To “Declare One’s Allegiance” When Writing Biography

By August 19, 2008

Earlier this summer, in preparation for my first-time visit to Monticello in the lush country of Virginia, I read Joseph Ellis’s biography on Thomas Jefferson.[1] In the introduction, I was particularly struck by what Ellis described as one of the main struggles in writing on a man like Jefferson:

The vast literature on Jefferson has a decidedly hyperbolic character, as if one had to declare one’s allegiance at the start for or against the godlike version of Jefferson depicted in Jean-Antoine Houdon’s marble bust or at least Rembrandt Peale’s saintly portrait. This overdramatized atmosphere actually reproduces the polarized and highly politicized climate of opinion in Jefferson’s own lifetime, when you were either with him or against him, loved him or hated him. True enough, most biographers take the sides of their subjects. But in Jefferson’s case the sides are more sharply drawn and the choices less negotiable. It seems impossible to steer an honorable course between idolatry and evisceration.”[2]

For those familiar with Mormon historiography, particularly in attempts to engage figures like Joseph Smith or Brigham Young, this problem hits very close to home. Take, for example, several biographies written about Mormon figures in the last decade: every one of them felt the need to “declare [their] allegiance at the start” concerning what kind of “Joseph” they would be presenting. While I am sure there are exceptions to some of the examples I give, I feel these are somewhat representative.

Perhaps one example that eagerly leaps off of the pages is Dan Vogel’s Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet. In his introduction, Vogel makes clear what side of the debate he chooses to come down on. Characterizing Smith as “an individual who deceives in God’s name while holding sincere religious beliefs,” Vogel explains what he feels is the only rational solution to the “Prophet Puzzle.”

To my mind, the most obvious solution to Shipps’s conundrum is to suggest that Smith was a very well intentioned “pious deceiver” or, perhaps otherwise worded, a sincere fraud,” someone who prevaricated for “good” reasons. Admittedly, the terms are not entirely satisfying. Nevertheless, “pious” connotes genuine religious conviction, while I apply “fraud” or “deceiver” only to describe some of Smith’s activities. I believe that Smith believed he was called of God, yet occasionally engaged in fraudulent activities in order to preach God’s word as effectively as possible.”[3]

Though clearly not as obvious, and put in a more respectable way, Richard Bushman also stakes his ground at the beginning of his biography on the Mormon prophet. After acknowledging the many different paths Mormon historians can take in regards to the prophet/fraud dichotomy, Bushman is brutally honest on the subject:

A believing historian like myself cannot hope to rise above these battles or pretend nothing personal is at stake. For a character as controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible. What I can do is to look frankly at all sides of Joseph Smith, facing up to his mistakes and flaws…
A rhetorical problem vexes anyone who writes about the thought of Joseph Smith. Are his ideas to be attributed to him or to God?…There are reasons for not inserting a disclaimer every time a revelation is mentioned, no matter how the reader or writer feels about the ultimate source. The most important is that Joseph Smith did not think that way. The signal feature of his life was his sense of being guided by revelation…Joseph’s “marvelous experience,” as he called his revelations, came to him as experiential facts…To blur the distinction—to insist that Smith devised every revelation himself—obscures the very quality that made the Prophet powerful. To get inside the movement, we have to think of Smith as the early Mormons thought of him and as he thought of himself—as a revelator.”[4]

D. Michael Quinn’s biography on J. Reuben Clark also presents a vivid example of this.

As a biographer, I admired many of J. Reuben Clark’s views as I became acquainted with them while researching his papers. I was unable to say in the draft written for official approval that I was also appalled by other ideas which he expressed frequently and emphatically.
I state my dissenting biases now…[this is followed by a two long paragraphs where Quinn lists the many, many things which he disagreed with Clark on.][5]

Many more examples could be given, including how it plays out when discussing specific themes rather than individuals.[6] However, these should be enough to (hopefully) generate discussion. Do you find it necessary to “declare [your] allegiance” when writing about controversial matters?

Personally, I probably agree with most of you in saying that pure objectivity is a myth, and therefore we have to draw our lines somewhere. Choosing what kind of “type” your subject will be seems to be a necessary part of the biographer’s craft.[7] However, what are the ethical boundaries—both concerning historical and moral/religious values?

______________________________________

[1] Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Vintage Books, 1998).

[2] Ibid, xvi.

[3] Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), viii.

[4] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), xix, xxi. Bushman would later somewhat regret not taking a more defined “believer’s” perspective in the biography:

Instead of trying to keep the reader and myself in the same place, creating a common point of view amenable to believer and non-believer alike, I could have taken on the role of guide to a Mormon perspective on the Mormon prophet, acknowledging the differences and saying, This is how we look at it. The point of persuasion would be to show the benefits of examining Joseph from a believer’s perspective. What can you learn by looking at him through believing eyes that might be lost if you begin with the assumption he had to be a fraud?…Once again, candor is the best policy. Why didn’t I see that earlier? Live and learn.” Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 116-117.

[5] D. Michael Quinn, Elder Statesman: A Biography of J. Reuben Clark (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), xi. It should be noted in Quinn’s defense that he did offer this following remark:

From the outset, however, my scholarly perceptions and personal opinions were NOT the emphasis in this biography. I did not regard it as the historian’s role to tell readers what to think or what value judgments to make. Nor did I regard it as honest for a biographer to quote his protagonist only when he agreed with his statements or actions. Nor is it appropriate for an author to argue against ideas expressed by the protagonist or to ignore instances where he expressed views that seemed contradictory or when he acted in ways that seemed to contradict previously expressed views.” (xi-xii)

[6] For example, Compton’s introduction to his book on Joseph Smith’s plural wives includes this disclaimer: “…my central thesis is that Mormon polygamy was characterized by a tragic ambiguity…day-to-day practical polygamous living, for many women, was less than monogamous marriage—it was a social system that simply did not work in nineteenth century America.” Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), xiii.

