Monday, September 1, 2014

August 2014 Book Reports

1. The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate (Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography)

Bob: This is an impressive work and certainly worthy of the recognition given the author. Letters and journals of the principal characters are cited throughout. The style helps the reader feel like a fly on the wall during the most intimate conversations. 

Of particular interest to me was the exploration of the theology of the times, 1820 America. The author spends considerable time hammering the faults of orthodox Calvinism – which sees humankind as sleeping on the brink of hell. This will become the foil or backdrop against which we will see the evolution of Henry Ward Beecher and his ascendancy, in the mind of the author, to a theology of the “all-forgiving Gospel of Love.”

Nicole:  I noticed that Applegate had no sympathy for any part of Calvinism. Who can agree with the everyone-is-going-to-hell-unless-God-tells-you-personally-that-you-are-saved, though. That belief system did create serious introspection and Lyman Beecher was a loving and devoted father, so there had to be something about it, right?

Bob: Henry was born in 1813 and died in 1887. The book tells of his awkwardness as a young student preparing to enter the ministry (as all Lyman Beecher’s sons were expected to do). In this awkward time, Henry discovers a gift for oratory, for talking in a dramatic way that wins people over to your position. And what a gift it was. His siblings were all gifted in one way or another. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, remains a great historical figure for her abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henry, about whom I had never heard until reading this book, was more of an activist when it came to abolition, and many other causes. He raised money to purchase slaves and to buy rifles they could use to fight their way out of bondage. He supported temperance (relative to alcoholic drinks), women’s suffrage, Darwin’s theory of evolution, Chinese immigration, and God’s unconditional love. He also spoke out vigorously against a doctrine of “free love” (the right to engage in illicit sexual relations with impunity).

Nicole:  Isn't it amazing that we'd never heard of this guy?! He was IT! Henry Ward Beecher was not just a preacher and an activist, he was an opinion maker. Everyone wanted to know what he thought about the politicians at the time. His newspaper articles stirred people up and got them talking. He used humor to his advantage, and he was very intelligent. (Sound like anyone you know? Stephen Colbert? Jon Stewart?)

Bob: The author takes us through the agonizing early days of his ministry in Indiana – perhaps more agonizing for his wife, Eunice, than for Henry because she had been raised in finer circumstances. I found the details of their lives and their adaptations, or inability to adapt, as the case may be, to be fascinating. Henry’s development of his special gift of oratory was also impossible to ignore. It must be remembered that oratory was the great professional sport of the mid-1800s. To listen to someone, a famous someone, speak for two hours was considered a privilege and an event not to be missed. In our culture of texting and tweeting, it seems hard, if not impossible to imagine. Eventually landing a position at the new Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, Henry became the most popular speaker in America. 

Nicole: One of my favorite images of the early years of Ward's career was him bringing poor Eunice to Indiana, which was THE WEST at the time. It was the first time she had ever been on a train or seen a train station. Henry, the more experienced traveler, asked her to stay put in a busy train station while he secured their bags and got them seats. She stood there as she was told and after quite a long time, Henry still hadn't returned. Eunice heard the "All Aboard!" and got nervous. She looked into the train and saw a man who looked remarkably like her husband, sitting there reading a newspaper. It was him! He'd forgotten all about her!! Hahahahahaha! Sadly, that set the tone for the marriage, I think.

Bob: If this had been the sum and substance of the biography it would have been ennobling and wonderful, even inspiring. However, there was a darker side to this incredibly influential man – who ironically enough is hardly remembered in the current generation. That darker side was revealed little by little through a variety of scandals involving Beecher and women with whom he allegedly had affairs.

Nicole: In the reviews I read before choosing this book, several people said that if you stopped reading after chapter ten you would go away thinking Henry Ward Beecher was a great man.
Bob: One of the more interesting moments in the book comes with the introduction of Victoria Woodhull. She was a “spiritualist” who eventually became the first woman to address the congress of the United States and the first female to run for President of the United States. It is through Woodhull’s weekly newspaper that details of Beecher’s affairs comes out. And, as it turns out, Woodhull had juicy information about many high ranking officials in government and society, which she used to good advantage to promote her version of “free love,” the idea that it is none of the government’s business what people do in their private “affairs.” Beecher became the foil against which Woodhull placed the whole issue. Why was it acceptable, she asked, to have women ostracized from society when their sexual affairs were discovered; whereas men, who were famous for their dalliances and even bragged about them, felt no consequences at all?

Nicole: I did not like that Victoria Woodhull was the one representing The Sisters. She was pretty gross. Along with her newspaper, she was a high-end prostitute. And a bigamist. Those poor suffragettes who had been campaigning for women's votes all those years and it's Victoria Woodhull who gets to speak to Congress. Not cool.
Bob: As wonderful as the book was, in so many ways, the chapter dealing with the public trial concerning Beecher’s affair, called the Beecher-Tilton Case, was tedious beyond expression. Every breath, every word spoken, every recollection, was poured into the text. It became a page-turner in the worst sense because I couldn’t get through the mess soon enough. That chapter was proof that there is such a thing as too much detail.

Nicole: Agreed. Who cares what time Henry Ward Beecher was at So-and-So's house on this or that night and WHO CARES about all those stupid documents everyone kept drawing up. Confessions, statements, retractions. Bother.
Bob: As I read this book, I found myself thinking of other men who have achieved stature in American society. I thought most particularly of Bill Clinton, who, because of his ease of expression and his ability to empathize with the common man, was excused on every front. I thought of TV evangelists who have scandal after scandal revealed against them and still manage to win over a following who will send their treasure to support them. I thought of the movie Elmer Gantry, the story of a spell-binding preacher who wins souls for Christ and takes virtue from young women all across the country.

