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.)
"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
"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
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.