Review for Emmeline B. Wells; An Intimate Biography

By July 14, 2017

Carol Cornwall Madsen, Emmeline B. Wells; An Intimate Biography (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2017).

 

Emmeline B. Wells; An Intimate Biography is the second installment of Carol Cornwall Madsen’s two-part biography of Emmeline’s life as a Mormon writer and women’s rights activist. Emmeline lived a long, productive, and well-documented life. This meant that Madsen, unlike many other historians of women’s history, faced an overwhelming amount of historical sources to parse and make sense of Emmeline’s life. The 500 page book reflects its vast source base. Despite the daunting physical presence of the book, its prose and short chapter structure makes it accessible for a broad audience. Overall, the book is the culmination of decades of time Madsen dedicated to researching Emmeline’s writing and represents an enormous resource for future scholars of Mormon history.

Madsen’s first installment of the biography, titled An Advocate for Women, discusses Emmeline’s public life as an editor of the Woman’s Exponent publication, suffragist, political organizer, and Relief Society leader. This book is an exploration of Emmeline’s “interior landscape.” I cannot help but wish that she spent more space theorizing about what it means to split someone’s life in this way, especially in the context of the nineteenth century where women are primarily thought of as occupying the private sphere. While it is easier to think of the two biographies as respectively covering her public and private life, I am not convinced this is the best way to understand Madsen’s extensive biographical project.

Instead, I find it more useful to distinguish the biographies by the genres of Emmeline’s writings and records from which the biographies principally drew. The two biographies also differ significantly from one another in form; the chapters in An Advocate for Women are loosely chronological and thematic treatments of Emmeline’s public life, whereas An Intimate Biography is much more of a traditional chronological narrative of Emmeline’s entire life. An Advocate for Women draws from Emmeline’s political writings as editor of the Woman’s Exponent and focuses on her activity as a political organizer who mediated between local and nationwide women’s organizations. An Intimate Biography draws significantly from Emmeline’s forty-seven diaries and correspondence to paint a picture of Emmeline’s inner thoughts about her both private relationships and her public life. Madsen not only uses Emmeline’s abundant personal writings but also uses her poetry, fiction, and editorials to understand Emmeline’s inner life. This creative analysis (see especially chapter 11) shows the ways Emmeline used different genres of writing to make sense of her relationships and the respective joys and sorrows that they brought.

The first hundred pages of the book are particularly context-heavy as Madsen explains the forced migration of the Saints to Illinois and then to Utah. Emmeline’s story, whether she explicitly wrote about it or not, is therefore fundamentally connected with the broader historical narrative. Madsen is at her best when she analyzes the nuances of Emmeline’s poetry and fiction. Several times throughout the book Madsen reflects on the role of diary keeping in Emmeline’s life. Emmeline’s diary, Madsen argues, “Is almost an alter ego, the self she does not display to others.” (287) Despite this analysis of Emmeline’s different genres’s of writing, I do wish that Madsen, had more explicitly engaged with Emmeline’s memoirs as memory during her narration of Emmeline’s early life.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the detail in which readers learn about Emmeline’s three unusual marriages. Emmeline married when she was fifteen and was abandoned by her husband when he left Nauvoo to find work. Just two weeks before her seventeenth birthday, Brigham Young performed a marriage for Emmeline and Newel K. Whitney. Although she went on to have two children with Whitney, Madsen suggests that the nature of the sealing was not immediately clear to young Emmeline. In fact, even after the marriage to Whitney, Emmeline recorded in her diary her dreams of her first husband returning to Nauvoo. Madsen also reproduces an invaluable letter Emmeline wrote after Whitney’s death where she subtly proposes marriage to Daniel H. Wells. The biography sheds light on the depth of Emmeline’s longing for Wells, who only reciprocated these feelings late in his life. In an era when so much angst surrounding the negotiation of polygamous families went unspoken, Emmeline’s writing provides readers with a glimpse of not only the outward arrangements of the marriages but also the feelings of love, abandonment, and attachment that went with polygamy.

The recent volume (which Madsen also edited) has laid important groundwork for historians of Mormon women to understand the early Relief Society but there remains much to be researched about the developments in Relief Society after 1892. Madsen’s An Intimate Biography continues this important work by discussing the intergenerational conflict in the Relief Society Board in the early twentieth century. During this period Emmeline often served as the institutional memory of the organization and conflicted with younger women who desired to steer relief society in new directions. Madsen chronicles Emmeline’s chagrin at the lack of appreciation she feels from younger members, but this is often counterbalanced by the well-attended celebrations in her honor. Madsen’s narrative of Emmeline’s tenure in the General Relief Society shows another side of the tension filled story elucidated. Part of the benefit of this research is showing the depth and politics of the female relationships in this area of the Church. Madsen particularly highlights Emmeline’s relationship with Susa Young Gates, which ranged from being supportive to dysfunctional and everything in between. Future research from scholars such as Lisa Tait Olsen and Andrea Radke-Moss promise to shed further light on these important intergenerational relationships and this general period of change in Relief Society history.

Madsen notes throughout the book Emmeline’s dramatic reactions and ruminations to events in her life. Yet Madsen also does not take these sensational expressions as a sign of Emmeline’s permanent disposition. She writes that Emmeline’s “obsessive embrace of sorrow was almost pathological, but it was not debilitating like symptoms of depression, and she continued to draw on the animating spirit that drove her to be deserving of the accolades heaped upon her.” (475) The intimate history is important because it recognizes the multiple ways we can know this a woman who is famous for her remarkable public achievements. Readers not only see someone who writes, leads, and organizes. We see someone who feels.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


  1. Thanks for this, Hannah. I agree with you in wanting memoirs and diaries to play a larger role in understanding women’s history. The more we can allow women to speak for themselves, the better.

    Comment by Cathy Gilmore — July 20, 2017 @ 10:16 am

  2. I am particularly interested in reading about Emmalene’s feelings during her three marriages. How fascinating and heartbreaking it must have been to have had such a range of expeience. Reading your review makes we want to know more about Emmalene. Thank you Hannah.

    Comment by Linda — July 20, 2017 @ 9:55 pm


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Cathy Gilmore on Review for Emmeline B.: “Thanks for this, Hannah. I agree with you in wanting memoirs and diaries to play a larger role in understanding women's history. The more we…”


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