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In Banquet at Delmonico’s, Barry Werth draws readers inside the circle of intellectuals, scientists, politicians, businessmen, and clergymen who brought Charles Darwin’s controversial ideas to post-Civil-War America. Each chapter is dedicated to a crucial intellectual encounter, culminating with an exclusive farewell dinner held in English philosopher Herbert Spencer’s honor at the venerable New York restaurant Delmonico’s in 1882. In this thought-provoking and nuanced account, Werth firmly situates social ...
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In Banquet at Delmonico’s, Barry Werth draws readers inside the circle of intellectuals, scientists, politicians, businessmen, and clergymen who brought Charles Darwin’s controversial ideas to post-Civil-War America. Each chapter is dedicated to a crucial intellectual encounter, culminating with an exclusive farewell dinner held in English philosopher Herbert Spencer’s honor at the venerable New York restaurant Delmonico’s in 1882. In this thought-provoking and nuanced account, Werth firmly situates social Darwinism in the context of the Gilded Age. Banquet at Delmonico’s is social history at its finest.
What a set of men you have in Cambridge. Both our universities put together cannot furnish the like. Why there is Agassiz—he counts for three. —Charles Darwin to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1868
Even after he was ousted as the premier naturalist of his age and the most celebrated man of science in America—even as he suffered, at age sixty-two, a cerebral hemorrhage that first paralyzed him, then required him to take to his bed for most of a year, forbidden by his doctors to smoke his beloved cigars or even to think, either of which they predicted might kill him—Harvard professor Louis Agassiz never stopped spinning grand plans or forging ahead with them. Preternaturally ambitious, a large, vibrant man of murderous industry, deft political skill, and outsize charm, Agassiz identified himself as no less than a reflection of the universe, mirroring its magnificence through his ability to observe and explain the natural world. He also considered himself the herald of the rapid advance of knowledge in America, his adopted land—an intellectual high priest for a rising, if still uncertain, world power. And so, though it had been a year since he'd been all but marginalized on campus following the selection of a new president, Agassiz remained baldly optimistic about the future.
How could he not? Other than the risks to his health brought on by overwork with each new venture, fortune seemed to favor his every step. The son of a strong-willed assistant pastor to the Protestant congregation of a lakeside village in French-speaking Switzerland who married well, he was his parents' fifth child but the first to survive infancy, and as a student he displayed a rare surplus of talent, energy, imagination, fearlessness, and determination. At twenty-nine, an intrepid adventurer studying glaciers in the Alps, he descended alone at one point 120 feet into a crystal-blue abyss, and mounted at another a massive section of the earth's crust that had vaulted upward to almost fourteen thousand feet. He was the first scientist to propose that a prehistoric ice age had gripped the earth, and that extinct giant tropical quadrupeds such as mastodons had been wiped out by a worldwide Siberian freeze. "Their reign was over," he announced. "A sudden intense winter, that was also to last for ages, fell upon our globe."
In an early triumph of paleontology, Agassiz conducted a comprehensive study of every fossil fish in every major collection on the Continent, establishing himself as a tireless investigator and winning him favor with two of Europe's most influential naturalists, who delighted in opening doors for him. His bonhomie and good luck were inexhaustible: when his first wife, upset over his obsessive work habits and troubled finances, left him (she later died of tuberculosis), he took off to lecture in America, where Harvard promptly created a scientific school for him and where he married the daughter of a wealthy lawyer, a pillar of New England society.
Yet what most distinguished Agassiz's career was his superiority at getting others—not just important individuals and adoring audiences, but institutions and, ultimately, governments—to adopt his outlook and objectives. Less than a decade after he arrived in America in 1846, outsiders began referring to the famous Saturday Club as "Agassiz's Club." During the Civil War, he and his so-called Scientific Lazzaroni, a close network self-mockingly named for Florentine beggars, created a national scientific enterprise with themselves in charge, soliciting Congress to found the National Academy of Sciences. Dominated by Agassiz and his allies, it would serve as an equivalent of the French Academy, providing government subsidies, publications, and other spurs to selected research.
Agassiz's faith in special creation informed his worldview. He believed the Almighty made species separately and successively, dismissing evolutionary theory as "folly." If species descended from other species through slight modification, as Darwin himself was forced to acknowledge, there ought to be fossil remains of "innumerable transitional forms," yet no scientist had ever found one. Agassiz believed that his discovery of the Ice Age amply explained the disappearance of some older extinct species and the emergence of more recent ones, and that in nature there existed specific "zoological provinces" with distinct plants and animals and "varieties" of men, also created separately. In other words, humans were all one species, but races from different zones did not share a common ancestry. He interpreted the history of man by the same logic he applied to the origin of plants and animals, and though such reasoning had become harder and harder to defend, he remained the nation's foremost creationist and intellectual critic of Darwin and Spencer.
