Philip Appleman, Humanism’s Poet Laureate, Leaves Legacy

Nicole Scott

Poet, author, editor, and Charles Darwin expert Philip Appleman passed away on April 11, 2020, at the age of ninety-four.

Born in Indiana on February 8, 1926, Appleman served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and the Merchant Marine after the war. He received degrees from Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Lyon, France. Appleman taught at Columbia University and SUNY Purchase and was Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Appleman published eight volumes of poetry, three novels, and a half-dozen nonfiction books, including the widely used Norton Critical Edition, Darwin. His most recent collection was Perfidious Proverbs (Humanity Books, 2011), while his Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie (W. W. Norton, 2009) was a collaboration with the illustrator Arnold Roth. In the book’s foreword, poet X. J. Kennedy commented: “Appleman is a master of the sonnet, the terse rhymed epigram, and even that fiendishly ingenious form, the double dactyl. To watch him sling words is to be richly regaled.” His other acclaimed books of poetry include New and Selected Poems, 1956–1996 (1996); Let There Be Light (1991); Darwin’s Bestiary (1986); Open Doorways (1976); and Summer Love and Surf (1968). His novels include Apes and Angels (Putnam, 1989) and Shame the Devil (1981).

A recognized expert on the life and work of Charles Darwin, Appleman edited the critical anthology Darwin (2001) and penned two books of poems on the nineteenth-century naturalist—Darwin’s Ark (1984) and Darwin’s Bestiary (1986). Regarding the poems of Darwin’s Ark, celebrated evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould praised Appleman for having “captured the elusive themes of Darwin’s worldview and translat[ing] them into items of beauty that also provoke thought.”

Appleman’s poetry and fiction has appeared in multiple publications, including Harper’s Magazine, the Nation, the New Republic, the New York Times, the Paris Review, and the Partisan Review. Known as humanism’s poet laureate, he published two poems in Free Inquiry, including “A Priest Forever” in the February/March 2004 issue. The full-length article “The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life” appeared in the February/March 2011 issue. It was the cover feature and won the 2011 Selma V. Forkosch Award for best article in FI during that year. Additionally, his poetry and fiction won many other awards.

He was a founding member of the Poets Advisory Committee of Poets House, New York, a former member of the governing board of the Poetry Society of America, and a member of the Academy of American Poets, PEN American Center, Friends of Poets & Writers, Inc., and the Authors Guild of America.

The Center for Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and Free Inquiry are indebted to Appleman for his contributions to humanism through his poetry and analyses of Charles Darwin. We extend our condolences to his family and know his legacy will live on through the words he penned.

Nicole Scott

Nicole Scott is the managing editor of Free Inquiry.


Poet, author, editor, and Charles Darwin expert Philip Appleman passed away on April 11, 2020, at the age of ninety-four. Born in Indiana on February 8, 1926, Appleman served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and the Merchant Marine after the war. He received degrees from Northwestern University, the University of …

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