The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, by Susan Jacoby (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2013, ISBN 978-0-300-18892-9). 256 pp. Hardcover, $25.00.
The life of nineteenth-century freethought orator Robert Green Ingersoll has been chronicled by five previous biographers, the most recent previously being Frank Smith, whose Robert G. Ingersoll: A Life appeared in 1990. Unfortunately for Ingersoll’s memory, each biographer was too fond of his subject, and each book was less an authoritative biography than a hagiography marred by the scent of “look-how-wonderful-he-was” special pleading. Ingersoll admirers have long wished for a more comprehensive, scholarly, and objective biography.
Susan Jacoby, author of the commanding 2004 history Freethinkers, could surely have written such a book. But Yale University Press commissioned The Great Agnostic as part of its “American Icons” series with a strict forty-thousand-word limit. Instead of the sprawling, definitive life story one might have hoped for, Jacoby has written something equally significant and far more accessible: an incisive appreciation of Ingersoll that seeks to justify the Great Agnostic’s ways to a new generation too likely to imagine that atheism began ex nihilo with Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens.
“You ‘New’ atheists should consider it your special duty and privilege to work tenaciously for the restoration of the memory of this old American freethinker. You owe him,” Jacoby declares in her Afterword. “So does every American, religious or nonreligious, who enjoys and takes for granted that liberty of conscience is meant for thee as well as for me–the greatest secular idea of all.” The mission of this relatively short book is to demonstrate why that is so, and Jacoby fulfills it deftly.
Ingersoll embodies a conundrum of history–how can a figure whose name every American recognized, like him or hate him, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century be almost universally forgotten today? Surely the hostility of generations of Christian believers played a role. So did Ingersoll’s failure to establish an institution to perpetuate his ideas and his sometimes-turbulent relations with the national freethought organizations of his day. So too did the fact that many of Ingersoll’s ideas–about racial and gender equality, fair treatment of labor, and the distastefulness of a religion centered on a cruel promise of eternal punishment, to name only a few–stopped being controversial as succeeding generations moved them to the mainstream. Jacoby examines these and related issues with sharp insight, making clear the debt that both the freethought community and contemporary culture as a whole owe to Ingersoll and the ideas he championed.
Her narrative skillfully weaves Gilded-Age episodes with contemporary interpretation. Historical nuggets abound: for example, I hadn’t known that Ingersoll had publicly declared his agnosticism as early as 1875, when he addressed a literary club in Terre Haute, Indiana, at the invitation of the socialist activist Eugene V. Debs. But the historical vignettes are always in service of the author’s larger mission: restoring Ingersoll’s memory as the towering and influential freethinker between Thomas Paine and today’s growing roster of nontheistic public intellectuals.
At Robert Ingersoll’s birthplace museum, which the Council for Secular for Secular Humanism has operated since 1993, we introduce Ingersoll to visitors as “the most remarkable American most people never heard of.” Jacoby’s book is a clarion call to correct that injustice–most of all, it is a call for atheists, secular humanists, and other freethinkers to recognize that their movement enjoys a rich history in which Ingersoll was an indispensable figure. Along the way, it delivers hugely rewarding, informative, and enjoyable reading. Who knows, this book may accomplish what the five biographies never could: restoring Ingersoll to the social and historical prominence he deserves. Highly recommended.
Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry and the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.