three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
By: 
Barry Werth
user_rating: 
0

Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

A-Banquet at DelmonicosBarry Werth, author of the well-received The Scarlet Professor, returns with an expansive work of intellectual history chronicling the furious debate in late-19th century America concerning Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The Topic: When Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859, he ignited an intellectual firestorm. Few ran further with Darwin’s theory than the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, who argued, over Darwin’s own objections, that evolution should be applied to the study of societies as well as to the study of species. Spencer’s ideas, known as "Social Darwinism," found a ready following among leading minds in the United States. Banquet at Delmonico’s examines the years 1871–1882 and the men who advanced Spencer’s thinking in America. Spencer’s triumphant 1882 visit to the United States and a banquet in New York that celebrated the (temporary) ascendance of his ideas frame this story.
Random House. 362 pages. $27. ISBN: 1400067782

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"In Barry Werth’s satisfying Banquet at Delmonico’s, Spencer is also a querulous 62-year-old celibate whose 1882 American tour culminates in a feast to which are invited the ‘mostly Republican men of science, religion, business, and government’ who shared and spread the Spencerian creed." Bill Kaufman

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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: We watch as, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, the two principals and their retinues of acolytes and antagonists spin out their ideas to respective advantage in the public sphere." Art Winslow

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Banquet at Delmonico’s weaves a wide-ranging story of the politics and science in the decades after the Civil War. … Though he occasionally bogs down in details, for the most part Werth moves his story along. In doing so he has written a thought-provoking account of a fascinating time in American history." David B. Williams

NY Times Book Review HHH
"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." Debby Applegate

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"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. … 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." Louis Bayard  

Critical Summary

The New York Times Book Review noted that "[t]rying to write intellectual history is like trying to nail jelly to a wall," but most critics concluded, with some reservations, that Werth has succeeded in this effort. Reviewers praised Banquet at Delmonico’s for its taut storytelling and its bright evocation of the famous Americans who debated Darwinism. However, both the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post lamented Werth’s reluctance to take a step back from his story. 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. However, to understand Darwin’s legacy and celebrate his bicentennial, Delmonico’s is a good place to start.