Taysom is presently working on a biography of Joseph F. Smith, to be published with the University of Utah Press. He’s graciously agreed to an interview.
Your previous book was a theoretical study of boundary maintenance among nineteenth century Mormons and Shakers. What led you to next write a biography of Joseph F. Smith?
My path to this subject was very idiosyncratic. To begin with, I always found JFS interesting. I loved the stories about how he beat up his teacher and went to Hawaii as a child missionary. So I knew, of course, about his volcanic and sometimes violent temper, which fascinated me, but I also have been interested in how the violent death of a famous parent shadows a child. This latter interest came about from my near-obsessive fascination with John Lennon, and I watched as his two sons from two different wives made their ways in the world under the horrible burden of representing a murdered hero just by virtue of their DNA. JFS and his older brother John were in a very similar situation. I wondered how being the son of Hyrum Smith, both the man and the larger-than-life martyr, shaped him. Also, JFS ended up in a lot of very interesting places at times of tremendous social and economic change, not just Utah and the U.S. but Hawaii and Britain as well. So I was primed by varying interests to pursue JFS, and when I earned tenure and the time came to write a second book, JFS seemed like a project that could hold my attention. Around that time, Ben Park visited me at my house in Ohio and we went out to dinner where the topic of a possible JFS biography came up. I was a little pessimistic about finding a press interested in the project and he encouraged me to contact the University of Utah Press. Ben told me that they had a new editor who was interested in publishing serious scholarship on Mormonism, and he was right.
Your previous book was only loosely narrative history. Have you found writing biography a different task?
Absolutely. My first book, and all of my articles, begin with a question. The argument then takes shape as I run the sources through the sieve of that original question. Under those conditions, I had almost total control of how expansive or focused the project would be. That’s how they train you to work and think in graduate school. With a biography, you are facing this life-shaped hole with more or less fixed boundaries. Your work has to conform to that shape, and so it sort of leaves you beholden to a pre-existing form in a way that just isn’t part of the way I have worked before.
What is your relationship with Joseph F. Smith like?
First let me say that very early in my research it became clear to me that I was never going to get at the “real” JFS. I was never going to find the guy who lived and walked and ate and rolled his eyes. Most of the things that made him the fluid human being who completely inhabited every second of his 80 years on earth are gone. Forever. What I am dealing with is the version of JFS that is left behind in the archival traces of his life. This might sound a little “post-moderny” to some readers, but think about it. Imagine if you suddenly died tomorrow and a stranger had to reconstruct your life only from things you had written or things that others had written about you. And not everything that was ever written, just those things that survived the ravages of time and nature and that people happened to save. Those sources would reveal a lot about you, but they would be of limited assistance in getting at you as a living, vital personality.
All of that is a long way of saying that I don’t have enough access to really judge JFS per se. But I have formed opinions about the version of him that I can experience and know, but those opinions are fluid. There are days when I am dazzled by his intellect and his unbreakable will and moved almost to tears by his lamentations after losing child after child. And then there are days when I am furious at him because of the way he treats people he thinks are a threat to him, or the way he lectures his wives about their writing skills. Living with the idea of a person for years on end, reading his personal journals and intimate letters day after day does sort of creep into your subconscious to the point where I occasionally dream about him. Sometimes he just gets on my nerves and I don’t want to be around him for a few days. All of that is pretty predictable. One of the things that surprised me, however, is his sparkling sense of humor. He had a keen sense of the ridiculous and was a gifted observer of human nature and he expressed these things with a dry and sometimes savage wit.
What do you think your training in a religious studies department brings to the task that training in a straightforward history department might not?
My primary identity, methodologically speaking, is that of historian, but I also have training in literary theory, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. So, I suppose I differ from a traditional historian in a few small ways. As far as how that impacts my view of JFS, I think it showed up most conspicuously in my choice of him as a subject. He is only noteworthy enough to study as a figure in a religious context, so it is unlikely that a scholar whose primary interest is not in the academic study of religion would undertake his biography. The entire reason for writing the book is because of religion, and it frames his life, to be sure. But, frankly, I am writing less about religion in this book than I thought I would. Religion saturates JFS’s entire worldview, so it is always a presence, but often a surprisingly subtle one. Even on his missions, his letters and journals contain relatively little content that one would look at and say “that’s religion. That’s theology.” Obviously, there are moments when religion erupts in major ways, but it is not like writing about a traditional religious figure like Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards or even Joseph Smith. JFS’s sermons were as likely to be about home manufacture or the history of Mormonism, or practical advice about life as they were about overtly theological or Christological topics. The exception to this is in his letters to his children, in which he often engages in lengthy exegetical, and typically pedantic, discussions.
What impact does your membership in the LDS church have upon your interpretation of Smith?
