Book about Robert Ingersoll, ‘The Great Agnostic’

“Now that science has attained its youth and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: ‘Let us be friends.’ It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: ‘Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.’” – Robert Ingersoll, 1885

That was Robert Green Ingersoll expanding on his remark that religion had sought to strangle science in its cradle.

Several years ago inkstained wretches such as myself, liked to stay at “The Gramercy Park Hotel. For $100 you could rent a tworoom suite, with wall safe and a key to the old gated garden on Gramercy Square, just across the way from Teddy Roosevelt’s home. Now it has been restored and movie stars patronize the place at $500 and up per day.

I remember it well, on the southeast corner of the building there was a plaque that said “On this site in the 19th century Robert Ingersoll made his home.”

Who was Robert Ingersoll?

All I knew from my reading was that my atheist great uncle Jim read Ingersoll, and that he was a troublemaker, his name showing up on lists of other troublemakers in novels by yet other troublemakers like Sinclair Lewis, who always included Ingersoll on the troublemaker lists of his novels.

Thank goodness Susan Jacoby has come to my rescue with “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought” (Yale University Press, $25). Jacoby has written books about troublemakers before, including “Ferethinkers: A History of American Secularism,” “Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, and “The Age of Unreason.”

Her new book is a compact and lively biography of Ingersoll, who shook up the world in the late 19th century with his argument for reason over religion and then was almost immediately forgotten as so many troublemakers are.

Jacoby asks the question why. Why are freethinkers like Tom Paine and Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson still up there on the pantheon of reason and all Ingersoll gets is a plaque on a downtown new York hostelry?

For that matter, why don’t the so-called “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and the recently dead Christopher Hitchens, rarely mention Ingersoll?

In an “open letter” to current freethinkers, Jacoby explains why and why Ingersoll and his view that liberty of conscience belongs to all, the religious and unreligious alike. Little wonder that his fundamentalist enemies called him “Injure-soul.”

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critic Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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