All of the regular bloggers and readers here at JI are connoisseurs of the variety of treatments that Joseph Smith and the Mormons receive at the hands of historians who are themselves not experts in the field of Mormon studies. Such treatments range from the ridiculous to the not-quite sublime, and coming as they do in broadly-conceived syntheses, they tend to be derivative and rely heavily on a hodgepodge of secondary interpretations (which authors they choose to cite seems often to depend on what they find on the shelves of their institution’s library–lots of Brooke, Quinn and Brodie usually). Pulitzer Prize winning historian Walter A. McDougall’s view of Joseph Smith and early Mormonism in the newly-released second volume of his multi-volume history of the U.S. is surprising in its creativity. I disagree with much of what he writes on the subject, and it is clear that he would benefit from a few well-placed interlibrary loan requests to deepen his sense of what Smith was all about, but I am charmed by the vivid imagery and innovative reading of now-tired literature. For your enjoyment (and comment, of course) I am offering some of his more interesting judgments:
“[Joseph Smith] was simultaneously an eminent Jacksonian, a scion of the Yankee exodus, a creature and critic of the Second Great Awakening, a Romantic Reformer, a charismatic utopian, a mystic nationalist, and a hustler in the manner of Barnum….Prophet, genius, con man, crackpot or all four in some proportion.” (180) I like this paragraph because it captures, if nothing else, the frenetic energy and protean visage of Joseph Smith.
“The tale [of Mormon origins and its history through Smith’s death] is so dramatic, eerie, violent, erotic, and steeped in the pioneer spirit–so downright American–that is surely would have become a staple of pop culture but for the disconcerting insistence of Mormons that it all really happened. Even scholars trip over the tale because of the surfeit, not dearth, of evidence about Smith’s life and times and because spooky questions remain in spite of the evidence.” (180) I like this paragraph less than the one immediately preceding it. I think he tries too hard to grab readers here. We can debate, for example, if “erotic” is an apt description of Joseph Smith’s experimentation with family arrangements. Were they sexual? Certainly. Smarmy? Maybe. Sublime expressions of celestial intimacy? Ok. But erotic? I’m not convinced. I am also puzzled by his remarks about the “spooky questions.” He does not elaborate on this, either in the text or in the notes. He might be referencing the trouble of squaring the complexity of the Book of Mormon with its rapid completion or with Smith’s limited education, but without further elaboration, there is no way to know.
My favorite paragraph, however, is one with which I completely disagree.
In describing the various pressures and tensions upon and within Nauvoo that were building to a deadly crescendo in 1844, McDougall argues that Smith “courted his martyrdom.” (185) Ok, there is nothing new in that argument, but then he unleashes this:
“It almost seems as if Smith were driven to reify the Book of Mormon apocalypse wherein Nephites succumb to sin [polygamy] and secret societies [anointed quorum/temple rites] even as Lamanites [Laws, Fosters, Illinois militia, etc] move in for the kill.” (186) I can’t remember if Brodie or Brooke advanced this argument specifically. If they did, it didn’t strike me as pithy or interesting. McDougall is clearly influenced by Brooke’s arguments about the contrast between the alleged anti-Masonry of the Book of Mormon and Smith’s embrace of Masonic symbolism in the 1840s. I am having trouble imagining that this is insight is original to McDougall, but he doesn’t give credit to anyone else. Have you ever encountered it before? I like the creativity involved here, even if the interpretation is wrong-headed. I enjoy seeing historians play with their finger paints a bit, even when they end up way outside the lines.
What do you think of this latest version of the story?
Walter A. McDougall, Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877 (New York: Harper, 2008).