Sunday, February 28, 2010

American Infidel

American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll
© Orvin Larson 1962 / republished 1993 by FFRF Inc
316 pages

Robert Green Ingersoll has long been a personal hero of mine, so when during the course of a class on the Gilded Age I was allowed to choose a contemporary of the period to write a biographical article about, I eagerly chose “Colonel Bob”.  I have read most of Ingersoll’s available works and a previous biography, and looked forward to seeing Larson made of him. At the outset, American Infidel is more personal than Robert Ingersoll: while the latter emphasizes his legal work and examines themes in his speeches, Larson’s work is very much about the man who referred to his wife and daughter as his Holy Trinity, who rehearsed his speeches before a bust of Cicero as he engaged in his favorite sport of billiards.

Unlike David Anderson's topical approach, Larson is strictly linear. While his gives the reader a better picture of Ingersoll's life as he lived it, the ever-rushing narrative was a bit distracting at times. The book might have profited from more occasional focus, but overall Larson presents a richer view of Ingersoll's life with particular emphasis on his humanistic worldview and his relationships with the religions and churchmen of the day.

      Although I tend to think of Ingersoll as a man apart from his era-- a colossus whose committment to humanism made the times look poorer by comparison -- Larson's work makes it clear that Ingersoll was a man of his time. He was a principled but profit-conscious lawyer, a frightfully polemic politican, and an ardent lover of the Union whose passion for the American dream was only rivaled by his contempt for those who would render the Union asunder or undermine its foundation.  He seems almost a man of multiple times: his political philosophy is from the 18th century and his morals from the 20th, but he lived in between the two. He emerges from the narrative as an extraordinary man of conviction, fighting fiercely for the causes he sees as just and making sacrifices in order to keep true to his principles.

    Thus, while the book has a few minor weak points, it is an easy reccommendation for those interested in the life of Ingersoll or his works.


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