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Miss Beecher In Hell
Her brilliant fiancé had drowned, unconverted: Was not his soul forever doomed? To rescue it (and her own sanity) a girl of only 22 had to refute the harsh theology of Puritanism
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
His defeat at the hands of Roxana had been significant, and Harriet lost no time in consolidating Roxana’s gains. Lyman had no sooner installed his new wife in the parlor than he seized the opportunity to read to her Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God . Mrs. Beecher listened patiently for some minutes, then rose suddenly from her chair with a splendid swish of bridal petticoats: “Dr. Beecher, I shall not listen to another word of that slander on my heavenly Father,” she exclaimed and swept from the room. To Lyman’s intense surprise God made no objection whatsoever.
Catharine welcomed the new mother with evident relief. Mrs. Beecher found her eldest stepdaughter a highly agreeable young woman with more than ordinary attainments: “a fine looking girl,…not handsome, yet there is hardly anyone who appears better…. ” It was just the moment for someone to love Catharine, and someone did. Alexander Metcalf Fisher, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy (now called physics) at Yale College, sought her hand in marriage.
Born in 1794, Fisher seems to have been one of those Mo/artean people whose lives, too soon ended, are a promise broken to a whole generation. Contemporary panegyrics on the young man read with all the spuriousness that such accounts usually convey, but the structure visible behind the ornamental adjectives is startling in its strength and beauty. No human activity seemed beyond his scope. At the age of ten he threw away his arithmetic book and wrote himself a better one. At fourteen he entered Yale, and was graduated at the head of his class in 1813. When he was twentythree the college appointed him adjunct professor of mathematics, and he became a full professor at twenty-five.
According to James Luce Kingsley, an older colleague, Fisher had reached the limits which hitherto had bounded the fields of discovery. [He had] an almost intuitive apprehension of truth in the exact sciences [and] for the detection of error in the mazes of metaphysical speculation and for the quick perception of the ridiculous in human character, the follies and vices of which he had the power to expose with playful humor or the severity of satire.
Alexander Fisher, the eldest son of a farmer of Franklin, Massachusetts, explored the theory of frequency modulation and did an accomplished monograph on the mathematical relationships contained within the diatonic scale. He was fluent in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and French, and entertained himself by writing science fiction. A Journey to the Moon and Other Planets is only less revealing of the exquisite quality of his intellect than his delicate diagrams for his computations of the eclipse of the sun on August 27, 1821.
As a traveler from “a small, dull star, just north of Aldebaran,” Fisher describes deviations in the law of gravity and the variations in units of time to be expected on a voyage to outer space. The inhabitants of the distant asteroids he found infinitely superior to human beings in every respect, and they regarded him with a kindly disapproval while according him excellent treatment. They looked upon him “much as we do upon a stranger from the south seas,” and were scandalized by his table manners. Their libraries and universities beggared description. The acquisition of knowledge was made simple by a common language; verse was free since “a poet would no more confide his poetry to the limitations of rhyme than a philosopher would allow himself to be constricted by the margins of a page.” It was a joyous journey.
His personal endowments (incredible to relate) were of as high a quality as his intellectual parts. Samuel Finley Breese Morse painted a portrait of him after his death from a series of sketches, and even his family found it a good likeness. He sits wrapped Hamlet-like in a dark furred cloak; his features are finely formed, and dark hair curls above a noble forehead; in one slim hand he holds a pen. Behind him a swollen sea and a storm in dramatic chiaroscuro set off his pensive and melancholy good looks to imperial advantage.
Besides this exhausting catalogue of perfections Fisher possessed “a deep sense of religious obligation. Few have manifested a higher reverence for the divine law or failed less in their obedience to the precepts of the gospel.”
An infinitesimal flaw could be observed in his being “rather rigid in his requisitions [and] confident in his own opinions.” Otherwise he appears to have been without blemish.
Although music was his avocation he was fond of poetry, and he admired some verses of Catharine’s which appeared in The Christian Spectator . The admiration led to an introduction, a walk home from the Litchfield church after Lyman’s sermon, an invitation to Sunday dinner, more walks home after services, more Sunday dinners, a quarrel, and an engagement. Catharine seems to have had the sense to keep her incomparable suitor guessing for a brief period before “that betrothal took place,…the realization of all my favorite dreams of earthly bliss. Affection, taste, ambition, everything most desirable to me and to family friends seemed secured.”