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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Asa Gray   1 September 18631

Cambridge, Mass.

Sept. 1, 1863

My Dear Darwin,

Your fine long letter of Aug. 4th. reached me up in the country—in my native region—in the centre of the State of New York—rusticating, and enjoying ourselves mightily.2 We were among the people of a thriving region—a well-to-do set.— no poverty near us for miles & miles, i.e—no hardship, except any that a drunken laborer might bring on his family; and I longed to take you out with us in our drives that you might see a happy and comfortable country—more and more so every year,—and perhaps a larger ratio of the population refined to a reasonable degree in feeling and life than I know of in any other part of the world.

Well, I am at home again as well as possible, and as hearty as an ox,—thoroughly well, and all disagreeable feelings about my head quite forgotten. I hope it may keep so.

I hope to get other Specularia seeds for you.3

I will consider about fantastic variation of pigeons.4 I see afar trouble enough ahead quoad design in nature but have managed to keep off the chilliness by giving the knotty questions a rather wide birth. If I rather avoid, I cannot ignore the difficulties—ahead. But if I adopt your view bodily〈,〉 can you promise me any less difficulties?

—If your Lythrum-paper shall be at all equal in interest to that on Linum it will be a gem.5

As to tendrils, What are Hooker & Oliver (the latter a Professor too) about, and where have they lived not to know anything of them?6 Every body must have seen, in Cucurbitaceæ & Passiflora, tendrils reaching out straight for a certain time, and then, if they reach nothing, coiling up from the end.— Also the sweeping of stems. But I think I never noticed that till it was pointed out in print. You ask me to tell you where anything is published on this subject. I had indicated it well enough in the little note of mine on the visible coiling—which excited your interest. See the first 3 sentences.7 And consult Mohl (who is worth all Germany besides) On the Vegetable Cell, transl. by Henfrey, and published by Van Voorst, 1852, pp. 156–158, also 151. &c,—and be thankful to me for having instigated (in 1851) Van Voorst to get Henfrey to translate this little book.—tho you English pay no attention to it, when you have got it.8

No do not abandon this subject, for it will be fruitful in your hands.

You should go on and connect this with something analogous in the spiral twist of the wood & bark of Coniferous trees—and others— It is very marked in Thuja occidentatis. The twist here is to the right (of the observer). But in noticing a hundred trunks or so, while up in the country, I found 4 or 5 which twisted in the opposite direction.

Next week I will send you sheets containing abstract of Bates’ mimetic analogy, & your Linum paper.9

As to Agassiz, you must not infer that I have any real ill-will toward him. I have long been an impartial and perhaps useful friend to him.10 But he is not a person to be satisfied long with any one who acts as well as thinks independently. So, a good while ago, he undertook to put me down, and has once or twice repeated the attempt. He has not yet succeeded. All the revenge I take is to worry and tease him upon occasion. But he has many excellent points and great (morphological) ability, and I am truly sorry he does not make a career at all up to his early promise.

Ever your cordial   A. Gray

P.S.11 Three nos. of Boston newspaper, recently sent you, two by this mail (in which my good beau-père is again “spiking the English”)12 please to forward to Reuben Harvey, Esq, Limerick, Ireland.13

Parsons (the first) I think puts the case neater, and in much fewer words.14

You are quite out in supposing that hatred of England is increasing, or that there is the least desire to meddle with you, except in self defence15

My own feelings were very sensitive at first, because I expected better things, and I then deferred much to British opinion. I now do neither, and nothing strikes me more than the smallness of mind and largeness of gullibility of the British people, as far as I can judge from their press, (weeklies, quarterlies, & Times). But I do not suppose you will fight us because you dislike us. And so conversely. I suppose I do not see the papers which so abuse England, tho, I read influential & respectable papers. But from what I do see, I think we receive far more abuse and misrepresentation, and unfair usage than we give.

As to the course of the war and policy of our country as to slavery, some day when you turn back to some early letter of mine you will see that I was a fairly good prophet.—that the South might have delayed the abolition of slavery by giving up early in the conflict,—but that every month of continued resistance hastened and ensured the downfall of slavery16   That is now doomed, and sure near to rapid death, quick in some places—slower in others, but sure.—

Ill usage of negroes—who make such good soldiers—will soon be unheard of—except with Irish. It will take some generations of American life to breed out the barbarism they bring to the country.

Good bye— Ever Yours | AG.

