Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.2 (2002) 292-293
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The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. By James A. Secord (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001) 624 pp. $35.00
The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was published anonymously in 1844 by Robert Chambers, a Scottish author and publisher. The book explored and advocated a developmental hypothesis of the emergence of both the physical universe and life forms on earth. The volume, which embraced an evolutionary theory of the species, stirred an unprecedented reaction in the learned and popular Victorian press. In previous works about Victorian intellectual and scientific history, the Vestiges has received attention primarily as an event in pre-Darwinian evolutionary debates. It has often been thought that the hostile reception accorded the Vestiges was partially responsible for Charles Darwin's decision not to publish his own theory of evolution by natural selection until forced into action in the late 1850s by Alfred Russel Wallace's formulation of a similar theory.
Secord has approached the history of the Vestiges from an entirely new perspective. He has written a cultural history of the Vestiges as a book, understanding by "book" a cultural artifact of its time. The Vestiges in his pages resembles a stone cast into the pond of early Victorian print culture. Secord attempts with considerable success to provide a natural history of the book from the writing of the manuscript to its physical production to its reception in newspapers and reviews to the experience that individual readers encountered through the study of its pages. The result is the most highly textured work of Victorian cultural history to date. Drawing upon the theory and practice of the history of the book, sparked largely by Darnton's pioneering work and that of other scholars whom he richly acknowledges, Secord has taken Victorian cultural and intellectual history to a new circle of accomplishment.1
Victorian Sensation is a work that historians and literary critics will explore, cite, and imitate perhaps without ever fully digesting. The impact [End Page 292] of the parts is, in some respects, more powerful than that of the whole. This situation follows from Secord's approach. He understands what might be called the event of the Vestiges as a cultural process. Hence, he does not establish the usual boundaries that historians assume in the study of a major work of intellectual history. The Vestiges itself is an excuse for a multilayered meditation about how Victorians wrote, produced, and read books. The insistent anonymity of the author provides one touchstone for analysis. But what Secord accomplishes with so much power is his probing of how contemporaries from a host of different backgrounds read, or more properly experienced, the book. The analysis of Thomas Hirst's—the young, future leader of Victorian science—study of Vestiges offers to all Victorian scholars a new understanding of how the self-improving youth of the provinces trained themselves, expanded their intellectual horizons, and became the forgers of high Victorian culture. It is nothing less than a seminal analysis of the formation of a Victorian intellectual.
Frank M. Turner
1. See, for example, Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York, 1995); idem, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (Cambridge, Mass., 1982).