

I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger Lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over. I do not address you on the subject with any intention of discussing the abstract question of capital punishment, or any of the arguments of its opponents or advocates. I simply wish to turn this dreadful experience to some account for the general good, by taking the readiest and most public means of adverting to an intimation given by Sir G. Grey in the last session of Parliament, that the Government might be induced to give its support to a measure making the infliction of capital punishment a private solemnity within the prison walls (with such guarantees for the last sentence of the law being inexorably and surely administered as should be satisfactory to the public at large), and of most earnestly beseeching Sir G. Grey, as a solemn duty which he owes to society, and a responsibility which he cannot for ever put away, to originate such a legislative change himself. I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks, and language of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on negro melodies, with substitutions of “Mrs. Manning” for “Susannah” and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians, and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police, with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly— as it did— it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

I have seen, habitually, some of the worst sources of general contamination and corruption in this country, and I think there are not many phases of London life that could surprise me. I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits. I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralization as was enacted this morning outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol is presented at the very doors of good citizens, and is passed by, unknown or forgotten. And when in our prayers and thanksgivings for the season we are humbly expressing before God our desire to remove the moral evils of the land, I would ask your readers to consider whether it is not a time to think of this one, and to root it out.

I am, Sir, your faithful Servant.
Charles Dickens

This letter and many others can be found in Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience.

Tiny Beautiful Things

On March 11, 2010, a new writer took over “Dear Sugar,” an advice column on the Web site the Rumpus.

She claimed she would offer a combination of “the by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.”

It became clear after a while that she was an advice columnist unlike others: intimate and frank, dispensing advice built on a foundation drawn of deep personal experience.

Slowly over the next two years, we learned a little more about her until eventually Sugar formally introduced herself as Cheryl Strayed. Strayed is the author behind the book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I remember reading this book cover-to-cover on a flight. When the pilot announced that we'd be circling Heathrow for 20 minutes, I was the only one happy. I only had a few pages left.

In a way Sugar's advice columns — combined into the amazing collection Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar — represents an ad hoc memoir.

“But it’s a memoir with an agenda,” Strayed's friend Steve Almond writes in the introduction, “With great patience, and eloquence, (Sugar) assures her readers that within the chaos of our shame and disappointment and rage there is meaning, and within that meaning is the possibility of rescue.”

Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. … Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters— every sin, every regret, every affliction.

One of my favorite letters, the one for which the book is titled, comes in response to this question.

Dear Sugar,

I read your column religiously. I’m twenty-two. From what I can tell by your writing, you’re in your early forties. My question is short and sweet: What would you tell your twentysomething self if you could talk to her now?

Love, Seeking Wisdom

Think, dear reader, for a moment on what you would respond before continuing. Here is what Sugar, or should I say, Cheryl, had to say.

These words will touch your soul.

Dear Seeking Wisdom,

Stop worrying about whether you’re fat. You’re not fat. Or rather, you’re sometimes a little bit fat, but who gives a shit? There is nothing more boring and fruitless than a woman lamenting the fact that her stomach is round. Feed yourself. Literally. The sort of people worthy of your love will love you more for this, sweet pea.

In the middle of the night in the middle of your twenties when your best woman friend crawls naked into your bed, straddles you, and says, You should run away from me before I devour you, believe her.

You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.

When that really sweet but fucked-up gay couple invites you over to their cool apartment to do Ecstasy with them, say no.

There are some things you can’t understand yet. Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding. It’s good you’ve worked hard to resolve childhood issues while in your twenties, but understand that what you resolve will need to be resolved again. And again. You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of those things will have to do with forgiveness.

One evening you will be rolling around on the wooden floor of your apartment with a man who will tell you he doesn’t have a condom. You will smile in this spunky way that you think is hot and tell him to fuck you anyway. This will be a mistake for which you alone will pay.

Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.

You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else.

Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.

