Richard Bushman’s Lecture at Benchmark Books August 3, 2007

By May 24, 2008

I’m surprised I hadn’t put this one up yet. Richard and Claudia Bushman visited Benchmark Books last year to discuss Rough Stone Rolling, but more particularly Bushman’s then recently released On The Road With Joseph Smith, the published version of a diary Bushman was asked to keep about the events surrounding the release of Rough Stone Rolling. If you haven’t read this book, it’s a short, affordable, and highly engaging read, which I highly recommend. Again, thanks to Brent Brizzie for providing this transcript.Curt Bench: It’s a privilege to have with us tonight a recognized scholar one of the leading lights in Mormon books, but enough about me, (laughter), sorry I had to do that, you understand. For those of you who don’t know me, I like to have little fun with it. Richard when we were talking to him about coming tonight, he said that he needed to get a couple of books tonight when he came, accomplish two tasks, as well as signing books and speaking to us. I naturally had to say by doing that he could kill two birds with one “rough stone”. (raspberries, oohs), that was about his reaction too…Today we had lunch, and we had lunch with a lady that works in the church historical department, saying how many male introducers and leaders will say when someone brings his wife along to one of these meetings or whatever. They always say, and with his lovely wife, whoever, so I’m not going to say that tonight, even though she is a lovely wife, and a lovely woman, but we were very pleased to have Claudia Bushman accompany her husband here, because she is an author in her own right, has done some groundbreaking work, women’s studies, Mormon women’s studies…

I was going ask Richard why apparently in 1984 did they use his high school picture, and in Rough Stone Rolling they used a little later one, anyway very distinguished…I don’t know what he’s going to say yet, but I think he’s going to focus on his latest book: On The Road with Joseph Smith. Richard Bushman, you’re here because you already know who he is and what he has written I’m sure, hopefully you’ve read some of his work. Rough Stone Rolling will…I got to tell you I just finished, I’ve been on a committee to decide best book for an organization, and all I’ve been doing is reading the assigned books the past few months, but I’ve finally finished, and I thought I can’t have him come and speak without reading the book, so I stayed up the other night and read the whole thing, which you know for a book that doesn’t have a lot of pictures, that’s really good for me, 140 page book.

I’m sure he’ll focus on that, the book Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, I notice in here essentially this is his diary of his experience with the book, he wrestled with the title what it should be to begin with, I don’t want to steal your thunder here, but whether “Joseph Smith” should proceed “Rough Stone Rolling” or not, I think it’s an intriguing title. Someone asked me how important I consider this book, and they asked me, I did an article that was published in Sunstone a number of years ago, 50 Important Mormon Books…This person asked me if I did an update of this, which was done in 1990. Would I include Richard Bushman’s: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, and I said unquestionably it would be on my new list. The book is a landmark book, an important book, one of the great recent additions to Mormon historiography, and I would say there’s no doubt in my mind I would include it in my list of 50 Important Mormon Books, and that’s one of the greatest compliments I can give you, cause this came with a great deal of thought and research and polling others, and I’m convinced if I were to poll those same historians and others they would want to include this book as well.

The book was originally published in an edition of 100 copies, I know you’re going to think I’m terrible, I’ve already read the book, I’m not going to take it out of the wrap for a while, but it was unbound in green wrappers, and then encased in a cherry wood box. It was done in New York, and it’s as much a work of art as it is a book. That’s how you’ll be able to get the book, and I really encourage you to get the book, if you haven’t already, and get it and read it, that’s how it was done originally, and now it’s an affordable paperbound edition from Greg Kofford books, which we’re very grateful to them for having published it.

I know I’m going on too long, and I’m just about done, but the book itself is not very long, but the reason I am so enamored with it, there’s several, but it’s my kind of book. It’s a book by one of the historians that I respect the most, and it’s a book about books, a book about a book, which carries a lot of weight with me, and Richard gives us a glimpse into not only the process into writing this book but into a glimpse into his own soul. I was going to read some quotes from it, but I don’t want to take any more time that belongs to Richard and Claudia, but please get it, please read it, you’ll be so happy you did.

