Biographically Thinking

By October 25, 2012

I am currently in the early stages of a scholarly biography of Joseph F. Smith. Biographies are sort of strange beasts, largely because they seem deceptively simple. A person lives and then a biographer writes about that life. The reality of course is much more complex. The biographer has to make a great many choices before doing any research at all. Biographers have to decide what sorts of questions they want to answer using the life of their subject. Are the questions just about the subject? Or will the subject be used to demonstrate larger themes? Something in between? What about organization? Thematic? Chronological? As I wade through these and similar questions, I would like to tap the collective wisdom of JI’s readership. As readers, what kind of biographies do you prefer? What are your favorite biographies? What are your least favorites?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I have to admit that I am not a huge biography reader. Biographies which I have read seem to fall into two personal categories: 1) useful in understanding broader issues at play and 2) useful for their sources (there is a third category, viz., not useful, but let’s skip that for now). Sometimes books fall into each section at different times. I generally don’t read books to be inspired by a courageous or brilliant life (though it sometimes happens as a nice side benefit). I understand that that is a huge market, though. I want to have aspects of history revealed to me through the subject.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 25, 2012 @ 8:53 pm

  2. After re-reading that comment it comes of sort of harsh. I love reading through peoples diaries and correspondence for the picture it give of the individuals. But reading what someone else has to say about that person is a different thing.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 25, 2012 @ 9:24 pm

  3. I’m typically of the opinion that a good biography, like any good history, does something more than tell me about the subject. I can think of a handful of ways right off the top of my head that JFS’s life and experiences speak to issues much larger than himself, for example, and I’d hope to see some of those addressed in your biography, Steve.

    That said, I typically don’t like those issues to feel forced and thus prefer a chronological organization.

    Which is all to say … good luck!

    Comment by Christopher — October 25, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

  4. I vote for larger themes and chronological.

    Comment by Dave — October 25, 2012 @ 9:59 pm

  5. Like everyone above, I prefer biographies that point to larger themes. I also like it when biographers avoid what is often referred to as the “exceptional man” or “exceptional woman” story, in which someone rises above their circumstances to achieve amazing things. Although this occasionally happens, no one is so disconnected from their circumstances that it’s not fruitful to think about the things in their life that allowed them to do what they did and what larger trends their life points to. I guess I prefer the question to be “What does this life tell us about [insert topic here: gender and sexuality in the 19th century, anti-Mormonism in the 1920s, etc.]” than “Why did [blank] achieve [blank]?”

    Although I don’t believe that objectivity exists, I also prefer biographies that aren’t overly fawning. The worst biography I’ve ever read is Vivian May’s “Anna Julia Cooper, Visionary Black Feminist.” May bends over backwards to make Anna Julia Cooper fit into her model of what a black feminist should be instead of critically analyzing her thought and thinking about why a woman devoted to the education of black women would make statements that we now find racist and troubling. Here’s a link to it: I think that part of the problem is that May comes out of an interdisciplinary department that didn’t require her to get a firm footing in any one disciplinary method. Although I think interdisciplinary research is a good thing, I think that you need to master the techniques of one field and then start reaching out. Otherwise, you get bad writing that isn’t good history, good literary analysis, or good anthropology.

    Comment by Amanda — October 25, 2012 @ 10:33 pm

  6. I should also say: In general, the biographies I like use the life as a lens through which to view historical events. Although I recognize the problem in reducing people to “lens,” I find biographies that try to reconstruct someone’s interiority when it doesn’t exist in the documents troubling. One of thing that a lot of readers want in a biography is interiority, but to invent that, does a disservice to the person we are writing about and misrepresents the past.

    I also think it’s important (not that I can see you doing this, but I’m on my high horse here) to realize that we aren’t doing the person we are writing about a favor. We are writing for ourselves and our time. Writing about someone’s life and airing out their dirty laundry is an incredibly invasive process. We also craft a story when we write a biography that the person wouldn’t entirely recognize and bring our concerns, rather than theirs, to bear upon their life and experiences. There’s a lot here that would also bear upon family history, but I’m not brave enough to say it explicitly (though, I’ll imply it).

    Comment by Amanda — October 25, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

  7. I like biographies that are not fluff nor attack pieces. Bios should show both the good and bad of a person, so that we can see the complexities within the person. If the person was extremely generous, but still racist to some extent, say it.
    Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling or Turner’s Brigham Young are two good examples of quality scholarship for bios. I would not recommend you do a Lucy Mack Smith-like bio of her son Joseph, as it glosses over some of his greatest struggles, turning his mountains into molehills in order to hide his blemishes.

