Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, whose book we have been reading together for nearly six months, has graciously agreed to answer a few questions from JI bloggers and readers. If you found the book club useful and/or interesting, we hope you will follow JI on Facebook, Twitter, and share our articles.
JI: What has the reception been among academic, popular, and Mormon audiences?
LTU: It has gotten lots of attention in media, which is satisfying, and most of my talks have been filled with people intensely curious about the topic. I am looking forward this fall to more focused attention from scholars at various conferences, including the AAR.
JI: Did your view or understanding of polygamy change over the course of writing A House Full of Females?
LTU: You bet! It continues to change as I discuss my work in settings that range from book talks in public libraries, including one this summer in Ketchum, Idaho, to scholarly conferences of various kinds. One of the biggest transformations in my thinking has been discovering the importance of arguments over plural marriage from at least the sixteenth century to the present. Mormonism is by no means the most important part of that story. Writing this book led me to think about the larger history of marriage, race, imperialism, and law in new ways. That has entered my teaching more and more in recent years although only a little of that larger story got into the book.
JI: How did you complete the research for A House Full of Females? Did you have a regimen or schedule that you followed?
LTU: A project that took almost ten years to complete was obviously done in pieces. I think I drafted the first chapter (the one on the crossing of Iowa) as an experiment in using a multitude of diaries to tell one story. I had agreed to give a talk on my current work at the University of Tokyo, so I used that as a deadline to get something written. I then developed that material for talks at a variety of schools in the U.S. For me, deadlines are a necessary evil. They create stress but without them I would probably never finish anything. When I signed a contract with Knopf, I picked a delivery date that seemed far away, but of course it caught up with me before I was half finished.
JI: How did you gain access to the William Clayton journals?
LTU: I followed the same procedure I would in dealing with restricted material in any other library or archive. I wrote a letter explaining why I wanted to see the journals in their original and asked permission to do so. I explained that though excerpts from the journals were available elsewhere, I had always felt it important to look at the originals of any document important to my work. It took awhile to get permission, but once permission was granted, there were no restrictions of any kind placed on how I used the material. It was very reassuring to see the Church follow scholarly protocols in this way.
JI: What restrictions did you not foresee in limiting yourself to contemporary records as evidence for the book? What pitfalls should historians who want to follow a similar approach avoid?
LTU: In all of my books I have developed some sort of scheme early on that helps me define the scope of my research and writing. In A Midwife’s Tale, for example, I framed each chapter of the book around a 3-4 page segment of the diary, allowing me to write a book that was both an account of Martha Ballard’s life and a kind of primer on how to unpack a diary. Obviously that structure limited my freedom in some ways, but it also liberated me to do something new. The book became a kind of detective story in which readers could participate. From the beginning, I thought of A House Full of Females as another “diary project.” I had fallen in love with Wilford Woodruff’s diary and imagined doing a kind of parallel study with an equally meaty diary for a woman. When I discovered how few actual diaries had actually been left by Mormon women in the earliest decades of the Church, my project became more complicated but also in some ways more exciting. I really am a detective at heart. Part of the fun of the book was seeing how far I could go by sticking with day-by-day accounts. My decision to limit use of later sources was also driven by my experience in writing The Age of Homespun, a book that interrogated idealized accounts of New England’s pre-industrial history through close analysis of surviving artifacts. That research taught me to recognize the many ways that later events construct memory. Others will have to decide whether my experiment worked, but for me limiting my source base really was liberating. That doesn’t mean my account of early Mormonism is more accurate than others, but I think it is different.
JI: You’re well known in academia for being a strong mentor and adviser. What would you recommend to someone that wished to build off of A House Full of Females in a thesis, dissertation, or book project?
LTU: Obviously there are dozens of “unfinished stories” in A House Full of Females, persons or topics that I hinted at but couldn’t fully explore. It would be interesting, for example, to see somebody do a composite study of the 100 missionaries called to foreign parts to preach polygamy in 1852 or explore the rise and fall of glossolalia among Latter-day Saints women or dig in more deeply to autograph albums and other overlooked and seemingly ephemeral sources. My hope is that my work will raise questions for younger scholars that I did not or could not answer, questions that will take them more deeply into relations between Mormon women and their Paiute or Shoshone neighbors, for example, or into the long-term consequences of women standing up for polygamy in 1870. I also look forward to studies that go beyond history to consider the wider theological and ethical implications of their decisions.
Thank you, Dr. Ulrich!