Fawn Brodie, Joseph Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Bushman, and Psychoanalysis

By June 9, 2014

No, the title of this post is not the opening for one of those “…walk into a bar…” jokes, although it does provide good potential.[1]

NOTE: This post doesn’t aim to make a particular argument, or perhaps to say much new, but merely to express some issues that have been circling my mind for a while, and conclude one of those historical nerd tangential interests that we all know so well.

Apparently not satisfied with merely enraging Mormon historians, Brodie later tried to do the same to Jeffersonian scholars.

Apparently not satisfied with merely enraging Mormon historians, Brodie later tried to do the same to Jeffersonian scholars.

A few months ago, in a conversation on the H-SHEAR list (an email group focused on the history of the early American republic), someone made a reference to Fawn Brodie’s biography of Thomas Jefferson. Then, as an aside, the writer added, “Incidentally, Fawn Brodie is in my view the Rosalind Franklin of American history. There are many Watsons and Cricks in the historical profession who owe her a posthumous apology.” Franklin, for those of you (like me) who aren’t encyclopedias of this type of knowledge, was a biophysicist who studied DNA in the early 1950s. Watson and Crick, who were dismissive and rude toward Franklin in public and private throughout her life, accessed her data without her knowledge, much less permission, and used that data to make the critical leap in insight that elucidated the structure of DNA. They published with no mention of Franklin’s contribution and went on to great fame and a Nobel Prize a decade later.[2]

While Brodie is mostly known in Mormon circles for her controversial biography of Joseph Smith, she is more widely known in the American historical community for her innovative use of psychohistory, especially in her biographies of Thomas Jefferson and, less successfully, Richard Nixon. Indeed, No Man Knows My History was merely her entrance into the historical profession, where afterward she became one of the foremost practitioners of psychohistory American political biography, and was even one of the first tenured female professors at UCLA. Most especially, her Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Life (W. W. Norton, 1974) was a national bestseller and instigator of much debate in the academic community. In the book, Brodie focused on Jefferson’s private life, and was one of the first to strongly argue that there was a relationship between the president and his slave, Sally Hemings. The book was a commercial success, but was panned by many historians, especially Jeffersonian scholars, who rejected the thesis that Jefferson would procreate with a slave. Many historians rejected Browdie’s interpretation of Jefferson, just as Mormon historians rejected her interpretation of Joseph Smith.[3]

Several decades later, however, Brodie’s argument was vindicated. In 1997 Annette Gordon-Reed, now recognized as one of the foremost experts on Jefferson, published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Virginia UP, 1997), which made the most convincing historical argument to date that there was an intimate relationship between the two historical figures. The next year, a DNA study concluded that Hemings’s children were indeed descendents of the Jefferson line, and further investigation by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation then confirmed it was America’s third president who was indeed the father. Today, if you were to take a tour of Jefferson’s home at Monticello, the tour guides will share with you the extremely high probability that the author of the Declaration of Independence sired a number of children with his slave mistress. In 2008, Gordon-Reed published The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W. W. Norton), which masterfully documented not only Sally’s relationship with Jefferson, but the slave life of her parents, siblings, and children. Today, the vast majority of respectable historians accept Fawn Brodie’s argument concerning the Jefferson/Hemings relationship. Indeed, Gordon-Reed and others herald Fawn Brodie for paving the way in Jefferson studies, and Brodie’s fingerprints are found throughout today’s scholarship.

I still remember reading nearly the entire book while visiting a bookstore as an LDS missionary.

I still remember reading nearly the entire book while visiting a bookstore as an LDS missionary.

This isn’t to say that Brodie should be similarly vindicated in Mormon history circles, though No Man Knows My History remains a classic everyone in the field should read. (And it remains one of the best-written books in Mormon history.) However, it should stop the unfortunate apologetic argument that Brodie should be dismissed because, 1) she wasn’t a good historians (she was), 2) that her interpretations of Jefferson were de-bunked, so the same could be said about her work on Smith (since the former has been disproved), and 3) that her use of psychobiography discounts her credibility. This last point is what I’d like to focus on for the last half of this post.

