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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Print Excerpt

In 1856, after seeing a review of Spencer’s Principles of Psychology, Youmans sent to England for the book, read it, and - three years before Darwin’s Origin - pledged himself to a life of promoting and marketing the concept of evolution. This meant, by and large, sponsoring Spencer while tirelessly disseminating his work. By 1860, five years after his breakdown, Spencer was nearing the pitch of despair. Undeterred by the failure of Principles, he had decided to examine and unify through evolution the whole range of human history and thought - "Synthetic Philosophy," he called it - but he was lonely, anxious, disappointed, and depressed. The sole survivor of his parents’ ten children, unmarried, a former civil engineer and writer and subeditor at The Economist who moved among rented quarters supported by a modest family inheritance, he envisioned producing a systematic nine-volume account of evolution in philosophy, biology, sociology, ethics, and politics. Taking morphia to sleep to little avail, he spent his days circulating a brief prospectus outlining the project. He hoped to raise enough money to support himself through the agency of friends and admirers including novelist George Eliot, who loved him, once telling him "If you become attached to someone else, then I must die," and Huxley, who invited him into England’s scientific clerisy, the X-Club, a national force equivalent to the Saturday Club and the Lazzaroni combined.

Youmans saw Spencer’s circular and contacted him the next day to offer his aid in procuring American subscriptions. A forerunner of the modern agent/impresario, he secured Spencer a New York publisher, Appleton and Co.; pressed for - and won - royalties on a par with native authors’ at a time when most American houses ignored international copyrights; churned out scores of reviews and notices with publication of each new volume, which he placed in newspapers and magazines across the country; pressed other reviewers into service; helped Spencer organize and popularize his most arcane thoughts; and cultivated literary clubs, college professors, editors, ministers, politicians, tycoons, and labor councils. In 1865, when Spencer doubted he could afford to go on with the project, Youmans made up his mind to raise subscriptions with the express purpose of getting Spencer out of debt, delivering in person $7,000 in American railroad stocks and the best gold watch he could buy, a testimonial from Spencer’s admirers in this country. Despite relapses of failing eyesight and crippling rheumatism, he continued to lecture on Spencer’s behalf, dragging himself around the Midwest in unheated trains to proselytize in town after town where often, he would recall, he encountered "a protracted meeting in full blast at every church in town except the Episcopal, and a general feeling of pious rage at my appearance on the scene."

Now, Youmans received Spencer’s reply in midocean. Youmans was traveling to Europe to promote a grand new venture that he hoped would erase the stain and failure of his own last enterprise, a weekly paper of culture and science, Appleton’s Journal, which he edited. After having promised the public a serious forum for research, he quickly had been forced to scale the magazine back when the publisher demanded fewer pieces on new ideas and more on social comings and goings and the arts. Undeterred, he hoped to induce Europe’s leading scientists to contribute small volumes, written for the general public, to a series to be published simultaneously in several countries and languages - a set of gospels for the new scientific age. Determined to remain abroad until he signed up masters in each field and publishers in several capitals, he was grimly uncertain of his prospects: "very much in my own mind," as he wrote his mother. Away from his wife, Kate, celebrating his fiftieth birthday alone on board, Youmans reported that although the sea was calm and the passengers agreeable, the passage was only "tolerable. Meals could be enjoyed but for the horrible, sickening ship smells."

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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