This is the third and final installment reviewing Richard Bushman's On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author's Diary, covering the main part of the book, including a lengthy section recounting interaction with LDS blogs. I'm going to keep this short, as I rediscovered Daniel Peterson's lengthy discussion of the book in his Editor's Intro to a recent FARMS Review, which covered the same things I noted. I suspect he said it better than I would, so I'll let you read the good stuff there and keep my comments here brief, again with quotes from the book in italics and my comments to follow.
People with a preformed view of Joseph as a scoundrel will object; Mormons who like Joseph Smith will take a deep breath and learn from my portrayal. Somewhere in between is my ideal curious reader who wants to understand him. (p. 65.) There aren't many ideal curious readers when it comes to Joseph Smith. Bushman made this remark seemingly in reference to reviewers, but it seems like it applies more broadly. So there were really two separate audiences for RSR, and despite Bushman's academic credentials, few in the first group were willing to step outside the "Joseph as a charismatic scoundrel" picture painted so charmingly by Brodie and consider that RSR might offer a deeper analysis or offer a more integrated portrait of Joseph Smith than prior biographies. I think only the Mormon audience has read the book that way.
The Mormon blogs have been talking about the book. I agreed to respond to reviews at Times and Seasons, and, not to be outdone, Millennial Star approached Jed for an online interview. Jed asked me to answer thirteen questions. Here they are with my answers. (p. 71.) Then follows six pages reproducing Jed Woodworth's interview of Bushman as published at M-Star. I think it was M-Star's finest moment. He next recounted two talks he gave to the Miller-Eccles group in Southern California (which I attended and summarized here and here), then talked about the T&S reviews (all four of which, with Bushman's responses, are collected here) as follows (p. 78):
I left New York with four reviews in hand ..., intended for publication on the Times and Seasons blog with replies from me. All were respectful and imaginative. It thrilled me to see other minds taking off from my work, to speculate about Joseph and his place in the world. It thrilled me that three were people I had not known before, offering hope that there are young LDS intellectuals in the making outside my ken.
So everyone who contributed ideas and comments to the M-Star and T&S discussions, which is just about everyone who posts or comments in the B'nacle, can give themselves a pat on the back for participating in one of the better discussions that RSR generated. Here's a final selection, giving thoughts on "inoculation":
Should we hide troublesome things from the Saints and hope they will never find out? The problem is what happens when they do. They are disillusioned and in danger of mistrusting everything they have been told. ... Amazingly, many LDS don't know Joseph married thirty women. We have to get these facts out to be dealt with; otherwise we are in a vulnerable position. ... The Institute people can work against the book if they choose, challenging the documents or offering explanations, but at least everything is on the table. We are not hiding anymore. (p. 79.) The Institute comment was in response to an earlier summary of comments critical of some aspects of RSR presented at the U of U Institute by an unnamed reviewer. Since Institutes are ground zero for a successful inoculation program, it's nice they're reading RSR and thinking about these issues. Let's hope their bosses are thinking about it, too, as I don't expect "the Institute people" will think their way through to the right answers without some pointed encouragement from an authority figure or two.
A couple of links for those who want further reading. Bushman thought the review of RSR in the Christian Science Monitor was one of the best he had read. It's posted online: "He Founded A Church and Stirred A Young Nation," by Jane Lampman. Finally, Bushman ended the book by reprinting a short article he wrote in July 2006 for the online journal Common-Place. Here it is, entitled "The Balancing Act."