March 19, 2012
I drive alone to Dresden, NY, eager for a road trip, having not had an excuse for one in quite some time. It’s a beautiful day, untimely for upstate New York, with the crisp air just shaking the snow off its boots.
I drive mostly on thruway to the Seneca Lake area and came upon Geneva, New York, a lively little downtown, and I am pleased. I like lively little main streets like this; this is what Candidate Obama was talking about, Main Street versus Wall Street. Little shops and taverns and oh, a little music store I’ll visit on my way back.
I leave Geneva toward Dresden and am pleased to find myself deep in New York winery country. I pass winery after winery and spent grape bushes galore. I let the windows open to let the chilly wind rush around a little, and I’m blasting De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising.
I find Dresden eventually. It’s a crossroads. It’s so little there that you find yourself looking for the rest of it, and then I’m driving down a road ravine with signs warning that there’s actually no way to turn around. I figure I’d better find a way to do so before I’m sucked in to whatever black hole awaits. And then to my right is my destination, the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum.
Within five minutes of peering into the windows, I realize that it is closed to tourists except for on Saturdays and Sundays, information I did not somehow manage to glean from the World Wide Web. I take a few snapshots, stand for a moment to take the whole place in, including the smallest Post Office I have ever seen just across the street, and I get in my car and drive back.
Some might mark this road trip as a failure. No such thing. I will return to Dresden someday. Perhaps even when this place is open.
My interest in Robert Ingersoll stems from the writing of Susan Jacoby in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, an excellent book that any blogger endeavoring on the BAT should have a well-thumbed copy of. Ingersoll is one of her book’s showpieces, and as well he should be. He was known as a Civil War hero, a colonel indeed captured and then paroled by the South; as one of the great orators of his time; and as the “Great Agnostic.” He is the reason you know the name “Thomas Paine.” He was a spirited member of the Republican party and indeed spoke at one of that party’s convention to nominate a candidate to the floor (who was then not nominated).
He was one of the great Americans, a man I am coming to think of as that generation’s King of Late Night. And, as I may allude to here so many times it might become cloying: You’ve probably never heard of him.
One of the biggest things Robert Ingersoll accomplished: He resurrected Thomas Paine, who died broke and screwed. His country had twice turned its back on him, once to let him rot in a French prison. Theodore Roosevelt called Paine a “filthy little atheist…that apparently esteems a bladder of dirty water as the proper weapon with which to assail Christianity.”
Jacoby continues: “Were it not for the unremitting efforts of Ingersoll, who, despite his nineteenth-century fame and notoriety, is ignored in standard American history texts, Paine’s vital contributions to the revolutionary cause might have suffered the same fate. Unfortunately , no champion arose in the twentieth century to do for Ingersoll what Ingersoll did for Paine.
Well. I’m not sure I’d say I’m a “champion,” Susan, but we can sure get started, and what better occasion for this than the world-famous Blog Against Theocracy?
A few things to know about Ingersoll: Walt Whitman considered him to be the greatest orator of his time.
“It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass,” said Whitman of his friend. “He lives, embodies, the individuality, I preach. I see in Bob [Ingersoll] the noblest specimen—”American-flavored”—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light.”
Novelist Sherwood Anderson had Ingersoll as a character in his novel Poor White, so persuasive a speaker that he “…came to [a small Midwest town] to speak . . . , and after he had gone the question of the divinity of Christ for months occupied the minds of the citizens.”
Ingersoll is mentioned in Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry, where Gantry’s friend Jim Lefferts suggests using an Ingersol sermon, “love is the only bow on life’s dark cloud,” but Gantry opts not to credit Ingersoll. “Rats!” exclaims Gantry. “Chances are nobody there tonight has ever read Ingersoll. Agin him. Besides I’ll kind of change it around.”
Colonel Bob Mountain in Washington state was named for Robert Ingersoll.
I kind of throw these facts up there to emphasize the stature of the man in his day. He was, as I’ve come to think of him, the Johnny Carson of his day.
What was mass media then, after all? Books and newspapers. The theater, and, perhaps, the symphony. Or, you went to see a guy give a speech. And the guy who is considered one of the best at the speech-making is Robert Ingersoll. He’s lauded for his monologues, and his ratings are through the roof.
He’s the King of Late Night of the time.