CD annotations

6.4 But I think … promise. 10.7] crossed pencil


This letter was apparently sent through Joseph Dalton Hooker, who forwarded it to CD (see letter from J. D. Hooker, 15 September 1863 and n. 3).
Letter to Asa Gray, 4 August [1863]. The Grays had been in Sauquoit, New York, visiting Gray’s mother (Dupree 1959, p. 308).
Gray had sent CD impoverished seeding specimens of the dimorphic plant Specularia perfoliata with his letter of 7 July 1863, but CD thought it likely that he had inadvertently killed the seeds on arrival (see letter to Asa Gray, 4 August [1863]).
See letter to Asa Gray, 4 August [1863] and nn. 10 and 11.
See letter to Asa Gray, 4 August [1863]. CD’s paper entitled ‘Three forms of Lythrum salicaria’ was read before the Linnean Society on 16 June 1864. Gray also refers to ‘Two forms in species of Linum’, a copy of which CD had sent Gray in April 1863 (see Correspondence vol.11, Appendix IV).
In his letter to Gray of 4 August [1863], CD had reported that neither Joseph Dalton Hooker nor Daniel Oliver had been able to give him any information regarding the spontaneous rotatory movements of the tendrils and upper internodes of climbing plants.
CD’s interest in climbing plants had been stimulated by his reading of A. Gray 1858b (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 25 [June 1863] and nn. 2–3). The paper begins (A. Gray 1858b, p. 98): As much as twenty years ago, Mohl suggested that the coiling of tendrils ‘resulted from an irritability excited by contact.’ In 1850 he remarked that this view has had no particular approval to boast of, yet that nothing better has been put in its place. And in another paragraph of his admirable little treatise on the Vegetable Cell (contributed to Wagner’s Cyclopedia of Physiology), he briefly says: ‘In my opinion, a dull irritability exists in the stems of twining plants and in tendrils.’ The references are to Mohl 1827, pp. 63–72 and Mohl 1853, pp. 303 and 307; see also Henfrey trans. 1852, pp. 151 and 156. There is an annotated copy of Mohl 1827 in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 590–4). Hugo von Mohl’s article on the vegetable cell (Mohl 1853) was originally published in the fourth volume of Rudolph Wagner’s Handwörterbuch der Physiologie (R. Wagner ed. 1842–53). From Gray’s reference to Mohl’s article appearing in 1850, and from the existence of an offprint of the article dated 1851 (see Taxonomic literature), it appears that the fourth volume of Wagner’s Handwörterbuch der Physiologie was issued in parts over several years.
Mohl 1851 was translated into English by Arthur Henfrey, and published by the London natural history publisher, John Van Voorst (Henfrey trans. 1852). Gray visited Britain during 1850 and 1851 (Dupree 1959, pp. 190–3). There is a copy of Henfrey trans. 1852 in the Darwin Library–CUL; CD made annotations on the pages cited by Gray (see Marginalia 1: 589–90).
Gray published review abstracts of Bates 1861 and of ‘Two forms in species of Linum’ in the September 1863 issue of the American Journal of Science and Arts (Gray 1863a and 1863c respectively).
See letter from Asa Gray, 21 July 1863, and letter to Asa Gray, 4 August [1863]. Gray refers to Louis Agassiz, his colleague at Harvard University, with whom he had a long-standing dispute concerning CD’s theory and other scientific and political issues (see Dupree 1959, pp. 264–306 and 313–31).
The postscript, which is written on a separate sheet of paper, has been assigned to this letter on the basis that both contain responses to the letter to Asa Gray, 4 August [1863]. In addition, the postscript bears a London postmark of 14 September, which is consistent with its having been sent from the United States in the first few days of September.
Gray probably refers to five articles written by his father-in-law, Charles Greely Loring, for the Boston Daily Advertiser, and published on 20, 22, 25, 27, and 29 August 1863. These and six subsequent articles by Loring were later published as a pamphlet (Loring 1863) entitled Neutral relations of England and the United States. Earlier in the year, Gray had sent CD a copy of Loring’s Correspondence on the present relations between Great Britain and the United States of America (Loring 1862; see letter to Asa Gray, 23 February [1863]).
The prefatory note to Loring 1863, which presumably included the articles Gray refers to (see n. 12, above), explained that all the compiled articles ‘originated in an undertaking to reply to a letter from a highly respected correspondent in Ireland’.
The reference is apparently to Gray’s colleague at Harvard University, Theophilus Parsons, who was an ardent exponent of the Union cause in the American Civil War (DAB); the newspaper article has not been identified.
See Correspondence vol. 9, letter from Asa Gray, 31 December 1861.


Sees difficulties in adhering to the concept of design in nature.

Is surprised at Hooker’s and Daniel Oliver’s ignorance regarding spontaneous movements of tendrils.

CD should continue his work on climbing plants, "it will be fruitful in your hands".

Letter details

Letter no.
Asa Gray
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Cambridge, Mass.
Source of text
DAR 157.2: 108; DAR 165: 139, 140
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4288,” accessed on 22 February 2018,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 11