MILTON RUGOFF's The Beechers: An American Family in the Nineteenth Century is a big book because it has to be: Lyman Beecher, the Calvinist patriarch, was called "the father of more brains than any man in America," and we find his extraordinary progeny sounding their trumpets of jubilee and riding chariots of fire everywhere in Victorian America. They raised, embodied, wrestled with and were broken by all the major and most of the minor cultural issues of their day. Rugoff has spent a decade reading everything by and about the Beecher family and has managed to bring it all together into a coherent and consistently interesting narrative. The Beechers is a story of a profoundly difficult, marvelously gifted, and breathtakingly vulnerable family.

In 1863 Dr. Leonard Bacon of Yale put it perfectly: "This country is inhabited by saints, sinners, and Beechers." Rugoff shows us that in more than one crucial way the Beechers are the country; "they represent a transition from religious to ethical values, from a God- centered to a man-centered conception of the universe, from Puritan to Victorian standards." The Beechers turned, as America did, "from a God of wrath to God as a benign uncle, from religion as a path riddled with cruel pitfalls to religion as a friendly counseling service." Henry Ward Beecher, National Chaplain and High Priest, wrote that his father's Puritan faiths had become "like old castles when they are no longer inhabited, and when vines and ivy have grown all over them." And so Henry Ward preached every Sunday, in his massive Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, to thousands of people trapped between their heritage of a narrow and introspective morality and their intense desire for luxury and respectability. Culture was what they wanted, virtue was what they couldn't give up. Henry Ward put their dreads, confusions, and aspirations into words; he was the Barnum of the New Benevolence.

Lyman, his father, was "supine before God but imperious before man." So fixed were his eyes on the millennium that he often couldn't see what worldly thing was staring him in the face. Rigid in his theology, he was capable of an immense, manic responsiveness; he inspired, comforted and tortured all his 11 children. In turn, they paid tribute to him all their lives; they were, as he himself whispered on his deathbed, "part of me, part of me." He despised and feared the passivity of mere "Suffering"--his motto was, "Agonize, Agonize!" And that's what he did. Once he agreed to exchange pulpits for a Sunday with an Old School minister; when their carriages met on the road, the other pastor saluted him, "Doctor Beecher, I wish to call to your attention that before the creation of the world God arranged that you were to preach in my pulpit and I in yours on this particular Sabbath." Beecher said, "Then I won't do it!" promptly turned his buggy around and returned to his own church.

He drove his children--to achievement and to distraction. His sons and daughters don't make sense without their father (and often make precious little with him). His beloved oldest daughter, Catharine (his "best boy," in their poignant joke) said, "I never hear anybody preach that makes me feel as father does, I can not hear him without its making my face burn." Catharine didn't visit people, she descended upon them; after one such session, sister Hattie (Harriet Beecher Stowe, "the mother of Uncle Tom") wrote, "Catharine has been here, and we have all been thoroughly metaphysicated ... one of Bishop Butler's arguments lasted us for nearly three meals." Like her father before her, and her siblings alongside her, Catharine found life to be full of occasions for peppering the land with moral influence. But she was often to cry out, in mortal dread (the italics are hers), "There must be a dreadful mistake somewhere." She was Beecher--Beecher until she died. Once at a friend's house, when the gathering began to sing the chorus, "I am nothing, Lord, Oh nothing--thou art all, all, all!" Catharine wouldn't sing; exiting the room, she proclaimed, "I am not nothing!" Indeed she was not.

She was a leader in the movement for women's education and independence, yet a sworn enemy of the women's rights and suffrage movement. Beechers play several roles at once--to themselves, to each other, and to the great world. As Rugoff says, "Certainly one of Lyman Beecher's legacies to his children was the habit of telling other people how to behave." They did, for they had behaved: all seven sons became preachers and three of the four daughters became ardent reformers and writers. One of them is always going off on a toot, and Rugoff tells us who else went along, why, and how far.

