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The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher Paperback – April 17, 2007
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I was raised in a very unusual religious environment -- my mother's family is Mormon, my father's is Irish Catholic, I grew up around many evangelical Christians in Oregon, and my mother is a New Thought minister -- and Beecher seemed to embody the best of what religion could offer. I loved his very modern sense of humor and irreverence toward old sacred cows, and his joyful, ecumenical approach to religion and life in general. Except, of course, for the fact that he was accused (but never convicted) of an affair with his own parishioner -- which explains why he'd been forgotten.
"What a great topic for a seminar paper!" I thought as an 18 year old student, but as I began writing about him I had no idea how long Beecher would capture my imagination. Finally, after nearly twenty years with Beecher -- including several years of college, 7 years of graduate school and another 7 years of research and writing (it begins to feel almost Biblical!) -- he and I have come to our climax.
I still feel great affection for Beecher even after seeing him at his worst, including discovering a child whom I believe to be his illegitimate daughter. In both his glories and faults, he is one of the great founding fathers of modern American religion and it would be impossible to imagine American culture without his influence. Just try "googling" Henry Ward Beecher's name on the web and you will find hundreds of his pithy, profound and funny quotations collected by people who have no idea that he was once the most famous man in America.
It would thrill me if my book restores some of Beecher's well-deserved fame and infamy. My only dilemma now is what to do now that old Beecher and I have finally come to the end of our collaboration. Any suggestions from readers are very welcome....
Top Customer Reviews
I knew just a little about Beecher, most of it coming from Ron Power's book, Mark Twain. I wasn't aware that Beecher's father was the famous Congregationalist preacher, Lyman Beecher. Henry was born and raised in an austere, Calvinist household. They did not celebrate Christmas, holidays or birthdays. Yet, Henry did not grow up in a joyless or loveless home. Lyman adored his twelve children and spent lots of time with them, insisting that "they were endowed with great gifts of intelligence, compassion and self-discipline." Education was a priority (even for the girls) and spirited discussion was expected and encouraged.
Henry did not set out to enter the ministry, but after graduating from Amherst, he found himself enrolled in his father's seminary. Once he entered the ministry, he wasn't always the best parson, but he was a brilliant preacher. This was a time period when entertaining speakers were comparable to the rock stars of today. He eventually found a home at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights. While there, he became embroiled in the abolitionist movement. In fact, Beecher is credited with bringing anti-slavery to the mainstream.
Beecher was largely responsible for changing the core beliefs about Christianity in the 19th Century. He switched the focus from a vengeful and wrathful God to a loving and forgiving one. He was not without his critics, and some accused him of turning people into Beecherites rather than Christians. All great men have their weaknesses, and Beecher's was his ego.Read more ›
by DEBBY APPLEGATE
Without question, DEBBY APPLEGATE has tremendous depth as a biographer, but Applegate also has potential as an eminent historian. When I read her chapters, I was surprised at the depth of historical knowledge presented. The research is illuminative of all phases of the life of Henry Ward Beecher. Applegate connects Beecher to the people surrounding him, and to the American nation as a whole; but this book's real penetration is its coverage of American society leading up to the Civil War. In fact, her treatment of each member of the Beecher Family is rich, impressing upon us the importance of the Beecher family in the greater context of the fabric of the American nation. There are no indications in the cover or Introduction that inform us that Applegate has has this depth as an historian, in addition to being a good biographer.
The characterization of the proverbial "Connecticut Yankee" takes on flesh in this thorough biography, because Applegate can write concerning the fullness of the human personality which transcends the superficial aspects of human character. Not every biographer can accomplish this, but we often wouldn't know it. One is seldom aware if a biographer fails to show you something. There is nothing pedestrian about Applegate's writing. This is a writer with a gift for making a human being almost transparent.Read more ›
The problem is that it appears to be three books stitched together, quite different in style and method, though of course hanging together in terms of subject and authorship.
The first book carries Beecher into the beginnings of his career, roughly into his starting years in Brooklyn. This portion of the biography is the best in terms of biographical art. Ms. Applegate brings Beecher to life in the context of his family, his surroundings, and other elements of those times. We see him as, one can imagine, he might have seen himself. The focus stays on Beecher, and we have a rich sense of his inner life. This is brilliant biography.
The second "book" in this volume deals mainly with Beecher in his relationship with the slavery issue, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. This portion of the book, though very good in terms of historical content, is not as good biography, because our view has panned back. Though Beecher is still the focal point, our view of him is more distant. We now see him less and less from the inside, and see him more as an actor on the stage. We still catch glimpses of his inner life, and we still sympathize with him and root for him, but our sense of intimacy with him has slipped considerably.
The final "book" is a potboiler about Beecher's sex life and the trouble it got him into.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Carefully researched and wonderfully recorded, Debby Applegate's work is a brilliant revelation of the times of one of America's greatest and most complex patriots and preachers. Read morePublished 4 months ago by Don. Weatherson
Exceptional Work. Brings the complexity of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher into full view.Published 7 months ago by Love a good Book
Henry Ward Beecher was the son of the last great Puritan preacher in America, Lyman Beecher. He was also the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the classic Uncle Tom's... Read morePublished 8 months ago by StudyCredit(dot)com
The story was one of the best crafted literary works I have read from a biography. Unfortunately, though Applegate spent a long time researching the man, her analysis of... Read morePublished 15 months ago by Andrew
A book about a 19th century preacher sounds as if it could be boring and not pertinent to today's world. Read morePublished 16 months ago by Mary Reinert
A well written biography of another deeply flawed human being. Fame is a strange thing. The Kardashshians are famous, though I can't spell the name, but other than fame what have... Read morePublished 18 months ago by Wilbur W. Lewis