    Comment by Rameumptom — October 26, 2012 @ 7:21 am

  8. As someone who has done a biography I would simply say to pay a lot of attention to your prose. biographies, unlike traditional history, depend on good writing to make their point. Read Barbara Tuchman, not an academic historian but someone who knew how to do research and to write biogrpahy well. There is also a nice little “how to” book on biography that is not readily available that helps you think about the “process” of biography, titled “The Biographer’s Craft” by Milton Lomask. If you can’t find it I will send you a copy.

    Finally, balance out the temptation to make it either about the man-JFS is after all a man–or about the lense. No one is either/or. I use to tell my biography class that we need to learn to live with the person we write about. We ask them questions (and give answers in their words), try to figure out their moods and their thoughts on particular happenings. When 9/11 occurred, one of my first thoughts was what would “xx” have thought about this. Only then will you get a real sense of the person and their connection to the larger world. And good luck because it is a labor of painful love.

    Comment by Ignacio M. Garcia — October 26, 2012 @ 9:14 am

  9. Larger themes. I’d especially love to see JFS’ interaction with the Provo/Hawaii apostasies and with the US Gov’t post Reed Smoot.

    As part of a larger theme, what were expectations/definitions of the “manly man” during JFS’ life? It seems that as a politician/church man/family man/business man etc., JFS may have fit into conceptions of the “ideal man.” Well, except for the whole polygamy/”I’m a Mormon” thing.

    Comment by J Stuart — October 26, 2012 @ 9:31 am

  10. I greatly prefer chronological order, but within that chronology taking the time to hone in on particular themes. Solely thematic biographies seem to short change the “early years,” which I’d imagine are especially interesting for JSF. Since you’re the first one taking a cut at a scholarly biography of JSF (as far as I know), it seems that setting out the full story of his life is critical, as some events always have to get left out of a purely thematic study. My primary interest in a biography is learning about the person, though of course that requires some exploration of the environment the person lived in.

    I also think that every biography should have a chronology at the beginning or end – I can’t stand having to flip back 10 pages to remember exactly what year I’m in, then having to flip back even further to find another particular date to contextualize. A timeline with JFS’s travels, marriages, and other major events (both of JFS and the church) would be a huge priority for me!

    Finally, I imagine that the most difficult part of writing a biography of a religious leader is conveying the extent of their spirituality and devotion. JFS may have left hundreds of pages of sermons, and “purely” religious matters may have consumed over 50% of his thoughts and motivated most of his actions, but you can’t spend 50% of your book rehashing “Gospel Doctrine.” On the other hand, spending 75% of your book discussing the 5 worst decisions JFS ever made doesn’t give a full picture of who he actually was. I have no idea how to navigate that dilemma, but I wish you the best!

    Comment by Craig M. — October 26, 2012 @ 10:15 am

  11. For me, the best biographies somehow manage the miraculous: They ressurect the dead. They bring to life as fully as possible the subject of their study. A full grasp of the sources and of the historical context of the person’s life and times is a given. I admire biographies that attempt the risky and, admittedly, the presumptuous. I appreciate attempts to get beneath things, to helps us better understand drives and motivations. I also enjoy psychologically informed history (to borrow a term from Dick Bushman). This isn’t psychoanalysizing. This is the careful, judicious application of psychological insights to help to explain and appreciate better the various nuances and hues of a person’s life. Biography is one of the impossible professions, but I definitely think it’s worth the attempt.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 26, 2012 @ 10:23 am

  12. My favorite Church-themed biographies have a few common traits: (1)They make leaders human and relatable. (2) they contain an inside look at their lives and circumstances not widely available already. (3) Present a balanced look at the main themes of their life. The Spencer W. Kimball biographies (by his son) are a good example. LeGrand Richards: Beloved Apostle and F. Enzio Bushe’s Yearning for the Living God are others.

    Examples of what NOT to do (i.e. reduce a man to a two dimensional cardboard cutout) are Extra Taft Benson by Sheri Dew, and the authorized bios of Neal A Maxwell, N. Eldon Tanner, and a few others.

    Prince’s bio of McKay was solid on (1) and (2), but fell far short on (3). (It misrepresented McKay’s political views, barely covered his family life, and virtually eliminated any reference to spirituality in the decisions and meetings the book frequently refers to.

