Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal / Edition 2

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The nation's leading minister stands accused of adultery. He vehemently denies the charge but confesses to being on "the ragged edge of despair." His alleged lover is a woman of mystical faith, nearly "Catholic" in her piety. Her husband, a famous writer, sues the minister for damages. A six-month trial ends inconclusively, but it holds the nation in thrall. It produces gripping drama, scathing cartoons, and soul-searching editorials. Trials of Intimacy is the story of a scandal that shook American culture to the core in the 1870s because the key players were such vaunted moral leaders. In that respect there has never been another case like it—except The Scarlet Letter, to which it was constantly compared.

Henry Ward Beecher was pastor of Brooklyn's Plymouth Church and for many the "representative man" of mid-nineteenth century America. Elizabeth Tilton was the wife of Beecher's longtime intimate friend Theodore. His accusation of "criminal conversation" between Henry and Elizabeth confronted the American public with entirely new dilemmas about religion and intimacy, privacy and publicity, reputation and celebrity. The scandal spotlighted a series of comic and tragic loves and betrayals among these three figures, with a supporting cast that included Victoria Woodhull, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

To readers at the time, the Beecher-Tilton Scandal was an irresistible mystery. Richard Fox puts his readers into that same reverberating story, while offering it as a timeless tale of love, deception, faith, and the confounding indeterminacy of truth. Trials of Intimacy revises our conception of nineteenth-century morals and passions. And it is an American history richly resonant with present-day dramas.

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Editorial Reviews

Stephen Prothero

One of the country's greatest communicators, a married man, stands accused of having his way with a woman young enough to be his daughter. Instead of confessing, he offers tortured testimony about what sex is and is not. Though the man is not convicted, his reputation is tarred forever. The woman withdraws from view but cannot escape public ridicule.

Sound familiar? It shouldn't, because this trial of the century was a 19th-century case. The year was 1875. The woman was Elizabeth Tilton. And the accused was the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, pastor of Brooklyn's Plymouth Church and the nation's most beloved preacher.

The Beecher-Tilton scandal is by no means undiscovered territory for historians, who have made sport of trashing the not-so-reverend Beecher for over a century. It is now common knowledge that Beecher and Tilton had sex (whatever that means). But beating up the dead for adultery is passe. So historians accuse Beecher instead of the high crime (or is it a misdemeanor?) of hypocrisy. And they blame the sentimental Protestantism he championed for paving the way for the noxious self-absorption of New Age navel-gazing.

Given all that has been written about this scandal, it's hard to imagine anyone having something new to say about it. But Richard Wightman Fox does find a new angle: agnosticism. After scouring thousands of pages of trial testimony and private correspondence, Fox concludes that there is no way for any honest observer to know for sure what Tilton and Beecher did together. All we know, he argues, is that the principals in the scandal told stories wrapped in stories, and that those tales contradicted each other and changed dramatically over time.

Fox's method shows both modesty and restraint. He begins by allowing his characters to tell their own versions of what happened. He then offers a variety of plausible interpretations of what this "kaleidoscope of stories" might have meant at the time. In the process, Fox gives the lie to the conceit that a careful historian can peel back layer after layer of conflicting testimony to reveal the kernel of truth underneath. In this telling, it's just stories all the way down.

Although there are elements here of a faddish postmodernism, Trials of Intimacy is really a brief for old-fashioned history in which evidence matters and the historian's job is to judge that evidence critically. On at least one occasion, Fox stands up and bangs his gavel. About the emerging consensus (floated in Other Powers, Barbara Goldsmith's recent biography of suffragist Victoria Woodhull) that Tilton and Beecher conceived an aborted or miscarried love child, Fox says bunk, noting that the fetus would have been a hoary 10-and-a-half months old when it was lost.

Fox has argued before that history is "a factual and a moral inquiry." And the moral here is that historians should allow the past to be the past. By insisting that figures like Beecher have something to say about the New Age (or, for that matter, the Clinton-Lewinsky mess), Fox says, we rob ourselves of the lessons that real history has to teach, among them the fact that there are "other ways of being human" that might actually be preferable to our own.

