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

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Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth

Banquet at Delmonico's

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

by Barry Werth
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  • First Published:
  • Jan 6, 2009
  • Paperback:
  • Apr 2011
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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.

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