I hope very little. One of my favorite scholars of religion is Bruce Lincoln at the University of Chicago. Lincoln wrote a famous list of 13 “theses on method” that function as his articles of faith for the academic study of religion. One of those theses is that reverence is a religious, not a scholarly, virtue. Not everyone agrees with that, but I do. It is consonant with my graduate training and my natural inclinations. I don’t consciously approach JFS in my role as a practitioner of Mormonism. In some ways, this is easy because the religion he practiced is not really much like modern Mormonism. But I certainly do not feel any obligation to pull punches or obfuscate in order to harmonize anything from the sources with a modern Mormon view of what JFS should have been. Although I am a practicing Mormons, I’m neither a hagiographer nor an apologist by profession. If someone wants hagiography, they can look at Francis Gibbons’s biography of JFS, or any one of a dozen shorter treatments in books and magazines published by the Church or through Deseret Book. I have no hostility toward that approach, it’s just not the medium I’m working in, regardless of my personal religious identity.
What is the relationship of biography to fiction?
I have never been an avid reader of biography, so when I started this project, I made it a point to select some and see what the genre was all about. If you go to Barnes and Noble and look at the biography section, you’ll find that a surprising (to me) number of biographers are not historians or journalists, but are rather novelists and even poets. All historical writing bears some relationship to fiction simply on the basis of the narrative structure that they share. Historians tell stories, and stories require a certain architecture that is not inherent in the “past.” Biography represents a particularly overt example of how non-fiction and fiction are sometimes hard to distinguish. A biography, usually, is the story of a life. The problem is that lives are not lived as stories, just as they are not lived as poems or operas or guitar solos. Telling a life as if it were a story is itself a little bit of legerdemain. It takes a skilled narrator to pull this off, which is why some of the best biographers are novelists. Not because they are making things up, but because they are taking the things that happened and imposing a coherence and rationality to them, giving them a genre. And that is fiction in a technical, narrative sense. To compound this, biographers often, in fact almost always, put forth arguments about what a particular life was “about.” That’s clearly imagination at work because no life is “about” any one thing, or even a set of things. But it is incredibly difficult to write a biography without engaging in these exercises that give a stronger sense of organization.
Let’s get into nuts and bolts a little bit. Talk about your process: how do you research? How do you gather and organize information?
In this case, I first surveyed what I had to work with in the realm of primary sources, beginning as close to JFS as possible and then working my way out. So ground zero contains anything JFS produced for private audiences such as journals and personal letters. The next ring out is where I put material produced by JFS for public and/or institutional purposes. Things like sermons, official letters from him as a member of the First Presidency, and so forth. Then I moved to letters written to him. And then to material written about him. And then to material that had to do with institutions or events in which he was involved, such as railroads, sugar companies, wagon companies, etc. Once I had a basically stable sense of the body of sources, I started reading them. All of his journals to which I had access, all of his letters that I could find, everything. That took a year or so. Then I began reading it all again and making notes about what I thought was useful. Then I started again and began writing as I looked again at the sources. I typically take notes by hand in notebooks. It’s antiquated, but I it works for me. I don’t use any software to keep track of notes or citations or anything.
On the level of secondary sources, I tried very hard to place JFS in his full social and cultural contexts by consulting the latest research on Hawaii, Britain, Utah, and any other place where JFS spent time.
What makes this sort of research different from the sort of research you did for your first book?
I may have already answered this, at least in part, but I would say that there are two primary differences. First, as I mentioned earlier, the boundaries of the subject are already set. Second, and related to the first, is that I am faced with the task of having to deal with an uneven distribution of source material. In my other projects, if there is no source material, the remedy is to change the parameters of the research question itself. That is difficult to do in biography. I can’t say, for example, that I’m writing a biography of JFS that covers his life except for ten years where I don’t have access to decent sources (although this is what really, really skilled biographers do, but we don’t notice). Sometimes biographers get around this by only writing about one aspect of a subject’s life or a limited time frame. I just saw a book, for example, about Churchill’s attitude toward money. But for those of us working on a total life, it is difficult to maintain an even tone. In JFS’s case, the archive just bristles with wonderful, first-order sources for his life in the late 1850s, the 1860s and 1870s, but they dry up for large pieces of time in the 1880s-1910s. There is official stuff, but much less personal source material. This means that I have to adjust my writing and interpretive style to match the available sources, and I never have to do that in my other work.
Are you writing the book chronologically? Why?
Yes. I experimented early on with writing out of chronological order, but I found that I understood him better as I worked in order. Life isn’t a story, as I mentioned earlier, but people do develop and change over time, and I found that writing my way forward worked best. See, you can’t avoid stories even when you want to!
How will you know when you’re done?
I honestly haven’t thought about that. At the moment, I am working on the 1860s and 1870s and I have just over 100,000 words, which is about the length of a dissertation in history or religious studies. What that means is that when I have worked through the available sources in order, I will need to do some relentless editing. Once I’ve smoothed that over three or four times, I’ll send the manuscript to friends for feedback and then I will be ready to send it to my editor at the University of Utah Press, and that will kick off another round of revisions. It’s going to be awhile. The other possible answer to the question is that I will be done when I run out of steam and quit. Hopefully it won’t come to that.