If the past is a foreign country, then the historian's job is to turn characters like Tilton and Beecher into foreigners. Fox does just that by allowing his characters both to "live and breathe in their historical moment" and to "speak a language strangely different from our own." But he also makes Tilton and Beecher accessible to us by translating their Romantic pieties, their Republican politics and their Victorian social conventions into language we can understand. That is a tricky task -- making the past familiar enough to be understood but foreign enough to be itself -- but Fox executes it expertly, whether he is parsing what sentimental Protestantism has to say about sin or explaining why a straight gentleman would sit on his equally straight pastor's lap and seal his profession of devotion with a kiss.

Given his convictions, Fox does not tease out the obvious parallels between Beecher and Clinton, Tilton and Lewinsky. But he does offer this intriguing observation: that in this 1875 scandal we see the gestation of a new America in which "the private infiltrated and colonized the public" and "public discourse...became increasingly dominated by sensational disclosures or inventions about private life." To those sensational disclosures Fox adds not a whit. But his beautifully written book adds much to our understanding of love and loss not only in Victorian America but also in our own time.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The Beecher-Tilton adultery trial of 1874 held the nation in titillating thrall as Theodore Tilton, one of New York's most eminent editors and writers, sued Henry Ward Beecher, perhaps the era's most prominent U.S. clergyman, for "criminal conversation" with Tilton's notedly devout wife, Elizabeth. Broad outlines of the Beecher-Tilton scandal have appeared in several recent biographies of Victoria Woodhull, who first published the details of the adulterous affair in her Weekly. But Fox's book is a detailed history that, with enormous narrative skill and convincing analysis, not only delineates the motives and actions of the protagonists but also illuminates the religious, social and political world in which they lived. Fox argues that the scandal gripped the late 19th-century imagination because it resonated with immediate cultural concerns, including the sentimentalizing of a once more vigorous concept of Christianity and the perceived threat posed by "free love" and the movement for women's suffrage and personal freedom. He is particularly good at examining the role of popular fiction in the scandal: news reports referred constantly to The Scarlet Letter to "explain" the muddled situation, and Tilton even wrote a 600-page novel as a public relations gambit to save Elizabeth's reputation. Cogently argued and deftly written, Fox's analysis is likely to stand as the definitive account of this fascinating chapter in 19th-century American social history. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1874-75, America was gripped by the scandal of the century, when the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, one of the nation's most renowned reformers, orators, and preachers, known as "the most trusted man in America," was accused of having an adulterous affair with one of his Brooklyn parishioners. The complicated story of intimate associations between Beecher and both Theodore and Elizabeth Tilton and the ensuing public trial fed a print culture eager for sensationalism. Beecher's church stood by him, and he escaped conviction in a civil suit, but he and his causes became subjects of mockery. Through it all, the "truth" of the charges was never secured. Fox (history, Boston Univ.) approaches the scandal ingeniously by reading it backward from the memories of the principals and the public accounts to show how the "truth" was constructed by the invention and layering of stories. He brings all the tools of the historical detective and the sensitivity of a novelist to the task to provide a fascinating portrait of storytelling and news mongering. A book of uncommon insight and intelligence.--Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
David Herbert Donald
The story is at once simple and extraordinarily complex, and Richard Wightman Fox, a professor of history at the University of Southern California, tells it in spirited detail.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
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 todissolve 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.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226259383
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 426
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
One: Last Accounts, 1907, 1897, 1887
Two: Final Stories, 1876, 1878, 1884
Three: Public Retellings, 1874
Four: Public Retellings, 1875
Five: Private Retellings, Public Exposures, 1870-1873
Six: Early Stories, 1855-1866
Seven: Early Stories, 1867-1869
Eight: The Tilton Letters, 1866-1869
Nine: Legends, Histories, 1999-1872
Appendix: Documents, 1863-1874
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