This book is making an enormous impact in the world, I don’t want to overstate it, but, certainly in the world of Mormon books, and it’s opening a door, an important door, and I think we’re going to see a lot more. I want him to tell you about it, and do you wanna go first, or are you going first, so without any more speechifying, I turn the time over to Richard Bushman, one of our special guests tonight. Applause

Richard Bushman: Thank you very much, it’s good of you to come this is just a little room, but it’s the center, it’s one of the major centers of the book culture in Utah, every author of anything, that has anything to do with Mormonism, or Utah is indebted to Curt for keeping the flame alive, and bringing people here together, so I’m very pleased that you’re able to come. I think both of us should talk tonight, Claudia has books here signed, her book Contemporary Mormonism came out, not a long distance away from my book, Rough Stone Rolling, and it represents kind of an interesting trend in our joint literary lives, that is the writing of books, for many, many years we sort of thought of ourselves as marginal Mormon historians, that is we had a work to do, writing books, Claudia’s written what nine or ten books now, most of them not on Mormon themes, I sort of made my living as a scholar doing non-Mormon books of various sorts, but for some reason over the last ten years, we’ve been sort of drifting towards Mormonism, and writing books of that kind, um for some reason since 2001 coming up til now, I’ve published four books on Mormon themes, without a single book on anything but Mormonism, so we’re sort of drifting in that direction, we hope to sort of keep our balance, I’ve got some other things in mind, but uh, I sorta want to talk to you about what it means to be an author, who sort of stands between, who has strong Mormon connections, deep Mormon roots, deep interest in all things Mormon, theological and historical.

Eventually writes some books of that sort, and on the other hand is trying to do books that have no visible signs of Mormonism in them, and what happens when those worlds come together, as they have in recent years. But, Claudia, we talk about this quite a bit, her scholar life has had the same trajectory, so I think it would be a good thing to get her version of this particular issue in our joint intellectual lives and then she also would too. I’m sorry I don’t have her list of books that she’s had, but most recently it’s Contemporary Mormonism, right?

Claudia Bushman: Yes, but I’m not going to talk about that. I was, I felt I had license from what Curt said in his introduction, to use a line that somebody used to introduce us sometime ago. We were introduced as a paradox, because we both have phd’s, pair of docs. (laughter), I very much like bad jokes. I’d say that this event reminds me one occasion that when Henry James came to the states about 100 years ago, and was talking to various people about the books he had written, he had been preparing his book Scenes of America, American Scenes, and he went to visit a friend, she said so I understand you’re speaking to the authors and critics tonight. He said no, certainly, I told them there was no way I could do that, I’ve never given a speech in my life, I couldn’t give a speech to save my life. There’s some mistake, and his friend said, “oh no” they understand you are speaking tonight, they don’t want anything fancy, they just want to hear you speak to them “man to man”, he said this is impossible, I can’t do it, and she said, it’s all right, you have time to go home and write an excellent extemporaneous talk, and that is what he did, and apparently he brought great kudos upon himself for doing that, and I just mention that because that is one of the things that is most interesting to me about Richard, when I first met him, he would go to church, he would sit there like this (mimes Richard leaning with his head in his hands). I said what are you doing? He said I’m preparing a talk, in case someone should call on me, which they often did. (laughter).But, I actually, that’s not what I’m talking about, I should just say two things that are significant to me in terms of writing books at the moment. One is that I have been approached by a number of people who have said: It says in the introduction, you cut Rough Stone Rolling quite a bit, that you were involved in making the book considerably shorter, and they said, is there any way that we can get the information that you cut out, and uh, I found that very interesting, should uh, anybody wonder about that, that anything I cut out, you would never notice, so I did shorten Richard’s book a great deal, but what did I do, I took out repetitions, I took out unnecessary phrases, and clauses, and things like that, but everything in there, is as he, all his important ideas are in there, and uh, just improved by shortening it, so anybody’s concerned by the things that are on the cutting room floor, don’t be concerned about that.

