The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Terrell
_The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher_.
Debby Applegate. Doubleday, 2006. Pp. 529. Hardcover. $27.95. ISBN
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I first encountered Henry Ward Beecher some 30 years ago in a most unusual
place. I was at an estate auction in the country in Pike County, Missouri.
This was before the antique craze hit rural Missouri and country auctions
resembled fire-sale rummage sales. I bought a box filled with antique toys
and knickknacks. There at the bottom, along with a Roy Rogers truck and
Mickey Mouse lamp base was a glass figural head from the 1870s. Across the
bottom was written the name, Beecher.
I remembered Beecher, of course. I recalled the little bit I had been
taught about him in school--preacher, abolitionist,--he helped the
free-soilers in Kansas. But that was all I knew--surely not enough to
explain how his likeness came to be executed in glass and found its way to
a modest house near Eolia, Missouri. Now that gap in my knowledge has been
amply filled by a new book that is likely to be on the short list of works
considered by the Pulitzer Prize committee.
Debby Applegate's biography of Henry Ward Beecher is an absolute joy. The
book masterfully relates not just the life of a man who was central to the
events of the mid-19th century, but vividly places him in historical
context. Applegate has the gift of accurately relating the complex
movements of the time--abolitionism, free-soilism, female suffrage, the
birth of the Republican Party among them--in a clear, lively manner that
informs and entertains the novice, but will not bore or distract those with
deeper historical interests. Given the proclivity of Henry Beecher to be at
the epicenter of American social and political life for three tumultuous
decades, this is no mean accomplishment. The title of the book will
surprise some, particularly devotees of Mark Twain. Though Beecher has
faded from popular memory and is frequently reduced to a footnote in
historical references to his better-known sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, or
to the rifles his church sent to besieged anti-slavery settlers in Kansas,
as Applegate's wonderful biography relates, he was a cultural superstar in
Born in 1813, Henry Ward Beecher was a member of a clerical dynasty. His
father was Lyman Beecher, one of the best-known ministers of the early 19th
century. Father Lyman was a Calvinist, who preached an angry, vengeful God.
His was a theology borne by Cotton Mather. He begat as talented a group of
children as any man, among them--son Thomas who would conduct the marriage
ceremony between Samuel Clemens and Olivia Langdon in Elmira; Harriet who
would fire the popular imagination of the nation to the injustice of
slavery; Isabelle who would be a light in the women's suffrage movement;
and Henry who would be the nation's most popular preacher.
Henry began his rise to fame in Indiana shepherding a small church in
Lawrenceburgh, but soon was offered a post in Indianapolis. This was soon
followed by the offer to lead Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. In 19th century
America, before the rise of modern mass media, people found entertainment
in the courthouses and churches of the day. People flocked to hear good
oration--and one of Henry's great gifts was his speaking skill. After his
arrival, his church in Brooklyn was soon packed on Sunday mornings. The
ferries from Manhattan were packed with people coming to hear him speak.
He also had the ability to inspire great love in people. Members of his
congregation kissed him affectionately and embraced him as part of their
family. He was not a physically attractive man, but he was a powerhouse in
the pulpit. He spoke without notes and could entrance his congregation for
hours. When he began touring and giving his lectures, he electrified the
public in the same way he affected his communicants.
Beecher was no dogmatist like his father. If he didn't originate the idea
of God as love, he is the man who popularized it among liberal protestant
denominations. In fact, he drifted so far from his father's Calvinism that
he repudiated the very idea of hell. He was one of the first to reconcile
Darwin and the Bible. His theology was, if anything, rather vague. He
preached a loose, non-literal interpretation of the gospels. This was a
revolutionary approach to the Bible in mid-19th century America. Applegate
writes that the appeal of Beecherism "lay in its two interwoven tenets:
Liberty and Sympathy, or Freedom and Love, Beecher's 'Gospel of Love'" (p.
291). Beecher preached that "Jesus felt instantly that there were
affinities and relationships far higher and wider than those constituted by
the earthly necessities of family life. . . Many and many a one is born
sister to you and is not sister; is born brother, and is no kindred of
yours. And many whose father and mother you never know, are own brothers to
you by soul-affinity" (p. 291).
It is perhaps not surprising that Beecher embraced anti-slavery with a
passion. Were slaves not our brothers and sisters? Mock slave auctions were
a regular feature of services at Plymouth Church, and funds were often
raised to purchase the freedom of slaves in the South. When events in
Kansas boiled to the point of civil war, Beecher proclaimed the right of
self-defense for the anti-slavery settlers. Under his leadership, rifles
and supplies were shipped to the settlers. To avoid confiscation by the
authorities and pro-slavery forces, the supplies were shipped in boxes with
misleading content labels. Opponents claimed that rifles were shipped in
boxes marked as containing Bibles. The Sharpe's carbine, an innovative
breech-loading firearm of the time, will forever be known as a "Beecher
Bible." In those sexist times, there were many who believed that he was the
one who actually penned his sister's book _Uncle Tom's Cabin_.
Beecher had no fear of mixing politics and pulpit. He was an early force in
the Republican Party. He stumped for Fremont in 1856, and was an early
Lincoln stalwart. It is a little-known fact that Lincoln's critical Cooper
Union speech was originally scheduled for Plymouth Church but was moved
because the Union hall accommodated more people. During the Civil War, when
the possible support of Great Britain for the Confederacy threatened the
cause of the Union, Beecher gave a successful series of speeches in Britain
which helped quash enthusiasm there for the South.
