Delmonico's, the place to see and be seen during the Gilded Age.
Once upon a time, I had to write a short piece about the history of bagpipes for a reading textbook--a reading comp passage for test prep. I tried to find out where bagpipes came from, but couldn't find one definitive place; it seems bagpipe type instruments began to appear in numerous places around the world at roughly the same time. It seems like sometimes it's just the right moment for an idea.
Numerous people had been working their way towards the idea of evolution for years before Charles Darwin published his "Origin of the Species"-- including Darwin's own grandfather. While many people considered and tried to put together a theory about how species might be related to each other and previous versions that were no longer here, Darwin was the one who slogged through the actual experimentation and study to come up with a scientific grounding for evolution. Henry Russel Wallace, who did his own study in the field rather than the lab, was the one who probably came closest to earning the credit for the theory, but that didn't stop others from claiming the prize.
One of the most notable claimants was Herbert Spencer; in fact, thanks to the tireless promotion of his friend, editor Edward Youmans, Spencer was for a time more famous in the United States than Darwin for discovering evolution. Today, Spencer is better remembered--when he is remembered at all--as a founder of the study of sociology, and one of the proponents of "social Darwinism."
While Spencer was the one who coined the term "survival of the fittest" (Darwin preferred natural selection), to lump him in with those who advocated leaving the weak and the poor by the wayside is a bit much, or at least that's how it seems in Bruce Werth's Banquet at Delmonico's. Spencer believed that society was capable of improving, or evolving, but in those pre-genetics days he believed that this progress would occur because acquired knowledge or characteristics would be passed on, rather than through the elimination of those not seen fit; near the end of his life, when the study of genes proved that acquired characteristics could not be passed on--that humans did not biologically learn from their mistakes--Spencer was crushed and tried to find a way to work around it. However, a number of Spencer's American acolytes did take it to mean that the weak got what they deserved--Yale professor William Sumner once commented that a drunkard in the gutter was where he should be, and protested the town of New Haven's suggestion around Christmas during a financial depression that the town try to find jobs for unemployed men.
Herbert Spencer, American evolution idol.
(Here I should take a moment to note that I read much of Werth's book quickly and did not take notes before returning it, so I'm begging for some patience if I make some grievous error about 19th c. philosophy--and kids, don't use this a study guide for your AP US History exam.)
Spencer's many American fans created the event of the book's title--in 1882, Spencer made a trip to America, and Youmans arranged for a banquet at the Gilded Age power restaurant Delmonico's where the great men who believed in Spencer as a genius and seer could gather together and pay tribute to the great man himself. Spencer was not thrilled by the idea, as he was old, often sick, and worn out by traveling. He consented, though, and sat grimly through the multi-course meal and many lengthy speeches in his honor.
This is just a jumping off point for Werth, who spends most of the book writing about the men who were at the banquet, and how evolution came to be an accepted idea in the US, and what questions it raised here. Werth notes that when Darwin published "The Origin of the Species" in 1859, the US was on the verge of the Civil War, so the full impact of Darwin's ideas didn't really begin to be felt until well after the war. Spencer by then had written a number of other books that were related to evolution, one might say. While Darwin worked in his lab, testing and finding facts to back up ideas, Spencer prized himself on his ability to spin grand theories from a little amount of information. Spencer's books took what Darwin found true about evolution in the natural world and thought it was a universal law that could be applied to everything, including society. He believed that people were progressing towards perfection and that ideally the world would shift from a "militant" society, where might and obedience ruled, to an industrial one that favored complexity, individualism, and reason. Andrew Carnegie, one of Spencer's devotees, thought upon visiting China that he had found an example of a society that had reached the ideal, having progressed beyond militarism to industrialism.