The other thing I wanted to say is that in connection with the books that I write, one of the things that I’m looking at now is an edited version of my grandmother’s autobiography, this is an autobiography that I discovered by accident two years ago, and I transcribed 77 thousand words, and then I made it sound better. I edited it to sound better, put in better punctuation, occasional extra words, but not much, but then since that, and then I distributed it among my family, having done that, to take it back, and do it just the way it is. She’s very strong on style and grammar, but her punctuation is rather…..full of erratic punctuation. What I just want to say is, how important it is, valuable it is, to find one of these old family documents, to do something with it. So after I made the effort to improve it, to put it back to its original state. This summer two days a week, I’ve met with my cousin, and we read it back and forth, to compare the transcription against the original, to try and get it just right, and then we stop and talk about it, and we talk about our other things, go back and read some more, it’s been one of the most valuable experiences of my life, certainly one of the ways that the words of the grandmother turn all our children back to that time, and our hearts toward each other as well, it’s been just a wonderful experience, and so I always encourage people to be writing their own stories, you think, “oh my life’s not important, I have nothing to say, well maybe you don’t, but certainly experiences, interesting times, it would be wonderful if you would leave a record of the things that went on in your life, the things that you observed, and how you felt about them, somebody, someday will be very grateful. Everything that we write is autobiography in many ways, it’s our take on what goes on, so if we’re all writing autobiographies be sure to get our own stories down, that’s all I have to say. Thank you.

RB: That last comment is right on target for what I want to say. This book On The Road, was the result of a request from this friend that Curt referred to…Glen Neilson. Who is an impresario of Mormon arts, he organized the Mormon arts group in New York City, and brings together visual artists, graphic artists, literary artists, every kind of artist you can imagine, he’s keeps churning out one project after another, and I think what he really wants to do more than anything else is to produce a beautiful book, he began with that idea, and then he had to figure out. What do I put in this book? And so he searched out all of his acquaintances and thought well maybe I could turn out something to stick in this beautiful book, so I’m sorry that Curt refuses to open.CB: Curt replies, “well I have had one open, but not that one”.RB: It’s a gorgeous,CB: It’s a beautifulRB: It’s a beautiful piece of work. He had me down to the print area to select the paper, the ritual, he sat there…all the papers were brought out, and we considered types, and we considered covers, and we thought of wood, then we went out to lunch. Just a very interesting day, so the, he’s a man of ritual, and arts, this was the product. So the suggestion he made is that when the book was coming out, I’d worked on it for seven years, it was a big project, it was slated to have an impact on the Mormon community, because it was about Joseph Smith, said why don’t you keep a diary, and so beginning in July of 2005, two months before the publication date, I started making entries, the idea was there’d be reviews there would be talks, there would be letters, why not write down your reactions, and how you interact with people, and that’s what I began to do, and it was really not a self-conscious piece of work.I’m like most people, I’m an intermittent diary keeper, not nearly as assiduous as Claudia, who writes in her diary every morning she gets up. I write now and then, and if I write a letter I put it in, but I tried to sort of step this up a little bit, and I just sort of, I didn’t calculate what I was going to say, I just started writing, whatever had happened, mainly around the book, I didn’t talk about my kids which is what I think about most of the time, but just what had happened concerning that book. Started in July and went all the way around to May, when there was a panel of Mormon History Association meetings on Rough Stone Rolling. So that was sort of the time period the book ends at this time. After it was over, I dropped out maybe what? Ten sentences from the whole thing, after it was done and I read it through, but that was about all. So it really is a transcription of memory or of experience as I was encoding it to memory at that time. So I shipped it off, and Glen looked it over, he said it’s ok, made a suggestion or two, it was all of course, done on computer, so it was easy to set the type, and before you knew it the book was out.

Then there was enough interest that Greg Kofford said, I think we can sell a few copies of this, so let’s put it in paperback. What is the result? The result is, I’m suddenly feeling very exposed. It’s like inviting your friends in for open heart surgery. I’m just writing down what I’m feeling, and um, Do you really want everybody who knows you reading your personal diary everyday? And I realized that it represents the stage in life, maybe because I’m getting old, who knows, well I’m becoming confessional. Where I’m writing sort of me and the world, usually when you write history it’s “there”, and you’re sort of the observant, sort of the deity figure looking down describing here, and sort of writing about myself in the world doing things and um, I’m trying to figure out whether that’s good or bad. And I’m not absolutely sure. It began actually with a book of essays, that had been written over 25 years, and a couple of students in a summer seminar that I run, suggested why don’t you, yeah Believing History. Why don’t you collect your essays? And I wasn’t sure you know essays scattered all over the lot. Mostly these were all essays on Mormon themes. Because while I was a scholar writing on political culture, social change, or um home decoration, refinement whatever…I’d always been sort of a Mormon scholar, so I’d be invited back to Utah State, BYU, or somewhere to give a talk, and I’d drum something up that had a Mormon past to it, talk about Joseph Smith, or the Book of Mormon, or Mormon culture, and these essays came together in this book.

