By MARIA POPOVA
“You are the one living soul from whom I have constantly received sympathy… I never forget for even a minute how much assistance I have received from you.”
“We always keep the dearest things to ourselves,” teenage James Joyce wrote in his beautiful letter of appreciationto Ibsen, his greatest hero. This habitual withholding of gratitude is a perennial tragedy of human relationships, and this interpersonal tragedy has broader cultural reverberations. The more I live, the more convinced I become that great friendships are the heartstrings of creative culture, the wings that lift artists, scientists, and dogma-disruptors above the cesspool of criticism, contention, and indifference with which every groundbreaking creative act is first met.
Without Emerson’s generous letter to Whitman, we might not have Leaves of Grass. Without Ursula Nordstrom’s unflinching support, Maurice Sendak wouldn’t have blossomed into the Maurice Sendak. Without the patron who helped him quit his soul-sucking day job as a postal worker, Bukowski may have never become a full-time writer. Without Thomas Mann’s deeply assuring letters, Hermann Hesse may have succumbed to self-doubt. And what of the young amateur meteorologist who may have never classified the clouds as we know them without Goethe’s support?
Among the most spirit-sustaining friendships in the history of humanity’s intellectual evolution was that between Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) and his closest friend, the botanist and explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker (June 30, 1817–December 10, 1911), recounted beautifully in the 1944 gem British Botanists(public library) — one of Oliver Sacks’s favorite books.
From the dawn of Darwin’s career, when 22-year-old Hooker slept with the proofs of The Voyage of the Beagle under his pillow in order to read them as soon as he awoke, to the day he accompanied Darwin’s coffin to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey, Hooker was Darwin’s dearest confidante and staunchest champion. It was in a letter to Hooker that Darwin first intimated the seed of his natural selection theory in 1844, and it was under Hooker’s encouragement that he set it down in writing fourteen years later, shortly before coming upon an essay by Alfred Russell Wallace that outlined a nearly identical theory before Darwin had published his. When he was overcome with despair — a malady that bedeviled him frequently — it was once again Hooker who bolstered his spirit and persuaded him not to give up the work.
In 1909, when some of the world’s greatest scientists converged in Cambridge to celebrate Darwin’s centennial, 92-year-old Hooker stood tall among them, paying homage to the friend he had outlived by nearly two decades and helped for more than five.
The deep humanity of the friendship comes alive in Darwin’s correspondence with Hooker, collected in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin: Volume 1 (public library | free ebook). Shortly after Hooker encouraged him to synthesize his theory of natural selection in an abstract, Darwin writes in a letter from October 6, 1858:
I am working most steadily at my Abstract, but it grows to an inordinate length; yet fully to make my view clear (and never giving briefly more than a fact or two, and slurring over difficulties), I cannot make it shorter. It will yet take me three or four months; so slow do I work, though never idle. You cannot imagine what a service you have done me in making me make this Abstract; for though I thought I had got all clear, it has clarified my brains very much, by making me weigh the relative importance of the several elements.
Having not yet mastered his brilliant strategy for preempting criticism, Darwin urges his friend in a letter penned six days later:
I pray you not to pronounce too strongly against Natural Selection, till you have read my abstract, for though I daresay you will strike out many difficulties, which have never occurred to me; yet you cannot have thought so fully on subject as I have.
But after sending the letter, Darwin is seized by his chronic anxiety and finds himself dwelling on whether he offended Hooker, his greatest champion, by implying that he might be hurtfully critical or not knowledgeable enough to comment adequately. In another letter penned the following day, Darwin articulates the central paradox that bedevils every creative person’s friendships — the parallel and conflicting desires for honest feedback from one’s friends and for their unconditional approval of one’s work and character (the two being deeply integrated for the creative person).
A self-conscious Darwin writes to Hooker:
I have been a little vexed at myself at having asked you not “to pronounce too strongly against natural selection.” I am sorry to have bothered you, though I have been much interested by your note in answer. I wrote the sentence without reflexion. But the truth is that I have so accustomed myself, partly from being quizzed by my non-naturalist relations, to expect opposition & even contempt, that I forgot for the moment that you are the one living soul from whom I have constantly received sympathy. Believe [me] that I never forget for even a minute how much assistance I have received from you. — You are quite correct that I never even suspected that my speculations were a “jam-pot” to you: indeed I thought, until quite lately, that my [manuscript] had produced no effect on you & this has often staggered me. Nor did I know that you had spoken in general terms about my work to our friends, excepting to dear old Falconer, who some few years ago once told me that I should do more mischief than any ten other naturalists would do good, & that I had half-spoiled you already! All this is stupid egotistical stuff, & I write it only because you may think me ungrateful for not having valued & understood your sympathy; which God knows is not the case. It is an accursed evil to a man to become so absorbed in any subject as I am in mine.
Hooker did not judge his friend’s work or character harshly — to the contrary, he stood by him and became crucial in the formal advancement of his theory. Later that year, it was he who presented Darwin’s ideas on natural selection at the annual meeting of the Linnean Society, which became the first public presentation of evolutionary theory. The following year, On the Origin of Species was published and the world changed forever.
Complement this particular fragment of the wholly fascinating Life and Letters of Charles Darwin with Darwin on family, work, and happiness, the pros and cons of marriage, and his daily routine, then revisit the touching letter of gratitude Albert Camus wrote to his childhood teacher shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize.