"My darling Ben," he wrote back at once, "I am overjoyed by the prospect your letter opens before me. Of course I will go . . . as I feel there never was, and is not likely soon again to be, such an opportunity for promoting the cause of science generally, and that of natural history in particular."
As Agassizs nemesis in Cambridge, in the councils of organized research, and in the debate over the mysteries of the natural world, Asa Gray seemed conspicuously ill suited - not overmatched intellectually, for Gray possessed an exceptional mind, but in his relative lack of social connections, financial support, and charisma, endowments Agassiz enjoyed wielding against rivals. A few years Agassizs junior, Gray first trained as a physician in upstate New York during the boom years after the opening of the Erie Canal. Without formal education in botany, he collected and traded in and elucidated the structural relations of plant species so prodigiously that four years before Agassizs arrival in Cambridge he was called to Harvard to teach plant biology - a smooth-faced, wiry, kinetic figure who, at 135 pounds, half-sprinted around campus and up stairs, seeming more student than professor.
Grays work was a model of carefully observed science without prejudice, even though he himself was an orthodox Presbyterian and dutiful follower of the Nicene Creed, the most widely utilized brief statement of Christian faith: "We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. . . . " An indifferent teacher, Gray grimly tolerated his students: the labors of attending to their needs while developing and managing an herbarium of more than two hundred thousand specimens exhausted him, and his own original research and writing often languished.
What Gray had, besides uncommon intellectual ferocity and a zest for scientific combat equal to Agassizs, was his abiding, conflicted - and now famous - relationship with Darwin. During the twenty-five years after his voyage when Darwin developed his theory of natural evolution in reclusion and secrecy, the first American he told of it was Gray, and only then with crippling apprehension. Darwin, a painfully modest, cordialto- a-fault English country gentleman, judged the risks of revealing such heterodox thinking prematurely, without ample proof, to be monumental, disastrous - "like confessing a murder." "I daresay I said that I thought you would utterly despise me," he told Gray in 1857, two years before circumstances forced him to publish his masterwork, The Origin of Species, "when I told you what views I had arrived at."
By taking Gray into his confidence, Darwin ensured that Gray became his American gatekeeper, and Gray worked skillfully to guarantee that Darwins books were well published and widely disseminated, and that his ideas received a fair hearing in intellectual circles - despite disapproving of many of their implications. It was the publication of Origin, which Darwin called "one long argument" for the view that new species develop gradually through random variations that help some organisms survive better than others, that had driven Gray twelve years earlier to confront Agassiz, then at the height of his power and fame. Agassiz defined a species as "a thought of God" - permanent, immutable, and designed specifically as part of a divine plan. Christian faith notwithstanding, Gray was too much of an empiricist to accept Agassizs metaphysical biology, and so even as he realized somewhat bitterly in recent years how far he and Darwin were from agreeing on the subject of intelligent design in nature, he stood staunchly by him as Darwins man in the New World, his first friend, collaborator, proxy, and shield. Gray longed to retire from Harvard so he could write and pursue his own research, but as Darwin became one of the worlds most famous and controversial men, his name synonymous with an intellectual cataclysm, he was not readily let go. "My Dear Gray," Darwin wrote from his country haven near the village of Downe in Kent, twenty miles from London, days before Peirce invited Agassiz to go abroad. He apologized as always for adding to Grays burdens. "If you can, will you send the enclosed to anyone who has charge of Laura Bridgeman [sic] & beg for an answer." As a near-invalid who seldom left his home and gardens except to seek seaside rest cures or visit close colleagues and family members in London, Darwin relied utterly on his scientific friends to assist his investigations. Laura Bridgman was something of a national treasure, a Victorian version of Helen Keller, whom she later would inspire. Though blind and deaf, she had been educated through sign language, and Darwin had read in Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, the new museums Lazzaroni-inspired journal for touting American science, that when astonished, she raised both her hands with her fingers extended and pressed her open palms toward the person causing her amazement. Since she couldnt acquire expressions through imitation, Darwin theorized that such movements were traceable to animal behaviors. "I should very much like to know how this is," he asked Gray.
Excerpted from Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth. Copyright © 2009 by Barry Werth. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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