Many modern critics of Brodie point to her use of psychoanalysis, as if the mere association discounts her work. Perhaps we are just too supscicious of such approaches in our post-freudian world. Yet psychoanalysis and psychobiography remain important tools for historians. The emphasis on reconstructing the mental, and at times subconscious, world of historical characters, when done carefully and correctly, can upend superficial analysis and help us reconsider traditional narratives and frameworks. It also helps us capture insights into historical characters who are generally forgotten and overlooked in our historical work. In the annual History and Theory lecture a few years ago, Joan W. Scott, one of the foremost historians in America, argued that historians need to be more aware of these tools.[4] The field of psychoanalysis has certainly changed since the Age of Brodie, but so has the historical profession in general. And more imporantly, if we dismiss the entire subfield of psychobiography, we dismiss one of the giants of Mormon historiography: Richard Bushman.

It is well known that Bushman, the current dean of Mormon studies, established his reputation outside of Mormon history before turning his attention to Joseph Smith. What is sometimes less acknowledged is that much of his early work was part of a historiographical craze over psychoanalysis that swept the profession in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, partly inspired and improved by Brodie herself. In 1957, the American Historical Association’s presidential address, delivered by William Langer, called for more historians to integrate psychoanalysis into their work.[5] The following decades witnessed an explosion of work in this regard. Bushman’s two-year postdoctoral fellowship took him to Boston University, where his primary focus was to explore the developing field of psychobiography; two important articles resulted from that research.[6] Though he mostly moved away from the field, remnants remained throughout his writing, and there are definite traits of psychobiography present in both his Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Illinois UP, 1984) and Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (Knopf, 2005). In his own reflections on the latter book, Bushman admitted that his treatment of JS’s familial issues and sealing doctrine were explicit occasions for using psychoanalysis.[7] When reading No Man Knows My History along with Rough Stone Rolling, it becomes apparent that both books follow many of the same signposts and framework; perhaps this is because, to a certain degree, both historians are interested in the same type of psychobiographical questions.

Bushman is not the only historian of Mormonism that has used psychoanalysis. Indeed, there is a good number of work on Joseph Smith that attempt to use the tools of psychobiography. Yet very little of it has really stuck, and very few of the works succeeded in their attempts. This has led to a lot of practitioners of Mormon history to reject the entire field. But this might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater: just because there has been bad (sometimes really bad) work that claims to use psychobiography does not mean that the entire field is worthless. To dismiss psychoanalysis just because a critic’s jejune use of “imposter theory” is just as facile as dismissing postmodernism because of an apologist’s misuse of deconstruction. What we really need are historians who are trained in the complex field of the historical method, conversant with academic theory, and imaginative with scholarly approach. Also, practitioners need to move away from Joseph Smith, despite how tempting the “Prophet Puzzle” really is. I can imagine, for instance, work being done on Eliza R. Snow, and how the dark year of 1838 shaped her later poetry. But such a project would have to be done carefully and skillfully by someone well aware of the potential and pitfalls of the field outlined in Joan Scott’s charge.

So, to round back to where I began: Fawn Brodie’s work should not be dismissed because of her innovative use of psychobiography. If Mormon historians want another successful, yet “safe,” model of the field, they can look to none other than Richard Bushman; instead of looking to Sigmund Freud, they can look to Joan Scott. Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith is not crippled because her use of theory, but because her reliance on problematic sources and inaccess to pertinent documents. (Not to mention the general issues of out-datedness that come with a seven-decades-old-book.) Rather, I would hope that Brodie, not to mention Bushman, serve as prime examples for innovative approaches to the past–something that the Mormon history community desperately needs.

So here’s to you, Prof. Brodie.


[1] Feel free to try your hand at a few jokes in the comments.

[2] Speaking of stealing someone else’s ideas, I’m basically plagiarizing Edje Jeter in this paragraph, who explained the whole background to Franklin, Watson, and Crick in a facebook backchannel discussion.

[3] Newell Bringhurst has written an excellent biography of Brodie: Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003).

[4] Joan W. Scott, “The Incommensurability of Psychoanalysis and History,” History and Theory 51, no. 1 (February 2012): 63-83. I acknowledge that the fields of psychoanalysis and psychobiography are not synonymous. However, they do overlap, and for the purpose of this post represent the same hermeneutical tools used by historians.

[5] William Langer, “The Next Assignment,” American Historical Review 63 (1958): 283-304.

