Exploring the Life of a Fellow Amherst Alum
Issue   |   Fri, 10/18/2013 - 00:27
Photo Courtesy of Debby Applegate
Debby Applegate wrote a thesis, dissertation and biography about Amherst alum Henry Ward Beecher.

Debby Applegate ’89 began her relationship with fellow Amherst College alum Henry Ward Beecher as a student employee in Frost Library’s Archives & Special Collections Department. It was love at first sight: a love, in fact, that would span more than 20 years. Applegate recalls, “Henry was so open-minded and so open-hearted … He was funny and lovable, an example of an average American who rose to fame.” And, although their age difference was quite large (Beecher was a graduate of the class of 1834), Applegate made it work, winning the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography in the process.

At this point, you might gather that Beecher is in no way romantically affiliated with Applegate, although her husband Bruce Tulgan ’89 jokingly refers to him as “the other man.” Beecher, a Calvinist minister and abolitionist, became the subject of Applegate’s renowned first book The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, which, along with being a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among other accolades.

Despite her success, Applegate is completely unfazed, saying, “I can’t help but feel abashed because I’m the same I was before I published the book.” A quintessential Amherst graduate who fuses accomplishment with humility, Applegate’s story is an inspiration to the greater College community.

Passion for American Studies

Applegate grew up in rural Oregon, an area that was just giving rise to widespread suburbs and the biggest shopping mall of the Northwest. Her eclectic religious upbringing (one parent was Irish Catholic and the other Mormon) came to influence her role as a biographer.

“Having a mixed religious environment made me more questioning, but it also made me very curious about human nature and how it comes to its decisions,” Applegate said. “I became really curious about how people explain themselves and rationalize their beliefs.”

When considering colleges, Applegate knew she wanted to go to a selective school in New England and study American Studies. Having participated in an American Studies program in high school, Applegate was hooked on the subject. Considering Amherst had the oldest continuous American Studies department in the United States, Applegate found her college choice fitting. Not only looking for strong academics, Applegate also sought a network of lively intellectuals.
When she thinks back on the people she interacted with at Amherst, Applegate does so with zeal.

“[Amherst] was where all the bookish people were, and it was where all the people who liked to debate and learn were. Of all the things I discovered in my grown up life, one is that Amherst people are some of the most interesting and intellectually engaging individuals, and that remains true in all walks of life,” Applegate said.

During her time at Amherst, Applegate proved herself a superb student, graduating summa cum laude. Tulgan commented, “Debby was a very diligent student, although she would probably say she was not diligent enough. She holds herself to a very high standard. Because she is such a voracious reader, the number one task of a student at Amherst being reading, she never thought she was working. She was just always reading. As any Amherst student can understand, if you are always reading, you are doing ‘the work.’ I don’t think it is an accident that she won the American Studies Prize and graduated summa cum laude — her thesis was a couple of hundred pages long.”

E. Dwight Salmon Professor of History and American Studies Frank G. Couvares, one of Applegate’s past professors, echoed Tulgan’s thoughts.

“Debbie always came across in class as smart and savvy. As her later career amply demonstrated, she insisted on making historical materials speak clearly to present concerns,” Couvares said. “And she had fun doing it!”

American Studies appealed to Applegate because, according to her, it studies “how people make small decisions that have big impacts and the intersection between literature and culture and literature and history.”

Applegate spent her non-academic time working at Frost, doing theater and being with friends.

Tulgan confirms that one of his fondest college memories was seeing Applegate perform in Kirby Memorial Theater in The Conduct of Life.

Applegate’s friend and fellow alum Chris Glowacki ’89 recalls discussions held with Applegate and their group of friends.

“Dinners in East Dining Room, with Debby and others holding court, could go on for hours,” Glowacki said.

Discovering a Notorious Alum

Midway through her time at Amherst, Applegate had to put together an exhibit about notorious alumni as part of her job at Frost. A respected social reformer whose sex scandal made headlines, Henry Ward Beecher made the exhibit. Applegate was immediately captivated, as Beecher was a man of many passions, namely: slavery, entertainment, consumer spending and
religion. He went on to become the topic of her senior thesis.

Applegate was motivated to do a senior thesis after leafing through theses of alumni, particularly that of David Foster Wallace ’85. Because he double majored in Philosophy and English, Wallace was able to do two theses, but Applegate was especially interested in the one he wrote for English.

“I remember sitting one summer and reading one senior thesis of a guy [David Foster Wallace] who had just published his first book [“The Broom of the System”]. His senior thesis had become his first book. I thought my thesis could also become something more worth reading.”