That was the beginning of this big change for me, because I lived these two lives, I’d taught at Boston University, I’d taught at Columbia, so I had a scholarly world, I had lots of scholarly friends, they knew me as an early American historian, then I had this group of sort of Mormon colleagues, and friends, and I would write things for them. These doggone students who wanted to put this thing together said “No, we don’t want to go to Deseret Book with that, we want a University press, so they took it right into my own backyard in Columbia University, and persuaded Columbia University to publish this book of essays, Columbia University Press. So suddenly this world of Mormon scholarship was transported into the world of secular scholarship, and I was amazed that Columbia would even publish the thing, it was so parochial, it was Mormon stuff. Why would the University Press publish these essays? That amazed me in the first place. But it happened that one of my colleagues in the history department at Columbia was on the board, maybe that’s why the book got published, at her advocacy.

I’m amazed the Press took that book, she said actually the problem, is a general problem, that is. How do you as a scholar articulate the relationship of your deepest personal convictions, and your scholarship? So it isn’t just Mormons who have that problem, all sorts of historians have that problem. And that’s why she had more than a modicum of interest. Well that’s fine if you’re having someone else write it, but what if, if it’s you? This book was reviewed various places, one place was Books and Culture, this is Believing History I’m talking about now. Books and Culture which is actually an evangelical intellectual journal, like the New York Review of Books for Christians, and it got a fair review, critical, complimentary, but nice mix. But there’s a guy named Bruce Kuklick who um, is an intellectual historian at the University of Pennsylvania, whom I knew pretty well, we weren’t buddies, but he took the trouble to write a letter to Books and Culture after the review, in which he said I can’t believe that the Richard Bushman I know would write an essay in which he assumes that Lamanites really existed. He said this is lunatic, mad cat, he in effect read me out of the conversation. This is a madman; we can’t talk to him anymore. So there was sort of a price to be paid, for suddenly exposing myself in that way. And so I’ve had to ask myself, is that right or not? That um, I should try to join all the parts of my life, my religious life, my intellectual life. Well, I was a little bit annoyed at Kuklick’s comment, I came back, and slapped him around a little bit, he’s basically tougher than me, so I don’t who would get the better of that exchange.

But, um, since then I’ve been taking a stand in public. Jan Shipps has written a review of Rough Stone Rolling that’s going to appear in the Journal of American History. The editor there, a guy that I know reasonably well, suggested instead of it just being reviewed, there be an exchange, so I am to, I have written an essay responding to Jan, she did a good job, she knows Mormonism, is very fair, and critical in the right ways. So I came back, and um, talked about the problems of a believer writing a book about his own problems, and um the case I tried to make, and I’m not sure I’m persuading anyone, but I think I really believe it, is that we have to think of the historical history writing enterprise as collaborative.

One view of writing history, is that you find “The Truth”, and your aim is to write ‘The Book” that tells “The truth”, about the Great Armada, or The British Empire, or what have you. And everyone is trying for this supreme goal, you can’t quite reach it, but everyone’s trying to do it. Another view of the history enterprise, is that it’s a diverse subject, that there are many ways of presenting the truth, there’s no single formulation that’s going to tell the whole story, and that you need to approach it from various perspectives, and that approaching it from various angles, your own personal passions play a role. I once had a young woman in my class, graduate student, really smart graduate student, committed feminist, and this is early American History, and she said you know, I can find gender on a blank wall. Where ever she looked there were gender issues and that’s true for people who were passionate about the evils of slavery in which everybody is these days. And who are also passionate to recover the lives of obscure, maybe unknown black people who lived in the antebellum south, these people are so assiduous, pursuing every little clue at great expense and time to recover those lives, that they had done things in the field of black history that were unimaginable forty years ago, people said, well we’d love to write about slaves in the south, they left no record, there’s nothing to be said, and so they just dismissed it as an impossible task. Because of the passion of these people, their convictions about the evil of slavery, they have made a point of recovering that data.

