The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. By Debby Applegate. Doubleday, 2006. Pp. 529. Hardcover. $27.95. ISBN 0-385-51396-8.

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The following review appeared 26 November 2006 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Terrell Dempsey

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 Though Beecher has faded from popular memory and is frequently reduced to a footnote in historical references to his better-known sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, or to the rifles his church sent to besieged anti-slavery settlers in Kansas, as Applegate's wonderful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 his day.

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 subscription publisher.

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 epitaph 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 . . ."


Terrell Dempsey is a practicing attorney in Hannibal, Missouri and the author of Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens's World (University of Missouri Press, 2003).