THE BEECHERS: An American Family in the Nineteenth Century by Milton Rugoff

THE BEECHERS: An American Family in the Nineteenth Century

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From the birth of Lyman, the Calvinist patriarch (1775), to the death of Isabella, feminist-suffragist-spiritualist (1907): a competent, appealing, but undistinguished portrait of a mighty American clan. Rugoff's wide-ranging credits include a book on Donne and an edition of the travels of Marco Polo. With this generalist background his decision to devote almost ten years to a massive biography too full of theology and the history of ideas for the popular market while too broad and conventional for the academy must be rated as quixotic. Not that there isn't plenty of rich ore to be mined in the Beechers: Lyman's career as a revivalist and temperance crusader has a certain interest, and the careers of his many gifted children still more. Henry (1813-1887) fought slavery and promoted feminism, becoming the most famous preacher and (alleged) adulterer of his age. Harriet (1811-1896) wrenched the conscience of America and the world with Uncle Tom's Cabin. Less celebrated Catharine (1800-1878) struggled for women's right to higher education and against their right to vote. Edward (18031895) and Thomas (1824-1900) won fame as Congregational clergymen. And there were others. The Beechers were lively, controversial, intelligent, and insatiable scribblers (Rugoff counts over 100 books), and this generous chronicle tells us a great deal about them. Beyond that, Rugoff argues that their lives were emblematic of the country's fateful transformation from ""a theocracy ruled by austere churchmen, guilt, fear, and the hope of heaven"" to ""a confident, continent-spanning democracy governed by lawyers, generals, and empire builders, and dedicated to progress, profit, and success."" Perhaps, but the same would hold of many other families (e.g., the Adamses), and as a thesis it's too simplistic by half. A solid effort, but not the magnum opus it's trying to be.

Pub Date: Aug. 17th, 1981
Publisher: Harper & Row