Julie's Reviews > Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth
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Mar 25, 09

bookshelves: history-non-fiction, social-political-commentary, best-of-2009
Recommended to Julie by: NY Times
Read in March, 2009

A simple review would state "This rich narrative is about the development of social Darwinism in post-Civil War polite society." But there ain't nothin' simple about this book! It is complex roller coaster ride through American society facing tremendous upheaval and rapid industrialization in the generation following Reconstruction.

And in light of current political and economic conditions and the ongoing debate of evolution vs. religion, this social history is incredibly relevant- the political and economic parallels are astonishing.

At the book's heart is the co-opting of Darwin's theory of natural selection by philosophers, clergymen, industrialists and politicians to promote the supremacy of white, western culture. With this movement we witness the development of social Darwinism, laissez-faire economics, the political science, sociology, agnoticism, the cementing of corporate hegemony and the rise of America over England as the world's dominant superpower.

The cast of characters includes Darwin, who incidentally was not a promoter of the social philosophy that bears his name, Herbert Spencer- the center of this book and the creator of the phrase "survival of the fittest"- liberal minister Henry Ward Beecher, industrialist Andrew Carnegie and numerous scientists and academics. Some of these figures were anti-Darwinists, some his champions; many left traditional science behind to promote Spencer's social philosophies. Nearly all struggled to find a balance between biological natural selection and their own Christian upbringing; as the concept of social Darwinism grew, many, such as Andrew Carnegie, struggled to make sense of the dream of individual liberty and the supremacy of capitalism with the reality of human suffering.

Add into this mix a look at the social scandal that nearly toppled a religious dynasty, the transformation of the Republican party from that of Lincoln's day to the more recognizable party of fiscal and social conservatives, Darwin's transformation to an atheist, the physical and mental woes of many of the characters and correspondence, speeches and articles, election campaigns, presidential assassinations, trans-Atlantic voyages and the multi-coursed meal that ends this narrative- whew. I'm exhausted, but incredibly enlightened.

My caveat is that perhaps the author tried to do TOO much- too many historical figures, too many events that were perhaps tangential to the book's central themes. Fortunately there was a Principal Characaters section at the beginning of the book with brief bios that I turned to constantly as I struggled to keep everyone and their backgrounds straight. It would have been helpful to have a historical time line as well.
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03/23/2009 page 102
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Sara Van Dyck Excellent review. I might add that the subtitle, "The Triumph of Evolution in America," is misleading - accepting biological evolution was still a struggle, and the main concept that triumphed was social Darwinism.


Julie Sara Van Dyck wrote: "Excellent review. I might add that the subtitle, "The Triumph of Evolution in America," is misleading - accepting biological evolution was still a struggle, and the main concept that triumphed was ..." Thank you, Sara! I'd forgotten all about this book. Yes, I very much agree with you about the subtitle.


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