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The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher Paperback – April 17, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Now nearly forgotten, Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887) was an immensely famous minister, abolitionist and public intellectual whose career was rocked by allegations of adultery that made nationwide headlines. In this engaging biography, American studies scholar Applegate situates this curiously modern 19th-century figure at the focus of epochal developments in American culture. Beecher's mesmerizing oratory and fiery newspaper columns made him one of the first celebrities of the nascent mass media. His antislavery politics, though often tepid and vacillating, Applegate argues, injected a note of emotionalism into the debate that—with his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin—galvanized Northern public opinion. And by preaching a loving God instead of a wrathful one, the author contends, Beecher repudiated the dour Calvinism of his youth and made happiness and self-fulfillment, rather than sin and guilt, the centerpiece of modern Christian ideology. (The implicit moral anarchy of his creed, critics charged, evinced itself in his sexual indiscretions.) Although marred by occasionally facile psychoanalysis (Applegate describes Beecher, the seventh of 12 siblings, as a classic "middle child" personality), this assessment of Beecher is judicious and critical. Applegate gives an insightful account of a contradictory, fascinating, rather Clintonesque figure who, in many ways, was America's first liberal. (June 27)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Yankee preacher Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87) knew everybody who was anybody, and his Plymouth Church in Brooklyn was a popular tourist attraction. If he was the most famous American, he was also a polarizing figure because of the abolitionism that made him "most hated" in the antebellum South. Overachievement was in his blood: father Lyman was the last great American Puritan minister; most siblings were missionaries, educators, and scholars; and sister Harriet became the most famous woman in the English-speaking world for the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Assuming Lyman's mantle, Henry distinguished himself by preaching unconditional love when most ministers prosecuted biblical literalism. Applegate well evokes Beecher's nineteenth-century milieu while making connections to the present day. Orators were celebrities then, and whereas twentieth-century evangelicals are reputedly anti-intellectual, the Beechers ardently advocated education. Adultery with his best friend's wife led to a sensational trial that irrevocably damaged Beecher's reputation. Applegate sympathetically portrays this larger-than-life figure as appealingly human. June Sawyers
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Image; Reprint edition (April 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385513976
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385513975
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #349,296 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I started researching the notorious and charming Reverend Henry Ward Beecher when I was only 18 years old, when I was asked to put together a display on notorious but forgotten alumni as a student worker in the Amherst College Archives (I was a great fan of American history even then).

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....

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I would not have chosen to read a book about Henry Ward Beecher, but I received The Most Popular Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate as a gift. I was pleasantly surprised by this engrossing and well-written story.

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.
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Format: Hardcover
"The Most Famous Man in America: the biography of Henry Ward Beecher"

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.
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Format: Hardcover
I agree with other reviewers that this is an outstanding biography. Debby Applegate brings an obscure character, and the people and events around him, into clear focus. Her writing is strong -- clear and confident, and occasionally rather striking. Her research and her grasp of the period are astonishing. She certainly seems to have it in her to write a great biography -- but this isn't quite it.

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.
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