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Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in Americaby Barry Werth
"The idea that evolution is an ordered progression, societally as well as biologically, has adhered to popular conceptions of Darwinism since the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, but it was more accurately a theme of Darwin's contemporary and would-be rival, the social philosopher Herbert Spencer...the guest of honor in Barry Werth's Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America." Art Winslow, Los Angeles Times (read the entire Los Angeles Times review)
Synopses & Reviews
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 developmentsgathered 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.
"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)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"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. From the moment it was put forth by Charles Darwin in "The Origin... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) of Species," natural selection was seen as an affront to traditional religion. But, like religion, it soon proved amenable to a dizzying number of agendas. Marx and Engels tried to claim it for "scientific socialism." Andrew Carnegie viewed it as an endorsement of Steel Age prosperity. Theologian John Fiske discovered proof of "the eternal Power that lives in every event of the universe." Carl Schurz, a U.S. politician and former German revolutionary, believed that Darwinism affirmed liberal democratic freedoms, while political economist William Graham Sumner found only a rationale for pitiless social programs. Remember the six blind men of Hindustan who felt the elephant and declared it to be, variously, a wall, spear, snake, tree, fan and rope? Each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong. And no one was, perhaps, more in the wrong than the man whom many Darwinists esteemed above all: Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher who — bravely or foolishly, depending on your perspective — followed evolution's implications to their outermost limit. Having seen how well Darwin's theory worked in the biological world, Spencer asked, in essence: Why shouldn't evolution work just as well in describing the social organism? The political animal? Art, economics, morality, metaphysics ... everything in the human experience could be brought within the same "cosmic value system." The law of survival could apply everywhere. Spencer couched his findings in scientific rhetoric, but he wasn't the sort to crawl after tortoises and finches. Generalization was his gift — and his curse — and no one was more skeptical of him than Darwin. Spencer's theories, he wrote, "never convince me: and over and over I have said to myself, after reading one of his discussions, — 'Here would be a fine subject for half-a-dozen years' work.'" But Spencer didn't have that kind of time. He was in a hurry to be great, and he found a nation in the same hurry. Within the expanding boundaries of America, Spencer became even more famous than Darwin, as ministers, politicians and captains of industry seized on his work to justify their own ambitions. America — rich, young, overwhelmingly "fit" — gave Spencer the ideal proving ground for his ideas; he, in turn, gave America the implicit assurance that it was the endpoint of human evolution. Now, if we applied evolutionary theory to literary canons, we might expect "Banquet at Delmonico's" to be even better than Barry Werth's previous book, "The Scarlet Professor," a generous, beautifully wrought portrait of gay academic Newton Arvin. Unfortunately, Werth's talents for character study and exposition don't shine as brightly in this wide-ranging account of social Darwinism's rise in America. The titular banquet, an 1882 testimonial dinner in Spencer's honor at Manhattan's finest restaurant, was something of a bust at the time, and it doesn't fare much better as a narrative hook. Lacking the kind of framing device that Louis Menand's "The Metaphysical Club" found in a post-Civil War discussion group, Werth has two routes open to him: to forge straight ahead on a single chronological axis or to tear off on multiple tangents. He takes both routes. Certainly, there's no harm in revisiting the 1876 presidential election or the Garfield assassination or the sex scandal surrounding preacher Henry Ward Beecher, but what exactly does any of it have to do with Darwinism and its discontents? And while I admire Werth's reluctance to lecture his readers, if ever a book cried out for perspective and interpretation and even a dash or two of editorializing, it's this one. Start with that subtitle. Does Werth honestly believe that evolution triumphed in America? As recently as 2005, a CBS poll revealed that half of Americans still believe God created humans in their present form and that only 15 percent believe in evolution without divine guidance. If Darwin really had triumphed, the words "intelligent design" would never again be heard where adults gather. In the scientific community, at least, Darwin's theory has withstood nearly 150 years of rigorous scrutiny. Time has not been so kind, however, to the Social Darwinists. We have Spencer to thank for coining the term "survival of the fittest," but what he really meant was survival of the finest. He opposed any government interference in business or society because it would keep unsound specimens from being weeded out. (He himself was notably frail.) His paeans to the Aryan race no longer have the quasi-scientific panache they once did, and now that the fever glow of evolution has passed, we may find it easier to question his starting assumption. Why should a theory that unlocks one realm of knowledge necessarily unlock every other realm? The most modest and least overreaching figure to emerge from "Banquet at Delmonico's" is Darwin, who refused to go beyond what he knew and who could be found, late in life, crawling through the woods on his estate, gathering new evidence among the local earthworms, making certain of the ground beneath him. Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer. His most recent book is "The Black Tower." Reviewed by Louis Bayard, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Barry Werth has written a banquet of a book, a sumptuous feast of distinctive characters and delicious vignettes that places evolution indelibly at the center of Gilded Age controversy." Christopher Benfey, author of The Great Wave and A Summer of Hummingbirds
"Few ideas have had a bigger (or sorrier) impact than the nineteenth-century notion that nations and races are engaged in a survival of the fittest — and that the Anglo-Saxons are the fittest of them all. By telling the story through a few shrewdly chosen and thoroughly fascinating people, Werth animates an idea and brings to life a memorable age." Evan Thomas, author of Sea of Thunder and Robert Kennedy
"What Werth has done, cleverly, in addition to drawing Spencer out from behind Darwin's shadow and raising the troubling future specters of Social Darwinism and eugenics, is to create a narrative double helix of his own." Los Angeles Times
"Academic rivalry, politics, social stratification, and romance all make appearances in this engaging book." Boston Globe
"[A] thought-provoking account of a fascinating time in American history." Seattle Times
"The book takes evolution beyond science and into the realm of American society." Rocky Mountain News
A grand and sweeping history of ideas, Banquet at Delmonico's tells the intimate and dramatic story of how Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and a group of influential American allies together made evolution the guiding spirit of the Gilded Age.
About 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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