[6] Richard Bushman, “Jonathan Edwards and Puritan Consciousness,” Journal for the Study of Religion 5 (Fall 1966): 383-96; Bushman, “On the Uses of Psychology: Conflict and Conciliation in Benjamin Franklin,” History and Theory 5 (Fall 1966): 225-40.

[7] Richard Bushman “The Inner Joseph Smith,” Journal of Mormon History 32, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 65-81. Bushman further notes that, while finishing RSR, he realized that he embodied his psychoanalysis mentor Erik Erickson’s theoretical approach of an individual becoming culturally influential because of his personality crises.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Origins Historiography Intellectual History Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. Thanks for this, Ben. I remember well Hugh Nibley’s “No, Ma’am, That’s not History” taking great pleasure in quoting negative reviews of Brodie’s Jefferson biography in order to further discredit No Man Knows My History.

    Charles Cohen’s 2005 BYUS article is well worth reading for the additional insight it provides into Brodie’s use of psychoanalysis, too.

    Comment by Christopher — June 9, 2014 @ 11:33 am

  2. Interesting comparison, Ben. When I read Brodie, I was surprised how close to Bushman’s work hers was. She made most of the same arguments and similar pieces of evidence. Take away the vitriol and I would argue that Brodie’s work is the more accessible one — even for Latter-day Saints. The vitriol, however, makes it so a lot of people won’t even touch it. I didn’t go a step further, however, and connect their use of psychobiography or psychohistory.

    Comment by Amanda HK — June 9, 2014 @ 11:37 am

  3. Christopher: great call on the Cohen article–I can’t believe I forgot that one.

    Thanks, Amanda. Someone mentioned a few years ago that Bushman and Brodie basically followed the same roadmap, and I wondered why. This mental tangent was in part an attempt to answer that question.

    Comment by Ben P — June 9, 2014 @ 11:45 am

  4. I wonder to what extent you are using “psychoanalysis” in your argument as a shorthand way of referring to attempts to construct the inner emotional and mental life of historical figures and to what extent you are using it in a technical sense to refer to the particular theories of mind and human psychology tracing their roots back to Freud.

    If what you are calling for is simply an attempt to reconstruct the inner emotional lives of historical figures, then what you say strikes me as entirely sensible. To the extent that you are arguing for the trying to reanimate the corpse of Freudianism and put it to work as an explanatory theory … blegh. Finally, you may be calling for historians to use other theories developed by non-Freudian psychologists to explain historical characters. This last project sounds interesting, but I’d be pretty suspicious of the results for the simple reason that historians are not trained as psychologists, inter-disciplinary work is really hard, and I’m not convinced that the psychological theories have enormous explanatory power to begin with.

    For what it’s worth, I think that historians do best when they do with historians do best: find new sources or new ways of using old sources to write narratives that rely primarily on folk psychology and folk social science for their explanatory power. One doesn’t read Marxist historians because Marxism is a powerful explanatory theory. You read Marxist historians because their Marxism orients them toward a set of questions and their professional industry unearths a lot of interesting stories. When they start talking about the cause of price movements or stories where their theoretical framework starts doing a lot of intellectual work, it’s a good idea to treat most of what they say with extreme skepticism. Something like this strikes me as true of psychohistory as well. It’s worth noting that what is enduring about Brodie’s Jefferson work is the sources and narratives that she mined. Furthermore, her vindication didn’t rely on psychological theory, Freudian or otherwise. It relied on DNA testing and ordinary historians tools.

    Comment by Nate Oman — June 9, 2014 @ 11:47 am

  5. Ben, good analysis. I am currently reading Brodie’s biography of Thaddeus Stevens, and find it a well written and engaging look at another fascinating character from American history. She employs the same techniques of psychobiography there, linking Steven’s radical abolitionist views, and his punitive view of Reconstruction to a number of issues from Stevens background. These included being the son of a poor, alcoholic absent father; the stigma of his clubfoot and the “spawn of the devil” folklore surrounding such disabilities; and a Calvinist view of the punishment of the wicked, in this case, the Southern aristocracy and politicians who defended it. I admit I was expecting her work to be of a lesser quality, but her treatment of Stevens is far more balanced and well written than other biographies of the colorful congressman from Pennsylvania. She deserves more credit than she gets.

