I heard Richard L. Bushman speak to a small audience last week about his new biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. In this post I'll summarize his remarks about his approach and method for writing a biography of Joseph Smith, touching on the ways in which he seems to move the paradigm for writing 19th-century Mormon history forward. In a later post I'll summarize the substantive points he made about Joseph Smith.
Bushman delivered his remarks in the following context: How should Joseph Smith's history and the Book of Mormon be presented to non-believers? As a controversial figure, Joseph elicits strong reactions from people, even those who know comparatively little about his life. The story of the gold plates as the source of the Book of Mormon text, plus Joseph's later practice of polygamy, make it difficult for non-believers to approach a biography of Joseph Smith with an open mind. It is just too easy for readers, or other writers, to see Joseph as a scoundrel, a fraud, even a violent religious extremist. I think this fits into a pre-existing narrative form that is ready-made for those who want to make use of it, and one that already resonates with readers, who have heard the story before: the clever schemer, the deceptive scheme itself, the duped followers, the inevitable difficulties as some oppose and others defect, and the all-wise narrator passing judgment on it all. Krakauer, for example, is seen by some to have used this model in his recent book. Brodie comes to mind as well.
The alternative perspective sketched by Bushman is to situate Joseph in the prophetic "grand tradition" and to consider his published writing as fitting into a prophetic literary genre. Harold Bloom is often cited for calling Joseph a "religious genius," taking his religious orientation seriously. Bushman, of course, endorses this second approach, noting that it is difficult to give Joseph a serious reading under the first approach. Given that what makes Joseph's story worth retelling is how much he accomplished (Bushman said Joseph was "a man who exceeded himself"), only the second approach is likely to do him justice. Framing him as a fraud leads one to dismiss every legitimate accomplishment, hardly a perspective that will lead to a balanced analysis of any subject's life or character.
The Prophetic Tradition
This refers not to the biblical prophets, but to a generalized American prophetic tradition, including outspoken reformers or critics of social institutions who feel "called" and speak with moral authority. Other figures besides Joseph who might be in this tradition include Ann Lee, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, and Martin Luther King. Speakers in this tradition speak boldly and elicit harsh reactions. I'll note that a biography of someone in the prophetic tradition offers its own ready-made narrative plot: the initial call or how the individual feels moved to speak; the message and how it is spread, published, or preached; the response of the general public or other audience to the message; the success of failure of preaching the message; external opposition; and how it all winds up. This approach is bound to give a stronger reading of a prophetic figure than the first, dismissive approach. Imagine telling a biography of Martin Luther King that highlighted plagiarism and womanizing, but dismissed or minimized any of his accomplishments.
Bushman also sketched a broader source of tension between two different founding documents of the American nation, the Constitution and the Bible. The Constitution stands for and supports democracy and democratic values: the voice of the people as the voice of God. The Bible stands for the Kingdom of God (with God as the King): the voice of the prophets as the voice of God. It's not hard to appreciate how these two themes can come into direct conflict. Bushman said Joseph's life illustrated the logic of a prophetic life in democratic America.
He noted that Protestants, for a long time, saw the two different programs, democratic values based on the Constitution and biblical/prophetic values drawn from the Bible, as supporting each other. Catholics, Mormons, and other religious minorities were more acutely aware of the conflicts over the years. But in recent years Protestants, too, have come face to face with conflict, in their opposition to abortion and their support for school prayer, both of which have generated significant conflict with the government.
I think this summary of Bushman's perspective helps a reader approach Rough Stone Rolling with some idea of the story Bushman is telling there. First, he brings out Joseph's religious orientation in relation to the prophetic tradition and his emerging self-identification as a religious prophet. For example, he leads off Chapter 6 with Joseph's declaration in February 1831, upon arriving at the Whitney store in Kirtland, "I am Joseph the Prophet." Second, he brings out conflicts between kingdom-building Mormons and democratic Americans. Religion, kingdom-building, and conflict pretty much defined Joseph's adult life. It's a wonder he ever had time for plural wives.
Another advantage I see to Bushman's perspective is it gives Joseph some biographical peers. Bushman uses this, for example, in the Prologue, where he compares the spiritual connection and revelatory sense that early Mormons felt with Joseph to Emerson's contemporaneous exhortations to a rather different audience in Boston to bring a sense of revelation back into the mainline denominations: "the need was never greater of new revelation than now." I think Joseph did a better job of it than Emerson, actually.
[Minor text edits, 11/19]