Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Context is (almost) Everything

Letter from Darwin addressed "Dear Sir"We have a pretty cool letter from Charles Darwin in the collection. It opens simply enough with "Dear Sir," but the name of the recipient is nowhere to be found. The letter came to us tucked into a first edition of On the Origin of Species that was donated by Perc Brown in 1956. In 1964, the undated letter came to the attention of an alumnus who was also a collector of Darwin materials. He dove into the letter and did some amazing detective work to figure out who the letter was written to: all he knew was content of the letter--it was sent to someone who had recently written a review of On the Origin of Species, and it counters some of the arguments made in the review. His research, that took months, included examining the watermark to determine when the letter was likely written, corresponding with a Darwin specialist at the University of Wisconsin, and working with two librarians at the American Museum of Natural History, all from his home in Cleveland, Ohio.

Half-title to On the Origin of Species with signatureBy piecing together all of the clues, our intrepid investigator figured it out. With some certainty, he declared that the letter was most likely sent to Andrew Murray who had published a review in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Review.  We read his paper and were impressed. Then we noticed something very interesting. On the half-title of the book that Perc Brown donated--the book that the letter was slipped into--is the signature of none other than Andrew Murray.

Close up of Andrew Murray's signature
Our poor investigator! Had he just looked into the context of the letter, rather than concentrating solely on its content, he would have had a smoking gun clue right from the start. Confirming that Murray had written a review would have been pretty quick and painless. But then, think of all of the fun he wold have missed out on!

To see the letter ask for MS 000566. To see the On the Origin of Species, ask for Rare QM365 .O2 1859.

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