Matt Grow’s contribution to the Journal of Mormon History 50th anniversary issue takes as its subject the place of biography in Mormon Studies. As the author (or co-author) of two significant biographies in the field, Grow is well positioned to assess the state of Mormon biographical writing.
In short, Grow believes that “the genre of Mormon biography has answered many of [the] rallying cries” of the New Mormon History’s call for “engage[ment] with larger historical themes” and “greater attention to women, race, ordinary Saints, the twentieth century, and international Mormons” (185), pointing to the spate of biographies produced in the last three decades on Mormon leaders (of both the Latter-day Saint and Latter Day Saint variety), dissenters, women, and racial and ethnic minorities. “There is much to celebrate in in the outpouring of scholarly biographies in the past few decades,” he concludes (196). Nevertheless, work remains to be done, and that work mirrors the shortcomings of Mormon history more generally: “More biographies of women, twentieth century, and international Mormons are particularly needed to advance the field” (196).
I generally share Grow’s assessment of the field, as well as his interest in it. It is, as he rightly notes, potentially the surest way for scholarship to reach wider audiences. Moreover, biographies hold the power to not only attract more readers, but also challenge conventional historical narratives and present alternative vantage points from which to understand a subject, event, or period. Grow’s own work, in fact, does exactly that: In my review of his Parley P. Pratt biography (co-authored with Terryl Givens), I identified the ““non Joseph Smith-centric narrative of Mormonism’s formative years” it offered as its signal contribution.
Those wishing to successfully mimic what Grow and Givens pulled off in their biography of Pratt, though, will want to pay careful attention to Grow’s warning and admonition in the essay’s penultimate paragraph:
Rather than the use of a revealing anecdote in a lively narrative, many Mormon biographies seek comprehensiveness, displaying exhaustive archival research at every turn. Obviously, good biography must be rooted in deep research in the primary sources. But too many Mormon biographies are both sprawling and plodding, determined to cover every jot and tittle of an individual’s life. Such biographies often fail to se the forest for the trees. (196-97, emphasis mine)
The reason why, in my reading, is simple: Mormon historians are notorious document hounds, a remnant of both the New Mormon History’s grounding in social history and earlier eras’ efforts to use the documentary record as “evidence” in acrimonious disputes between critics and defenders over Mormonism’s truthfulness. And this obsession with archival sources—a luxury made possible by studying a movement that so values record keeping—not only has the potential to derail the effectiveness of scholarly biographies, but also helps explain the subjects of so many of the biographies written to date. Most of the richest sources available in the archives document the lives of church leaders—a decidedly white, Euro-American, and male-dominated bunch.
So what are we to do with the names and lives of the many rank-and-file Latter-day Saints recorded only in passing? With those who left behind no diaries, letters, or other traditional forms of biographical source material? Grow points to “innovative microhistories … like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale or Annette Gordon-Reed’s multigenerational study, The Hemingses of Monticello” as models for “explor[ing] the lives of lesser-known Latter-day Saints.” To those excellent books I would add Camilla Townsend’s Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, Jon Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival, and especially Allan Greer’s Mohawk Saint, each of which combines creative readings of the scant (and sometimes second hand, problematic, and contradictory) sources documenting their subject’s life with solid grounding in the historical context in which they lived to produce page-turning narratives that challenge prevailing historiographical assumptions with bold conclusions.
It is no coincidence that all of the above books examine the lives of women (and four of the five women of color). It is also no coincidence that it is that same group of individuals that lack sustained attention from Mormon historians. Following the lead of Gordon-Reed and Townsend, and of Sensbach and Greer, Mormon historians and biographers might look to unrecorded oral traditions, hagiographical texts penned by both contemporary and later generations, and the passing mentions of otherwise overlooked individuals in traditional sources as worthy of study, reading against the grain of those documents to uncover both the details and the significance of various individual’s lives.