Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

by Barry Werth
     
 

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In Banquet at Delmonico’s, Barry Werth, the acclaimed author of The Scarlet Professor, draws readers inside the circle of philosophers, scientists, politicians, businessmen, clergymen, and scholars who brought Charles Darwin’s controversial ideas to America in the crucial years after the Civil War.

The United States in the 1870s and

Overview

In Banquet at Delmonico’s, Barry Werth, the acclaimed author of The Scarlet Professor, draws readers inside the circle of philosophers, scientists, politicians, businessmen, clergymen, and scholars who brought Charles Darwin’s controversial ideas to America in the crucial years after the Civil War.

The United States in the 1870s and ’80s was deep in turmoil–a brash young nation torn by a great depression, mired in scandal and corruption, rocked by crises in government, violently conflicted over science and race, and fired up by spiritual and sexual upheavals. Secularism was rising, most notably in academia. Evolution–and its catchphrase, “survival of the fittest”–animated and guided this Gilded Age.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection was extended to society and morals not by Darwin himself but by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, father of “the Law of Equal Freedom,” which holds that “every man is free to do that which he wills,” provided it doesn’t infringe on the equal freedom of others. As this justification took root as a social, economic, and ethical doctrine, Spencer won numerous influential American disciples and allies, including industrialist Andrew Carnegie, clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, and political reformer Carl Schurz. Churches, campuses, and newspapers convulsed with debate over the proper role of government in regulating Americans’ behavior, this country’s place among nations, and, most explosively, the question of God’s existence.

In late 1882, most of the main figures who brought about and popularized these developments gathered at Delmonico’s, New York’s most venerable restaurant, in an exclusive farewell dinner to honor Spencer and to toast the social applications of the theory of evolution. It was a historic celebration from which the repercussions still ripple throughout our society.

Banquet at Delmonico’s is social history at its finest, richest, and most appetizing, a brilliant narrative bristling with personal intrigue, tantalizing insights, and greater truths about American life and culture.

Editorial Reviews

Debby Applegate
Werth depicts these ferociously ambitious thinkers as engaged in a Darwinian fight to the finish, each vying to lay out the most persuasive theories and win the widest reputation. This apt fusion of form and content makes for a surprisingly suspenseful and fast-paced story. Werth effortlessly brings each eccentric character to life through colorful details and well-chosen anecdotes, while taking us on a whirlwind tour of Gilded Age politics and society. Banquet at Delmonico's crackles with energy and wit.
—The New York Times
Louis Bayard
Breakfast at Tiffany's it ain't. Rather, this ambitious and diffuse intellectual history is about what happens when a bunch of smart guys get hold of a big five-course meal of an idea—the idea, specifically, that modern life forms have evolved over time and that this process is guided not by God but by Nature.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

In this fascinating study, Werth (The Scarlet Professor) shows how the idea of social Darwinism, as codified by Herbert Spencer, took hold in the United States, underpinning the philosophy of the Gilded Age's social, cultural and financial elite. Anchoring his story with the stunning Delmonico's celebration honoring the departure of Spencer after a triumphant tour of the United States in 1882, Werth rightly depicts the frame of reference Spencer left behind as a predecessor to Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, with its focus on unrestrained self-interest and unbridled capitalism. As Werth explains, Spencer's interpretation of Darwinism won the approval of not only robber barons but also prominent religious, scientific and political leaders. Henry Ward Beecher, writes Werth, "used the most acclaimed pulpit in America to preach the gospel of evolution; that is, that it was God's way to... sort the worthy from the wretched." This was survival of the fittest, which Spencer and his followers saw as not only just but necessary. Thus, Werth elegantly reveals a firm philosophical foundation for all the antilabor excesses of the Industrial Age. (Jan. 6)

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Library Journal

In late 1882, a farewell dinner in honor of Herbert Spencer was held at New York's famous Delmonico's Restaurant. The guest list was impressive, representing many prominent Americans who supported Spencer's ideology of social Darwinism. Guests included important politicians (Elihu Root, Carl Schurz), scientists (O.C. Marsh, William Graham Sumner), industrialists (Andrew Carnegie, Cyrus Field), and ministers (Henry Ward Beecher, Lyman Abbott). This banquet represented the convergence of Gilded Age thinking related to the role of government, society, and religion based upon evolutionary principles. Spencer's brand of social thought came to America at a time when the leaders in the country were searching for ways to deal with scandal, corruption, and economic crisis. Social Darwinism seemed to provide the answers they were seeking for science, race, and spirituality. Werth (31 Days; The Scarlet Professor) has written a fascinating book about one of our country's most interesting and complex periods. He provides a unique perspective on this era and the important people involved with shaping our history. Highly recommended for all academic and public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ9/1/08.]
—Gloria Maxwell

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400067787
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/06/2009
Pages:
400
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)

Meet the Author

Barry Werth is the author of 31 Days, The Scarlet Professor, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Damages, and The Billion-Dollar Molecule. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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