Beecher's life intersected with Mark Twain's in 1867. When Twain arrived in
New York that year, he went to Plymouth Church to hear the famous preacher
speak and related his impressions in a letter published March 30, 1867 in
the San Francisco _Alta California_ newspaper. Later that spring a deacon
of Plymouth Church and a close friend of Beecher's, Captain Charles Duncan
organized what was to be one of the first luxury cruises in America. With
rumors flying that General W. T. Sherman of Civil War fame and Henry Ward
Beecher himself were going on the tour, Duncan promoted a five-month
excursion through the Mediterranean to the Holy Land aboard the steamer
_Quaker City_. Twain went as a newspaper correspondent and entered into a
friendship with 17-year-old Emeline Beach (Applegate refers to her as
"Emma"), daughter of Moses and Chloe Beach who were close acquaintances of
Beecher. Moses Beach, owner of the _New York Sun_ made the excursion. His
wife Chloe remained at home. The nature of the Beach and Beecher friendship
was a complicated one and Applegate theorizes that Beecher had fathered a
daughter named Violet in January 1867 with Chloe Beach.
After the _Quaker City_ returned in 1867, Twain was invited with his new
friends to the Beecher home for dinner one Sunday. Twain and Beecher
immediately liked each other. "Henry Ward is a brick," Twain declared in a
letter to his mother Jane Clemens dated 8 January 1868. In a second letter
to his mother dated 24 January 1868 Twain wrote that Beecher advised, "Now
here, you are one of the talented men of the age--nobody is going to deny
that--but in matters of business, I don't suppose you know more than enough
to come in when it rains. I'll tell you what to do, and how to do it" (p.
375). Applegate relates that Twain followed Beecher's advice and the
resulting _Innocents Abroad, or, the New Pilgrim's Progress_ became a
best-seller. Although Applegate does not elaborate on the advice Beecher
gave Twain about publishing his book, the editors of _Mark Twain's Letters,
Volume 2, 1867-1868_ (University of California Press, 1990) explain that
Beecher had recently successfully executed a book contract with a
Beecher's success was tainted in the end by a sex scandal. The same
magnetism that brought hordes to Plymouth Church and packed the lecture
halls made him attractive to women. Rumor had it that when Beecher, a
married man and a father, preached on Sunday morning there were always a
number of his mistresses in his congregation. Applegate's matter-of-fact
explanation of how Victorian women's undergarments facilitated easy parlor
encounters despite petticoats and pantaloons is priceless.
An earlier sex scandal of 1856-7 with Edna Dean Proctor was kept under
wraps for years. But eventually litigation was brought against Beecher by
Theodore Tilton, a supposedly cuckolded husband for criminal
conversation--the old legal term for having sexual intercourse with another
man's wife. The 1875 trial received national attention. Mark Twain took
great interest in the sex trial and, along with his friend and pastor
Joseph Twichell, attended the proceedings the day Beecher was scheduled to
testify. The trial resulted in a hung jury and haunted the latter years of
Beecher's career. He died of a stroke in March 1887 a month after signing a
contract with Mark Twain's publishing company to write his autobiography.
Mark Twain supported Beecher throughout his public scandal. Applegate
relates that Twain choked up when reading the sermon on Beecher delivered
by Joseph Twichell after Beecher died. "What a pity," Twain wrote in a
letter to Twichell, "that so insignificant a matter as the chastity or
unchastity of an Elizabeth Tilton could clip the locks of this Samson and
make him as other men, in the estimation of a nation of Lilliputians
creeping and climbing about his shoe-soles" (p. 468).
Applegate points out the irony that Beecher's tombstone epithet reads "He
thinketh no evil"--these were the same words that Herman Melville had used
to introduce his book _The Confidence Man: His Masquerade_ (1857) which
some scholars believe was a satire of Henry Ward Beecher.
Applegate combines primary research from many archives including Yale's
collection of Henry Ward Beecher's personal papers. The book contains
reference notes and a bibliography. For Twain scholars, the shortcomings in
Applegate's book will be found in her referencing of Twain-related
material. Not all quotes such as the quotes from letters Twain wrote to his
mother are referenced. It is evident Applegate used multiple editions of
_Mark Twain's Letters_ published by the University of California Press.
However, her bibliography lists only the _1867-1868_ edition edited by
Harriet Elinor Smith and Richard Bucci. Other volumes of _Mark Twain's
Letters_ published by University of California Press appear in Applegate's
reference notes but are misidentified and have different editors--not Smith
and Bucci. Applegate also references "Twain, _Autobiography of Mark Twain_"
(p. 494) in one of her reference notes but fails to add it to the
bibliography or specify it is the Charles Neider edition.
Religious scholars might be disappointed as well that there is not more
theology in the book. But in the end, all such criticism feels like minor
nitpicking. An author who tackles a man as complex and as large as a Twain
or a Beecher must make choices lest the work never end. Applegate's book is
an incredible study. Her portrayal of the times is as vivid and accurate as
her portrayal of Beecher.
Applegate has restored Beecher to his place in the American pantheon. It
should be no surprise to see the cover of the 2007 printings of this book
bearing the announcement, "Winner of the 2006 . . ." It also will be no
surprise to go to an auction after this book has been on the shelves for a
year or so and have the auctioneer hold up a Beecher chatchke or the
ubiquitous Victorian photo album open to the page where the Beecher photo
can be found. I can just hear him call, "Look at this ladies and gentlemen.
That's Henry Ward Beecher! The most famous man in America! Who'll start me
out at . . ."