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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Book Reviewed by:
Micah Gell-Redman

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Youmans found London to be no better; overcrowded, teeming, foulsmelling, the savage hub of empire. Hiring a cab by the hour, he visited "about a dozen places of all sorts, high and low," but found no vacancies, finally taking a room no bigger than his stateroom. "It is close and suffocating, and I have had a hard time in it," he wrote to his sister. Unable to sleep but a couple of hours, his strained eyes burning and uncomfortable, he ventured out the next morning to meet with Spencer feeling "much used up."

"Spencer is looking very well," he reported to her the next day; "plays billiards a great deal; disciplines himself to amusement." If Spencer, who more than any of his contemporaries sought to take in all knowledge and understanding in pursuit of an encompassing, systematic philosophy, had a blind spot, this was it: he refused to admit to himself how well off he was, never taking into account his own privilege. Blaming his breakdown and insomnia on overwork, he pursued idleness and leisure with the same puritanical zeal with which Youmans sought out punishing labor. Nearly finished with his reissued Psychology, he described for Youmans his next endeavor, a large book codifying a new science of society. Undaunted, Youmans urged him to consider writing an abbreviated volume for his proposed "International Scientific Series," as he now called it. "Spencer’s side projects on the sociology are amazingly interesting," he told Catherine. "He is afraid of their being stolen and is being shady, but he will show them to me."

Racing around London throughout the summer, Youmans found genial support for his series, but also mounting obstacles. Many of the authors he called on had been engaged to write for Appleton’s Journal, disappointingly, or were committed to other publishers. All were overly busy with their own work. More than a few doubted he could succeed. Youmans persisted, gaining endorsements from Spencer, Huxley, and others, as well as an unsolicited pledge from Darwin to have the idea brought up at the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Gleefully he told Catherine about having lunch with Darwin and his wife, Emma. "They were all curiosity about America," he wrote:

I told them about my lecturing the Brooklyn clergymen on evolution. "What!" said he, "clergy of different denominations all together? How they would fight if you should get them together here!" They were greatly amused with a spiritualistic paper they had received from Chicago, which stated that if it were known that God were dead Beecher would be unanimously elected by the American people to fill his place.

Even more than McCosh, it was Beecher who Youmans believed might lead American clergy to accept the doctrine of evolution, as Darwin seemed to appreciate. Beecher was, as Sinclair Lewis would write, "the archbishop of American liberal Protestantism." He had sold female slaves from the pulpit to gain their freedom and helped finance John Brown’s attempted insurrection in Kansas - Brown’s rifles were called "Beecher Bibles." In 1864, four months before President Lincoln would choose Beecher to consecrate the end of the Civil War with prayers at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, Beecher had told Youmans in a letter: "Stir them up - subsoil the people with Spencer, Huxley and [Irish natural philosopher and physicist John] Tyndall. I’ve got them all, and go in for them all. If the trellis of old philosophies is falling down, take it away and let us have a better. We can train the vines of faith on the new one just as well." Now, though, Youmans was blocked. He couldn’t ask Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, and others "to go in on the enterprise, but I must make them as available as possible to get other men." Leveraging commitments, like building a house of cards, called for delicacy and patience, and privately he was anxious and out of sorts. "I prayed that this cup might pass from me," he wrote Catherine, "but the world’s scientific salvation required that I drink it to the dregs."

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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