Well, I tried to jump from there to the point of view that those who are passionate about Joseph Smith are going to say things about his revelations that those who think it was probably pretty much all a hoax, or his delusion are not going to be, that instead of sort of dismissing it as hoax, or effort to manipulate the situation, believing Mormons are more likely to see them in an imaginative effort to reconstruct a religious world, a world which is very inviting to lots of people in 19th century America. And that you see things about Joseph Smith looking at them through the eyes of a believer that are much harder for those who are dismissive of Joseph Smith are to cultish. There are people like Jan Shipps who do a marvelous job, but I do think that people who are believing of Joseph Smith are just going to tell the world things about him that other people will miss, and so I was trying to say that, my, as a historian it would be a mistake for me to strip away all of my convictions when I write about Joseph Smith, even though my portrait will not satisfy those who are skeptics, but I will contribute to the whole body of knowledge, that we are jointly engaged, accumulating for humankind things that a non-believer might miss, and so in a way I’m trying to license everyone to be more subjective, to not fight their subjectivity, now we all know there are excesses, and things can get out of hand, there is a discipline, you’ve got to footnote, you’ve got to find evidence for everything you say, but even if you are an absolute rigorous historian there still is a place for your own, your own views to enter in and affect the picture, so I’m trying to authorize in every way I can that sort of thing.

It’s fine for you to do if you’re an egalitarian, and you want to find the lives of the unknown, the speechless multitude of the past, in order to elevate them. That is all accepted, or a feminist perspective, or what have you. A little harder for religion, because the whole enlightenment project is aimed with a counter religion to strip the religion out of human’s rationality, and for that reason there’s just so many barriers that have been built up against the religious perspective that it’s very difficult to come in the name of God, or in the name of Joseph Smith, and say I want to recover the past, but I think we’re arriving at a stage of maturity in western civilization when this is getting more and more possible, though Bruce Kuklick still represents the past, the severe enlightenment, really his aim is to extricate religion. So um, that sort of the story, my sort of recent story of subjectivity began with being thrown into this pot with Believing History. And then I just sort of let er rip in On The Road, tell you everything I ever thought for a year. And um, I’m just hoping it’s not too embarrassing for you, or for me.

I want to give you a chance to ask questions, let me just say one thing about this, um, this book has had an interesting affect on my relationships with colleagues, there’s a guy who runs a little American History center at Columbia who invited me over for a lunch meeting, and invited in the faculty and graduate students, there was maybe twenty people there, my friends, they, they, I was telling them about the Book of Mormon, and how I situated it in American culture, and then one of them just asked me. What is your own relationship to the Book of Mormon? How do you, what does it mean to you? So, I had to give an answer, and I realized that and another experience that I had in Massachusetts Historical Society, that there’s a kind of anxiety when I speak about Mormonism. Because they’re afraid that I will turn into just blubber religiosity at them, that I’ll be called to bare my testimony, that I’ll lose my composure as a scholar, and talk in a different language. And they’re actually quite entertained when I don’t fall down that way, and I think in a way pleased, they see it as kind of a marvel or a feat that someone can believe whatever, and talk about it without decomposing in front of their eyes. I’ve always said that the call when you’re being attacked, which always happens when your book is featured at a panel that you’re the target. The chief goal is not to cry, you’ve got to keep your composure. So that’s where I’m at right now, sort of exposing myself all over the lot, taking the good and the bad that comes with that. I’ll stop there and give you a chance to make any comments that you…any questions.

