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

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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 ’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.

About Barry Werth

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Barry Werth brought the story of Newton Arvin and the "Smith College Homosexual Scandal of 1960" to national attention for the first time in almost forty years in The New Yorker. Werth is the author of The Billion-Dollar Molecule and Damages. In addition to The New Yorker, his articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Outside. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Published December 24, 2008 by Random House. 400 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Political & Social Sciences, Computers & Technology, Science & Math. Non-fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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Their adulatory speeches brilliantly summarize the book’s theme, although Spencer bit the hands that fed him by lecturing the Americans on being excessively preoccupied with business and preaching the need for a “gospel of relaxation.” Histories of ideas are rarely page-turners, but Werth has don...

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The New York Times

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Charles Darwin, Youmans proclaimed, will remain “the most distinguished naturalist of the age, but Mr. Spencer will abide the honor of complete originality in developing this greatest conception of modern times, if not, indeed, of all time.” Yet Werth never even gestures to the historical irony t...

Jan 29 2009 | Read Full Review of Banquet at Delmonico's: Great...

Review (Barnes & Noble)

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.

Jan 13 2009 | Read Full Review of Banquet at Delmonico's: Great...

Historical Novel Society

Banquet at Delmonico’s is a densely packed history of the rise of social Darwinism in the United States between 1871 and 1882.

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Daily Kos

I nearly choked when I saw that my own Sen - Evan Bayh - was one of them.

Feb 08 2009 | Read Full Review of Banquet at Delmonico's: Great...

Bookmarks Magazine

The New York Times Book Review faulted Werth for omitting discussion of how Social Darwinism affected ordinary people, while other reviewers criticized the book’s unnecessary digressions.

Jan 11 2009 | Read Full Review of Banquet at Delmonico's: Great...

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