Rugoff's book does not supersede--what book could? --the greatest study of the Beechers, published over a half-century ago, Constance Mayfield Rourke's Trumpets of Jubilee (1927). Rourke's portraits of Lyman, Harriet, and Henry Ward remain unsurpassed to this day. Rugoff now tells us in more detail, about more Beechers. The stories are often sensational, but not once does he sensationalize them; his head is clear, and he knows there are no easy answers. He has conceived his task as something at once simple and immensely demanding: to see the Beechers, to hear them, all, and to put us in their presence. The very calmness of his voice makes us eager to listen to him. We need him; he does not explain what someone has said, he places it for us, he gives utterance its context. When beautiful sister Isabella Beecher Hooker strides outdoors in her Turkish- style pantaloons, stopping all-comers to tell them about her new career as a hydropathic gynecologist, we need to know how to take her. Harriet, married to a man whose chief occupation was "the cultivation of indigo," was the toast of the western world when she toured England after the publication of her Uncle Tom's Cabin. But right in the midst of her triumph Rugoff stops her, sees her suddenly turning back to look at her heritage. With all London shouting for her outside her window, she sits at her desk writing of New England, "a long withering of the soul's more ethereal part--a crushing out of the beautiful--which is horrible. Children are born there with a sense of beauty equally delicate with any in the world, but it dies a lingering death of smothered desire and starvation." And now, Mrs. Beecher Stowe, Queen Victoria is waiting to meet you.

At the very height of Henry Ward's fame, the zenith of his influence (Abraham Lincoln called him "the American of our time"), he was hauled into Brooklyn city court and accused of seducing the wife of his proteg,e. The trial lasted six months and held the entire country enthralled; it brought together all the American uncertainties about the status of women, sexuality, family, public posture and private integrity. Rugoff guides us through it, the greatest domestic scandal of the century, "an endless tangle of charges and countercharges, evasions and concealments, of bitterness and remorse that would drag on until all the world knew every sad and sordid detail of the whole affair." Knew everything, one must immediately add, except what happened. The mountains of evidence--the transcript of the Brooklyn trial itself runs to 3,000 double-columned pages--provides absolutely convincing proof. The only trouble is that it absolutely proves guilt and innocence. Rugoff finally, reluctantly, tentatively comes to his own conclusion. At the time, George Templeton Strong, the comptroller of Trinity Church, concluded that "The Rev. Beecher seduces Mrs. Tilton and then kisses her husband, and he seems to acquiesce in the osculati on. . . they are all moonstruck vulgo vocato lunatics."

The Beechers are a boisterous, morbid family, full of claptrap and heroic discipleship. Taken seriously, they force us to think about how terribly big families can be -- how they can contain, simultaneously, so much cruelty and such abundant tenderness, how they can be so smart and behave so blindly, mope about in such black cloaks of self-absorption and so suddenly emerge to dazzling blaze. Thomas Kinnicut Beecher, the next-to-youngest, lived for decades as the pastor of a small but lively church in Elmira, New York. Somewhere between local crank and town saint, "Father Tom" went quietly about his celestial and helpful business, saying, "We, as a race, are lost children in a mazy wilderness of life. Let us be gentle, humble, good, forgiving, patient, kind." That's what he meant, and that's what he was. It is why so many of his siblings came to him--to rest, to talk, to die. Of his brother Henry Ward's great trial, he said, "we shall not probably ever get all the facts, and I'm glad of it." He watched his celebrated brothers and sisters--all the funerals they desperately rushed to were all the funerals they never quite left. Tom concluded, "This is a gloomy world. I give it up. I have no part of it. I won't plan. I won't hope. I won't fear. I will only endeavor to keep from its evil, bind up its gashes, shine into its darkness, prophesy heaven and wait--wait--wait--singing songs in the night." Utterances of such dark loveliness reverberate throughout this rich book; Milton Rugoff knows where the beauty comes from and where it goes. He allows us to hear all the Beecher noise, the combative roar of these splendidly articulate and endlessly talkative people; he forces us to pay attention to those telling silences when we must realize the unbearably high private prices they paid for living such incessantly public lives.