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The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

3.94 of 5 stars 3.94  ·  rating details  ·  437 ratings  ·  78 reviews
No one predicted success for Henry Ward Beecher at his birth in 1813. The blithe, boisterous son of the last great Puritan minister, he seemed destined to be overshadowed by his brilliant siblings—especially his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned the century’s bestselling book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But when pushed into the ministry, the charismatic Beecher found intern ...more
Hardcover, 544 pages
Published June 27th 2006 by Doubleday (first published April 17th 2006)
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The bumptious, angry, confused adolescence that America went through in its first 100 years is brought resplendently to life in this biography of Beecher who, in many ways, personified the search for a workable identity that consumed the young nation. This incredibly epochal period saw the country wrestle with the choice of a strong aristocracy or a democracy, fight another war with Britain, and launch the wholesale extermination of indigenous populations, loftily calling it manifest destiny. Po ...more
This book is not only a thorough exploration of a remarkable man, but a marvelous tour through 19th century America.

Recently, I asked two people in their 30's if they had ever heard of Henry Ward Beecher. They had not. They did recognize the name of his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. How time erases celebrity! H.W. Beecher was deeply involved in the major issues of his times, was credited by both Lincoln and Robert E. Lee with determining the outcome of the Civil War and became involved in a leg
K.P.B. Stevens
As one of the members of our book club said, if you stop reading before Chapter 10 you can go away thinking that Henry Ward Beecher was a good man. Born a Puritan of Puritans in New England, he emigrated West and then returned to the East again, landing in Brooklyn, where he became famous as the pastor of Plymouth Church. Applegate's biography is also a history of American religion in the 19th Century, and particularly of the great transition that took place as Calvinism died away and was replac ...more
This biography tells the story of a man eminently famous in his day, but relatively obscure in our time. This is a finely researched and well-written book that pulls the reader through the life of this complex man without descending into the dull recounting of years that often characterize historical biographies. The author, Debby Applegate, respects her character, but doesn’t caulk over his faults with thin defenses or convoluted explanations of his sometimes puzzling and unconscionable behavio ...more
In the first part of the book the reader gets not only a biography but a description of life in post-Revolutionary America up to the Civil War. Through the life of Henry Beecher we get a look at how Calvinism of the period infused a pious household and how the Great Awakening played out in that clerical family.

The author's presentation of the country's social and intellectual changes through the life of Henry Beecher is a fascinating read. We see how the times forced the severe Lyman's move to B
Julie Woods
I absolutely loved this book. It is so packed with detail and intimate knowledge of the personal lives of Beecher, his family and contemporaries, (who wrote thousands of long letters still extant) that it reads like a novel. If you are interested in questions of faith, or how to live a good life, to be of service to others...deeply individual and personal matters set against the very public and momnumental events of American history like the Civil War, you will love this too. Now I want to read ...more
Whoa this book is good! If you need to know how to write a biography, this should be your template. It's not just about Henry Ward Beecher and his immediate surroundings, but rather a wonderfully researched and informative historical timepiece on America during the 19th century (mostly pre-civil war). I don't think I have ever learned more from a book and immediately after returning it to the library I went out and bought a copy.

I really could not recommend this more; it feels more akin to a wo
Todd Thompson
This biography of Henry Ward Beecher is much more than an accounting of the man, but is equally a captivating story of 19th century America in all its failings as well as its triumphs. At, or near, the center of the moral and social debates stood this man, terribly flawed in many ways, though passionate, smart, and charismatic enough to overcome his failings time after time.

Influenced by Beecher were such well-knowns as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Abraham Lincoln.

