Q&A with Gary Bergera on Editing the Leonard J. Arrington Diaries

By May 29, 2018

Gary Bergera, the editor of the Leonard J. Arrington Diaries and Mananging Director of the Smith-Pettit Foundation, has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the diaries and their potential use. You can purchase the diaries HERE and read Matt’s review of them HERE.     

  1. Which topics of research in Mormon history would benefit most from the Leonard Arrington diaries?

Certainly, any studies relating to the intellectual history–including, but by no means limited to, the New Mormon History, etc.– of the LDS Church during the last third of the twentieth century. Probably studies of administrative/bureaucratic history during the same period. Too biographies of any of the prominent individuals mentioned in the diaries, and not only Church officials and dignitaries. I imagine that anyone interested in any of the significant (read controversial) episodes during this period (the 1978 revelation, women and the Church, the ERA, Sonia Johnson, for example) would want to see what Arrington records. I realize my answers might say more about me and my interests. So it would be instructive to see what other readers might identify as possible topics.

 

  1. How do you see the diaries in relationship to biographies and autobiographies by Lavina Fielding Anderson, Greg Prince, and Leonard Arrington himself? Certainly, historians can differ on points of view, but how you think they work together, or not, to tell Arrington’s life story and the history of the Church.

Certainly, each of the treatments you identify filters Arrington through the interpretive lenses of each of the authors/editors. I assume that the publication of the diaries, more than Lavina’s and Greg’s biographical studies, allows Arrington to speak most directly to readers for himself. This, at any rate, was my goal.

In saying this, I in no way mean to discount or disparage Lavina’s and Greg’s studies. Each is important in its own right in telling the story of Arrington’s life and times. In fact, we’re probably talking about apples and oranges, right, biography versus documentary history? The publication of the diaries makes no attempt to proffer a biographical study (except for Becky Bartholomew’s introductory essay, which is intended to help orient readers by providing some background to Arrington prior to his appointment as LDS Church Historian in early 1972). I would like to think that anyone who manages to make her way through the diaries, from beginning to end, will come as close to experiencing the life of another person as is possible.

  1. What might we learn about Leonard Arrington’s relationship to the Church through reading these diaries? What was his Mormonism like?

Here’s Arrington himself on the subject of testimony (July 9, 1985):

“Last night Davis Bitton told me that Lou Midgley [a professor of political science at BYU and critic of the New Mormon History] is now occupying his time tearing apart my testimony, given in an issue of Sunstone a year or so ago [“Why I Am a Believer,” Jan. 1985]. This thought occurred to me this morning:

“One’s testimony of the Gospel is an intensely personal thing. Arguing with it is like arguing with his or her choice of a spouse, his or her taste in art, his or her preference for Verdi over Wagner. It is a product of one’s feeling at a particular moment–feeling about God, feeling about the Church, feeling about one’s fellowmen. Above all, it is a product of the spirit of the meeting in which it is expressed–what was said before, what has gone on in his or her life during the preceding weeks, what has happened in the ward, the stake, the mission, the Church–in the city, the nation, the world.

“Normally one does not suppose that his testimony will be published. Above all, one does not express it with the expectation that it will be examined critically–analyzed and taken apart. One consents to publication only because he or she is persuaded that it may be helpful to others who are struggling with their own testimonies. In this case, I have had assurances from several dozen persons that the publication of my testimony, brief and incomplete as it was, was helpful. For that I am grateful. If it has been a stumbling block to anyone, I apologize. If Brother Midgley will visit our [LDS] Parley’s First Ward Testimony Meetings over a series of years, he will hear many testimonies given by me, all different, but all expressing my love for God, for Gospel principles, for the Prophets, for our bishop, and for my wife and children. Hopefully, he will then accept me as a fellow communicant–one who is committed, willing to share, and anxious to improve.”

Arrington was a committed, believing, practicing member of the LDS Church. He was not a scriptural literalist, not dogmatic, not authoritarian. He was comfortable with the grays of Mormonism. He believed that the Church offered him a reason for living and a hope for the future. For him, this was sufficient.

4. “Did Arrington seek to create a “Camelot” atmosphere, meaning a work environment where people flourished along with their work? Or was it happy coincidence?”

Arrington and his team reflected the spirit of the times, when the Church began to embrace a more outward-looking, more scholarly approach to a variety of activities. The fact, for example, that the Church hired a couple of large management consultants to advise it on improving its organization indicates a willingness to think outside the box. Arrington believed if he brought in “the best and the brightest” and supplied the “raw materials,” the Church’s new History Division would pretty much take care of itself. I think Arrington also believed in the importance of leading by example. At the same time, as you know, Camelot, as with all other metaphors, is not perfect. There were periods when everything worked smoothly, and other periods when members of the History Division, Arrington included, may have felt they were mostly arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But Camelot’s a nice image, and it’s important to have nice images to draw upon as we confront the realities of life in the “real” world. Right?

