Susan Jacoby on the life of Robert Ingersoll

The history of American secularism is a mostly neglected field, except a few gems such as James Turner’s Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America and Amanda Porterfield’s Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation. In the most recent issue of The American Scholar, Susan Jacoby offers a treatment of the life of Robert Ingersoll that verges on hagiography, complete with the threat of martyrdom:

His portliness impelled the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune to note that, in another century, the amount of fat in the Great Agnostic’s body would have produced a “spectacular auto da fé.”

As in her book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Jacoby writes history in the same pattern as her opponents, “those who wish to recreate the country’s mythic origins in their own image.” Still, Ingersoll deserves to be better known as an important figure from the nineteenth century, and perhaps Jacoby’s recent biography, The Great Agnostic, will be a contribution.

Update: Timothy Larsen reviews Jacoby’s biography, and finds it riddled with errors and misinterpretations (via Alan Jacobs).