Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Our Library Table: Debby Applegate's The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

Henry and Harriet
I've been reading Debby Applegate's The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher in stolen moments (so, slowly). It's a compelling read, all told, and totally illuminating at points. I knew a little bit about Beecher (the adultery bit, mainly, thanks to Twain's satellite relationship to the Beechers in Hartford) and had an inkling that I wanted to know more. This proved to be a great place to start, pointing the way to a number of paths that I'll be following in the months to come.

First itch that I'll need to scratch before too long: the Beechers and Walter Scott (yes, him again). Applegate gestures tantalisingly to Henry's love of Scott a number of times, but there's a more fulsome account of the whole clan's relationship to his writings in Joan D. Hedrick's equally compelling biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Here's a glorious snippet:
Second avenue of exploration: Henry's 1867 novel, Norwood; or, Village Life in New England (listed, no less, as one of the century's "Better Sellers" in Frank Luther Mott's Golden Multitudes). Again, I think I was vaguely aware that Beecher had written fiction alongside his more didactic essays. But I didn't know that it was an early part of the post-war Local Color movement (in which his sister Harriet was so influential). And I also didn't know that it was a book that dealt with the Civil War, including a rather pioneering North-South romance. It's on the list.

And finally: a couple of years ago I wrote this chapter on antebellum new religious movements and the Western river system that's just seen the light of day. As it happens, it begins with a quotation from Lyman, the Beecher pater familias. Now I wish that I could also have included this quotation from Henry, on his moment of conversion in the early American west:
Would you mind printing and pasting that into your own copies of Gods of the River? Many thanks. More on Beecher soon, no doubt.

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