Applegate’s thesis focused on how Christianity and law influenced the personal narratives of those involved in Beecher’s adultery trial. According to her argument, Beecher wasn’t declared guilty, not because of a hung jury, but because of Beecher’s role when compared to more rigid characters in American life. Beecher, for example, contributed to the metamorphosis of religion from a harsh, rigid discipline to a phenomenon of love and mercy. Beecher’s father, a Puritan minister, preached that the laws of God had to be followed; the alternative was a life in Hell. Beecher himself, however, preached about the compassion of God and forgiveness in relation to the afterlife.

“Beecher didn’t focus on rules; he just focused on doing good and feeling good, which had a tremendous impact on American culture,” Applegate explained. “Now, many religions preach about love, not law. Cutting the corners was easier with love than with law. This shaped the way people perceived his sex scandal.”

Life After Amherst

Applegate spent the year after her college graduation working as an assistant in The College Board’s New York City-based Office of Academics. She went on to become a Sterling Fellow for Yale Univ.’s American Studies graduate program, earning a Ph.D. in 1998.

When explaining why she pursued graduate studies, Applegate jokingly said, “It was my nature. I wanted to have a good excuse to keep reading books.”

On a more serious note, Applegate describes graduate school as “professional training.”

“When you go to grad school, you’re putting in the time and effort to get a job, which is different from getting to explore as an undergraduate at Amherst,” Applegate said.

Just like her senior thesis, Applegate’s dissertation featured Henry Ward Beecher. Her dissertation was different from her thesis in the argument it pursued and in its academic presentation. While her thesis sought to make a sustained argument, she describes her dissertation as “a professional quest that would appeal to other historians.”

After earning her Ph.D., Applegate taught at Yale Univ. and Wesleyan Univ. for a brief period of time. She found teaching wasn’t her passion, saying, “What I liked best was sitting in the archives with all of the dead people. I found people liked to read biographies to learn about history. That’s how I got into the biography genre. And now I just sit in the library with all the dead people and try to bring them back to life.”

Becoming a Biographer

Although they all focused on the same subject, Applegate’s senior thesis, dissertation and biography were very different. While her thesis and dissertation, for example, found more of an audience in academics, Applegate’s book was meant to appeal to the typical curious reader. The writing process took seven years.

As a historian and biographer, Applegate had to consistently put herself in other people’s shoes.

“I had to really think about how Henry felt as an abolitionist among so many people who were pro-slavery,” Applegate said. “It took him a while to identify himself as such because he didn’t want to contradict his father and there weren’t many anti-slavery individuals even in the North. As a student at Amherst, he liked to be popular as much as he liked to be principled. In fact, if you look at the archives in Frost, you’ll find he belonged to one of the secret literary societies that later became a fraternity. They had a debate about whether slaves should be shipped back to Africa if they were to be set free. He was actually neutral … That constant exercise of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes cultivates empathy and imagination.”

For Applegate, Beecher became almost like a friend, a phenomenon experienced by many biographers.

“In researching about Henry, there were times I really enjoyed his company. But there were a lot of times in the post-civil war period where I really thought he was making terrible decisions I didn’t approve of. And it’s really hard to write about these characters when they do things wrong. It’s like having a friend doing something wrong,” Applegate said.

When asked how he believed his wife succeeded in writing such a widely-acclaimed book, Tulgan shared, “Debby is successful in the manner that she is because, when it comes to her writing, she is so immensely thorough. She takes nothing for granted. She turns over every stone … She works the text until it conveys the unique perspective she is trying to reveal.”

Glowacki affirms, “She is a master of her craft.”

A New Project

After her first book was published, Applegate swore not to write another book. While writing the book was mostly great, she cites the final push as stressful. However, after the book’s success, she said, “I sort of forgot that I swore I would never write another book.”

Applegate is currently finishing up a biography on Polly Adler, a madam in the 1920s whose 1953 autobiography, “A House is Not a Home,” became a bestseller and Hollywood movie. The book will be published next year. Applegate elaborated on her decision to continue as a biographer.

“I like to read history because I can go back in time and see what it’s like. I thought, if I’m going to write another book, I’m going to keep writing in biography. But then, where do I go with my time machine? Instantly, I thought of 1920s New York. I researched some of its famous figures and stumbled upon Polly Adler. She’s a fascinating character. Like Henry, she’s a Forrest Gump figure, taking you through big events and teaching you something along the way,” Applegate said.

Words of Advice

As a piece of advice to Amherst College students and graduates, Applegate said, “Anyone I know that accomplished something from Amherst didn’t think they couldn’t do it. It makes all the difference in whether or not they’re going to try something. You should think as big as you want … I have had huge failures and huge pitfalls that were embarrassing and you just have to be able to pick yourself up. You have to have the confidence to play as a big a game as you possibly can as long as you get up to keep doing it.”

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