Q: You got to the point, I don’t want to put words in your mouth…that one of the things I was impressed with was you were saying that sometimes as Mormons in a Mormon culture that every morning all the rest of the world is waking up in the morning thinking to themselves, is Mormonism true or not, and it’s a burning question in everybody’s heart whether or not Mormonism is true, and Joseph Smith is a prophet. One of the things that I sense is the frustration is that quite the opposite is true, that you’re concerned with more of the indifference. You put this great work out for scholars and the rest of the world to see, to say look Joseph Smith really wasn’t a hoax. There’s a much deeper impact that you should take seriously as opposed to being dismissive, especially probably among the scholars, and your other colleagues. Do you still feel that frustration, that disappointment that the scholars, and the academia of the world and say that this is real, and that you ought to take a 2nd look at this.RB: I’m getting less and less concerned about that, there’s a lot of interest. After I published this little book Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism which was sort of the prelude to the longer biography. I was asked to sit on a committee that was to advise a television producer about doing something on religion. She had done the Adam’s Chronicles, it was a big hit years ago, and then she wanted to do something on religion. In the course of the conversation, there were maybe ten scholars, Martin Marty was there from the University of Chicago, there were others, they took a poll. Who do you think were the most significant figures in American religious history? Jonathan Edwards came in first, Joseph Smith came in 2nd, so I think that as people sorta look down time to whether the characters, the personalities that spring up, Joseph Smith is there. So it’s not that they’re waking up every morning to say, but there’s intrigue with it. You know who made advance, probably the single greatest step forward gaining respect for Joseph Smith, Fawn Brodie’s, No Man Knows My History. Mormons have a lot of trouble believing that, but if you knew the kind of books that had been written about Joseph Smith prior to that time, outside of the church. They were filled with scorn, with open ridicule, you could use every debilitating adjective in the book to knock him down. Fawn Brodie turned him into a real live person, not just a paste board figure, and made it impossible to write down that kind of scornful anti-mormon book that had been done before. Now Mormons of course don’t appreciate it, but I had many scholarly friends come to say how much they admired Joseph Smith after reading Fawn Brodie, that is was a very positive picture of Joseph Smith, I know that’s impossible to think.Q: Do you think you’re book replaces Brodie, supplants Brodie?RB: No, it won’t supplant Brodie. I mean there are going to be people who are never going to believe he is anything but a fraud. She makes an effort to make him a pious fraud. That as I say is a step forward. Furthermore, no one’s going to beat Brodie on writing, she has that dash, she’s so bold, she takes all these chances, she cuts and slashes, it’s really compelling reading, and as Larry McMurtry said, if you’re talking about Joseph Smith your book has to have kick in it, and Brodie has kick, and he said mine was kinda plain bread and jam.Curt B: Maybe next time he reviews it he’ll read it.RB: But, I do think that now two books on the shelf, before there was just one, now anyone who wants to take Joseph Smith seriously will have to read two.Q: Can you comment on Harold Bloom, and his observation about Joseph Smith was the greatest religious figure in the 19th century, and with eternal obliviousness counteracted 2000 years of religious history?RB: Bloom is a puzzle to lots of scholars, in a way not, he is very eccentric, idiosyncratic, very….brilliant. Everything he says is based on such great learning. But it still remains a puzzle why he was so enthralled with Joseph Smith. He ranks him with Emerson, Bloom sees as the most significant figure in American intellectual history, and he says he stirs my imagination as much as anyone, and he claims, but he won’t do it, he’s sick, he’ll die that he wants to write a book on William Blake, and Joseph Smith and their ideas of death. So there’s something, it’s because he’s a gnostic, that his temperament is mysterious knowledge. He loves that idea, and Joseph Smith is of course, he’s hands down the winner on mysterious knowledge in the 19th century. So he’s very useful to Mormons because he does give us confidence that maybe there is something there, that he could stand up with the giants of his time. We can’t always cite Bloom because what he gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. He thinks Joseph Smith was great, but he thinks 21st century Mormons are pretty much a dead loss, that we just lost all of our zip, kick is I guess maybe the word, but still he reminds us, we really have something, we have a treasure trove in Joseph Smith’s lot.Q: Proportions of people who have bought Rough Stone, between the faithful, and the gentile community?RB: I don’t even know geographical distribution of sales, my guess is it’s probably 90% Mormon.Q: How many?RB: There have been 80,000 books sold, but I think half of those were sold in Costco in Utah County. (Much laughter).CB: I’ve actually had to supplement our stock by buying them from Costco, they can sell them cheaper than we can buy them.RB: So it was picked up by the History Book