No, the title of this post is not the opening for one of those “…walk into a bar…” jokes, although it does provide good potential.
NOTE: This post doesn’t aim to make a particular argument, or perhaps to say much new, but merely to express some issues that have been circling my mind for a while, and conclude one of those historical nerd tangential interests that we all know so well.
A few months ago, in a conversation on the H-SHEAR list (an email group focused on the history of the early American republic), someone made a reference to Fawn Brodie’s biography of Thomas Jefferson. Then, as an aside, the writer added, “Incidentally, Fawn Brodie is in my view the Rosalind Franklin of American history. There are many Watsons and Cricks in the historical profession who owe her a posthumous apology.” Franklin, for those of you (like me) who aren’t encyclopedias of this type of knowledge, was a biophysicist who studied DNA in the early 1950s. Watson and Crick, who were dismissive and rude toward Franklin in public and private throughout her life, accessed her data without her knowledge, much less permission, and used that data to make the critical leap in insight that elucidated the structure of DNA. They published with no mention of Franklin’s contribution and went on to great fame and a Nobel Prize a decade later.
While Brodie is mostly known in Mormon circles for her controversial biography of Joseph Smith, she is more widely known in the American historical community for her innovative use of psychohistory, especially in her biographies of Thomas Jefferson and, less successfully, Richard Nixon. Indeed, No Man Knows My History was merely her entrance into the historical profession, where afterward she became one of the foremost practitioners of psychohistory American political biography, and was even one of the first tenured female professors at UCLA. Most especially, her Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Life (W. W. Norton, 1974) was a national bestseller and instigator of much debate in the academic community. In the book, Brodie focused on Jefferson’s private life, and was one of the first to strongly argue that there was a relationship between the president and his slave, Sally Hemings. The book was a commercial success, but was panned by many historians, especially Jeffersonian scholars, who rejected the thesis that Jefferson would procreate with a slave. Many historians rejected Browdie’s interpretation of Jefferson, just as Mormon historians rejected her interpretation of Joseph Smith.
Several decades later, however, Brodie’s argument was vindicated. In 1997 Annette Gordon-Reed, now recognized as one of the foremost experts on Jefferson, published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Virginia UP, 1997), which made the most convincing historical argument to date that there was an intimate relationship between the two historical figures. The next year, a DNA study concluded that Hemings’s children were indeed descendents of the Jefferson line, and further investigation by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation then confirmed it was America’s third president who was indeed the father. Today, if you were to take a tour of Jefferson’s home at Monticello, the tour guides will share with you the extremely high probability that the author of the Declaration of Independence sired a number of children with his slave mistress. In 2008, Gordon-Reed published The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W. W. Norton), which masterfully documented not only Sally’s relationship with Jefferson, but the slave life of her parents, siblings, and children. Today, the vast majority of respectable historians accept Fawn Brodie’s argument concerning the Jefferson/Hemings relationship. Indeed, Gordon-Reed and others herald Fawn Brodie for paving the way in Jefferson studies, and Brodie’s fingerprints are found throughout today’s scholarship.
This isn’t to say that Brodie should be similarly vindicated in Mormon history circles, though No Man Knows My History remains a classic everyone in the field should read. (And it remains one of the best-written books in Mormon history.) However, it should stop the unfortunate apologetic argument that Brodie should be dismissed because, 1) she wasn’t a good historians (she was), 2) that her interpretations of Jefferson were de-bunked, so the same could be said about her work on Smith (since the former has been disproved), and 3) that her use of psychobiography discounts her credibility. This last point is what I’d like to focus on for the last half of this post.
Many modern critics of Brodie point to her use of psychoanalysis, as if the mere association discounts her work. Perhaps we are just too supscicious of such approaches in our post-freudian world. Yet psychoanalysis and psychobiography remain important tools for historians. The emphasis on reconstructing the mental, and at times subconscious, world of historical characters, when done carefully and correctly, can upend superficial analysis and help us reconsider traditional narratives and frameworks. It also helps us capture insights into historical characters who are generally forgotten and overlooked in our historical work. In the annual History and Theory lecture a few years ago, Joan W. Scott, one of the foremost historians in America, argued that historians need to be more aware of these tools. The field of psychoanalysis has certainly changed since the Age of Brodie, but so has the historical profession in general. And more imporantly, if we dismiss the entire subfield of psychobiography, we dismiss one of the giants of Mormon historiography: Richard Bushman.