During the worst of his illness, Agassiz despaired of ever working again. All around him his celebrated friends seemed to be faring little or no better, sundered by age and grief. "The year ends with a club dinner," his neighbor Longfellow wrote dismally in his journal on December 31. "Agassiz was not well enough to be there. But Emerson and Holmes of the older set were, and so I was not quite alone." Headlong change during and since the war had overtaken everything, especially America's old guards and ideas. Longfellow, once a glamorous figure in Cambridge with his flowing hair, flowered waistcoats, and yellow gloves, had published his most important poems twenty years earlier. In 1861 his wife was sealing packages of their children's curls with matches and wax when they burst into flame, killing her. Longfellow suffered severe burns to his own face and hands as he tried to save her, and with shaving painful and difficult, grew a biblical beard. Deeply withdrawn, he spent much of his last decade in Europe, translating Dante.
"It is time to be old, / To take in sail," wrote Emerson, still physically vigorous but with his own fiery mind lost, more and more, to senility.
Agassiz would not take in sail. As his health returned through the early winter, he grew restless and impatient. He raised public and private subscriptions for the one project at Harvard he still controlled, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which his son, Alexander, an accomplished naturalist in his own right, had managed in his absence. Then, in mid-February, he received a letter from Benjamin Peirce, a Harvard mathematician, astronomer, and fellow Lazzarono who served as superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey, which for more than two decades had put its resources at Agassiz's disposal for research in marine biology.
"Now, my dear friend, I have a very serious proposition for you," Peirce wrote. "I am going to send a new iron surveying steamer round to California in the course of the summer. She will probably start at the end of June. Would you go in her, and do deep-sea dredging all the way round?"
Here lay a route out of Agassiz's morass: his growing isolation at Harvard, his need to do original research to resume a place at the forefront of postwar science, his craving for a change of atmosphere after a year as a shut-in, the yawning imperative—shared by all scientists—of new experiments, new technologies, new data, new worlds to examine. Indeed: a future. That the journey would take him down the east coast of South America, up the west, and through the Galápagos Islands—virtually the same voyage taken by Charles Darwin aboard HMS Beagle four decades earlier—went unsaid, but could not fail to ignite his spirit and ambitions. Assuredly the one person in America who could slow the juggernaut of liberal science, Agassiz relished having a last chance to again dominate the fray.
"My darling Ben," he wrote back at once, "I am overjoyed by the prospect your letter opens before me. Of course I will go ... as I feel there never was, and is not likely soon again to be, such an opportunity for promoting the cause of science generally, and that of natural history in particular."
As Agassiz's nemesis in Cambridge, in the councils of organized research, and in the debate over the mysteries of the natural world, Asa Gray seemed conspicuously ill suited—not overmatched intellectually, for Gray possessed an exceptional mind, but in his relative lack of social connections, financial support, and charisma, endowments Agassiz enjoyed wielding against rivals. A few years Agassiz's junior, Gray first trained as a physician in upstate New York during the boom years after the opening of the Erie Canal. Without formal education in botany, he collected and traded in and elucidated the structural relations of plant species so prodigiously that four years before Agassiz's arrival in Cambridge he was called to Harvard to teach plant biology—a smooth-faced, wiry, kinetic figure who, at 135 pounds, half-sprinted around campus and up stairs, seeming more student than professor.
Gray's work was a model of carefully observed science without prejudice, even though he himself was an orthodox Presbyterian and dutiful follower of the Nicene Creed, the most widely utilized brief statement of Christian faith: "We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God...." An indifferent teacher, Gray grimly tolerated his students: the labors of attending to their needs while developing and managing an herbarium of more than two hundred thousand specimens exhausted him, and his own original research and writing often languished.
What Gray had, besides uncommon intellectual ferocity and a zest for scientific combat equal to Agassiz's, was his abiding, conflicted—and now famous—relationship with Darwin. During the twenty-five years after his voyage when Darwin developed his theory of natural evolution in reclusion and secrecy, the first American he told of it was Gray, and only then with crippling apprehension. Darwin, a painfully modest, cordial-to-a-fault English country gentleman, judged the risks of revealing such heterodox thinking prematurely, without ample proof, to be monumental, disastrous—"like confessing a murder." "I daresay I said that I thought you would utterly despise me," he told Gray in 1857, two years before circumstances forced him to publish his masterwork, The Origin of Species, "when I told you what views I had arrived at."
