[This is the third installment of the Summer Book Club, this year focusing on Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery’s Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. You can read the first two installments here and here. This part focuses on chapters 7-9, which cover the introduction of polygamy, formation of the Relief Society, and Emma’s quest to help her husband during extradition attempts. Buckle up.]
A few years ago I attended a sunstone conference where Linda King Newell, co-author of the book under discussion, spoke on her experience writing, publishing, and defending Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. She gave lots of good details, and reinforced how tense the whole ordeal was: the fight to get access to archival sources, the attempted censorship on the part of the Church, and the many people who helped them along the way. But the anecdote that stood out to me the most concerned the writing process—and the process of writing about polygamy, to be exact. (Following words are paraphrased from memory.) “I remember Val [Avery] calling me one day,” Newell explained, “and she said she was working on the polygamy chapter and had to lie down.” Valeen paused for a bit, then added, “one of the wives was fourteen. Fourteen. I have a daughter that age.”
She was obviously working on one of Joseph Smith’s teenage brides. Perhaps Helen Mar Kimball. But whoever it was, it obviously made an impact. And understandably so.
We often either overlook or under-discuss the emotional toll historical research can bring a person. Historians are people, and the very task of coming to terms with the complexities of someone else’s life often highlights complexities within one’s own life. We have our own conceptions and complications that we bring to the table, a table that is quickly dirtied with the elements of our research. At a conference this last weekend, Laurel Ulrich noted that the historical craft is a delicate dialogue between self and subject. Similarly, at the same conference both Richard Bushman and Armand Mauss noted that their own scholarship was an indirect attempt to address their own questions of faith, morality, and community. Biography, then, is always at least in part a form of autobiography.
And that’s a tension that remained in my mind as I read through these chapters in Mormon Enigma. In the two years covered, 1841-1842, Emma faces a string of deep contradictions and painful paradoxes: she is introduced to the principle of eternal marriage that will allow her to lay claim to her beloved husband forever, but is also hidden from that same husband’s polygamous dalliances; she is allowed to form a new women’s society that gave her new power and prestige, but her driving principles for the organization conflicted with her own husband’s secretive activities; she took a leading role in fighting for her husband’s quest to evade extradition, but Joseph’s actions likely strained her willingness to stand by his side. These were the challenges of Nauvoo.
But they are also framed in a way that reflected modern gender crises within the LDS tradition during the 1970s and 1980s, as well. Concurrent with Newell and Avery writing their classic text, Mormonism was facing its own cultural war concerning traditional family, communal mobilization, and ecclesiastical retrenchment: the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment. When discussing the Relief Society in Chapter 8, they highlight how the organization both enabled Emma but also curtailed her efforts when her quest to uproot iniquity got in the way of Joseph’s secretive practice; this is not too dissimilar to the expanded possibilities for Mormon women to participate in the political process of opposition to the ERA (see here), but only when it matched ecclesiastical demands. The passion felt in these Nauvoo-era chapters—and I’d argue that their ability to recreate Emma’s emotional struggle between commitment and bitterness is one of the hallmarks of this important book—not-so-coincidentally reflects the types of emotions that LDS women of a progressive bent would have felt during the modern era. It would have been impossible for the authors not to be tinged by their surrounding environment.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing, either. Far from it. The perspective made the authors attuned to the anxieties at play. (Nor do I think their conclusions concerning Emma’s state of mind were a reach.) If Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, which we covered last year, was focused on the emotion of triumph, the focus of these Nauvoo chapters center on another emotion: betrayal.
It’s not a coincidence that of all the books that cover the Nauvoo period, those that are both the most exhaustive and best when it comes to polygamy were written by women. (Newell/Avery and, more recently, Bradley-Evans.) The men who cover Nauvoo (Flanders, Leonard, Bushman) often fail to capture the turmoil the practice caused. This is a reminder that history isn’t written in a vacuum, and that bringing our own prejudices and background to the task isn’t necessarily a bad thing.