Club, so it’s got some kind of circulation, I think it was a landmark for Mormons, not the book, I call the book a phenomenon, I did my best to write, I’m proud of the book, it’s a good book. But, I think it came at a moment to sort of signal the maturation of Mormon culture. We are at a point where we want unvarnished truth, we don’t have to have, speaking now as a Mormon, an idealized version of Joseph Smith, we feel much more comfortable, certainly down to earth, spoke in an ordinary language, rather than the highly charged religious language, so I think it resonated, a tiny book that we were ready for.Q: I’m just so curious that you think people are ready for that, I’m sure most people hear feel that way. But, I feel I stand alone in my community still, but I’m in Utah County.RB: You mean most people say they don’t like the book.Q: They still want it whitewashed; I mean in my own ward, I asked my friends if they watched the Helen Whitney PBS piece, no we don’t need that.RB: Well we also signaled a divide in Mormon culture, that there are, I’ve had people tell me, I read 50 pages, and I couldn’t stand it, I had to put it down, I could not finish the book, it’s just too, too dissonant to the things they value, but I hate to, I honor those people, that kind of reader sees things in Joseph Smith that this doesn’t, maybe he was a giant of a man, they idealize him, but we cannot, we cannot cater to that point of view very long, because we have to preserve the next generation. The next generation is going to be a web generation, everything that the seminary teachers told you is going to be available, and there’s just a terrible fallout, when people come back from a mission, taught Joseph Smith for two years. They read Grant Palmer, or they read something else, it makes them furious, they feel betrayed, we can’t have that happen, time after time. So there really is a need to make common knowledge the problems in Joseph Smith’s life, as well as all the heroic parts of it.Q: Do you think your book resonates with the brethren? (some laughter).RB: The best thing I can say about that, is that there was never a party line in the church office building. I’ve had a lot of brethren tell me personally that they really like the book, and I think that those that don’t particularly like it, don’t tell me. Only one negative letter, and that was from a retired general authority, wrote in his own hand, unofficial, so uh, my own sense is that there are a lot of people in the church, certainly the public affairs department who know we need candid history. We cannot talk Mormonism to the world at large in our own language, it has to be in a way that’s credible. So I think I’ve got plenty, enough compliments, they haven’t pulled it out of Deseret Book, or the Church Museum bookstore yet, so that’s all I can hope for.Q: While writing On The Road with Joseph Smith, do you think you’ve discovered the whole cloth of Richard Bushman?RB: The whole cloth? You mean, who I truly am? Oh, that we could see ourselves, I end the book by saying I don’t know what this means. I mean how do you say that, it’s an event in Mormon cultural history, there are many events. Curt’s bookstore is an event in Mormon cultural history, so is this. Providential history? You can speculate and hope, American history, American cultural history, a little blip, but I’ll leave it up to Claudia to tell me that.Q: What was the most impressive thing about Joseph Smith? Were there any surprises as you were researching and writing the book?RB: Well of course I knew a lot about Joseph Smith and stories, and as a historian I wasn’t going to run on unheard of stories about Joseph Smith, the fields been plowed by too many people. Enough of that. What impressed me…was his resolution. This guy starts from ground zero, he has no learning, he has no money, he has no social standing, he has no institutional experience, he doesn’t even go to church, he doesn’t know a minister, and he starts a church. He has to work with just the material that came into his hands, and that first generation of leaders they all left after 6 or 7 years, he was just working with whatever came along. Later on he developed his own core of leaders, some real stalwarts like Wilford Woodruff, Brigham Young, and so on, but that first generation, they were pretty wimpy guys, (laughter). But he held on, it’s a terrible analogy, but it’s one that Larry Miller likes, I said he’s like a CEO, his whole organization existed in his head, and he had to bring that into reality, just by sheer force of his will, and he held on despite immense discouragement. Six of his eleven children died in the first year, no pampering by God in a providential way, can’t provide a decent living for his wife, they live with other families, don’t really have a house of their own most the time. So it was a really tough life, yet he didn’t give up, and he just kept holding to that vision of Zion and church, and uh, brought it about.Amidst all the failures and troubles. So that was admiration, what surprised me was two things, one was his temper, I didn’t know he scolded people quite as harshly as he did. The other was his melancholy, he was a Lincolnesque figure, there’s been a book recently on how Lincoln’s melancholy, and how he would go into sort of these deep moods, depression, sometimes paralyzing, but that out of that darkness came his creations, his depth. Joseph Smith wasn’t quite as moody as Lincoln, but if he were left alone, when he’s off hiding from the cops or when he’s delayed, held back somewhere on a journey, he would, he