It is well known that Bushman, the current dean of Mormon studies, established his reputation outside of Mormon history before turning his attention to Joseph Smith. What is sometimes less acknowledged is that much of his early work was part of a historiographical craze over psychoanalysis that swept the profession in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, partly inspired and improved by Brodie herself. In 1957, the American Historical Association’s presidential address, delivered by William Langer, called for more historians to integrate psychoanalysis into their work. The following decades witnessed an explosion of work in this regard. Bushman’s two-year postdoctoral fellowship took him to Boston University, where his primary focus was to explore the developing field of psychobiography; two important articles resulted from that research. Though he mostly moved away from the field, remnants remained throughout his writing, and there are definite traits of psychobiography present in both his Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Illinois UP, 1984) and Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (Knopf, 2005). In his own reflections on the latter book, Bushman admitted that his treatment of JS’s familial issues and sealing doctrine were explicit occasions for using psychoanalysis. When reading No Man Knows My History along with Rough Stone Rolling, it becomes apparent that both books follow many of the same signposts and framework; perhaps this is because, to a certain degree, both historians are interested in the same type of psychobiographical questions.
Bushman is not the only historian of Mormonism that has used psychoanalysis. Indeed, there is a good number of work on Joseph Smith that attempt to use the tools of psychobiography. Yet very little of it has really stuck, and very few of the works succeeded in their attempts. This has led to a lot of practitioners of Mormon history to reject the entire field. But this might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater: just because there has been bad (sometimes really bad) work that claims to use psychobiography does not mean that the entire field is worthless. To dismiss psychoanalysis just because a critic’s jejune use of “imposter theory” is just as facile as dismissing postmodernism because of an apologist’s misuse of deconstruction. What we really need are historians who are trained in the complex field of the historical method, conversant with academic theory, and imaginative with scholarly approach. Also, practitioners need to move away from Joseph Smith, despite how tempting the “Prophet Puzzle” really is. I can imagine, for instance, work being done on Eliza R. Snow, and how the dark year of 1838 shaped her later poetry. But such a project would have to be done carefully and skillfully by someone well aware of the potential and pitfalls of the field outlined in Joan Scott’s charge.
So, to round back to where I began: Fawn Brodie’s work should not be dismissed because of her innovative use of psychobiography. If Mormon historians want another successful, yet “safe,” model of the field, they can look to none other than Richard Bushman; instead of looking to Sigmund Freud, they can look to Joan Scott. Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith is not crippled because her use of theory, but because her reliance on problematic sources and inaccess to pertinent documents. (Not to mention the general issues of out-datedness that come with a seven-decades-old-book.) Rather, I would hope that Brodie, not to mention Bushman, serve as prime examples for innovative approaches to the past–something that the Mormon history community desperately needs.
So here’s to you, Prof. Brodie.
 Feel free to try your hand at a few jokes in the comments.
 Speaking of stealing someone else’s ideas, I’m basically plagiarizing Edje Jeter in this paragraph, who explained the whole background to Franklin, Watson, and Crick in a facebook backchannel discussion.
 Newell Bringhurst has written an excellent biography of Brodie: Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003).
 Joan W. Scott, “The Incommensurability of Psychoanalysis and History,” History and Theory 51, no. 1 (February 2012): 63-83. I acknowledge that the fields of psychoanalysis and psychobiography are not synonymous. However, they do overlap, and for the purpose of this post represent the same hermeneutical tools used by historians.
 William Langer, “The Next Assignment,” American Historical Review 63 (1958): 283-304.
 Richard Bushman, “Jonathan Edwards and Puritan Consciousness,” Journal for the Study of Religion 5 (Fall 1966): 383-96; Bushman, “On the Uses of Psychology: Conflict and Conciliation in Benjamin Franklin,” History and Theory 5 (Fall 1966): 225-40.
 Richard Bushman “The Inner Joseph Smith,” Journal of Mormon History 32, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 65-81. Bushman further notes that, while finishing RSR, he realized that he embodied his psychoanalysis mentor Erik Erickson’s theoretical approach of an individual becoming culturally influential because of his personality crises.