It is impossible not to like Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), the greatest champion of atheism in 19th-century America (indeed, perhaps in the whole of American history). Susan Jacoby, his most recent biographer, values highly his forthright attacks on orthodox doctrine, but fair-minded Christians have always been apt to admire him as well. His love of life was infectious; his wit was delicious. Colonel "Bob" Ingersoll was a generous, large-hearted man, filled with compassion for those who were suffering or oppressed.
It is right and fitting that, in The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (Yale University Press), Jacoby would want to celebrate such a life and thereby introduce a new generation of readers to her hero. She does this as a proud member of the atheist community in America.
Christian historical writing has now matured to the point where it has dispensed with hagiography. Christian scholars are convinced that we have as much to learn from the weaknesses and blind spots of our saints as we do from their strengths and achievements. The fledgling American atheist community, however, has not yet progressed this far. Jacoby therefore feels a need to airbrush her portrait into an inaccurate and unnatural perfection. This is all rather endearing: love covers a multitude of sins.
She imagines Ingersoll to be a great lover of learning, a formidable champion of education, and a model dispenser of knowledge to the masses. In truth, he was a superficial student and thinker. The historian Eric Brandt did a study of what sources Ingersoll was drawing on when he would evoke bodies of knowledge, and what he found was that this material was generally obtained secondhand from popular summaries. ...