    Comment by kevinf — June 9, 2014 @ 11:47 am

  6. Hmmm. My first stab at a comment got lost. Let me try again. Here’s my reaction, for what it is worth.

    1. If “psychoanalysis” just means trying to reconstruct the inner emotional lives of historical figures, then I agree with you. If it means something like, “concrete theories of psychology and mind with their roots in Freudianism,” then…blegh.

    2. I’m skeptical that there is a big upside for historians trying to apply concrete psychological theories to reconstructing the mental and emotional lives of historical figures. First, historians lack training in such theories. Interdisciplinary work is really hard and often pretty bad. (I’m a law prof where this is all the rage and we almost universally suck at it.) Second, I’m not sure that the psychological theories have a lot of explanatory power to begin with.

    3. I tend to think that historians do best when historians do what historians do best, which is finding new sources or finding new ways of using old sources to construct narratives that basically rely on folk psychology and folk social science as their explanatory tools. I read Marxist historians because their Marxism causes them to ask some questions that I find interesting, and their industry and ingenuity as historians unearths cool stories. I don’t read them for the Marxism. Indeed, one their narratives start relying heavily on Marxism to account for something like prices, then my tendency is to be extremely suspicious.

    4. On the vindication of Brodie, it’s worth pointing out that she was not vindicated by psychology. Rather, she was vindicated by historians using ordinary historians tools and by DNA researchers. Freud offered little in the way of explanatory power or a framework for verification. Pyschoanalysis’s only use in this case came from the way in which it got Brodie interested in Jefferson’s emotional and sexual life. You don’t need fancy psychological theories, however, to be interested in sex.

    Comment by Nate Oman — June 9, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

  7. Ben, When you use the term “psychoanalysis,” what exactly do you mean? I ask because I believe the term has specialized meaning in Freudian analysis that may not translate well beyond this particular usage. I think Bushman prefers “psychologically informed” history. I don’t know that Brodie ever actually engaged in strict psychoanalysis (at least, as understood in its narrow, Freudian sense), but was more a proponent of the Bushman brand of “psychohistory.”

    Comment by Gary Bergera — June 9, 2014 @ 12:03 pm

  8. Just a quick note that some comments seem to be getting stuck in spam. I have no idea why. I’ve freed most of them. Nate, I freed both of yours, since you phrase things differently in each.

    If other comments get stuck, just let me know.

    Comment by Ben P — June 9, 2014 @ 12:57 pm

  9. Intriguing, Ben. I’d be interested in looking into the updates made to psychoanalytic theory over the past half-century. Freudian models were so reductive that they’ve left behind a kind of caricature. I would hope that since his time there has been great improvement. (I’ll have to look at Joan Scott.)

    I’ve also been meaning to look at Ann Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered, which appears relevant to this topic.

    Comment by Ryan T. — June 9, 2014 @ 1:08 pm

  10. Now on to responding to these thoughtful comments. First, Nate:

    I wonder to what extent you are using ?psychoanalysis? in your argument as a shorthand way of referring to attempts to construct the inner emotional and mental life of historical figures and to what extent you are using it in a technical sense to refer to the particular theories of mind and human psychology tracing their roots back to Freud.

    Mostly the latter, though it is true that psychoanalysis owes much or its origins to Freud. However, the field has progressed radically since Freud, and hardly any practitioners of the approach would still look to Freud as their model of scholarship. There are new technical tools and particular theories currently in vogues, which are immensely helpful in reconstructing the inner-life and social dynamics of historical figures. I would hope Mormon historians could experiment with those. The last thing I’d want to see is a vibrant defense of freudianism. As you say, blegh.

    but I?d be pretty suspicious of the results for the simple reason that historians are not trained as psychologists, inter-disciplinary work is really hard, and I?m not convinced that the psychological theories have enormous explanatory power to begin with.

    On your first point, I think that is the problem Mormon historians have had with this, especially those working on Joseph Smith: most have not been conversant with the field, and thus are doing more pop-psychology and sophmoric freudianism. Brodie and Bushman were actually trained in the field, which is why their attempts have been the most successful. I don’t want to see a historian or biographer read one or two books, declare themselves an expert, and then write another superficial take that attempts to analyze internal dynamics of complex figures. I want to see people become immersed in the field, conversant with the theories, and sophisticated with their approach.

    On your second point, I’m honestly not sure that psychohistory has enormous interpretive power either, at least with Mormon figures, but I’m willing to see it given a try. Some of the work has been provocative and helpful; others, not so much.

