Henry Ward Beecher, Upton Sinclair, Herbert Matthews: One a late 19th century pastor and orator, the second an early 20th century best-selling novelist, the third a hugely influential mid-20th century journalist. What did they have in common?
One answer is easy: They are the subjects of three biographies published this year. Debby Applegate's "The Most Famous Man in America" presents Beecher, Anthony Arthur's "Radical Innocent" takes on Sinclair and Anthony DePalma's "The Man Who Invented Fidel" relates the Matthews story.
A second answer connects the subjects' causes: They're losing. Beecher in many ways created the modern liberal church, both in terms of its "I'm OK, you're OK" psychology and its emphasis on social progressivism, but those churches are generally shedding members. Matthews, in The New York Times, backed dictators such as Fidel Castro, but much of Havana is waiting for "the beard" to die.
Liberal pioneer Upton Sinclair would like the work of MoveOn or DefCon, but he understood the limitations of the left's appeal. This year is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Sinclair's most influential novel, "The Jungle," yet the author thought his expose of the meat-packing industry only a partial success: "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." (The book led to a Pure Food and Drug Act, but not to the triumph of socialism that was his real aim.)
That explanation of mixed triumph suggests the third answer to my question: Beecher, Sinclair and Matthews all aimed at the public's heart, not its brain. All three, responding to problems sentimentally rather than rationally, ended up burning down barns to get rid of rodents.
The critter Beecher despised was prune-faced Calvinism: He missed its warm and joyous part, its proclamation that the whole world truly is in God's hands. He also abandoned the Bible's realistic appraisal of human nature and instead thought that sweetness and light would make everything right. For example, he preached abolitionism during the 1850s but did not count the cost, and late in 1860 said there would be no Civil War.
Beecher also miscalculated the effect of his evident adultery with several women in his Brooklyn congregation. Thinking that God is love only and forgetting that God also is justice, Beecher was surprised when his love for other women led to a court case in 1874 that turned him into the Bill Clinton of his era.