“Dramatic, Eerie, Violent, Erotic,” Walter A. McDougall on Early Mormonism

By May 10, 2008

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).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I see what you mean. He seems to have wrestled with Mormonism (even in a line or two, he shows more familiarity with the narrative of the Book of Mormon than most do), and even though he sees it from the other side of the mirror, he deserves credit for the effort.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 10, 2008 @ 7:02 pm

  2. cute but insubstantial, the curious inversion of Dan Vogel’s biographical criticism of the BoM. sounds more like lit-crit than history, but I agree that it’s fun to see people engage texts. the courtship of martyrdom is probably best attributed to Laurence Moore. thanks for the heads up on the book.

    Comment by smb — May 10, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

  3. I don’t recall seeing that argument before, but I’d have to go back and read that section of Brooke more closely to be sure. Certainly imaginative, even if it is offbase.

    Comment by David G. — May 10, 2008 @ 11:02 pm

  4. “Cute but insubstantial.” My guess is that lots of experts on various persons and events that McDougall touches on would respond the same way. That seems to be an occupational hazard when dealing with such large-scale projects. The sentence on the Book of Mormon is not nearly rigorous enough to be lit-crit, though. If anything it resembles the bargain basement psycho-historical approach in its suggestion that the author of a work of fiction is compelled to act out the tragic ending of that book in his own life.

    I suppose Moore might be the first person to have formally argued about the courting of martyrdom, but the “Joseph was asking for it” theme certainly predates Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 11, 2008 @ 7:06 am

  5. sct, right you are. one of my favorite people in the world is a literary critic, but i still struggle to distinguish it from your beautifully named

    bargain basement psycho-historical approach


    I’m curious about the courting martyrdom theme. i don’t know the utah period well. was that argued a lot there? the early explanations were that he was megalomanic rather than intentionally martyrish.

    Comment by smb — May 11, 2008 @ 10:03 am

  6. smb, I must confess that I wasn’t thinking in terms of a divide between megalomania and martyrdom. In that case, you are probably right about Moore being the first to articulate the martyr angel with such specificity.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 11, 2008 @ 12:31 pm

  7. Doesn’t Moore think the courting of persecution extended far beyond Smith and was a fundamental component of Mormonism more broadly?

    I see generalists quote Brooke all the time. I always wonder if they’ve actually read his book. I remember it as rather hard to get through (not to mention unconvincing). I wouldn’t quite lump Brodie into the same category. Hers at least a thoughtful engagement with Smith and something I still recommend to students unfamiliar with Mormonism (in conjunction with Rough Stone Rolling). Did McDougall not cite Bushman? That seems unforgiveable in a 2008 book.

    Comment by John Turner — May 11, 2008 @ 10:40 pm

  8. McDougall cites Bushman’s earlier Smith bio, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, but not RSR. Apparently he (or, more likely,his research assistants at Penn) worked through the secondary sources for Mormonism before 2005. I agree that it is a pretty significant miss historiographically.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 12, 2008 @ 5:47 am

  9. 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.

    That is my favorite selection.

    I wonder what he finds most disconcerting. (I feel the attitude of the author here more than the people he is presumably speaking of in the “pop culture.” It would have better served the author to cite examples of reactions from both friend and foe, contemporary reactions as well, rather than to make these generalized assertions.) Is it the gold plates and angelic manifestations? The miraculous healings? Polygamy? A political Kingdom of God?

    Comment by BHodges — May 12, 2008 @ 3:51 pm


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