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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  • First Published:
    Jan 2009, 400 pages
    Apr 2011, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Micah Gell-Redman

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Agassiz’s faith in special creation informed his worldview. He believed the Almighty made species separately and successively, dismissing evolutionary theory as "folly." If species descended from other species through slight modification, as Darwin himself was forced to acknowledge, there ought to be fossil remains of "innumerable transitional forms," yet no scientist had ever found one. Agassiz believed that his discovery of the Ice Age amply explained the disappearance of some older extinct species and the emergence of more recent ones, and that in nature there existed specific "zoological provinces" with distinct plants and animals and "varieties" of men, also created separately. In other words, humans were all one species, but races from different zones did not share a common ancestry. He interpreted the history of man by the same logic he applied to the origin of plants and animals, and though such reasoning had become harder and harder to defend, he remained the nation’s foremost creationist and intellectual critic of Darwin and Spencer.

During the worst of his illness, Agassiz despaired of ever working again. All around him his celebrated friends seemed to be faring little or no better, sundered by age and grief. "The year ends with a club dinner," his neighbor Longfellow wrote dismally in his journal on December 31. "Agassiz was not well enough to be there. But Emerson and Holmes of the older set were, and so I was not quite alone." Headlong change during and since the war had overtaken everything, especially America’s old guards and ideas. Longfellow, once a glamorous figure in Cambridge with his flowing hair, flowered waistcoats, and yellow gloves, had published his most important poems twenty years earlier. In 1861 his wife was sealing packages of their children’s curls with matches and wax when they burst into flame, killing her. Longfellow suffered severe burns to his own face and hands as he tried to save her, and with shaving painful and difficult, grew a biblical beard. Deeply withdrawn, he spent much of his last decade in Europe, translating Dante.

"It is time to be old, / To take in sail," wrote Emerson, still physically vigorous but with his own fiery mind lost, more and more, to senility.

Agassiz would not take in sail. As his health returned through the early winter, he grew restless and impatient. He raised public and private subscriptions for the one project at Harvard he still controlled, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which his son, Alexander, an accomplished naturalist in his own right, had managed in his absence. Then, in mid-February, he received a letter from Benjamin Peirce, a Harvard mathematician, astronomer, and fellow Lazzarono who served as superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey, which for more than two decades had put its resources at Agassiz’s disposal for research in marine biology.

"Now, my dear friend, I have a very serious proposition for you," Peirce wrote. "I am going to send a new iron surveying steamer round to California in the course of the summer. She will probably start at the end of June. Would you go in her, and do deep-sea dredging all the way round?"

Here lay a route out of Agassiz’s morass: his growing isolation at Harvard, his need to do original research to resume a place at the forefront of postwar science, his craving for a change of atmosphere after a year as a shut-in, the yawning imperative - shared by all scientists - of new experiments, new technologies, new data, new worlds to examine. Indeed: a future. That the journey would take him down the east coast of South America, up the west, and through the Galápagos Islands - virtually the same voyage taken by Charles Darwin aboard HMS Beagle four decades earlier - went unsaid, but could not fail to ignite his spirit and ambitions. Assuredly the one person in America who could slow the juggernaut of liberal science, Agassiz relished having a last chance to again dominate the fray.

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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