19th-century demigods


“A mixture of Yankee transcendentalism and New York rowdyism and, what must be surprising to both these elements, they here seem to fuse and combine with the most perfect harmony.” This is how scholar Charles Eliot Norton assessed Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855, and biographer Debby Applegate sees the same fruitful combination in her subject, Henry Ward Beecher, clergyman and orator extraordinaire. The comparison is not only apt (Beecher and Whitman were close contemporaries and fellow Brooklyn residents, and the poet much admired the preacher; both conveyed optimism toward the American experiment in language brimming with roving, restless energy), it’s also useful, serving to acquaint the reader with the nearly forgotten (Beecher) via the widely familiar (Whitman). Beecher was hugely popular, but was he, as Ms. Applegate suggests, “the most famous man in America”?

more from The NY Observer here.