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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.