Sunday, February 9, 2020
Book Review: No Man Knows My History
Fawn McKay Brodie was born in Ogden, Utah in 1915. She grew up in the LDS church (her uncle, David O. McKay, would eventually become church president) but drifted away from the religion while studying at the University of Utah and the University of Chicago. She married fellow-student Bernard Brodie, a Latvian Jew, and went on to become a renowned biographer and a professor at UCLA. The subjects of her five biographies were Joseph Smith, Thaddeus Stevens, Sir Richard Burton, Thomas Jefferson, and Richard Nixon.
As one might expect, her biography of Joseph Smith, published in 1945 and entitled ‘No Man Knows My History’ after a quotation from the King Follett Sermon, is the most well-known and controversial within the Latter Day Saint movement. Meanwhile, secular opinion of Brodie’s book is rather high; it is generally considered to be the first serious work on Joseph’s life that isn’t a hagiography.
“In official Mormon biographies he has been made a prophet of greater stature than Moses,” writes Brodie in her Preface. “Nineteenth century preachers made him a lecherous rouge, and twentieth century chroniclers have been bemused with what they diagnosed as paranoiac delusions.”
Brodie makes it clear early on that she intends to go in a different direction than her simplistic predecessors, but she admits the great difficulty of searching through a baffling array of historical documents for “the inner springs of [Joseph’s] character.”
Because Brodie took it as a given that Joseph never saw an angel or translated the golden plates, most Mormons have naturally held a dim view of her work, echoing the sentiments of the Improvement Era, whose review bluntly said that the book “of no interest to Latter-day Saints who have correct knowledge of the history of Joseph Smith.”
As someone who believes that Joseph Smith really was called by the Lord, you might expect me to be equally uninterested in Brodie’s biography. Well, I’m not. Some people turn pale and shrink away from challenging information, as they say something about how we should always turn to “faith promoting sources.” I don’t share that attitude. To put it bluntly: if you don’t have the courage to look at a thing from a lot of different perspectives, then you shouldn’t be putting your faith in it.
So I read Fawn Brodie’s book. It is not an anti-Mormon screed. While it is obvious that Fawn Brody is no longer a Mormon herself and does not believe Joseph’s claims to divine powers, she doesn’t go out of her way to paint him as a bad man. Early on in the book Brodie quotes an anti-Mormon source who said that Joseph’s character was “vicious;” she states that this is untrue, and throughout the book relates many accounts of what she sees as his genuine love for and compassion towards his people.
Apparently she sees Joseph starting out as a natural leader with a talent for spinning tales, who was willing to do anything to escape the grinding poverty of the indebted New England farmers among whom he had been born and raised. As more and more people flocked to the religion that the young man had founded, he came to think grander and grander things about himself, and the rest of Mormon history played out accordingly.
It seems very improbable, to me, that a reader could believe every story that Brodie relates about Joseph Smith, and still believe that Joseph was what he claimed to be. On the other hand, Brodie doesn’t shy away from including stories that support Joseph’s prophethood. For instance, the story of Mary Whitmer’s unexpected encounter with an angel who showed her the Golden Plates is included, as is the story of how Joseph healed Elsa Johnson’s lame arm at Kirtland; neither does Brodie neglect to reproduce, in full, Joseph’s famous prophecy about a great war that would one day begin in South Carolina.
If your experience reading Fawn Brodie is anything like mine, you’ll find yourself going back and forth between saying: “If that is true then I cannot be a Mormon,” and “If I’m not a Mormon, then how in the world did Joseph do it?”
For instance, Brodie spends a whole chapter describing the clever structuring, feats of memory and imagination, and shrewd foresight that went into the composition of the Book of Mormon, which she describes as “one of the earliest examples of frontier fiction, the first long Yankee narrative that owes nothing to English literary fashions.”
“Non-Mormons attempting psychiatric analyses have been content,” she writes, “to pin a label upon the youth and have ignored his greatest creative achievement because they found it dull. Dull it is, in truth, but not formless, aimless, or absurd. Its structure shows elaborate design, its narrative is spun coherently, and it demonstrates throughout a unity of purpose. Its matter is drawn directly from the American frontier, from the impassioned revivalist sermons, the popular fallacies about Indian origin, and the current political crusades.”