As a chi
A very smart, well-written, perceptive book about a once-major figure in American life. As good as it is, though, I find it a little odd and embarrassing that the thing I remember most about the book is the author's dedication to her husband at the end. It is way, way up there on my lifetime best-of list of sweeping, devoted, romantic prose. Seriously, it's beautiful.
An extremely well executed biography of a major figure in 19th century American culture - the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and scion of an absolutely fascinating New England family. Wonderfully and suscinctly written. At the end I have the sense that I know his personality, affect, drives. Well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize that it won.
Got to admit I really liked this book, although it took a while to get through. What a colorful character he was. I'd come across him mentioned in a number of books, so when I saw this recently, I grabbed it. Along with his foibles there's a lot of history from state of the country before the Civil War, to the destruction of Reconstruction afterwards. Henry was a real charmer; everyone loved him, especially the ladies. Which is, of course, what finally got him into such trouble. In his time, he ...more
Isn't it interesting how one sibling often gets the credit when another sibling provides the substance? I personally had filed Henry Ward Beecher in my mental file as a great abolitionist when his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), embraced the cause sooner and more consistently.

Indeed, the most amazing part of this biography to me was discovering how inconsistent Beecher was, not only with regard to abolitionism, but also with regard to faith. He interpreted his faith
This is a superb and exceptionally well-written biography, in part because Applegate invested many years in studying Henry Ward Beecher and took the time to tell his story well. She has painted a beautifully detailed and powerfully honest picture of an immensely gifted and deeply flawed human being who used his great talent to help shape the history of his time for good. Beecher never feared to bring his Christian faith to bear on the great moral issues of his day, yet he did it in a way that st ...more
Romela Encina
After being raised under the strict doctrines of Calvinism by his famous father Lyman Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher experienced astonishing success as an influential minister and orator proclaiming the contradictory “Gospel of Love” during the 1800s. In The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, Debby Applegate gives a detailed account of Beecher’s prominent effect on America before and after the Civil War.

Applegate gives us an elaborate picture of Henry Ward Beecher’s l
Debby Applegate's excellent biography of preacher Henry Ward Beecher is also an excellent history of 19th century America on all fronts - political, moral, social, literary, and probably several others. Beecher, the son of the ultimate Calvinist pastor Lyman Beecher and brother of Harriette Beecher Stowe, broke from his father's strict religious stance to defend freedom for slaves and espouse a loving rather than a punishing God.He also apparently had a zipper problem, becoming involved in a sca ...more
Mar 26, 2008 Sarita rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People who like biograhies, American history, or reading about adultering narcissists
Recommended to Sarita by: Rachel
Shelves: history
I really enjoyed this book but with some reservations. It was exactingly researched. You can tell that Derby has amassed mountains of notes on her subject, and sculpting them into a cohesive, compelling narrative took remarkable talent.
My reservations are based mostly on the type of history I like to read, but I also think that she missed one of the major themes of the Beechers' collective story, and the nation's: race.

Derby fails to note that the early Temperance movement championed by Lyman
This is the first history I've read in quite awhile that kept my interest throughout. Perhaps this is because it's a biography and the genre necessitates a narrative structure. Great stuff here.

I knew pretty much nothing about Henry Ward Beecher before reading 'The Most Famous Man in America' other than his relation to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Nonetheless he was a very important actor in the development of the modern American experience. The first compassionate, secularized popular preacher in Am
Applegate has written a sweeping epic of American life from the early to the late 1800s, centering on the life of famed and infamous clergyman Henry Ward Beecher. With Beecher at the center, Applegate weaves a story of America over most of the 1800s. The reader will get a sense of not just the man but his surroundings, from the closed-in world of rural Connecticut to the expansiveness of the frontier Midwest, to the hustle-bustle of New York before and after the Civil War.

Beecher's life is reve
I had no idea who Harriet Beecher Stowe's brother Henry was.. Initially I picked up this book because I find biographies a great way to approach history. Debby Applegate spent many years teasing out the intriguing story of Henry Beecher through a lot of research which started with her Ph.D. thesis. Henry grew up as the son of a fire and brimstone no holds barred Calvinist preacher father. Several of his brothers became ministers as well. It was just expected. Two committed suicide. Henry, over t ...more

I lost interest in this book after about 100 pages but kept reading because it had come highly recommended to me by a friend. I made it to page 268 before I just simply gave up. The life of Henry Ward Beecher was interesting at points, but the book seemed to lack cohesion. At 268 pages I decided to skip ahead to the chapter dealing with his affair with Elizabeth Tilton, but I lost interest in him as a person by that point- so I found myself not caring about it.

