Although Oprah is on vacation, O The Oprah Magazine
is not. The
August issue, which has just come out, includes an excerpt in the
Reading Room section from Robert Ingersoll, a forgotten major figure of
19th century America, who by today's political alignments, seems a man
of contradictions: the son of a minister, a proud Republican, a colonel
and Civil War veteran and a lawyer, he lectured across the country in
a preacher-like style against the mixture of church and state, for free
speech, for rational science and for the equality of all people. He was
an agnostic who in his personal life lived in a way any Christian would
Although he died in 1899, his messages continue to resonate, and oddly
his language and oratorical style would likely be effective in today's
political world. One can easily imagine him on Crossfire
Why has he been forgotten? For one, he "never created a polished masterpiece," according to the Washington Post
Tim Page, who has edited Ingersoll's speeches for a new, slim $10
paperback volume from Steerforth Press (distributed by Random House)
that appears August 16. Called What's God Got to Do With It? Robert Ingersoll on Free Thought, Honest Talk & the Separation of Church & State
the book collects some of Ingersoll's best-known speeches that have a flowing, near musical, sometimes poetic quality punctuated
by Twain-like humor. In fact, Twain himself was a fan and called one of
Ingersoll's speeches "the supreme combination of words that was ever
put together since the world began."
He was also praised by Oscar Wilde ("the most intelligent man in
America"); H.L. Mencken, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton,
Robert M. LaFollette ("He was witty. He was droll. He was eloquent. He
was as full of sentiment as an old violin") and Thomas Edison (he has
"all the attributes of a perfect man"). Imagine the blurb possibilities.
An Ingersoll sampling:
- On July 4, 1876: "One hundred years ago, our fathers retired the
gods from politics. The Declaration of Independence is the grandest,
the bravest, and the profoundest political document that was ever
signed by the representatives of a people. . . . Our fathers founded
the first secular government that was ever founded in this world. . . .
The first government that said every church has exactly the same rights
and no more; every religion has the same rights, and no more."
- "For the man Christ I have infinite respect. . . . He was a reformer in his day. He was an infidel in his time."
- "If there is any man I detest, it is the man who thinks he is the head of a family."
- "We have solemnly declared that the people must determine what is
politically right and what is wrong, and that their legally expressed
will is the supreme law. This leaves no room for national
superstition--no room for patriotic gods or supernatural beings--and
this does away with the necessity for political prayers. . . . If God
is allowed in the Constitution, man must abdicate."
- "The more a man knows, the more he is willing to learn. The less a man knows, the more positive he is that he knows everything."
Page writes in his introduction that the book is intended "to whet
curiosity about the life and work of a most unusual American for a
generation and a country that still has desperate need of him." Because
of the book's timeliness, its small size and modest price--and a plug
from print Oprah
--Colonel Ingersoll just may find a new audience. (In fact, according to Steerforth publisher Chip Fleischer, roughly half of
advance orders are from independent bookstores--a much higher proportion
than usual and an intriguing trend.) As the biographer of Dawn Powell, editor of The Diaries of Dawn Powell
and advisor to her estate, Page knows something about forgotten treasures--and how to make them shine again.