On Literary Style
T. H. Huxley
[HP 49.55]

If the name of literature may be applied to all the publications which owe their origin to the authority of scientific investigators and thinkers there can be no question that the magnitude and the importance of the scientific literature of the present day has no precedent in human history–but this vast development has taken place almost entirely within the last forty years; it has been more rapid in each decennium than in that which preceded it—and there is every reason to believe that this progressive rate of increase will be continued. For Nature is limitless in all dimensions – and every problem which is solved merely brings us face to face with a multitude of new problems.

There is no more curious illustration of the ironical humour which is inherent in the constitution of things – I might almost say of the essential vanity of human wishes – than the effect upon one who in his youth has looked upon the development of science as the most desirable of objects – of the gratification of his desires which is actually taking place. – He is oppressed by the impossibility of knowing in any real and critical sense more than a portion of all that is knowable in even a small branch of science. He feels like the magician's servant who has stolen the charm by which the staff was made to fetch water – but who was drowned for his pains, because he had omitted to steal the charm by which the staff was made to stop–and the lesson of later life, is the renunciation of that encyclopedic grasp the hope of which stirred the ambition of youth–and the resigning oneself to the conviction that in order to know one thing one must be content to be ignorant of thousands of things.

After all I am perhaps wide of the mark in speaking of this prodigious accumulation of the results of scientific work as literature–Blue books are not literature and these endless memoirs and monographs may fairly be reckoned as scientific blue books.

But there is a portion of scientific work which seems to me to have an indisputable claim to the title of literature – I mean the work of the popular expositor – of the man who being a well qualified interpreter of nature translates that interpretation out of the hieratic language of the experts into the demotic vulgar tongue of all the world.

I call this literature – for it seems to me to be the essence of literature – that it embodies great emotions and great thoughts in such form that they touch the hearts and reach the apprehensions not merely of the select few but of all mankind.

That is the work which lies before every man of science who is worthy of the name, who addresses a popular audience – He should be mindeful of the maxims of one of the greatest philosophers and perhaps the greatest popularizer of the last century – That every subject is a unity and however vast it may be may be embraced by a single discourse; that full and familiar knowledge is the condition of successful exposition; that every sentence should be a link in a chain of ideas; that entire good faith is the best way of shewing respect for one's hearers or readers and that nothing great comes of imitation but that every man's style should express his own individuality.

"Le style est l'homme mème". These seem to be to be the [words struck out]



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden