The Intellectual Life


Kevin J. Hayes

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 118 in June, 2009.

Francine du Plessix Gray
Madame de Staël: The First Modern Woman (New York: Atlas, 2008)

Renée Bergland
Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer among the American Romantics (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008)

Barry Werth
Banquet at Delmonico’s: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America (New York: Random House, 2009)

After the University of Virginia opened in 1825, Thomas Jefferson frequently invited students to Sunday dinner at Monticello. They enjoyed hearing him tell stories about the people he met in France, especially Madame de Staël, who graciously welcomed him to her Paris salon as she welcomed so many other great men and great minds. The curiosity these Virginia students expressed reflects a fascination with Madame de Staël that spans generations. A major figure in French literature, she is perhaps more important as a center of intellectual and political activity in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. This fascination with Madame de Staël persists to the present, as the numerous recent biographies suggest. In the past five years there have been as many book-length biographies of her, including, most recently, Francine du Plessix Gray’s Madame de Staël: The First Modern Woman.

Gray’s biography synthesizes much primary and secondary material. She makes no great claims to originality. Instead, she seeks to present an introduction to her subject for readers who know little about Madame de Staël. In this, Gray largely succeeds. At less than 250 pages, her little book can be read comfortably in two or three sittings. The first half of this biography provides an overview of Madame de Staël’s personal life and cultural milieu. Though she celebrated the intellectual life and frowned on anyone who did not share her love of books, she was a notorious flirt. Her marriage scarcely affected her love life. Hers was a life of many overlapping affairs. Even as she changed from one lover to the next, she was loathe to abandon her former lovers, many of whom continued to revolve in her orbit for years after their intimacy ended. For the most part, Madame de Staël was a strong woman in a world of weak men, who were powerless to say no to her.

In the second half of the book, Gray features the two most important men in the second half of her life: Benjamin Constant and Napoleon Bonaparte. Though remembered today as a liberal political reformer, Constant was another weak man who kept returning to Madame de Staël no matter how much abuse she heaped on him. Napoleon, alternatively, was her arch-nemesis. She secretly admired his lust for power. Like Napoleon, she, too, wished to control France’s destiny. Threatened by this powerful and articulate woman, Napoleon effectively banished her from Paris during his rule. Madame de Staël complained of his anti-intellectualism, but what frustrated her most about Napoleon was her inability to control him. This strong woman had met her match.

Though devoting most of the book to personal relationships, Gray does discuss Madame de Staël’s writings briefly. Her nonfiction has more lasting literary and intellectual value, but Corinne: ou, L’Italie (1807) remains her most famous work. Offering readers a utopia of female independence, Corinne gave many nineteenth-century women a role model. This novel’s title character, as Gray observes, “lives alone on her own money, never deferring to her family. She goes into society without a protector or an escort; her friends and lovers are of her own choosing; she publishes, exhibits, performs, and is famous in her own right -- she guides her own life in every possible sense.” Embodying many of her creator’s personal attributes, Corinne inspired female readers throughout Europe and America.

Maria Mitchell, for one, was profoundly influenced by Corinne, as Renée Bergland explains in Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science. Mitchell established her reputation as a scientist when she discovered a comet in 1847, a discovery which led to her employment as a contributor to the US Navy’s Nautical Almanac. Assigned the task of computing the course of Venus, Mitchell received a comfortable annual salary, thus becoming one of the first professional astronomers. She diligently fulfilled this responsibility from 1849 to 1868, though she treated herself with a visit to Italy in 1857, a destination motivated by her desire to see the places Madame de Staël described in her novel. Maria Mitchell was a New England Corinne, a woman who lived on her own money, was famous in her own right, and personally guided her own professional career, accepting a professorship at Vassar in 1865. Perhaps the strangest aspect of Mitchell’s life is that attitudes toward women in science regressed during her career. She experienced more personal animosity at the end of her career than she had at its start.

Bergland’s inability to control her material detracts from what could have been a compelling story. Throughout the narrative, Bergland forgets what she had already written, repeating many of the same facts and ideas time and again. These needless and annoying redundancies greatly diminish the book’s potential impact. When Mitchell’s father first encouraged his teenage daughter to study astronomy, many believed that women could make important contributions to science. By discovering new information, they could contribute to mankind’s overall understanding of the universe, which most people accepted as the creation of a benevolent deity. Once Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species (1859), however, science suddenly threatened established opinion. Instead of affirming God’s design, the ideas of evolution and natural selection reduced existence to matters of pure chance. The new science made the world a weird and scary place. Women had to be protected from it, not sent out into it.

The intellectual, moral, and social implications of evolution form the subject of Barry Werth’s Banquet and Delmonico’s: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America. One of many books published this year to coincide with the two-hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s birth, Banquet at Delmonico’s does not give Darwin top billing. The central figure in the book is Herbert Spencer, who was frequently linked with Darwin in the late nineteenth century. Many considered them the two greatest British thinkers of their era. The idea of natural selection is central to the thought of both Darwin and Spencer, but the two worked in opposite ways. Darwin worked inductively, drawing conclusions based on his meticulous observations of individual species. Spencer worked deductively, applying the idea of natural selection to interpret man’s social and political behavior. Though the subject of evolution is central to Banquet at Delmonico’s, the book is more social history and intellectual biography than history of science.

A self-styled freelance historian, Barry Werth takes an intriguing approach in this book. One November night in 1882, a number of American intellectuals gathered at the finest restaurant in Manhattan to celebrate Spencer’s American tour. Werth briefly describes the 1882 banquet in his prologue and then reverts to 1871 in the first chapter. Devoting separate chapters to each year from 1871 to 1882, he traces the lives of all the major figures who ended up at the banquet, which is detailed in the twelfth and final chapter. In short, Banquet at Delmonico’s is a brilliantly conceived book.

Werth nicely carries out his conception -- despite its inherent complexities. Since Werth must tell the stories of several different individuals simultaneously, he prefaces his prologue with a list of principal characters in order of appearance. Each item in the list consists of a name, a photograph, and a brief biography. This reader-friendly feature is a great help. As you read Banquet at Delmonico’s, park a sticky note on the first page of the list of characters, so you can flip back to it as necessary to recall who’s who.

The general plan of this book creates some problems: it forces Werth to discuss the lives of some people who do not really suit the general theme of Spencer’s evolutionary thought. The parts of the book devoted to Henry Ward Beecher are tedious. In the list of characters, Werth describes Beecher as the nation’s leading Protestant minister “whose adultery trial became the greatest social drama of the century.” The famous preacher who commits adultery is a cliche of modern times. Regardless of his contemporary renown, Beecher scarcely deserves to be remembered. Among other banquet guests, John Fiske, the popular historian who applied Spencer’s principles to the study of American history, seems more significant and much more charismatic in contrast.

According to the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data, all three of these books can be classified under the subject heading “Intellectual life.” Taken together, they show how diverse this subject can be. Madame de Staël’s intellectual life was intertwined with her social, personal, and political life. Her salon was a place to discuss literature, influence politics, and initiate love affairs. Learning astronomy from her father, Maria Mitchell’s intellectual life started as an outgrowth of her family life. As animosity toward women in science grew, her intellectual life became increasingly solitary. Relating twelve years in the lives of several powerful nineteenth-century intellectuals, Barry Werth shows how contentious and convivial, how thrilling and frustrating, how challenging and empowering the intellectual life could be, especially during a time when many people were grappling with new concepts that threatened to overturn man’s fundamental understanding of the world.

— Kevin J. Hayes