Nicole: I already said Beecher made me think of Colbert and Stewart since Beecher himself wasn't a politician. I like your Bill Clinton reference - I was young when his scandal broke and he hadn't built up any sympathy with me. A few years after that I watched him speak and he totally had me! Amazing - that guy was born to be a politician.
Bob: This biography is much more than the story of a man. It is the story of a culture, a forgiving culture, the American culture – a culture in which, if you are a good enough speaker, you can get away with just about anything. 

Nicole: Or good enough at your craft, like acting or art or music. 
Bob: The author tries to make a case for the appropriateness of this attitude. “One cannot view Beecher’s career without thinking of the many charismatic men who were driven to heady heights by their unquenchable longing for approbation and who risked their legacies by letting this longing shade into lust – men of indisputable stature such as Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton. Like them, what made Beecher larger than life was his ability to transform his flaws into a powerful force of empathy and ambition” (page 471). 

Nicole: What a great quote! I have sticky-note arrows in many of the pages of this book. So much great stuff.
Bob: It is that powerful force of empathy and ambition that has won over the nation since its beginning. And, that same force will eventually lead to its downfall. The Apostle Paul wrote of such a future culture, saying, “The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;  And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). The truth is that we will be held accountable before God for our actions. Beecher seemed to understand this in his heart. His soul seemed affected by the fact that he was speaking one set of standards and living another. Beecher conveniently taught that “without sin there can be no saving grace.” He conveniently forgot that when Jesus lovingly comfronted sinners, he always said, “Go thy way and sin no more.” It is the “sin no more” part of God’s love that many, including the author of this remarkable biography, want to forget.

Nicole: Yes - responsibility for one's actions is on the endangered list. Interesting that Henry Ward Beecher could not escape his conscience. He convinced his lovers that what they were doing was okay, but then his sermons revealed his feelings of guilt and his countenance and health deteriorated as he nurtured the natural man instead of his spirit. You can't get away from the truth, no matter how you spin it.

2. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

I decided to give Thomas Hardy another try. I read Tess of the D'Urbervilles in college and loved it, but then I tried to read it again a few years ago and didn't make it past the first 100 pages. Maybe Hardy's stuff can only be read once.

The Mayor of Casterbridge is a simple enough story, but Hardy executes it perfectly. Michael Henchard, a journeyman, and his wife, Susan, are walking to a market one day. Susan is carrying their baby, Elizabeth Jane. Michael and Susan do not speak to each other - they just walk along. Michael is seething about something and Susan doesn't even know it, she's just tending to the baby and walking beside her husband. They get to a make-shift pub at the fair and Henchard begins to drink. He's jokey during the first couple of rounds, but then he becomes a mean drunk and starts telling the crowd how his wife has kept him from success and how simple and stupid she is. She's so terrible, that he says he should auction her off with the rest of the livestock and equipment at the fair! The idea takes hold and he ends up selling his wife for five schillings to a sailor who knows a good deal when he sees it. The baby comes with the wife, btw. Susan is humiliated, but she is so simple that she thinks she needs to make good on the deal her husband has just made and she goes off with the sailor as his new wife. Victorian England, am I right?!

The book jumps 18 years into the future, which was a nice surprise for me. I thought we'd spend more time wallowing. Henchard spent years looking for Susan and Elizabeth Jane, leaving his name with several people and where he could be found if she was ever looking for him. He vows not to take a drink for 21 years as part of his penance. Then he walks to Casterbridge and starts a business as a corn merchant and becomes mayor! 

At the height of Henchard's success, Susan and Elizabeth Jane return to his life. He makes a mess of things again and dies alone. Ha! But really. I listened to Tony Britton read The Mayor of Casterbridge. Britton killed it on the men's voices, but the women all sounded screechy and silly. You couldn't ruin the words, though. Hardy just knows how to tell a story. Some reviews I read said this was depressing, but I didn't find it so. Being a prideful, selfish drunk has consequences and to me Henchard just reaped what he sowed. It was nice to see the natural consequences of poor decisions played out. Henchard was a sympathetic character (somehow) and yet never doing the right thing led exactly where it always leads. Dying alone in bitterness. :) There's a life lesson for you - never get drunk and sell your wife and child. I'm not advertising this very well, I think. I really enjoyed The Mayor of Casterbridge.

3. Junie B. Jones and Some Sneaky Peeky Spying by Barbara Park

Bridget and I get a kick out of Junie B. Jones, so we went back to her for our last few weeks before school started. I, for one, didn't feel like reading ANYTHING at the time, so it was nice to have Junie make us laugh.

In this book, Junie B. is caught spying too often (she hides in her Grandpa's clothes hamper and scares the teeth out of him) and her mother tries to put an end to it. But Junie B. really wants to spy on her kindergarten teacher, "Mrs." Junie B. just wants to sneak into Mrs.'s (?!) clothes hamper and see what she's doing. What? Then Junie B. happens to be at the grocery store at the same time as Mrs. and her spying yields a terrible discovery. Let's just say eating is the same as stealing.

I don't care about Junie's poor grammar and made-up words. I like that girl. I'm glad I don't know her in real life, but she makes Bridget and me laugh.

1 comment:

Jill said...

Great write ups! I love these posts. I always get good reading ideas from them. I love both of your thoughts on the biography. Now I need to read that. Man, fame just isn't good for anyone. It always goes to their head.