Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Most Famous Man in America, by Debbie Applegate

The Most Famous Man in America: the biography of Henry Ward Beecher [link takes you to my amazon store], is a comprehensive, exhaustive story of Beecher's life, written almost like a novel. The book introduces us to a vaguely familiar figure in American history and brings him to sparkling life, complete with a look at his famous family and the scandal that later almost destroyed him.

Henry Ward Beecher was one of Lyman Beecher's children, and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Lyman became well-known as a preacher in his time, as a strict Calvinist, a believer in the old testament way of seeing God: vengeful, punishing. He was known for following his own strict code of ethics, but at home he was a loving, forgiving father. Unlike many evangelical Christians today, he also believed strongly in education and questioning, encouraging all of his children to learn all they could.

Lyman wanted all of his sons to follow him into the ministry. Eventually, hesitantly, Henry did just that.

From childhood, though, Henry did not resemble his father. He was easy-going, optimistic, playful. He made others laugh. He developed a vague sense that Lyman's view of God didn't mesh with Lyman's own actions, and he puzzled over the twisted logic needed to follow Calvinist tenets.

Over time, as much for self-acceptance as for any other reason, he strayed from the Calvinist and developed a view focused more on Jesus and on love. At first he took little steps away from his childhood teachings but eventually just threw the whole thing away, embracing not only love and forgiveness but even finding a way to meld the Bible's teachings with the early concepts of evolution.

Henry was a terrific orator. He discovered this talent early in school and eventually this is what made him most famous. What really drew them in, though, was his warmth. Over the years, as crisis followed scandal, he tended to emerge with his head above water mostly because of this capacity. People liked him.

Henry's unique brand of religion was more palatable than the old-style version. People liked to hear that there was hope for them, that when they sinned they were just human. Above all, Henry believed and taught that it is "more important to do good than to be good."

It's clear from his life in this book that much of what he preached is what he wanted to hear himself. He was far from a saint. He overspent, went into debt constantly, enjoyed riches and good clothes, loved being with women. Later in life he even took up drinking (he did continue the church's teachings against drink, gambling,and prostitution throughout his life). Eventually his relationships with a few women led to a major scandal, bringing all of the pundits of the day well out in the open, destroying friendships, and sobering his effervescent personality.

Overshadowed by his large presence was his sharp, questioning intellect. Beecher became friends with several of the so-called transcendentalists, and in fact brought much of that high-minded philosophy down to earth, where he himself practiced it. He was passionately interested in science and in the origin of man as a biological being.

It was his radical approach to religion that earns him his place in history, however. Most modern churches follow his practice, so much so that we forget Christianity has not always preached love and forgiveness.

This biography is a sympathetic yet not sycophantic telling of the story. It's clear that Applegate likes what she knows of Beecher (and she knows a lot: she started this book as a thesis at Amherst, where Beecher went to college, and the librarians there led her to thousands of treasures about and by Beecher) but she does not let it cloud her vision. She tells it as it is, careful to specify what is known absolutely and what is not.

As a bonus,the story encompasses a wade swath of early American history. A significant portion of the book tells the tale of slavery and abolition. It is easy, sometimes, from the distance of time, to imagine that it was a simple situation: slavery is bad and therefore must go. But of course it was not simple. Lincoln himself famously said that he was for the union and if that meant slavery had to stay then it would; if that meant slavery had to go it would. In other words, political expediency outflanked moral obligations then as well as now.

What made Henry's sister Harriet's book (Uncle Tom's Cabin) so famous is that she made slaves human. This had not been done before. Critics now can easily rail against her sentimental writing and characters but those critics weren't there then. She wasn't a great writer but she said what others did not.

Henry, too, leaned toward abolition. But he wavered again and again, primarily for his own political reasons. He was no sturdy oak of principle. He would sacrifice principles and people to protect himself. Yet still people loved him. Perhaps because they saw much of themselves in him.

There was more to this extreme man than can possibly meet the eye today. This book helps us realize that and gives us an excellent picture of the times.

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