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

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

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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.


From the Hardcover edition.
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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)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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

The Barnes & Noble Review
There is an amusing irony to the fact that social Darwinism -- the theory that a society's strongest members will flourish -- was popularized by a bunch of nervous wrecks. Herbert Spencer, the prominent British philosopher who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" in 1851, kept a diary faithfully detailing his many infirmities. (A typical entry: "Wretched night; no sleep at all; kept in room all day. Great fear I should collapse.") Henry Ward Beecher, 19th-century America's most famous minister, was a Spencer acolyte who helped reconcile Christianity with evolution; in the wake of a scandal in which he was accused of adultery, he told a friend he was "[living] on the sharp and ragged edge of anxiety, remorse, fear, despair." Thomas Henry Huxley, the British physician who coined the term "agnosticism," electrified audiences and gained instant fame on an 1876 lecture tour of America, during which he listed the young nation's vast resources and then demanded, "The great issue...is what are you going to do with all these things?" Earlier, he had written his friend Charles Darwin, "I have for months been without energy and without hope and haunted by the constant presence of hypochondriacal apprehensions."

While these were clearly not the fittest group of men themselves, Spencer and his adherents -- who also included industrialist Andrew Carnegie, philosopher John Fiske, and political reformer Carl Schurz -- revolutionized modern thought, as author Barry Werth demonstrates in Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America. Werth's richly absorbing history of social Darwinism focuses on 11 years of intellectual ferment, climaxing with the lavish 1882 New York banquet, held to honor Spencer at the conclusion of his three-month tour of the United States, that gathered many of the book's major players.

Darwinism has come to stand in for a wide-ranging set of principles, but as Werth notes, Darwin himself "was a naturalist, not a philosopher." He avoided commenting on the broader implications of evolution, a challenge taken up by others, Spencer most notably. Unlike Darwin, who saw evolution as morally neutral, Spencer equated evolutionary change with progress. His work found a particularly receptive audience in the United States, where many viewed America as evolution's apotheosis, a view promoted by Fiske, who believed that the country's "English race" was destined to export democracy and Christianity all over the world. He began one of his popular lectures by declaring, "The voyage of Columbus was in many respects the most important event in human history since the birth of Christ."

The ascendance of Darwinism had earth-shattering ramifications for theology, and many of Werth's group saw their task as making evolution acceptable to religious Christians. Louis Agassiz, the renowned Harvard naturalist who was Darwin's most prominent critic, defined a species as " 'a thought of God' -- permanent, immutable, and designed specifically as part of a divine plan." To some, Darwinism, by rejecting the argument of intelligent design, was an inherently atheistic philosophy (indeed, Darwin had himself become a nonbeliever, a development he quite understandably kept quiet). Asa Gray, a Harvard botanist who was a Darwin booster and Agassiz's chief rival, argued that processes like adaptation and natural selection in fact implied intelligent design: "We know of old that God was so wise that he could make all things; but behold he is so much wiser than even that, that he can make all things make themselves." Further aiding the cause was Beecher, who was growing increasingly distant from his clergyman father's stern Calvinism. The immensely influential Beecher, whose clout was hardly diminished in the wake of his six-month adultery trial, identified as a "cordial Christian evolutionist."

Evolutionary thought also seeped into political theory, although Werth points out that social Darwinism's "extreme conservative, laissez-faire, antigovernment formulation would more accurately be labeled 'Spencerism.' " Political economist William Graham Sumner, according to Werth, believed that "natural law dictated social inequality and no reform would abrogate that fact." The Yale professor wrote that "a drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be." Beecher was as pitiless as Sumner, preaching during the depression that consumed the last quarter of the 19th century that the poor must "reap the misfortunes of inferiority." Carnegie, like the others, embraced competition and the concentration of wealth, but having once been a poor immigrant himself, he parted company with the Spencerites on the question of helping the needy, becoming one of the major philanthropists of his era.

The fascinating ideas traced in the book culminate in Werth's you-are-there account of the titular banquet. Using contemporaneous records and other documents, he describes the event in sumptuous detail, from the guest list to the hours of toasts and speeches to the intriguing multicourse menu ("buttery scarlet kettle-drum-shaped pastry tufts stuffed with truffles, tongue, and pistachios," anyone?).

The book's promotional materials state that the repercussions of the issues debated at the banquet "still ripple throughout our society." And indeed, today's big-tent conservative movement includes both those who battle Darwinism, in the form of efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and those who embrace social Darwinism, in the form of opposition to redistributive fiscal policies and regulation of markets. But the author doesn't venture far beyond the 19th century, which may leave readers wishing that he had shared his own perspective on these repercussions.

But that is a quibble. Otherwise, Werth -- whose previous books include The Scarlet Professor, a biography of 20th-century literary critic Newton Arvin -- is a wise and engaging guide through the intellectual upheaval of the period. An elegant writer, he even manages to sneak in some dry humor here and there. Describing Spencer's grueling voyage to America, he writes that the philosopher "imagined he could feel no worse, and expressed weary surprise when, entering the great harbor, he discovered that he could." We are fortunate that Werth has rendered these thinkers so vividly, from their biggest ideas down to their smallest frailties. --Barbara Spindel

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781588367983
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/6/2009
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 1,234,057
  • File size: 3 MB

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.


From the Hardcover edition.
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