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The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought
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"Jacoby writes with wit and vigor, affectionately resurrecting a man whose life and work are due for reconsideration" (The Boston Globe).

During the Gilded Age, which saw the dawn of America's enduring culture wars, Robert Green Ingersoll was known as "the Great Agnostic." The nation's most famous orator, he raised his voice on behalf of Enlightenment reason, secularism, and the separation of church and state with a power unmatched since America's revolutionary generation. When he died in 1899, even his religious enemies acknowledged that he might have aspired to the US presidency had he been willing to mask his opposition to religion. To the question that retains its controversial power today—was the United States founded as a Christian nation?—Ingersoll answered an emphatic no.
In this provocative biography, Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, restores Ingersoll to his rightful place in an American intellectual tradition extending from Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine to the current generation of "new atheists." Jacoby illuminates the ways in which America's often-denigrated and forgotten secular history encompasses issues, ranging from women's rights to evolution, as potent and divisive today as they were in Ingersoll's time. Ingersoll emerges in this portrait as an indispensable public figure who devoted his life to that greatest secular idea of all—liberty of conscience belonging to the religious and nonreligious alike.

"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
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Street Date:
01/08/2013
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780300188929
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APA Citation (style guide)

Susan Jacoby. (2013). The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. Yale University Press.

Chicago / Turabian - Author Date Citation (style guide)

Susan Jacoby. 2013. The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. Yale University Press.

Chicago / Turabian - Humanities Citation (style guide)

Susan Jacoby, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. Yale University Press, 2013.

MLA Citation (style guide)

Susan Jacoby. The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. Yale University Press, 2013. Web.

Note! Citation formats are based on standards as of July 2010. Citations contain only title, author, edition, publisher, and year published. Citations should be used as a guideline and should be double checked for accuracy.
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"Jacoby writes with wit and vigor, affectionately resurrecting a man whose life and work are due for reconsideration" (The Boston Globe).

During the Gilded Age, which saw the dawn of America's enduring culture wars, Robert Green Ingersoll was known as "the Great Agnostic." The nation's most famous orator, he raised his voice on behalf of Enlightenment reason, secularism, and the separation of church and state with a power unmatched since America's revolutionary generation. When he died in 1899, even his religious enemies acknowledged that he might have aspired to the US presidency had he been willing to mask his opposition to religion. To the question that retains its controversial power today—was the United States founded as a Christian nation?—Ingersoll answered an emphatic no.
In this provocative biography, Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, restores Ingersoll to his rightful place in an...
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fullDescription
"Jacoby writes with wit and vigor, affectionately resurrecting a man whose life and work are due for reconsideration" (The Boston Globe).

During the Gilded Age, which saw the dawn of America's enduring culture wars, Robert Green Ingersoll was known as "the Great Agnostic." The nation's most famous orator, he raised his voice on behalf of Enlightenment reason, secularism, and the separation of church and state with a power unmatched since America's revolutionary generation. When he died in 1899, even his religious enemies acknowledged that he might have aspired to the US presidency had he been willing to mask his opposition to religion. To the question that retains its controversial power today—was the United States founded as a Christian nation?—Ingersoll answered an emphatic no.
In this provocative biography, Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, restores Ingersoll to his rightful place in an American intellectual tradition extending from Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine to the current generation of "new atheists." Jacoby illuminates the ways in which America's often-denigrated and forgotten secular history encompasses issues, ranging from women's rights to evolution, as potent and divisive today as they were in Ingersoll's time. Ingersoll emerges in this portrait as an indispensable public figure who devoted his life to that greatest secular idea of all—liberty of conscience belonging to the religious and nonreligious alike.

"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
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reviews
      • premium: True
      • source: Publisher's Weekly
      • content:

        October 29, 2012
        A rare all-American atheist is celebrated in this provocative if hagiographic sketch. Journalist and atheist intellectual Jacoby (Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism) recaps the Gilded Age career of Robert Green Ingersoll, an influential lawyer and liberal Republican orator dubbed “The Great Agnostic” for his wildly popular lectures on religion, evolution, and other hot-button issues. Her brisk, lucid study makes him an apostle of irreligion in the tradition of Thomas Paine: a minister’s son steeped in Christian doctrine, Ingersoll used folksy humor, clear expositions, and conversational language to extol science and condemn religious cant. (He lampooned the notion of intelligent design by touting cancer as the capstone of God’s plan.) She also styles him a paragon of progressive politics and culture—she appends his luminous eulogy for Walt Whitman—and a near-saintly exemplar of secular humanism, complete with deathbed scene bathed in the joyful denial of a world to come. The author sets her frankly laudatory portrait—her afterword enjoins latter-day “‘New’ Atheists” to honor Ingersoll’s memory—in an insightful analysis of the late Victorian clash between a scientific, Darwinian worldview and a fundamentalist backlash. Jacoby is hardly neutral in that culture war, but her stimulating study shows that rationalist skepticism is as authentic and deep-seated as America’s fabled religiosity. Photos. Agent: Georges Borchardt.

      • premium: True
      • source: Kirkus
      • content:

        November 15, 2012
        Veteran journalist Jacoby (Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, 2011, etc.) pens less a biography than a series of sympathetic essays on the ideas of Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), a Gilded-Age media superstar whose speeches entertained vast audiences even of those who disagreed with his agnosticism. Enthusiastic followers included Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, Eugene Debs, Thomas Edison, Clarence Darrow and W.C. Fields, yet he has largely vanished from history. At the same time, religion--in America uniquely among developed nations--remains almost universally respected and politically influential if sometimes distressingly anti-intellectual. Largely self-educated, Ingersoll passed the Illinois bar at age 21, rising in Republican state politics to become attorney general in 1867. Despite the atheism that put elective office out of reach, his brilliant oratory kept him influential in the party, whose deference to conservative Christian beliefs did not appear for another century. While Ingersoll's atheism filled auditoriums and provoked outraged sermons and editorials, many public stances were far ahead of his time. He denounced racism, discrimination against blacks and anti-immigration laws. He spoke out for the equality of women--not merely for the vote which preoccupied activists at the time--but for birth control and equality in marriage, education and jobs: positions no man and few women of his generation advocated. Nineteenth-century unbelievers tended toward pseudo-scientific social Darwinism, but not Ingersoll, who supported social reforms, free public education and workers' rights. More earnest than truculent, Jacoby writes for a readership of freethinkers, but believers who stumble upon the book will find it hard to deny that, irreligion aside, Ingersoll was a thoroughly admirable figure.

        COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

      • premium: True
      • source: Library Journal
      • content:

        February 1, 2013

        Robert Green Ingersoll was one of the most famous orators and prominent nonbelievers in the United States during the Gilded Age. Frequently cutting across political and social boundaries, Ingersoll won admiration even among his enemies with his charm, wit, and rhetorical ability. Today his legacy is largely forgotten, overlooked even in the pantheon of American secularism. Jacoby (Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism) aims to restore Ingersoll to a more prominent place in American intellectual history as an important classical liberal and humanistic defender of the liberty of conscience in the tradition of Thomas Paine. In her enthusiastic (at times approaching hagiographic) celebration of Ingersoll's life and thought, Jacoby expands on the story of one of the most fascinating characters she covered in Freethinkers. VERDICT Although there are a handful of other biographies on Ingersoll, few have been written in recent years and none addresses his contemporary relevance as ably as this one. Readers interested in the history of American secularism and nonbelievers hungry to expand their repertoire beyond the New Atheists will enjoy this book.--Brian Sullivan, Alfred Univ. Lib., NY

        Copyright 2013 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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