    It?s worth noting that what is enduring about Brodie?s Jefferson work is the sources and narratives that she mined. Furthermore, her vindication didn?t rely on psychological theory, Freudian or otherwise. It relied on DNA testing and ordinary historians tools.

    I’d actually disagree with you on this. Brodie didn’t find any new sources with Jefferson. Her interpretation of well-known sources, which was driven by using a psychohistorical approach, is what turned the history on its head. That is, her theoretical approach cast new light on well-known sources. That, I think, is something that is very needed in Mormon history. And while vindication came through more empirical testing, it only highlighted the brilliance of her interpretive work, not diminish it. Though, your point is very well taken that none of this theoretical work is set in stone–history seldom is.

    I’d take issue with more of your final paragraph referring to the historical method and use of theory, but this comment is already comedically long so I’ll leave that for another time.

    Comment by Ben P — June 9, 2014 @ 1:16 pm

  11. Kevin: great comment, and I think you bring up excellent examples of both how psychobiography can be useful, as well as how Brodie was a skilled practitioner of the craft.

    Many thanks for your comment, Gary. I think a big issue, as I briefly discuss in my reply to Nate, is that psychoanalysis does not = Freud. At least not any more. There is a rich historical methodology that has developed and expanded long since Freud become dated. Brodie was at the beginning of this movement, and her work was both foundational for and integrated within the historiography; indeed, her work in the field was, in part, what got her a job at UCLA. And I think Bushman’s use of a different term is mostly an attempt to distance himself from a field he thinks is dated and limited.

    For me, and I’m not an expert in the field, I mostly see psychobiography, or psychoanalysis, as the use of theory to reconstruct the inner life of individuals as they reacted to social circumstances, interpersonal interactions, cultural expectations, and lived realities. That’s broad, which is the point: it is a theoretical umbrella that allows a number of attempts to understand the internal and external balance of historical figures.

    For those interested, I strongly recommend Joan Scott’s article as a useful introduction to where the field has come and where it is going from here.

    Comment by Ben P — June 9, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

  12. Since Nibley’s “No Ma’am, That’s Not History” was published in 1946 and Brodie’s Jefferson in 1974, how did Nibley quote negative reviews of the latter work in his criticism of her Joseph Smith biography?

    Comment by Mark B. — June 9, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

  13. Mark: I’m not sure, but Christopher probably read the version that was included in Tinkling Symbols and Sounding Brass, which was published decades later. I’m not sure, but Nibley might have revised and expanded it.

    Comment by Ben P — June 9, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

  14. Mark, Ben is correct. Like Brodie’s book, Nibley’s polemical review went through multiple editions. The version included in Tinkling Symbols and Sounding Brass included as an addendum, “A Note on F. M. Brodie.” Apparently, “These brief comments on reviews of Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York: Norton, 1974) were written around 1974 and presented as a talk.”

    More awkwardly, Lou Midgley wrote a scathing indictment of Brodie that relied extensively on critiques of her Jefferson biography to discredit her abilities as a biographer and historian. He mocked Brodie “devot[ing] five chapters and an appendix to the old tale about Jefferson’s supposed ‘affair’ with Sally Hemings.” The Review of Books on the Book of Mormon published Midgley’s “review” in 1996, just months before Anette Gordon-Reed’s book appeared and made Midgley and the “competent historians” on whom he and Nibley relied look like fools.

    Comment by Christopher — June 9, 2014 @ 3:22 pm

  15. Ryan (sorry, your comment was caught by spam as well): yes, do read Scott’s article. Also, read Ann Tave’s excellent paper on Joseph Smith and the gold plates for how scholars of religious studies are currently using psychoanalysis in new and provocative ways; I should have included a reference to the article in the post, come to think of it.

    Comment by Ben P — June 9, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

  16. I had recently read ‘Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson’ which mentioned Bushman having been a student of Erikson during his undergrad. Bushman was taught about this way of doing biography very early.

    Also, it was interesting to hear about how Erikson and Brodie came together for Erikson to write about Jefferson.