Applegate's narrative was hard to
This was a very well written, fascinating book about the life and times of a very interesting man. Henry Ward Beecher was the most famous preacher in America in the second half of the 19th century. His views on the overpowering love of God were revolutionary compared to the more common contemporary belief in a demanding, wrathful God. His controversial, and many times contradictory, teachings and practices were brought to the forefront when he was embroiled in a sensational trial for accused adu ...more
A solid, reasonably well-written and researched biography. Unfortunately, the author permits her skepticism of Beecher's Christianity unintentionally to make Beecher out to as a bit of a skeptic. She doesn't give his faith enough historic credence; on this front, the development of Beecher's theology is unjustly neglected; I only received a vague idea of what he actually believed, and how this changed over time--more discussion of his theological writings and sermons, not just his fascinating bi ...more
It took me almost two months to finish this book, due partly to a busy schedule, but mostly to its heft. Beecher was quite a character, but the most compelling part of this book for me is the context his life provides for 19th century American politics. I gained a new appreciation for the intricacies of the abolition movement, early women's suffrage, the many issues surrounding the Civil War, and how much religious views shaped all of them. I must echo other reviews I've read by saying that the ...more
Rod White
Oct 05, 2007 Rod White rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people intersted in the development of Christianity in the USA
I did not realize that Henry Ward Beecher was so famous! I did know about harriet Beecher Stowe (his Uncle Tom's Cabin - writing sister) and I vaguely remembered Lyman Beecher) the country's last pure Puritan. Henry popularized the gospel of "love" believe it or not. He is kind of the first Jimmy Swaggert. Surprisingly scary book; and it makes you wonder whether you've thought about the Bible well enough lately, or have been swept along with whatever the media is dishing out -- especially the Ch ...more
This is a well-researched, well-written account of the life of Henry Ward Beecher, one of the major players of the progressive religious movement of the 19th century. Like most people, Beecher was a mess of contradictions. His life story shows a man capable of moments of sublime brilliance, shining compassion, biting racism, and deep depravity.

Applegate won the Pulitzer for nonfiction with this book. Even more important, she managed to evoke for me -- a reluctant student of history in my school
Not hard tosee why this book picked up a Pulitzer Prize. The author handles the material in a non judgemental fashion and never allows herself to get overwhelmed by the subject matter. So many things that we take for granted today, everything from an 8 hour work day, civil rights and a "human loving Jesus" all were moved along by Beecher's work. Throw in the sex scandals and a sister who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, possibly the most influential American book of the nineteenth century and you could ...more
Our book club was pretty well split between liking and not liking this book. Those who liked it said the good news is, if you are a history buff, you will find lots of little known information about noteworthy American historical events of the mid-180os woven into this incredibly well documented biography. The importance of Henry Ward Beecher's role has not been well known or documented until now, and it makes for interesting reading. Those who didn't like it said the bad news is that the overly ...more
When David McCullough was getting ready to write his book about the Brooklyn Bridge, he resorted to many biographies about the Beechers, and especially ones with Henry Ward Beecher, whose church was the first "mega-church." Applegate is one of the best new biographers of our time. Her research into this mostly unknown man (other than he was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) was done with a fine tooth comb. Tour de force for Applegate.

Of course, as an added bonus, my sisters and I visited th
Although I found the information about Henry Ward Beecher fascinating, I could not wade through this entire book. I had never heard of this man and was surprised at how much influence he and his family had over such a long stretch of our American history. The author belabors "the point" to the point of excess. One or two examples of how his wife was an unhappy, frigid, nag would have been more palatable instead of pages and pages. I look forward to learning more about Beecher just not from this ...more
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Debby Applegate is an American biographer. She is the author of the The Most Famous Man in America, a biography of Henry Ward Beecher, for which she won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

Born in Eugene, Oregon, Applegate grew up in Clackamas, graduating from Clackamas High School in 1985. She graduated summa cum laude from Amherst College in 1989 and earned a Ph.D. in American
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