would, he would get very blue with himself, and write Emma about the sorrows that were overcoming his life. So, he’s a figure kinda like William James, who could be ebullient and happy in public, with people around him, he’s always, he’s always the king of the room, he dominates every room, no one intimidates him, no matter how learned, and he was witty, his repartee was terrific, very fast paced, answer every question with an original answer, not always learned or wise, but he always had something to say. Then when he was alone there was this depth, and by the end of his life he’s talking about death, it’s going to come upon me, he’s thinking about a tomb where his family can be so he can be together. So, I think this very cheery prophet, the invulnerable prophet is only part of the picture, he’s also a prophet of deep sorrow, and really agonies in parts of his life, that came as a surprise, but also an illumination. Really an extent, I think better of Joseph Smith for seeing that he had that, (unintelligible)CB: Take one more, we had better wrap it up.Q: I was just impressed with you again, If you could talk about the Washington Press Corp. That Round Table discussion, I know that kind of a happy coincidence where you’ve got Mitt Romney, you’ve got the PBS special, you’ve got some of your books, but I’m just curious about some of your experiences in that kind of an exchange.RB: It was interesting there were about twenty reporters, they were all big time reporters, The Post, The Times, The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, CNN. So the Pew Foundation which is a religiously oriented foundation in Philadelphia that has now taken a great interest in the relationship of religion and politics, does all this polling that you’re probably aware of. They have this annual forum in Key West called the Faith Angle, and bring in reporters of all sorts, cause nowadays religion is everyone’s beat, you can’t cover anything without finding a religious angle, so they had someone down to talk about religion in Iran, talking about global religion, and me talking about Mormonism, had three hours on this morning we sat around the table, I’d been there at dinner, got to know some of them, so the kind of familiarity made us congenial, so that helped.What also helped was this, as I looked around them, they all looked like graduate students at a seminar, and I realized there all sorts of bright kids that don’t know whether they’re going to go into scholarship, or into something else, and some of them go off to law school, many of them go into journalism, and they thought of me the same way, as the professor, and they were the students, so I sort of had this built in respect factor that helped out a lot. And what I really liked about it was the nature of the questions, of course reporters are professionals asking questions, that is their trade, but that they were very candid, holding back, they were a little bit afraid, afraid they were going to offend me ask a question with an apology. I hope you won’t mind if I ask this question, but most of them weren’t, and that’s much better cause we can get out everything that they’ve got on their minds, and so it was kind of a happy exchange, I think they actually liked it, that’s what they told me afterwards, it was really a good session for them, and of course I enjoyed it.Comment: It came down that there was a level of respect there that you wouldn’t exactly have anticipated before.RB: He kept calling me Professor Bushman, it was nice.CB: I promised one more.Q: Very quickly, can you shine any light on to what caused the split between Stephen Douglas, and Joseph Smith?RB: Nope!! (laughter)CB: Thank you very much. [applause]CB: Thank you so much, for both of you coming. Just really quickly especially for those people up front, could you fold up the chairs…this is a Mormon activity and you have to put away chairs…Richard told me at one of these occasions here, I was a harsh taskmaster, because I made him stay and sign books, til his hand just about falls off…My wife Pat. Do you wanna take a bow Pat? She has been working all day on some really nice refreshments, that we’d love for you to partake of…Again we appreciate you coming, and let’s just give them one final hand. [applause]



  1. Interesting read. Thanks for posting it.

    Comment by Jared* — May 24, 2008 @ 9:58 pm

  2. My favorite part:

    and as Larry McMurtry said, if you?re talking about Joseph Smith your book has to have kick in it, and Brodie has kick, and he said mine was kinda plain bread and jam.

    Curt B: Maybe next time he reviews it he?ll read it.

    Too bad Bushman didn’t say anything to that quip.

    Comment by Clark — May 25, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

  3. Thanks for posting this! A very enjoyable read.

    Comment by Kent — May 27, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

  4. Thanks, Jared, for posting this.

    Comment by Christopher — May 27, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

  5. Thanks for posting this!

    Comment by aquinas — May 27, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

  6. No problem. Somehow the format got all jacked up. Sorry about that. It was looking pretty good when I put it up, or so I thought.

    Comment by Jared T. — May 28, 2008 @ 12:02 am

  7. […] Richard Bushman’s Lecture at Benchmark Books […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » From The Archives: Posts You Might Have Missed, March-April 2008 — July 2, 2009 @ 1:52 am


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