[7] “Upon completion of his study of Charles Francis Adams, Martin Duberman noted that biographers ultimately must decide whether their subject tends toward the heroic or the craven, that being the nature of biographical study.” Peter Field, “Review of American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism,” H-Net Reviews.

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues


Comments

  1. As a side note, it will be interesting to see how this craft plays out in forthcoming biographies on Brigham Young by Ron Walker and Will Bagley.

    Comment by Ben — August 19, 2008 @ 9:52 am

  2. Ben, perhaps this situation will show Turner to be the winner at the end of the day.

    I recently read a book on Divine Healing and in the intro, the author stated frankly that she wasn’t going to discuss whether or not miraculous healings were real. She discussed a very many accounts of healing, some apparently successful, some not; but she contextualized them all, which is necessary.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 19, 2008 @ 10:23 am

  3. Ben, perhaps this situation will show Turner to be the winner at the end of the day.

    J: I had that exact thought while writing this post. Because he has nothing at stake in writing, that definitely could be a plus.

    Comment by Ben — August 19, 2008 @ 10:32 am

  4. Barring technical manuals, perhaps, *every* writer has a stake. Turner has a stake — as someone who is not and never has been LDS, no matter how well he contextualizes he cannot really grasp what a believer does about Brigham Young. If he could, he would *be* LDS, officially or not. He may not overtly campaign fer or agin’ ‘im, he may very well capture the essence of a religious thinker/doer and the place BY holds in the hearts of Mormons, but that isn’t the same as not having a stake.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — August 19, 2008 @ 11:02 am

  5. Ardis: Point taken. Maybe he doesn’t have as much at stake 😉

    Comment by Ben — August 19, 2008 @ 11:13 am

  6. Religiously, Turner may not have much of a stake (although, as an evangelical, his writings on Mormon topics could very well affect him within his own faith community), but professionally, he has much at stake. He’s a young professor tackling a rather overwhelming topic. Walker and Bagley don’t have to worry about tenure, and Turner definetely does. He has an academic reputation (off to a great start with his first book being published by a major press and receiving excellent reviews) to protect, and how his bio is received and reviewed by the larger historical community and the Mormon historical community is seemingly crucial to his academic credibility.

    Comment by Christopher — August 19, 2008 @ 11:23 am

  7. I have to admire Ellis’ high minded attempt at objectivity, but I find great worth in the act of declaring one’s intentions from the beginning of their book. Nobody who has done an effective job of researching an individual for a biography will be able to mask their bias and opinion for long, so why not declare it outright. This said, there are certainly some bounds which good academics will impose upon the extent to which one allows that bias to influence their writing, but any scholar worth half his or her degree will follow those guidelines anyways. While I don’t love all of the effects of postmodernism upon history, I do appreciate its liberating rejection of unrealistic objectivity.

    Comment by Brett D. — August 19, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

  8. Per comment #6: very overwhelming…

    Comment by John Turner — August 20, 2008 @ 1:35 pm

  9. I think that most readers of history understand that the biographer/historian cannot be totally objective. And I heartily agree that stating one’s allegiance up front makes good sense; it also engages the reader from the start to sort of form their own opinion as they read.

    Incidentally, I’m currently writing a short history of my own dad’s life. It’s an interesting line to walk, avoiding undue criticism on the one hand, but also avoiding hagiography on the other. I think I will include a paragraph in the preface “declaring my allegiance.”

    Comment by Hunter — August 20, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

  10. You call it “declaring one’s allegiance” which, I think, is one way to put it. I would call it “disclosing one’s bias” because you need to know what the author’s opinion is to decide whether or not, or how much, they can be trusted. For example, a biography written on Barrack Obama will probably be told differently by a Democrat than a Republican. If the affiliation is disclosed, I know that when I read the Republican’s Obama bio, the negatives will likely be emphasized and the positives minimized; the Democrat’s Obama bio probably does just the opposite.

    Sincere authors know there is no such thing as true objectivity. Their own personal views are the lense through which they see the story, and they need to disclose to the reader what that lense is in order to allow the reader to make an truly informed opinion.

    Comment by Traci — August 20, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

  11. Parenthetically, it is spelled “Barack Obama.” 😉

    An interesting post. I prefer to know something about an author before I read a book. I agree that “objectivity” is a chimera, and that the past is not something historians dutifully travel to the past to gather and carry back in a nice lump of reality. If the author doesn’t self-disclose I’ll likely look for disclosure elsewhere to see where they are coming from, which just adds to the workload of reading a book, imo.

    Comment by BHodges — August 20, 2008 @ 3:49 pm

  12. The issue of self-disclosure is cyclical. In American religious history at the moment, it is the “in thing” to discuss one’s religious affiliation, background, etc, in the introduction to books. I guess I caught an aversion to this from my dissertation director. If I carry a particular bias of sufficient strength to materially impact an honest reading of the evidence, then my admitting that won’t correct for it. In most cases the biases that most matter are the ones we (and our readers) don’t recognize because they are so deeply rooted in our shared culture. Careful readers can spot howling biases right away–disclosed or not. Read the same book 100 years later and it will be viewed as full of all kinds of biases that were invisible to author and contemporary readers.

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 20, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

  13. […] affiliation and belief system (or any other aspect of one’s identity) when writing history. That has been discussed elsewhere at length. I am more interested in exploring the possible reasons behind Howe’s decision to […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » “gigantic and sometimes polemical”: The Persistent Marginalization of Mormon History as an (Un)acceptable Field of Study — December 15, 2008 @ 3:56 am


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