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The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought Hardcover – 4 Jan 2013
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"A must-read book." -Bill Moyers, from "Moyers & Co" interview -- Bill Moyers Moyers & Co. "Jacoby succeeds in capturing Ingersoll's remarkable appeal across sectarian and political boundaries. His warmth, humor, tolerance, and rhetorical skill are vividly conveyed, and they are validated by much contemporaneous testimony from figures who would ordinarily have been expected to shun an infamous blasphemer."-Frederick Crews, University of California, Berkeley -- Frederick Crews "As someone who did brave battle with narrow-minded fundamentalists in his own day, Robert Ingersoll would surely be appalled at the political influence of their heirs today. But their very rise makes Susan Jacoby's fine, compact and judicious account of Ingersoll's life and ideas all the more important. She has given us a splendid intellectual portrait of an American who deserves to be far better known."-Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains and To End All Wars -- Adam Hochschild "Robert Ingersoll used his wit to blast the absurdities of religion, while his warmth kept him close to his audiences. He has found his perfect biographer in Susan Jacoby, who uses his story to provide deep insights not only into Ingersoll's century but our own."-Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction -- Rebecca Newberger Goldstein "Susan Jacoby has written a necessary, informative, and intelligent survey of the life, times, and writings of a most neglected figure in American history. A serious and thoughtful reflection on a topic of interest to historians, humanists, and social scientists, let alone general readers, The Great Agnostic will deepen one of the most important of contemporary debates."-Alan Wolfe, author of The Future of Liberalism -- Alan Wolfe "Jacoby's goal of elucidating the life and work of Robert Ingersoll is admirably accomplished. She offers a host of well-chosen quotations from his work, and she deftly displays the effect he had on others. For instance: after a young Eugene V. Debs heard Ingersoll talk, Debs accompanied him to the train station and then - just so he could continue the conversation - bought himself a ticket and rode all the way from Terre Haute to Cincinnati. Readers today may well find Ingersoll's company equally entrancing." -Jennifer Michael Hecht, The New York Times Book Review -- Jennifer Michael Hecht The New York Times Book Review "Jacoby writes with wit and vigor, affectionately resurrecting a man whose life and work are due for reconsideration."-Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe -- Kate Tuttle The Boston Globe "In this persuasive biography, Jacoby makes the case that Americans are dearly indebted to Ingersoll, and would be well-served to revisit his life and writings at a time when religious thought continues to be a divisive force in American civic life... In this important volume, Jacoby illuminates a mind worth celebrating and the story of a life well lived."-Mythili Rao, The Daily Beast -- Mythili Rao The Daily Beast Won Honorable Mention for the 2013 Southern California Book Festival, in the Biography/Autobiography category, sponored by JM Northern Media LLC. -- Southern California Book Festival JM Northern Media LLC Won Honorable Mention in the 2013 Great Midwest Book Festival for the Biography/Autobiography category, given by JM Northern Media LLC -- Great Midwest Book Festival JM Northern Media LLC
About the Author
Susan Jacoby is the author of numerous books, including Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism,The Age of American Unreason, Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, and The Last Men on Top, a recently published eBook. She lives in New York City.
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My only criticism of this story is that American freethought during the end of the 19th century seems very isolated. Jacoby has called this period the Golden Age of American freethought (in Freethinkers as well as here); it was also the golden age of British freethought, and the two traditions were in regular contact with each other. One example would be contraception, which Ingersoll advocated on the basis of women's right to control their own bodies. It wouldn't detract from Ingersoll at all to acknowledge that freethinkers advocating birth control had a long and important history on both sides of the Atlantic when Ingersoll took up the issue. Of course you can't do everything in 200 pages, but in her letter to the new atheists, the author calls out to readers of some contemporary British atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens. Perhaps there would be less need to re-establish these ties across the water if we knew more about the ongoing transatlantic interactions between people like Thomas Paine, Richard Carlile, Frances Wright, R. D. Owens, Charles Knowlton, Charles Bradlaugh, Abner Kneeland, Gilbert Vale, and Robert Ingersoll throughout the 19th century.
But that's my own pet project. Read the book! Rediscover Ingersoll!
If we wonder why we have not heard more about Ingersoll, the same might be said about Thomas Paine. Any objective study of the history of 18th century American must surely recognize the importance of Paine to the creation in America of a free, secular, democratic republic. Surely, he ranks with Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. What kept him from recognition with those founders? What kept such a dynamic speaker and figure as Ingersoll from elective office? Jacoby concludes that it was his challenge to Christian orthodoxy that made him unelectable. And she sees this same prejudice operating today. Very few contemporary politicians have the nerve to state their lack of religious belief. Why should we be surprised at the level of hypocrisy among our elected officials? Jacoby has done well to bring this daring freethinker out of the shadows. And she rightly places him up there with Thomas Paine as a heroic voice in the evolution of our free, enlightened, secular democratic republic.
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