Three Influential Americans Put Heart Above Brain

Henry Ward Beecher, Upton Sinclair, Herbert Matthews: One a late 19th century pastor and orator, the second an early 20th century best-selling novelist, the third a hugely influential mid-20th century journalist. What did they have in common?

One answer is easy: They are the subjects of three biographies published this year. Debby Applegate’s "The Most Famous Man in America" presents Beecher, Anthony Arthur’s "Radical Innocent" takes on Sinclair and Anthony DePalma’s "The Man Who Invented Fidel" relates the Matthews story.

A second answer connects the subjects’ causes: They’re losing. Beecher in many ways created the modern liberal church, both in terms of its "I’m OK, you’re OK" psychology and its emphasis on social progressivism, but those churches are generally shedding members. Matthews, in The New York Times, backed dictators such as Fidel Castro, but much of Havana is waiting for "the beard" to die.

Liberal pioneer Upton Sinclair would like the work of MoveOn or DefCon, but he understood the limitations of the left’s appeal. This year is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Sinclair’s most influential novel, "The Jungle," yet the author thought his expose of the meat-packing industry only a partial success: "I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." (The book led to a Pure Food and Drug Act, but not to the triumph of socialism that was his real aim.)

That explanation of mixed triumph suggests the third answer to my question: Beecher, Sinclair and Matthews all aimed at the public’s heart, not its brain. All three, responding to problems sentimentally rather than rationally, ended up burning down barns to get rid of rodents.

The critter Beecher despised was prune-faced Calvinism: He missed its warm and joyous part, its proclamation that the whole world truly is in God’s hands. He also abandoned the Bible’s realistic appraisal of human nature and instead thought that sweetness and light would make everything right. For example, he preached abolitionism during the 1850s but did not count the cost, and late in 1860 said there would be no Civil War.

Beecher also miscalculated the effect of his evident adultery with several women in his Brooklyn congregation. Thinking that God is love only and forgetting that God also is justice, Beecher was surprised when his love for other women led to a court case in 1874 that turned him into the Bill Clinton of his era.

During the early 20th century Sinclair tried by writing and politics to bring the economics of love to America — he saw socialism in those superficial terms — and came up just short in his attempt to be elected governor of California. Sinclair demanded welfare for the poor but thought such provision would merely be temporary, because all people naturally wanted to work. He was wrong.

As was Matthews, who in 1957 became the journalistic instrument by which Fidel Castro — a "powerful 6-footer, olive-skinned, full-faced," with "extraordinary eloquence" and an "overpowering personality," in the reporter’s words — brought love to Cuba. At a time when Castro was barely staying alive in mountain hideouts, Matthews exaggerated the rebel’s military power by writing of "columns of 40" under Fidel’s command. (Castro later said he had no more than 18 armed men with him at the time, and fooled the New York Times reporter into thinking the rebel army was larger by having his men walk by him several times.)

The end result was that the State Department stopped the shipment to Havana of rifles already purchased by the Cuban government just as Castro was riding his new fame to more weapons and recruits. Exactly 100 years after Beecher’s false prediction of civil peace, Matthews in 1960 wrote that he was "quite certain" that Cuba under Castro "will neither go Communist nor come under Communist control or even great influence."

Sentimentality makes for bad prophecy.