BookBrowse Reviews Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Banquet at Delmonico's

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

by Barry Werth

Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth X
Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

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

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Micah Gell-Redman

Buy This Book

About this Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


What better way to get a fresh take on the current competition of social ideologies than by reading about how it played out a hundred years ago?

The world is a dynamic and unstable place; violent conflicts erupt, political differences divide our nation, a fantastic expansion of wealth gives way to recession, perhaps depression. Though it may sound like a summary of the week's headlines, this is the world as it appeared more than a century ago on the cusp of The Gilded Age, the unalloyed era of American progress that serves as backdrop for Barry Werth's new work of popular history. Offering a fascinating window onto the battle of ideas that raged as United States was catapulted to the status of a global power by its industrial might, Banquet at Delmonico's will make an enjoyable read for anyone wanting to learn about an eminently relevant era of U.S. history and have some fun in the bargain.

The book's subtitle is Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America, but it has very little to do with the controversy over whether or not the world today is just as God created it a few thousand years ago. In fact, the protagonist of the story is not Charles Darwin as one might expect, but the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, the most famous and influential proponent of what came to be called Social Darwinism. Spencer's notion of social progress easily melded with Darwin's central insight – that species evolve through a process of adaptive selection – and the resulting theory saw a competition within and among human societies based on the "survival of the fittest."

Banquet at Delmonico's tells a decade-long story of how Spencer's vision survived its own mortal struggle, how that vision came to be adopted by many of the most powerful figures of the day, and how those men molded it to fit their aims and ideals in the fields of politics, finance and social morality. The climactic triumph comes in the form of a banquet held in Spencer's honor at New York's most elegant restaurant attended by a storied cast of characters who had effectively shaped his ideas into the dominant social ideology of ascendant industrial capitalism.

Werth succeeds in rendering this grand historical panorama personal almost to the point of intimacy. For each of the featured characters a biographical statement and photograph appears in the front matter as a sort of dramatis personae. Indeed there is something theatrical about the pitched battles fought across continents and decades between those on opposite sides of a grand ideological divide, each with a great deal at stake beyond the ideas themselves. The figures who loom largest in the story – Spencer himself, the American preacher Henry Ward Beecher and the titan of American industry Andrew Carnegie – are depicted in great detail down to their physical ailments and petty self-obsessions. Heated conflicts over science, religion and philosophy emerge from these close-range depictions, making Banquet read less like a historical tract and more like a detective story.

Ultimately, though, Banquet at Delmonico's is worth reading because it narrates in a compelling way a struggle so eerily similar to the one unfolding before our eyes at this very moment. Behind each successive debate over bailing out financial institutions or sealing our national borders there is a social philosophy – a set of ideas that dictates what society is "really like" and how it should be governed. What better way to get a fresh take on the current competition of social ideologies than by reading about how it played out a hundred years ago?

Reviewed by Micah Gell-Redman

This review was originally published in January 2009, and has been updated for the April 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Social Darwinism

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Story of Arthur Truluv
    The Story of Arthur Truluv
    by Elizabeth Berg
    Elizabeth Berg's heartwarming novel scored an an impressive 4.4 average rating from the 48 members ...
  • Book Jacket: The Last Ballad
    The Last Ballad
    by Wiley Cash
    Ella May WigginsA hundred years ago or so, farming land west of Charlotte, North Carolina was given over to giant ...
  • Book Jacket: Future Home of the Living God
    Future Home of the Living God
    by Louise Erdrich
    Louise Erdrich began Future Home of the Living God in 2002, set it aside, and picked it up again in ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

At once a love story, a history lesson and a beautifully written tale of forgiveness.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Story of Arthur Truluv
    by Elizabeth Berg

    An emotionally powerful novel from New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Berg.
    Reader Reviews

Who Said...

Life is the garment we continually alter, but which never seems to fit.

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

E Dog H I D

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.