    Comment by The Other Clark — October 26, 2012 @ 11:18 am

  13. I appreciate all of the responses. I’m thinking about all of them today as I work on other things in the hopes that they will seep in. A couple of quick thoughts. I admit that biography can be tough for me to read, often because they lack a clear interpretive angle. Even when I’m reading about individuals in whom I have a strong interest, there are parts of the life that I am just not that interested in. The “womb to tomb” chronicle is not productive. Hagiography is also a problem, but not one that I anticipate will plague me. My audience is largely the academic, rather than the popular, audience, but with Mormon materials there is always an unusual dynamic that must be dealt with when it comes to audience.

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 26, 2012 @ 11:30 am

  14. Also, I’m glad that the issue of psychology has come up. That is really a tricky subject. I have a strong distaste for “psycho-biography” (which I think I learned from Stanford Cazier at USU) hut it is not possible to write a life without trying to get into psychological issues such as the impact of certain events on the subsequent worldview of the subject. This is very much the case with JFS. One of my central arguments, to the degree that I have fleshed it out, is that his view of life was essentially one of hostility coupled with a strong sense of potential oppression. I think also that this attitude informed J. Fielding Smith’s theological views. Anyway, more on that when the book is finished.

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 26, 2012 @ 11:44 am

  15. Taysom, I agree (re: psycho-biography), but at the same time, getting at the cosmological/world-view of the figure is necessary to understanding lots of things. I think one can approach that cosmology/world view without going all Freud on a subject.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 26, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

  16. That’s what I was trying get at, J. It’s swampy though.

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 26, 2012 @ 1:07 pm

  17. Steve, I’d really like to see a well-done cultural biography of JFS that not only contextualizes his life & decisions but critically and accurately uses ALL the available primary sources (within reason). The problem with J. Fielding Smith’s bio is that it is too much hagiography; the problem with Gibbons’s is that it is too reliant on secondary sources; and Holzapfel & Shupe hardly introduce anything new, while admittedly unearthing some visual treasures.

    I think you’re setting off in the right direction by identifying hostility as a shaping force in JFS’s life; he certainly seems a young man with a chip on his shoulder during his missionary years, and the antipolygamy crusade undoubtedly shaped his apostolic years. So Gary’s suggestion of a “psychologically-informed” approach resonates with me.

    Ultimately, I just want to see a bio that helps us all gain a greater understanding of the man as he was, the good and the bad–imperfect, self-starting, arrogant, eloquent, intelligent, pig-headed, calculating, and spiritual. Something along the lines of RSR or Berg’s biography of Lindbergh.

    Comment by Nate R. — October 26, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

  18. I had hard feelings of strong dislike for JFS a few years ago, until realizing that my impressions had been created by Josiah Francis Gibbs, a man who hated JFS and whose biography I had been working on for a couple of years. I started reading JFS’s own words and discovered that I quite liked him.

    My wish for biographers is that they always realize that they have a subject’s reputation and legacy in their hands. Biographers have a responsibility to the subject, who can no longer defend himself against either slander or overcolored praise, to do justice to that subject’s life, and not use him merely as a tool to make whatever point the biographer wishes to make. That doesn’t mean not speaking ill of the dead, or portraying a subject only as he would have wished to be remembered; it does demand recognizing the power a biographer has over his subject, and using that power with discretion and humanity.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 26, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

  19. One of my favorite biographies is the Prince/Wright treatment of David O. McKay both for revealing much about him as a person, and also setting him and against the culture of his times. I hope your biography of JFS goes down a similar route.

    I agree that with JFS you have a lot of good information about his early life, and voluminous journals and letters, which I have loved reading. He definitely traveled a difficult path from angry young man to a mature, even tempered leader. I’ve seen it in his letters to Edward Arthur, his adopted son, over a thirty year period. It will be fascinating to read your bio, there is a screaming need for one.

    Comment by kevinf — October 26, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

  20. Robert D. Richardson is, by far, the best biographer I have ever read. His William James bio is superb, but his Emerson bio is perhaps the best written book in academia.

    Comment by Ben P — October 26, 2012 @ 7:16 pm

  21. Really excited to see this Steve. I’ve puzzled a lot over JFS. His standing as link between the insular world of Utah and the assimilation of the 20th is important but not singular. Great figure for a pivotal piece.

    Comment by WVS — October 27, 2012 @ 10:01 pm


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