...[a] delightful, elegant intellectual history ... Can a book still change the world? Right now a tweet would seem to have a better shot. But questions that are still asked today, and more urgently by some in recent months — whether history is a narrative of progress, whether the arc of the universe bends toward justice — have their beginnings in the heady times evoked in Fuller’s exhilarating book. He has made them immensely instructive and enjoyable to ponder.
...despite his sweeping title, Mr. Fuller doesn’t discuss Darwin’s influence on the nation as a whole. Instead he provides a stimulating chronicle of a group of New England thinkers who responded to the Origin of Species in the years immediately following the book’s first appearance ... Did any American of that era get Darwin right? Mr. Fuller argues persuasively that Thoreau came closer than anyone else. Natural selection, randomness, eternal conflict between species—Thoreau accepted these ideas from the Origin of Species, passages of which he copied in his notebooks ... Mr. Fuller might have fulfilled the promise of his ambitious title had he followed Darwinism forward into the age of robber barons, Jim Crow, the Scopes trial and beyond. But he can be commended for illuminating Darwin’s early effect on America in ways that lead us to think about later repercussions, including today’s debates over creationism and science-denial.
His account of how Americans responded to the publication of Darwin’s great work in 1859 is organized as a series of lively and informative set pieces — dinners, conversations, lectures — with reactions to On the Origin of Species usually (but not always) at the center ... Fuller’s most surprising revelation is the profound impact Darwin’s portrait of a 'teeming, pulsating natural world' exerted on Thoreau ... Fuller is a lively, engaging writer, with an eye for fascinating details. His subjects wrote copious letters, kept diaries, gave speeches and recorded their conversations with one another. Fuller has mined this rich material with care and insight. Sometimes, to be sure, the desire to tell a good story leads him down detours that have little apparent connection to Darwin and his reception ... Fuller’s rather grandiose title promises more than a study of a few New England intellectuals can reasonably deliver.
Fuller's book finds its climactic peaks in such moments, as towering intellects grapple with the implications of big ideas ... My favorite parts of The Book That Changed America are its digressions, the character sketches and tributaries that flow through the bigger picture ... Fuller connects these characters and episodes to Darwin with varying levels of success; at 250 pages The Book That Changed America feels a bit too short, and you're left wondering if it could use just a little more thematic glue. But that barely detracts from its larger pleasures, or the validity of its premise.
...a vivid snapshot of American intellectual life on the verge of the Civil War ... Displaying a flair for evocative scene setting, Fuller begins with a single copy of On the Origin of Species passed around over dinner in Concord on New Year’s Day, 1860 ... Fuller cogently follows the propagation in America of Darwin’s ideas (with distinctly American adaptations) via literary publications like the Dial ... The Book That Changed America strains to cram all of American culture into Fuller’s thematic straitjacket; he does much better when he sticks to Americans who actually were galvanized by On the Origin of Species ... If all Fuller’s explications were this persuasive, his book would be transformative cultural history. As it stands, The Book That Changed America is provocative but over-determined special pleading.
As Fuller explains in his engaging book, Darwin's book imploded in an America that was finding itself on the literary, scientific, and religious fronts and often blending the three ... Fuller goes a bit further, potentially annoying readers who've found ways to synthesize science and faith, to write that when 'taken to its logical conclusion,' the idea of survival of the fittest 'demolished the idea that people had been created in God's image.'
The Book that Changed America is a wildly unimaginative title and Fuller fails to make the case for the oversized premise of his book, which is that in America On the Origin of Species produced ‘epochal change and unanticipated aftershocks’ comparable to the civil war, ‘altering cherished ways of thinking, and remaking society.’ Fuller’s history rarely leaves the environs of Concord or nearby Harvard and we learn little of the response to Darwin elsewhere, particularly in the south and the west, either from those regions’ newspapers or from their pulpits … Although it is a smaller book than it claims to be, Fuller’s history of Concord is lively and enlightening.
The Book That Changed America gives a vivid picture of the intellectual life of Concord, infused not just with abolitionism but with the Transcendentalist philosophy that saw a divine spark within each human, prizing subjective experience over hard facts. Fuller’s story ranges widely and sometimes discursively, including colorful characters ... Unfortunately, Fuller’s engrossing account of the literary and intellectual hub of New England does little to support his thesis that Darwin’s book gave powerful ammunition to abolitionists, ultimately contributing to the Civil War.