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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Youmans’s excitement jarred him, reviving Spencer’s bitter experience in making public his own views on the evolution of mind and behavior, in 1855, in his second book, The Principles of Psychology. Self-published after he failed to interest publishers in the project, selling just 200 of 750 copies, thrashed by all but two critics as atheistic and impenetrable, "codliver oil" for the general reader (as he later conceded), the book had plunged him, at age thirty-four, into a nervous collapse from which sixteen years later he continued to suffer nightly bouts of dire sleeplessness and a pathological inability to work more than a few hours a day. Spencer’s father was a quarrelsome, iconoclastic schoolteacher who was cold and impersonal with his only son, and Spencer grew up believing "that if he were to give free reins to his feelings he would be cruel," his biographer Mark Francis observed. Lacking warmth and personality, he contrived to cloak his emotions with good-natured, if strained, cordiality. Now, dictating revisions to an amanuensis, he quietly scrambled to update the earlier volume and return to print with a new edition. "My Dear Youmans," he wrote in return, on June 3,

I inclose a brief article just out. I wrote it partly as a quiet way of setting opinion right on the matter. Since the publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man there has been a great sensation about the theory of the development of mind - essays in the magazines on Darwinism and Religion, Darwinism and Morals, Philosophy and Darwinism, all having reference to the question of mental evolution, and all proceeding on the supposition that it is Darwin’s hypothesis. And no one says a word in rectification, and as Darwin himself has not indicated the fact that the Principles of Psychology was published five years before the Origin of Species, I am obliged to gently indicate it myself.

Spencer proposed to Youmans that a similar published explanation "might not be amiss in America," where, owing chiefly to Youmans’s selfsacrificing zeal, Spencer enjoyed a growing vogue far in excess of his standing in Europe. He and Darwin, albeit intellectual allies, were far from friends, and great gulfs separated their thinking. Many naturalists and philosophers before them had theorized that life evolved, but without identifying the mechanism by which the process worked. While Darwin and Spencer agreed on the fundamental idea that evolution resulted from the struggle to survive, they held radically different views on how it functioned and what it meant, especially regarding the tendency toward advancement. "For Darwin, evolution was directionless and morally neutral," scientific historian Steven Shapin writes, "but for Spencer evolution was going somewhere: natural change was progressive, and it was good." The forces behind Darwinian evolution were random, mindless, blind, but for Spencer survival of the fittest also meant survival of the best, suggesting a cosmic value system. Progress wasn’t accidental; it was imperative, even programmed.

Believing the universe to be inherently moral, Spencer could not have found a more devoted apostle than Youmans. Son of a pious mechanic, he showed an early enthusiasm for science that was all but extinguished when an infection ravaged his eyesight as a teen. Blind on and off for nearly twenty years, Youmans despaired as a young man that he was destined for "an eternity of tripled, yea quadrupled misery" - the dark, lonely life of a shut-in. It was science - and Spencer’s theory of an everimproving cosmos - that rescued him. Youmans invented a device that enabled him to write, and with the help of his sister, Catherine, who read to him and conducted his experiments, he completed a medical degree, wrote a bestselling textbook on chemistry, and traveled widely as a popular lecturer on the lyceum circuit, handily translating abstruse science into ordinary language. At five foot ten and 190 pounds with a clear complexion, soft curly brown hair, and exorbitant side-whiskers, and peering narrowly through thick oval wire-rimmed glasses, Youmans was a riveting public speaker, his voice booming and hands windmilling so emphatically that on a night in Faribault, Minnesota, the "amplitude of his excited gyrations . . . exceeded the rather narrow bounds of the platform," Fiske recalled. "Twice he slipped to the floor."

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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