TRIALS OF INTIMACY by Richard Wightman Fox


Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal
Email this review


The 1875 civil trial of cleric Henry Ward Beecher for adultery and alienation of affection was to its era what the O.J. Simpson trial has been to ours—a never-ending source of confusion, position taking, division, and even, occasionally, clarification of conviction and belief. Now, long awaiting the right historian, this 19th-century scandal has finally found him. Containing all the ingredients of a classic novel, this affair of heart and mind (though probably not of body) between one of the nation’s most respected and influential preachers and his parishioner, Elizabeth Tilton, wife of Beecher’s intimate friend Theodore Tilton, riveted the nation’s attention during the high tide of American Victorianism. Fox (Boston Univ.), an accomplished student of American culture and religion (Reinhold Niebuhr, 1986, etc.), draws from the scandal every conceivable element of historical significance. And while remaining sympathetic to all its complex, accomplished, sometimes outsize characters and, to boot, telling a whopping good tale, he stands at a critic’s due distance from his sources and from previous commentators on them. In Fox’s hands, it is a story both of love exalted, tried, and betrayed and of how fiction, as well as religion, gave meaning to contemporary lives. While firmly a historian’s book, it is, as a narrative of many narratives, also deeply marked by the postmodern approach that offers readers many views and many readings of each event—not all of equal plausibility or validity (for here the historian steps in), but of equal historical interest, significance, and meaning. The scandal occurred at, and accelerated, the moment when Victorian culture was poised to dissolve into more recognizably modern, 20th-century mass culture. Scandal became entertainment, private acts became public possessions, and norms became “values.” At times Fox comes dangerously close to loading his tale with so many kinds of significance that it snaps, yet he skillfully holds it together until the end. A compelling analysis, written by a master hand, of a major event in American culture. (56 photos, not seen.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-226-25938-2
Page count: 376pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1999