    Comment by Katherine Pollock — June 9, 2014 @ 8:20 pm

  17. Thanks Ben and Christopher. As you might have guessed, I don’t read enough of Nibley to know that he revised that review, and I think even Hugh Nibley would have been surprised to discover that he knew things two decades before they occurred.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 9, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

  18. A few quick comments, recognizing that my long-standing antipathy toward the Frood & Ian Circus likely affects the tenor and content of my comments. No interest in defaming anyone; the Smith psychobiography is a fun read, and Brodie was an excellent popular writer on historical figures. That said I think there are several fundamental conceptual errors in your arguments here.

    First, the analogy to Franklin is misleading. A better analogy would be if a freudian auto-didact had proposed the double helix on phallic grounds 20 years before Franklin and the Double Helix Boys showed up. Franklin is an issue of a morally disreputable Watson competing unethically with another scientist, not of an outside visionary happening to anticipate a later turn in an academic discipline.
    Second, there are several conceptual errors here that would tend to be called essentialization in the PoMo/crit theory circles but is perhaps better seen as the bystander/tag-along/barnacle error, a kind of heuristic that often leads to false inferences. Like assuming that barnacles are necessary for sea voyages because they keep showing up on ocean liners. On my reading the arch-theoretical freudian nonsense claims are the barnacles and an openness to individual agency is the ocean liner. One does not need to chase frood’s rabbits into their warren to wonder about extramarital affairs or to wonder whether a prominent historical figure might have worried about a particular topic or perhaps experienced a particular emotion. One could quite parsimoniously argue that Brodie as scholar was the broken watch that was right twice per day given her strong freudian approach and the need the freudians had to find stigmatized sexual behavior under every stone. Choosing a famous man with a long history of (in retrospect correct) sexual conspiracy theories associated with him and then plying the freudian trade to popularizing the (in retrospect correct) gossip does not vindicate either an academic career or an academic discipline.
    Third, the more interesting in my view line is the question of the changes in historiographic sensibilities about individual vs.collective agencies and the “religion” vs. “science” dialectic within history (where “psychohistory”=”religion” and the mainstream = “science”). That’s interesting. The notion that armchair psychology unlocks the key to history (let alone to the human psyche in synchronic analyses) is a distracting barnacle. The notion that the intersections between individual and collective agencies is worth careful study is interesting. As is consideration of the subjective turn in historiography. And long, careful, empathic reading and attention to detail are critical to good history. Those can be performed without the aggressive hermeneutic of suspicion or any of the vestigial organs of freudianism.
    Fourth, EndRant. Three is more than enough.

    Sorry for the vitriol. I get hives when I hear arguments about how psycho-whatever survived the implosion of Frood. I think it’s barnacles being submitted for Rorschach testing. I’m sure it’s because I had a difficult childhood.
    [extra credit for catching the pop-culture/infectious disease/anti-freudian pun]

    Comment by smb — June 10, 2014 @ 9:24 am

  19. You can’t psychoanalyze dead people because you can’t talk to them. You can’t bring them into the office for therapeutic conversations, explorations, and testing. This holds true for practicing psychiatrists trained in the discipline. It holds doubly true for historians who try to do it. It’s just speculation (the nicest term one could apply to the practice). The model is fundamentally flawed. I don’t see how you or anyone else can defend the approach in a serious discussion. Yes, a broken clock gives the correct time twice a day, but that’s not an argument in favor of broken clock timekeeping.

    Comment by Dave — June 10, 2014 @ 9:33 am

  20. SMB and Dave: thanks for your comments. I strongly recommend reading Scott, Taves, or even Bushman before dismissing the entire field. I’d argue there is a lot more there than what you assess. There has to be, if Bushman’s RSR is considered successful, after all.

    Comment by Ben P — June 10, 2014 @ 9:42 am

  21. To clarify my position, if it helps: I am not a practitioner of psychoanalysis or psychobiography, nor do I plan to become one soon. (Though I hope to use a few of their tools in certain future projects.) I am not as well-versed in their theory, beyond reading a few of the major works and spending a few weeks with the literature in grad school. I’ve enjoyed some work the field, and have been frustrated with others. But I wrote this post wanting to make three major points:

    1. That psychoanalysis is not as simplistic or unhelpful as some assume, as exemplified in Dave’s comment. Yes, there has been some very bad psychoanalysis in Joseph Smith studies, but that doesn’t mean we have to toss out the entire field.

