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
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?
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.
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