Sarita's Reviews > The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate
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Mar 26, 08

bookshelves: history
Recommended to Sarita by: Rachel
Recommended for: People who like biograhies, American history, or reading about adultering narcissists
Read in March, 2008

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 Beecher and his acolytes fed on the rabid anti-immigration feeling of the times (it was the lower class new immigrants who were brewing and distilling spirits).

Later, she describes Beecher's relationships with African Americans during his seminary years that led to Harriet Beecher Stowe's descriptions of Uncle Tom, and of the pastor's auctioning of the freedom of the slave girl. Derby paints these moments as revelatory of Beecher's better nature. I wish that there were quotes by any African Americans in the book besides the incidental single-sentence quotes by Frederick Douglass. Surely there was something said of Beecher's escapades in the nacent black press at the time? I imagine Derby sees this omission as a stylistic decision, but I was still disappointed.

While I was fascinated by Derby's way of using Beecher to depict a definitive era in American history (and was thrilled particularly by the intimate cameos of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Abraham Lincoln), I think the portrait would have been even more telling if it had come in full color.
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