    2. It is a tad hypocritical to dismiss the psychobiography of Brodie’s work while embracing it in Bushman’s. Yes, they use the tools differently, but there is a lot more commonality than generally assumed.

    3. I am all for Mormon studies being up to date on innovative and disruptive theoretical techniques. Reading JMH, attending MHA meetings, and (especially) reading the MHA award recipients demonstrates how behind the times we often are, and I’d like to see that fixed. I don’t mean everyone needs to practice sophisticated theory–heavens no–but we shouldn’t be allergic to it, either.

    Comment by Ben P — June 10, 2014 @ 10:44 am

  22. Dave and SMB, since Brodie seems to be at the center of this discussion, I’ll use her Stevens biography again as an example. I’d hesitate to call her approach there as Freudian, but I would argue that she used traditional historical research tools to look at the whole of Stevens’ life, and found recurring themes of inner turmoil that appeared to fit the historical record. Surprisingly, even though she concludes that Stevens’ relationship with his colored housekeeper Lydia Smith was sexual, a conclusion that even later historians are yet to agree with, it is not at the core of her analysis of Stevens’ life.

    Stevens, she argues, was preoccupied with racial, economic, and religious equality and freedom; free education; and breaking down class distinctions due to the many struggles of his early life to overcome poverty, lack of educational opportunity, and anti-catholic persecution. Even Stevens’ foray into anti-Masonry seems more to be grounded in the exclusivity and elitism that he felt that Freemasonry represented.

    Brodie’s arguments are compelling and do seem to fit the overall pattern of Stevens’ life. But as we all know, history is not science. We just do the best we can with the tools and resources at hand to try and understand how and why the past unfolded the way it has. We always have to be open to new arguments, new sources, and new views of historical events and figures.

    Comment by kevinf — June 10, 2014 @ 10:49 am

  23. Ben, doesn’t feel fair to make you guilty for lapses in others’ methodologies (ideology as methodology, barnacularism), so I won’t dwell on this beyond this post. I think with psychoanalysis in most cases you’re generally left with foolishness on a par with Frood or Lacan or with a homeopathic freudianism in which psychoanalysis per se is a minor residuum of mostly totemic significance. I think the field will see more clearly if it doesn’t use that framing but instead argues for something along the lines of thick description that isn’t scared of tentative possibilities suggested by careful, empathic attention to what tiny hints we have of a world of personal experience. You don’t need to invoke all the nonsense to argue for that kind of analysis. I have read Bushman and Taves closely and am not persuaded thereby to embrace psychohistory or psychobiography in any meaningful way. Taves is more making an argument from cog psych, which is a different animal; I am not persuaded that the cog psych turn in religious studies will prove any more methodologically important than evolutionary psych has. I think Taves is exceptionally gifted and love to read and engage her work even when I disagree with it.

    Comment by smb — June 10, 2014 @ 11:02 am

  24. Fair point, SMB.

    Comment by Ben P — June 10, 2014 @ 11:21 am

  25. I have heard Bushman and Cohen say that they found psychoanalytic history to be basically a failure so they moved away from it. I agree that historians can benefit from applying good work in psychology (like Ann Taves’ application of cognitive psychology). The reason people in the humanities turn to the Freud-Jung-Lacan-Irigaray psychoanalytic tradition instead of solid studies from the current field of psychology is because of the sexy theory in the former.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — June 11, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

  26. When I see the term psychohistory, I immediately think of Isaac Asimov and the Foundation series. Did Brodie and Bushman also use it to predict the future?

    Comment by Mark Steele — June 11, 2014 @ 2:31 pm


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J Stuart on 2020 Mormon History Association: “Good point, Quincy! There's no reason to send in an all-male panel. There is plenty of time to network with women.”

Hannah on DH and the Woman's: “Thanks for this great post and run-down of topic modeling. Cheers Jeff!”

Alan Clark on 2020 Mormon History Association: “Hey Ben, I have a topic that might go well with yours. Let's talk. newwavealan@hotmail.com”

Ben S on 2020 Mormon History Association: “I’m going to be submitting something related to the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy (early 20th century), probably centered around either Joseph Fielding Smith/hermeneutics or the LDS Church…”

Quincy D. Newell on 2020 Mormon History Association: “SLC 2019 was great, and I'm looking forward to Rochester 2020! Let's see if we can make 2020 the YEAR WITHOUT A MANEL--thanks for…”