For many who read Spencer, the embrace of evolution meant a struggle to find a way to reconcile their religious beliefs with what they saw scientifically was true. Spencer himself argued that this was a pointless debate, as understanding the possibility of a god was beyond man's comprehension. Darwin quietly shed his Christian beliefs. For some, such as botanist Asa Gray (?) the best answer was that God had been even greater than previously thought, by creating a method that allowed species to propagate and change for the better on their own. Henry Ward Beecher, the most famous preacher in America (indeed, one of the most famous men), became a committed evolutionist and while he still believed in a God, his reading of Spencer's work led him farther and farther away from Christian religion itself. Beecher even stepped towards Social Darwinism--during a railroad strike by rail workers whose wages had been cut below subsistence, Beecher preached that people should be able to live on those wages because the money was enough for bread and water, and that was all that was needed, and anyone who was pushed into poverty by this situation and could not find a way to improve his lot, should then just accept that poverty was what he deserved.
This was similar to the sentiments expressed by the aforementioned Sumner and others during the muscular post-war explosion of building, industry, wealth, immigration and poverty. Social Darwinism meant a clearing out of all those who couldn't make it; some spun this off into eugenics, banning marriages between people with disabilities or using it as a reason for racial discrimination. When asked what to do in the case of someone who had worked hard and done everything right, yet through circumstances beyond his (and it was always his in that time) control was still thrust into dire straits, the social Darwinists couldn't provide much of an answer beyond that was the way things were and had to be.
Werth's book is an example of the "small event that connects a large number of important things" school of history writing. The banquet itself only covers ten to twenty pages at the end of the book, much of which are long quotes from the speeches given in Spencer's honor; after all that, nothing really exciting happens at the banquet. Impressive amounts of food are served, and speeches of a length that would get any speaker today beaten to a pulp are given, but no new ideas were introduced and no intellectual catfights broke out. So with the rest of the book, Werth's task is to tie together a dizzying array of late nineteenth century personages and ideas--Spencer, Darwin, Huxley (Wallace is noticeably absent...I wonder why...), Gray, Sumner, John Fiske, Carnegie, Othniel Marsh, Beecher, evolution, sociology, teleology, sociology, spiritualism--something he accomplishes with ease and clarity; much of the book is entertaining and fairly informative. Sometimes, though, I found myself losing track of time and place, and what each person believed or thought, or what he was even doing in this book--it's not always easy to tell how some of these men connect to evolution and Spencer, other than being readers of his works. This is particularly true of Carnegie and Beecher. With Carnegie, you can see, if you look, that he approached business with perhaps a social Darwinist ethos; probably more to the point, he met and befriended Spencer on the crossing to America before the fateful (or so one would wish) banquet. I enjoyed reading about Carnegie, though, and although he seemed to be one of the farthest flung figures in the circle, I would have perhaps preferred more of him than some of the others (yes, I know, seek Carnegie bio). Beecher takes a particularly long time to connect to the others. He led a busy, eventful life, and it wasn't until well towards the end of it that his views and preaching began to incorporate his evolutionary views. Because of that, I found myself wondering why I was reading again another detailed breakdown of Beecher's adultery trial, and didn't see until much later why he belonged; even so, I still could have lived without the trial rundown. I feel like I am kind of over Beecher (growing up, doesn't every little girl dream of the day they can write words like, "I feel like I am kind of over Beecher"?).
But while much of the book is masterfully executed, I had a strange feeling of claustrophobia as I got deeper and deeper into it. Werth's book delves into the world of these 19th century scientists and intellectuals, but I didn't get any sense of the world around them. Spencer sold enough books to live comfortably off the profits, so there must have been many people outside the scientific community who read them. What did they think of his work? Were there meetings of Spencer societies, or Spencer lectures for the middle-class aspiring intellectual, beyond Harvard and Yale? Weren't there preachers condemning evolution or prominent people who didn't buy the idea? I felt uncomfortably trapped in the heads of a group of very similar people all worrying about the same things the same way.
This is a fine enough book and a good introduction to the world of late nineteenth century science and the time's questions about evolution, but the questions belong to a specific group of people. It's more than readable, but I'm afraid I must categorize it as a book I respected more than loved, and I do wish I could find a book that I loved.
Charles Ranhofer, chef at Delmonico's for the Spencer banquet, was one of the most famous chefs in America. He even had the requisite celebrity chef cookbook.