restricted access Darwin and Faulkner’s Novels: Evolution and Southern Fiction (review)
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Reviewed by
Michael Wainwright. Darwin and Faulkner’s Novels: Evolution and Southern Fiction. New York: Palgrave, 2008. xii + 243 pp.

Michael Wainwright’s Darwin and Faulkner’s Novels: Evolution and Southern Fiction brings one of the major intellectual and philosophical figures of the nineteenth century into dialogue with one of the most influential novelists of the twentieth century. As with Freud’s theories, which have both intellectual currency and broad popular assimilation by those who have not read psychoanalysis, Darwin’s theories have affected the popular imagination and permeated the metaphoric language through which literary and intellectual labor is understood. Wainwright’s new literary history examines Faulkner’s career in terms of an “evolutionary hermeneutic” (ix), a term encompassing the evolutionary ideas circulating in Faulkner’s social and intellectual milieu, the direct evolutionary sources used by Faulkner, and a tracking of Darwinian and post-Darwinian concepts implicit in individual works throughout Faulkner’s oeuvre. Thinking through the relationship between Darwin’s theories and political culture in the American South, Wainwright complicates the notion of a fundamentalist Christian South firmly opposed to evolution by showing the region’s implicit acceptance of Darwinian principles, perhaps most evident in the anxious protection of genetic heredity expressed in its atavistic antimiscegenation laws. The South’s ambivalent and contradictory preoccupation with race is the place the specter of Darwin haunts Faulkner’s writing most persistently.

The introductory chapter makes an important contribution to Faulkner studies and Southern studies by complicating the standard political view of the South as a reactionary, antimodernist, and fundamentalist [End Page 624] region in the nation. Through a descriptive chronology of the effects of Darwin and other natural scientists on religious and academic thinking, from the publication of American editions of works such as Robert Chambers’s Vestiges (1857) and Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1861) to the Scopes trial of 1925, Wainwright advances a view of the region as “a milieu of charged, ambiguous, and irreconcilable contestation” (19). Chambers’s and Darwin’s publications sparked academic debate about the relationship between evolution and religion since some of the tenets of Darwinian theory were deemed to violate religious principles, most notably the problem of a common African ancestry and the evolutionary connection between animals and humans. However, theologians and academics moved to accommodate evolution to the predetermination of God through theistic evolution, and to divorce human ancestry from animal parentage by ignoring the transition from inorganic to organic matter in Darwin’s work. The popularization of Darwinian theories and their perceived threat to religious precepts (and, one might argue, to racial thinking) increased political pressures from the public on academic institutions, but it wasn’t until the 1920s, when Darwinism (particularly the philosophy of evolution) became connected with a dissolute modernity, that fundamentalists began a concerted strategy against the teaching of evolutionary science in southern colleges. In Tennessee, this political pressure culminated in the Butler Act (1925) banning the teaching of evolution in institutes funded by the state and in the prosecution and conviction of John T. Scopes by William Jennings Bryant (the Great Commoner) in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. Though many school biology curricula relied on evolutionary principles, three states prohibited the teaching of Darwin due to the outcome of this trial, in spite of the overturning of Scopes’s conviction on technical grounds, and the region became viewed as “a homeland for post-bellum reactionary thought” as Darwinism bypassed southerners (18).

From theories of pangenesis reliant on separable strains of blood to theories of genes and chromosomes in the early twentieth century, Wainwright’s account of the political adaptation of Darwinian and post-Darwinian concepts of the transmission of characteristics from one generation to the next is also helpful in elucidating how the faulty transmission of Darwinism into the political and social sphere supported socially reactionary legislation. Such legislation included antimiscegenation laws and even the 1924 Johnson-Reed National Origins Act, an attempt to maintain the white identity of the nation by increasing admission of Northern European immigrants as opposed to those from the Mediterranean. Not only did politicians use the concept of evolution from simpler to more complex species to argue [End Page 625...