By taking Gray into his confidence, Darwin ensured that Gray became his American gatekeeper, and Gray worked skillfully to guarantee that Darwin's books were well published and widely disseminated, and that his ideas received a fair hearing in intellectual circles—despite disapproving of many of their implications. It was the publication of Origin, which Darwin called "one long argument" for the view that new species develop gradually through random variations that help some organisms survive better than others, that had driven Gray twelve years earlier to confront Agassiz, then at the height of his power and fame. Agassiz defined a species as "a thought of God"—permanent, immutable, and designed specifically as part of a divine plan. Christian faith notwithstanding, Gray was too much of an empiricist to accept Agassiz's metaphysical biology, and so even as he realized somewhat bitterly in recent years how far he and Darwin were from agreeing on the subject of intelligent design in nature, he stood staunchly by him as Darwin's man in the New World, his first friend, collaborator, proxy, and shield. Gray longed to retire from Harvard so he could write and pursue his own research, but as Darwin became one of the world's most famous and controversial men, his name synonymous with an intellectual cataclysm, he was not readily let go.
"My Dear Gray," Darwin wrote from his country haven near the village of Downe in Kent, twenty miles from London, days before Peirce invited Agassiz to go abroad. He apologized as always for adding to Gray's burdens. "If you can, will you send the enclosed to anyone who has charge of Laura Bridgeman [sic] & beg for an answer." As a near-invalid who seldom left his home and gardens except to seek seaside rest cures or visit close colleagues and family members in London, Darwin relied utterly on his scientific friends to assist his investigations. Laura Bridgman was something of a national treasure, a Victorian version of Helen Keller, whom she later would inspire. Though blind and deaf, she had been educated through sign language, and Darwin had read in Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, the new museum's Lazzaroni-inspired journal for touting American science, that when astonished, she raised both her hands with her fingers extended and pressed her open palms toward the person causing her amazement. Since she couldn't acquire expressions through imitation, Darwin theorized that such movements were traceable to animal behaviors. "I should very much like to know how this is," he asked Gray.
Darwin had long avoided publishing his ideas on human evolution, letting Huxley and others speculate before him on the effects of natural selection and the universal linkages between people and animals. But by 1867, eight years after Origin and following two years of crushing illness—vomiting, nausea, eczema, and an "accursed stomach" that for months on end left him sleepless and all but unable to work—he decided he could wait no longer. His "man-essay," as he had described it to Gray, had grown into two parts. The first, due to be published at the end of the month, addressed the conjoined questions of whether man, like any other species, descended from earlier forms; the manner of human development; and, most explosively, for this had been his urgent agenda since he first recorded his thoughts on evolution in secret notebooks thirty-five years earlier, "the value of the differences between the so-called races of man"—the race question. A follow-up book—a rare sudden respite from his health problems was now letting him surge ahead, writing four hundred pages in three months, and adding, for the first time, photographs—would address the similarities in feelings and expression between humans and animals. Hence his interest in Laura Bridgman.
Darwin informed Gray that he had finished work on the first volume—The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, now at the printer's—and would soon send him a copy. "Parts, as to the moral sense, will I daresay aggravate you," he wrote, "and if I hear from you I shall probably receive a few stabs from your polished stiletto of a pen."
Polite jests aside, Darwin and Gray had long since argued themselves into a stalemate on many fronts. Darwin had confessed to Gray a year earlier that he was having great difficulty explaining the animal underpinnings of civilized behavior—the "moral sense"—and he dreaded another onslaught of scalding criticism, public and private, from Gray and others. Many people might be prepared for Darwin to claim that man physically descended from apes, as Huxley and several other widely respected naturalists had already done, through the process of natural selection—"survival of the fittest," to use Spencer's phrase. But how did one explain a mechanism for discerning right from wrong? Good from evil? Righteousness from sin? What animal ancestry, he knew he'd be asked, could possibly account for such virtues as a love of justice, or of Jesus?
All these added up to the "highest and most interesting problem for the naturalist," which Darwin now sought to answer. He had come to attribute morality to a combination of three evolutionary forces: instinctive sympathy born (as in many other species, notably dogs and monkeys) of family and tribal ties in the struggle for survival; habit ingrained by social behavior; and education. At the same time, natural science contained for Darwin, who grew up in a world of deep-seated antiroyalist and anti-Anglican leanings, a political thrust. Nothing so appalled him as blind Christian acceptance of the immorality and sufferings of genocide and slavery—nothing except the use of science to justify that indifference. Loath to offend a pious wife and friends like Gray, he withheld from making direct attacks on religion in his new work, seeking instead to show only how such creeds might have evolved. "How so many absurd rules of conduct, as well as so many absurd religious beliefs, have originated, we do not know," he wrote in Descent,
but it is worthy of remark that a belief constantly inculcated during the early years of life, whilst the brain is impressible, appears to acquire almost the nature of an instinct; and the very nature of an instinct is that it is followed independently of reason.
Excerpted from BANQUET AT DELMONICO'S by BARRY WERTH Copyright © 2009 by Barry Werth. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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