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

by Debby Applegate
527 pages
Doubleday
Published: April 2006

“The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher” is historian Debby Applegate’s inaugural biographical work and earned the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2007. For the past several years Applegate has been working on a biography of Polly Adler, a Prohibition-era brothel keeper in New York City.

Applegate first began studying Beecher while an undergraduate at Amherst College – which was also her biographical subject’s alma mater (a century-and-a-half earlier). In total she spent almost two decades researching Beecher’s life before completing this biography. Her interest in her subject and her skill at uncovering and synthesizing the most important elements of his life are quickly evident.

It is helpful, of course, that Beecher is a fabulously interesting character. A wildly popular preacher in the mid-19th century, Beecher’s life story benefits from his inexplicable oratorical charisma, his willingness to embrace conflict (particularly, as a staunch abolitionist, in matters concerning slavery) and his apparent proclivity for sleeping with parishioners.

Applegate’s writing style is clear but not uncommonly eloquent. She does not describe moments or set scenes with the flair of biographers such as Chernow, Caro or McCullough. But she is often able to review complex subjects with remarkable dexterity, distilling and conveying them in a comprehensible way.

Highlights include a thorough and perceptive review of slavery in the early-to-mid 19th century, an insightful examination of Beecher’s evolving religious philosophy and enlightening observations concerning American politics and popular culture during her subject’s lifetime. She also does a nice job describing the undeniably rustic life of a typical family in this era.

But Beecher himself remains a bit too elusive. His multifaceted and metamorphic persona defies easy explanation and although he is often attentively-described, he frequently proves frustratingly opaque and enigmatic. In the end, most readers will walk away with a good – but seemingly incomplete – understanding of who he was and what made him tick. His final portrait is resembles a jigsaw puzzle never entirely assembled.

The narrative itself is often excellent but disappointingly uneven. Applegate has clear talent as a storyteller and the book is often fluid and utterly captivating. But the book’s flow too frequently feels tedious and difficult to follow. This is due, at least in part, to an inconsistency in the level of detail provided throughout the text.

Overall, Debby Applegate’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Most Famous Man in America” is a solid if not quite exceptional biography. It proves extremely well-researched and Applegate demonstrates a remarkable mastery of the religious, political and cultural currents of the times. But Beecher led a complex and often convoluted life. And while Applegate does her best to simply and articulate his contradictions she is only partially successful.

Overall rating: 3½ stars

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