One hot afternoon during the era in which you’ve gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin, you will be riding the bus and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are when a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things. You’re wrong. You do.

Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.

When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss doesn’t “mean anything” because, much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with you or anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.

The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.

One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.

Say thank you.


Tiny Beautiful Things will endure as a piece of literary art,” Almond writes, “as will Cheryl’s other books (Torch and Wild), because they do the essential work of literary art: they make us more human than we were before.”

John Steinbeck on Love

Nobel laureate John Steinbeck (1902-1968) is best known as the author of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men but we can pull from his letters a mix of insight and language that rivals that of Hunter S. Thompson.

Steinbeck hated the telephone. Letter writing was a more natural way for him to communicate his thoughts with both the people he liked and the ones he hated on all manner of subjects.

Found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, the master pens this beautiful and passionate response to his eldest son Thom's 1958 letter confessing his love for a girl named Susan.

While Steinbeck urges patience, a value increasingly lost in today's hyper-connected world, he also highlights several kinds of love: one destructive and the other unleashing.

New York
November 10, 1958

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.


E.B. White’s Beautiful Letter to Someone Who Lost Faith in Humanity

eb white

In March of 1973, a Mr. Nadeau sent a letter to E. B. White, the author of greats such as Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, expressing his bleak hope for humanity.

White's beautiful reply, found in Letters of Note, attempts to raise the man's spirits.

North Brooklin, Maine,
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

E. B. White

Harper Lee’s Letter to Oprah Winfrey on Reading and Loving Books

Harper Lee

Harper Lee, author of the much-loved novel To Kill a Mockingbird, wrote the following letter to Oprah Winfrey,

May 7, 2006

Dear Oprah,

Do you remember when you learned to read, or like me, can you not even remember a time when you didn't know how? I must have learned from having been read to by my family. My sisters and brother, much older, read aloud to keep me from pestering them; my mother read me a story every day, usually a children's classic, and my father read from the four newspapers he got through every evening. Then, of course, it was Uncle Wiggily at bedtime.

So I arrived in the first grade, literate, with a curious cultural assimilation of American history, romance, the Rover Boys, Rapunzel, and The Mobile Press. Early signs of genius? Far from it. Reading was an accomplishment I shared with several local contemporaries. Why this endemic precocity? Because in my hometown, a remote village in the early 1930s, youngsters had little to do but read. A movie? Not often — movies weren't for small children. A park for games? Not a hope. We're talking unpaved streets here, and the Depression.

Books were scarce. There was nothing you could call a public library, we were a hundred miles away from a department store's books section, so we children began to circulate reading material among ourselves until each child had read another's entire stock. There were long dry spells broken by the new Christmas books, which started the rounds again.

As we grew older, we began to realize what our books were worth: Anne of Green Gables was worth two Bobbsey Twins; two Rover Boys were an even swap for two Tom Swifts. Aesthetic frissons ran a poor second to the thrills of acquisition. The goal, a full set of a series, was attained only once by an individual of exceptional greed — he swapped his sister's doll buggy.

We were privileged. There were children, mostly from rural areas, who had never looked into a book until they went to school. They had to be taught to read in the first grade, and we were impatient with them for having to catch up. We ignored them.

And it wasn't until we were grown, some of us, that we discovered what had befallen the children of our African-American servants. In some of their schools, pupils learned to read three-to-one — three children to one book, which was more than likely a cast-off primer from a white grammar school. We seldom saw them until, older, they came to work for us.

Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it.

And, Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up — some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.

The village of my childhood is gone, with it most of the book collectors, including the dodgy one who swapped his complete set of Seckatary Hawkinses for a shotgun and kept it until it was retrieved by an irate parent.

Now we are three in number and live hundreds of miles away from each other. We still keep in touch by telephone conversations of recurrent theme: “What is your name again?” followed by “What are you reading?” We don't always remember.

Much love,

(Sources: Letters of Note; image)