5. Do you get the sense that Leonard Arrington was self-censoring in his diaries?

I suspect that some readers will find the diaries to be more disclosing than they expect, especially regarding some of the intimate details of Arrington’s own life. I think it’s telling of Arrington’s approach to history that he’s willing to be as transparent as he is. In fact, there’s at least one explicit instance in the diary where Arrington admits to having lied and apologizes for being less than honest. Arrington thought his prevarications would be less problematic at the time than the truth. He was wrong.

Having said this, I also know that there are instances when Arrington chose not to be as disclosing. There are details regarding the personal lives of some individuals that he refrained from divulging (though this may seem sometimes to be the exception, as Arrington often writes of other people in ways that other diarists might not have). He was also reticent to narrate the details of his second anointing, though he does allude to it. The irony, of course, is that the question assumes that I know enough about Arrington to know when he was, or may have been, self-censoring, which I don’t.

As you’ve asked about Arrington’s self-censorship, I wonder if you’d be interested to know how I approached the question of redaction. In principle, I’m opposed to the redaction, or censorship, of historical documents. However, while editing the diaries for publication, I confronted a handful of entries that caused me to have to confront my opposition.

I believe redaction risks incomplete history–that it compromises both the historical enterprise and the search for historical truth. It not only deprives writers and readers of benefitting from as full a treatment of the topic under discussion as possible, it contributes to a distorted account of the past.

In addition, redaction infantilizes readers. Those making redactions tell readers, in effect, that they are not to be trusted in using the materials being redacted, in interpreting the materials being redacted, and in arriving at their own conclusions regarding the redacted materials. Decisions about what we see, whatever the reason, treats readers as being unable to be trusted with the truth.

While I remain committed, in principle, to these objections, I arrived at a handful of instances in Arrington’s diaries where I decided to redact some text. The published edition of the diaries comprises three volumes, each totaling about 800-900 pages. All told, I redacted the names of people in a total of twelve dated entries: two in volume 1, three in volume 2, and seven in volume 3.

When I began work on the diaries in 2012, I did not expect to redact any material. Thus I did not formulate any policies beforehand. However, as I began to work my way through the diaries, and especially as I started to annotate the text, I encountered some entries containing material regarding persons, who, I discovered were living, that I decided could be read as possibly problematic to those living individuals. Rather than attempt to create a broad, one category-fits-all redaction, which seemed to me to be unworkable, I decided to consider each potential redaction on its own. Throughout the project, redaction remained a subjective undertaking, but as I made my way through the task of annotation, I became increasingly less uncomfortable with my admittedly subjective decisions. That said, I suspect that some readers will agree with my decisions and that other readers won’t.

The majority of the redactions seems to fall within the category we today might term privacy concerns. They relate to matters involving divorce, excommunication, mental illness, sexual activity, etc. The only redactions that I continue to think about are those occurring in the entry dated March 15, 1985. These redactions involve the identification of a living married couple who received their second anointings and who, in the case of the wife, wrote a poem about the experience that was published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. To the best of my knowledge, the couple has never publicly acknowledged receiving the second anointing and the wife’s poem is vague enough that I believe the vast majority of readers would never guess that her poem deals with the ordinance–at least, not until now. On the other hand, the wife did write about the ordinance in a poem that was published. So I have to assume that on some level, she, at least, cannot reasonably object to the disclosure of her experience. Still, I decided, right or wrong, to redact their identities and to leave it to them to reveal their experience. Of the names of people I redacted in the diaries, this one remains the one I am the most conflicted about.

I would be interested to know what others think about the appropriateness, or not, of redaction.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. UPDATE AND CORRECTION: It’s been pointed out to me that the entry for March 15, 1985, isn’t, in fact, redacted in the published version of the diaries. I think what happened is that while proofing the typeset version of the manuscript, one of the proofers noted that the pseudonymously published poem about the second anointing had subsequently been reprinted under the author’s real name. So my redacting names the entry in the diaries no longer made sense. In answering JI’s question, I forgot about the reprinting of the poem (but continued to remember how I struggled with how to handle this particular entry).

    Comment by Gary Bergera — May 29, 2018 @ 11:50 am

  2. Excellent interview – questions and responses!

    Comment by Kurt Manwaring — May 29, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

  3. Thanks, Gary!

    Comment by Jeff T — May 30, 2018 @ 11:08 am


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