Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Book Review: "The Most Famous Man in America"

Debby Applegate's new book (her first), The Most Famous Man in America, details the life and times of Henry Ward Beecher, a public figure whose fame in his own time has been largely eclipsed in the period since his death. The son of famed minister Lyman Beecher and brother of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry's story is well-told in this fascinating and readable biography.

Applegate gently integrates her narrative of Beecher's life with a useful social, religious, and political history of America from the first quarter of the nineteenth century through the late 1880s at the height of the Gilded Age. The tensions of the era are evident at every turn, seen through the lens of Beecher and his interactions with his family, his friends, and the wider world. As Beecher came to slowly reject the staid Calvinism of his father and preach a new religion based on God's capacity to love, he mirrored the changes occurring simultaneously in the society around him.

From his earliest days, Beecher faced extreme pressure to excel, and worked hard to do so. Overcoming a speech impediment, Henry transformed himself through hard work and practice into a brilliant orator and minister, eventually accepting a call to head up the large Plymouth Church in blooming Brooklyn. It was here that Beecher made a name for himself through his preaching, lecturing, and writing - his stature grew to such a height that Lincoln chose Beecher to make the keynote speech at Fort Sumter when the Stars and Stripes were raised there at the end of the Civil War.

The final section of Applegate's book focuses on what must be seen as the defining period of Beecher's life, his entire career notwithstanding. A lurid sex scandal with all the trimmings (blackmail, additional allegations, cameo appearances from the leading figures of the day, incriminating documents in the newspaper, a salacious civil trial) consumed the last years of Beecher's career; Applegate recounts these events deftly, weaving them into the context of Beecher's entire life - while this section of the book reads more monographically than biographically, it is certainly riveting.

Beecher has found a fine biographer in Ms. Applegate; I recommend The Most Famous Man in America without reservation.