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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
Top customer reviews
I did have certain expectations when I found this Pulitzer Prize winning book. I am so happy to say this is a scholarly masterpiece for the masses and it far exceeds any expectations I had. It is a brilliant, moving, revealing, poignant, intense, and tender story told by a true master of the art. I suppose five stars is all I'm allowed! I want to thank Debbie Applegate for her gift to us all.
Rick Joseph, Los Angeles
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.
But in the process, you will also see Beecher jettison virtually every doctrine of Christianity save the doctrine of love for God and for others. Unfortunately, it appears that Henry took the "love for others" part a bit too literally, as he was a very flirtatious and apparently adulterous man.
It is amazing to see how he skirts out of trouble time and again. He somehow has his wife convinced that he is a man of high virtue, and he is also able to convince a number of his mistresses that their affairs with him are higher forms of love, even religious love.
And yet in spite of his peccadilloes, Henry Ward Beecher was an indispuably great orator, a man who had his congregation eating out of his hand. Henry loved to preach about the pressing issues of his day, although one could accuse him of waffling on issues when the boat was rocked. He was at first neutral on the slavery issue, then he was a cautious abolitionist, then he even came to the point of advocating violence if necessary.
Perhaps his most shining moment was in 1863 while preaching in England. His stirring speeches about America convinced the British not to lend their support to the South, and this may have helped Lincoln to preserve the Union.
You will learn not only about Beecher's relationships with women (his wife Eunice, Elizabeth Thornton, Edna Proctor, Chloe Beach), but you will also get to know the New York newspaperman Henry Bowen, who convinced Henry to come to New York. You will also meet the complex Theodore Tilton, who goes from being a star struck Beecher fan to being a jealous husband who wants to see Beecher fall from grace.
Debby Applegate writes in a stirring style, and you will want to drop everything else and keep reading. You learn a lot about history along the way.
The only complaint I have is that Applegate slams Calvinism way too much. She treats it as if it is a terrible system of belief and that it makes happy people dour. She seems to think that Lyman Beecher (Henry's father) was a much better man than his theological system would allow.
I am not a Calvinist, but I respect Calvinism as a viable and reasonable expression of Christian faith. The book would have been just as great without the anti-Calvinist bias.