Ben mentioned last week that Mormon Enigma was one of the best treatments of Nauvoo polygamy available. The topic is a morass, and to be honest I have started more than one book on the topic, only to set it down never to pick it back up after a chapter or two. I’ve read a lot of the primary documents, and some of the prominent secondary literature. And it is true, that the chapters in Mormon Enigma are some of the most readable and insightful, even while laboring under the constraints of time.
It seems odd at first that Newell and Avery took so much space to analyze the Emma and Eliza stairway story, and the poisoning of JS story. But this is the place that these were first vetted, and they remain important discussions and references. And in many ways they are emblematic of the major issues in these chapters. So much depends on memory. I’ve only become more skeptical of the utility reminiscences beyond the context of the retelling. But in so many cases (secret polygamy!) we have so little to work with beyond partisan memories. [n1] What the authors do in these chapters, and what makes the volume endure, is to present a lot of the contemporary details (even if spiced with memory) to communicate some of the reality and life of these people. It is a treacherous place to work, but they do it well.
I remember skimming through Leonard Arrington’s journal housed at USU Special Collections a while back and happening on a section in which he rhapsodized about discovering an account of the temple liturgy. It was fascinating seeing the official church historian grasp at something and interact with people just beginning to dig into topics that now have (at least relative) common currency. That memory returned as I read through these chapters with appreciation. It not surprising that as historians have uncovered and analyzed aspects of that liturgy and other areas of Mormon history they have done so with varying degrees of presentism and acumen. Mormon Enigma is certainly on the exemplary end of that spectrum. Still, I don’t think I would recommend these chapters for an understanding of the religious worlds of either Emma or Joseph. And those worlds were so key to everything that was going on. We see the turmoil, but the whys of it all are still elusive. Enigmatic indeed.
So while I still recommend Mormon Enigma for a treatment of Nauvoo polygamy, readers are well served to couple it with some chapters of more recent work. We are also fortunate to live in a time of the wide availability of source documents. With the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes presented with excellent content in the recent RS docs volume (transcripts online), and with increasing hundreds of primary sources, we can more easily work from volume and expand our understandings of history, and the people it encompasses.
1. For some excellent work on memory studies, see the JI’s own David Grua’s and Andrea Radke-Moss’s work.