Excerpt from Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Banquet at Delmonico's

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

By Barry Werth

Banquet at Delmonico's
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Hardcover: Jan 2009,
    400 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2011,
    400 pages.

    Publication Information

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Micah Gell-Redman

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

CAMBRIDGE, 1871
Eleven years earlier

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.

Excerpted from Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth. Copyright © 2009 by Barry Werth. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Social Darwinism

Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  
Sign up, win books!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket
    The Valley of Amazement
    by Amy Tan
    "Mirror, Mirror on the wall
    I am my mother after all!"


    In my pre-retirement days as a professor ...
  • Book Jacket: A Man Called Ove
    A Man Called Ove
    by Fredrik Backman
    Reading A Man Called Ove was like having Christmas arrive early. Set in Sweden, this debut novel is ...
  • Book Jacket
    The Search
    by Geoff Dyer
    All hail the independent publisher! In May 2014, Graywolf Press brought two of long-revered British ...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your
horizons.

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

Tomlinson Hill
by Chris Tomlinson

Published Jul. 2014

Join the discussion!

Win this book!
Win The Angel of Losses

The Angel of Losses

"Family saga, mystery, and myth intersect in Feldman's debut novel." - Booklist

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

E C H A Silver L

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.