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

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Banquet at Delmonico's

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

By Barry Werth

Banquet at Delmonico's
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2009,
    400 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2011,
    400 pages.

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The speech lasted two hours. Amid the uproar in the days ahead - the New York Herald called it "the most astonishing doctrine ever listened to by an audience of Americans" and castigated the Steinway crowd for allowing her to finish - Woodhull became instantly scandalous while Tilton, serially cuckolded, deserted by the public, and verging on bankruptcy, was ruined. Meanwhile, Beecher kept his silence. Having skirted the wreckage by refusing Woodhull’s gambit, he returned, tired and unfocused, to work, preaching to packed crowds at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, churning out sermons and prayers, and researching a much-awaited two-volume novelistic biography of Jesus called The Life of Christ. His friends urged him to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to get away and work on his book, but Beecher couldn’t resist being at the center of events, and so he remained in Brooklyn. Though the church board pressed hard to investigate Tilton’s accusations, he ignored their pleas.

"Drove over to the Navy Yard in the afternoon with my girls to see the little steamer [the Hassler] in which Agassiz is going round the Cape," Longfellow wrote in his journal on November 26.

Delays in assembling the fifty-person exploring party and fitting the ship with equipment for dredging and sounding what Agassiz called the "deepest abysses of the sea" had postponed departure by several months, and though his health wavered, Agassiz hastened to complete final preparations before winter hit New England. When young Darwin, after first training to be a doctor like his father until he realized he couldn’t bear to practice medicine, then studying, with no particular religious conviction, to become a clergyman so as to provide respectable cover for his passion for nature, shipped out on HMS Beagle, he signed on primarily to serve as an educated companion for the imperious captain of a creaking, 98- foot, three-masted wooden sailing ship with a crew of ninety men doing mostly coastal surveys - a floating jail, his father called it. But the Hassler, a 370-ton double-hulled steel oceanographic vessel with powerful new two-cylinder engines, had been fully optimized to serve Agassiz’s quest, making it capable of hauling sea life with ropes and winches from depths of more than 4,200 feet, and preserving tens of thousands of specimens until they could be returned to Harvard for study. Like his last expedition five years earlier to Brazil, where he claimed to have found evidence of glaciers deep in the interior, the trip was trumpeted as a historic national enterprise, attracting money, publicity, and students, to whom Agassiz planned to lecture on the universality of God’s "plan" all the way around.

Publicly, Agassiz’s confidence in himself and his worldview was never higher. On the eve of his departure he wrote a letter to Peirce, widely reprinted, promising that his trip would yield momentous discoveries about the origins of the earth and its earliest inhabitants - discoveries that would confirm and expand on his earlier work. Evolutionists and nonevolutionists alike believed that the ocean depths held fossil forms of ancient sea life that resembled modern organisms. Agassiz predicted as a matter of certainty that the Hassler would haul up varieties closely resembling those found in the earliest geological periods, when shallow seas covered the earth, thus demonstrating that species were created of a piece and distributed wholesale, by God, once and for all. He also predicted he would find evidence of massive glacial activity at the southern tip of South America, adding to the picture of a universal ice age. He told Peirce:

If there is, as I believe to be the case, a plan according to which the affinities among animals and the order of their succession in time were determined from the beginning . . . in other words, if this world of ours is the work of intelligence, and not merely the product of force and matter, the human mind . . . may reach the unknown.

By now, Agassiz also realized the stakes. This trip would be his last legacy, both as a scientist and as the main architect of America’s scientific enterprise. When he had first come out forcefully against Darwin more than a decade earlier, his record of trailblazing discoveries and his reputation as an arbiter of rigorous research gave him instant standing and credibility, not only among the adoring intelligentsia and general public but also among other naturalists. He still knew more than anyone else about ancient life-forms and the fossil realm. Yet his empire building, public heroics, and preference for amassing natural treasures over testing his theories through experimentation increasingly estranged him from those now pushing the field ahead. As Agassiz knew, he was no longer working anywhere near the forefront. Many of his peers scoffed at his recent science, especially his work in Brazil, where - without finding a single glaciated pebble or polished rock to back him up - he claimed to have found undeniable evidence contradicting evolution; specifically, widespread traces of glacial action under the thick tropical canopy throughout the Amazon basin, from which he concluded that a glacial epoch rendered impossible any genetic connection between animals and plants that lived prior to and after it. "Wild nonsense," Darwin called it, telling Gray that Agassiz’s "predetermined wish partly explains what he fancies he observed."

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.

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