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The thirtieth and final volume of the print edition of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin was published last year, completing an endeavor begun in the mid-1970s. After some 15,000 letters, the Darwin Correspondence Project research group has disbanded. In the years between start and finish, scholarly publishing changed quite a bit: today Cambridge University/Cambridge University Press maintain an amazingly rich database of the letters.

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This monumental work was the result of more than ninety employees and volunteers over the years in both the Unites States and the United Kingdom. It was conceived by Frederick Burkhardt (1912–2007) in his retirement, after he’d been president of Bennington College and head of the American Council of Learned Societies. In 1974, while planning on putting together an edition of Thomas Huxley’s letters, Burkhardt “was reminded” that Darwin’s correspondence was still largely unpublished.

Some of Charles Darwin’s letters had been previously published by his children. But these epistolary biographies were very Victorian affairs: the letters were heavily selected and edited, with private or potentially offensive material suppressed. Charles Darwin’s own memoir, included in Francis Darwin’s Life and Letters (1887), was also censored as the family attempted to shape Darwin’s legacy.

The thousands of letters sent to Charles Darwin were largely unpublished. Burkhardt and the Darwin Correspondence Project worked to bring together as complete as possible of a collection: both Darwin’s unexpurgated letters and those sent to him by both well-known scholars around the world and many others known only through their letters to Darwin.

Letters were fundamental to Darwin’s life and work. They were his primary means of communication, for there were no wires connecting him to the outside world. Victorian Britain’s postal service may have been a wonder to behold, with multiple delivers per day in larger cities, but it still took some time for a letter from, say, Asa Gray at Harvard College, to reach Darwin at Down House, fifteen miles from the center of London. (Time also allowed controversies to cool in a way foreign to the insta-fury of the internet.)

Darwin’s correspondents were his collaborators. His major books are full of citations to his correspondents, detailing their observations, experiments, and insights. Historian William Montgomery notes that the letters were two-way; through them, “Darwin obtained desired information while stimulating his correspondents to new lines of investigation.” Historian Sander Gliboff, reviewing the nineteenth edition (2013), calls the letters Darwin’s “raw data.” Gliboff notes that networking by mail

also allow[ed] Darwin to circulate some of his conclusions in advance, test the waters, and smooth the reception of each major publication. […] He also receive[d] last-ditch appeals from religious authorities to refrain from denying the spiritual dimension of our humanity, and he endure[d] insults from cranks who sa[id] he looks like a monkey.

In her review of the sixth volume (1990), Barbara A. Kennedy refers to the “addictive delights” of the annual volumes. Kennedy, a noted geomorphologist who passed away in 2014, also wrote that the correspondence portrays the very epitome of a natural scientist. Referring to Darwin’s “extraordinarily effective mixture of observation, hypothesis and testing” as well as life-long curiosity and enthusiasm, Kennedy argues that the “Darwinian model of a scientist” is still something to which we can aspire. As she asks,

How often do we genuinely speculate from our observations? How often do we really expose our hypotheses to testing or even comment by other workers? How often do with disagree with the views of our seniors? Or welcome those of our juniors who wish to demonstrate that we are wrong?

The letters portray a familiar and social world as well as a scientific one. When he reviewed the first volume of the letters in 1985, paleontologist/evolutionary biologist/historian of science Stephen Jay Gould ranked it with George Eliot’s Middlemarch for “social commentary about the lives of comfortable country people.” Historian Jessica Riskin, reviewing the final volume, concurs, writing that the correspondence “reads like a novel in the vividness of its characters and the immediacy of their daily lives.”

Victorian novels were often published in three volumes and were known as three-deckers or triple-deckers. Multiply by ten and the Correspondence of Charles Darwin becomes perhaps the ultimate in Victoriana.

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The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 20, No. 1 (January 1987), pp. 13–27
Cambridge University Press on behalf of The British Society for the History of Science
Evolution, Vol. 67, No. 1 (JANUARY 2013), pp. 303–304
Oxford University Press
Journal of Biogeography, Vol. 18, No. 6 (November 1991), pp. 591–593