For the first third of its length, The Most Famous Man in America, Debby Applegate’s biography of Henry Ward Beecher, is a model of the genre. Applegate seems in complete command of a rich variety of sources as she sensitively presents the early years of the man who would grow up to be nineteenth century America’s most popular and influential preacher.
Applegate is excellent at conjuring up an image of the early nineteenth century and of family life in the famous Beecher family. She ably depicts the background of “plain living and high thinking” that young Henry grew up in as the son of the famous but impoverished preacher Lyman Beecher in rural Connecticut. Carried along by Applegate’s supple prose, the reader also learns about the character and struggles of young Henry: how his mother died when he was only three and how his stepmother was cold and distant; how he did not do as well as his siblings at school and felt insecure as a result; and how he did not feel the religious fervor he knew his strict Calvinist father wanted him to feel and therefore thought of himself as a doomed sinner.
Applegate charts the growth of a boy who slowly began to find his way, struggling to get out of his father’s shadow and develop his own personality and his own attitude toward religion. Beecher, whose natural tendencies seem to have been mischievous and irreverent, at first sought to pursue a nonreligious career, though all of Lyman Beecher’s sons seemed marked out for the ministry. Eventually, Henry was ordained too, but he quickly became a different sort of clergyman than his father, a “sunshiny” clergyman, he once said, drawing on the humor in life instead of warning of hell and damnation.
Applegate shows that the young Beecher learned at school that he had a talent for oratory, in part because of his emotiveness and natural acting ability, which served him in this role better than his siblings’ academic excellence would have served him. Beecher also learned to be candid and confessional, to speak of his own failings from the pulpit in a way that won his parishioners’ sympathy and made them feel he was one of them. He also moved decisively away from his father’s stern, judgmental God to a loving, compassionate, merciful God, preaching a kinder, gentler religion focused on the problems of everyday life instead of on abstruse theology.
While letting the reader see all of this, Applegate is also able to create a sense of the background, of the bustling new city of Cincinnati where Beecher went to study for the ministry and of malarial Indianapolis where he took one of his first positions. Applegate also points out that by his final years at college, Beecher had learned to deal with his early insecurities and become quite sociable, especially with young ladies, a trait that would get him into trouble in later life.
Up to this point in the biography, Applegate does very well, avoiding most of the pitfalls that can ensnare a biographer. She gives background, but not too much. She stays focused on her subject, not deviating into accounts of tangential matters. She writes well and is able to incorporate large amounts of research into her narrative so that the reader feels confident in what she says, even though she adopts the strange approach of footnoting only direct quotations and not providing citations when she is paraphrasing.
Applegate is tempted at the very beginning by the snare of fictionalizing, turning her introduction for a moment into a pseudonovel in which she pretends to be able to enter Beecher’s mind, saying that he was nervous about his big speech at the end of the Civil War, but in general she shies away from that temptation and keeps her prose nonfictional. However, about a third of the way into the biography she falls prey to a very modern failing, the temptation of judgment, and it undermines the rest of the book.
It is a bad sign even before this happens that she occasionally uses some anachronistic language, referring to Beecher’s early performance as a minister in which he was good at preaching but not good at pastoral care as “a mixed bag.” Similarly, it is jarring when she speaks of the conflict between students and their elders at Beecher’s college as a “generation gap.” Finally, it is especially disconcerting to read in a work that aims to bring an earlier century to life that “it is difficult to understand how Americans [in the early nineteenth century] could have tolerated slavery.”
Slavery was a key issue in Henry Ward Beecher’s life, and it is a key issue in this biography, but it is not handled here with...
(The entire section is 1906 words.)