- Hardcover: 544 pages
- Publisher: Doubleday; First Edition edition (June 27, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0385513968
- ISBN-13: 978-0385513968
- Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 66 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #657,174 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher Hardcover – June 27, 2006
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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.
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
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Recently, I asked two people in their 30's if they had ever heard of Henry Ward Beecher. They had not. They did recognize the name of his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. How time erases celebrity! H.W. Beecher was deeply involved in the major issues of his times, was credited by both Lincoln and Robert E. Lee with determining the outcome of the Civil War and became involved in a legal case over adultery that easily equals the O.J. Simpson spectacle in our own time. Yet, he is almost entirely forgotten - I would not have been able to properly identify him before reading this book.
Henry, the son of a Calvinist preacher, Lyman Beecher, ended up repudiating Calvinism and bridged the time between the fire and brimstone school of preaching and the modern era of American Christianity that he initiated, in which God is equated with love and forgiveness. An emotional man enraptured by the effect of adoring audiences, Henry Ward Beecher lived to address the multitudes. The other duties of a minister paled by comparison; he never cared to be a pastor visiting his flock and listening to their troubles. Rather, he enjoyed mingling with the public at large from the elite of Manhattan to the workers toiling on the docks, Christians and pagans alike. With his long hair, open collar and idea that nobody was sinless or could be, he made a distinct impression wherever he went.
Working his way up through churches near Cincinnati and in Indianapolis, Beecher ultimately had a church in Brooklyn, NY built specifically for him in 1859 (Plymouth Church that still stands today) and from there he ruled the roost until his death, consistently pulling in packed audiences.
A member of a large and famous family and husband to a prolific (literally) wife who viewed herself as a martyr, his chilly marriage resulted in long periods of separation in which his open and understanding manner could lead to complications with the opposite sex. The last quarter of the book is filled with the details of the Beecher - Tilton affair that led to a trial that filled the newspapers of America; well over 100 stories on the matter appeared in the New York Times alone.
This book is enjoyable on many levels, from an investigation of the psychology of Beecher and those closest to him, through an analysis of the religious and political movements of the time, to the issue of how the preservation of what a man represents can be more important to the public than the actual personal actions of that man. In other words, if you are an icon, much will be forgiven before those who treasure the icon will allow it to crumble.
Beecher could lead on the issues, such as the right of women to vote, but he more often took the pulse of his public and moved in the direction to which they pointed. Contradiction was part of the man, as it is with all of us, but Beecher never looked back and never tried to maintain that he was always right as so many do. His conversation with individuals was uninhibited and open-hearted and the emotional transport he achieved in his sermons could lead him to say things he later found hard to defend. Perhaps this was a large part of his attraction; he expressed the emotional freedom for which his straight-laced listeners longed, even if they would never dare to say so.
Read this book and you will understand why Henry Ward Beecher deserved his fame. No less a critic of humanity than Mark Twain claimed Beecher was a Gulliver among Lilliputians. Every chapter will leave you eager to find out what happens next!?
I had the luxury of serving Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, Beecher's church, for a number of years. I have preached from the same platform... an awing experience. And of course I became fascinated with Beecher and his legacy while there, so I try to read everything I can about the man. In this book, I learned much about Beecher that I hadn't known.
I think Applegate did a pretty good job of research, and pulled out voluminous amounts of source materials from letters, articles, and books. Well done!
My only complaints with the book is that it isn't as in-depth as it could have been. Even given the same page count, she could have used less fluffery and more depth. The ending also leaves much to be desired. Beecher's last few years are covered in a scant two or three pages. Applegate is offering a narrative of some of Beecher's post-trial activities, and then, wham, in the space of a couple paragraphs he's had a stroke and died. I think a man like Beecher deserves a better ending to his book than that. Granted, after the trial Beecher's life wasn't as interesting as during, or during or prior to the Civil War, but still, no need to just kill him off once he's served his purpose, which was apparently (to Applegate) to provide amusement during the sex trial.
Another complaint is the vast sea of typos. I can accept a few in a large book like this, but whoever did the final editing before printing was pretty lazy.
The extensive amount of typos is a good metaphor for how Applegate treated Beecher, though.
I was hoping for a more detailed analysis of Beecher, and while this one provides a fair amount of material of his childhood and entry into ministry, it still doesn't offer the full treasure that is there for the taking.
But it's still a four star, excellent entry book into his life.
I hope someone will come along soon and develop this book into a more authoritative and thorough biography. Applegate has done a lot of the required research and put it together. It just needs someone with more time, perhaps, and dedication to make a biography that will really sing and bring out the fulness of this most complicated and influential man.