Then, no sooner than he had finished dictating this “first long Yankee narrative” in the space of some sixty days, Joseph took the Three Witnesses out into the woods and put them under a lifelong mesmeric spell, creating in them an illusion strong enough that they would all vigorously defend their testimony of the Golden Plates after they had fallen out with Joseph and found themselves excommunicated from his church. (Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris eventually rejoined the church under Brigham Young, while David Whitmer, after Joseph’s death, gathered up some fellow anti-polygamist Mormons and led the Whitmerite church).
Did Joseph have any prior experience with casting mesmeric spells? No, no more than he had any with dictating long books. But that was no obstacle to him.
One amusing detail of Fawn Brodie’s treatment of the Book of Mormon is that, even though she devotes three chapters to it, an astute reader can tell that she probably hasn’t read it since her childhood in Utah. She says, for instance, that Joseph included an autobiographical detail when he made Nephi the third of the six sons in his family, and that the Jaredites were almost an afterthought, their history given in a rushed summary at the back of the book to allay the concerns of any readers who might be aware that the America’s were inhabited earlier than 600 BC. (In reality the Jaredites are mentioned all over in the text, with the narrator promising to get to their story in due time).
A similar mistake occurs when Brodie describes the Book of Abraham as the source of the belief that blacks are an inferior race. While the Book of Abraham claims that the Egyptian pharaohs belong to a cursed lineage, black skin is never mentioned as having anything to do with it. But Brodie can perhaps be forgiven for this; after all, the leaders of the LDS church at the time she wrote were saying the same thing.
But weighty speculation on the nature and meaning of Joseph’s sacred texts is far from the whole of what Brodie gives us; indeed, much of her book is full of good frontier stories of the sort that could make the reader wish he had lived among “the long-forgotten realities of religion and politics between 1805 and 1844.”
“Permeating the military atmosphere was the stern discipline of the gospel,” writes Brodie in the midst of her chapter on Zion’s Camp. “Every night before retiring Joseph blew a blast upon a sacred ram’s horn, and his men knelt in prayer for succor and guidance. Minor miracles were a daily occurrence. Parley Pratt, who was frequently separated from the army on recruiting trips, said that an angel awakened him one morning when oversleeping would have meant disaster. Martin Harris offered his naked toe to a five-foot black snake in the road, and when it refused to bite him proclaimed an apostolic victory over the serpent. When he repeated the experiment with another snake and got a severe bite on the ankle, the company jeered uproariously at his lack of faith, and Joseph publicly upbraided him for making a mockery of the Lord’s gifts.”
I think it rather unfortunate that, towards the end of the book when Joseph’s mayorship in Nauvoo produced a sea of historical documents and written recollections of such majestic variety that one could find among them the makings of any kind of story at all, Brodie chose to cite mainly anecdotes that are on the verge of make Joseph out to be an egotistical madman. The theme of these chapters seems to be best summed up in the account of a conversation that Joseph, by then General of the Nauvoo Legion as well as Mayor, had with Josiah Quincy:
QUINCY: General Smith, it seems to me that you have too much power to be safely trusted in one man.
SMITH: In your hands, or that of any other man, so much power would no doubt be dangerous. I am the only man in the world whom it would be safe to trust with it. Remember, I am a prophet.
Describing Fawn Brodie’s book from every angle is too long a task for this blog. Suffice it to say that No Man Knows My History is a book that I believe every thinking Mormon should read. We shouldn’t feel the need to worry about “faithful” versus “critical” biographers. Any man can look good if the storyteller has no other goal besides making him look good.
If we are really interested in the life and work of Joseph Smith, then we ought to take the time to look at the man in every light. Perhaps, by doing so, we can get an idea of where the “faithful” narrative seems strained, versus where it’s the “critical” one that leaves the inquiring mind with more questions than answers. And if you believe that Joseph Smith's ministry really did begin with a heavenly vision and a call from Jesus, then you shouldn’t be worried about Joseph’s version of events always getting worsted.
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