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Dave Wood's Book Report, Aug. 16, 2006

What's in a title?

"The Most Famous American," by Debby Applegate (Doubleday, $27.95) promises a good deal. Who is it? George Washington? Abe Lincoln? Daniel Boone?

It turns out to be none of the above. Applegate's most famous American turns out to be Henry Ward Beecher. I figured that was a bit of a stretch and then I read the book and found out what a fascinating character this brother of author Harriet Beecher Stowe was back in the Civil War era.

Beecher came from a famous New England family. His father Lyman Applegate calls, "The last Puritan preacher."

His son studied for the ministry and turned out to be a very different preacher than his father. Lyman was a guy who leaned heavily on the Old Testament and liked to SMITE a lot of sinners. Henry discovered the New Testament, which opened up the American church to love and forgiveness and acceptance.

That attitude led Beecher to all sorts of liberal causes, including women's suffrage and abolitionism. Beecher was a canny showman, who made news by auctioning off freedom for selected slaves right from his pulpit in Brooklyn. Eventually he became branded as one of the supporters of John Brown and his massacre at Harper's Ferry, Va.This was untrue, but it would later come to haunt the preacher.

So Beecher got a lot of ink from both his friends and enemies. His rise to fame started hitting bumpy roads in 1872, when feminist Victoria Woodhull accused him of having sex with one of his parishioners, after which the cuckolded husband brought suit against him.

So that's how he really got famous. Because his public reputation clashed so dramatically with his private shenanigans, Applegate reports that Beecher garnered more newspaper headlines than did the entire Civil War.

With newspapers today reporting similar clashes between religion and politics, Applegate's new book makes for an interesting reflection on American culture.

"Between the Dying and the Dead," by Neal Nicol and Harry Wiley (University of Wisconsin Press, no price) also deals with a famous -- and controversial -- American.

Dr. Jack Kervorkian probably hasn't garnered more headlines than the Civil War, but his fight to legalize euthanasia has made his name instantly recognizable among proponents and opponents of mercy killing.

Kervorkian up to now has denied requests for interviews. Still an inmate of a Michigan prison for his complicity in a lethal injection several years ago, Kervorkian is also in poor health, so granted an interview with a former medical associate, Neal Nicol, and a former next door neighbor, Harry Wylie.

The portrait that emerges is very positive and portrays Kervorkian as a witty and fun guy, different from the abrasive posture he often took on TV before his incarceration.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.