The following is a paper I wrote a few years ago in a history class about Joseph Smith from Grant Underwood at BYU.
Released in 2005, Richard L. Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling has been hailed by many as the definitive biography of the Mormon founder. It is only natural, then, to put the book in the ring with Fawn M. Brodie’s classic, No Man Knows My History—without question the most famous, and controversial, biography of Joseph Smith to date. In this paper I compare the two biographies according to four criteria: (1) key similarities and differences, (2) characterization of Joseph’s personality, (3) coverage of key events, and (4) interpretation of teachings and doctrine.
Key Similarities and Differences
At first glance, it is tempting to categorize Rough Stone and No Man as wholly different species: the former a Mormon-friendly, naïve history; the latter an anti-Mormon exposé. In a significant respect, however, the two biographies belong to the same class: each puts forward a more complicated and nuanced Joseph Smith to a divided audience. Brodie rejects a simplistic view of Joseph as God’s premier prophet, but also counters prevailing characterizations of delusional hick or calculating charlatan. Instead she artfully crafts a Joseph who is both sinner and saint, both imaginative genius and ignorant plowboy. Bushman does this also, believing in the prophet’s divine mission yet dismissing the conservative conception of a polished, one-dimensional demigod. In his preface, Bushman sums up an underlying philosophy that can be extended to both biographies: “Most readers do not believe in, nor are they interested in, perfection . . . . We want to meet a real person” (xix).
This being said, however, the nature and scope of the two biographies differ significantly. First, Bushman thrives upon differing viewpoints and historical complications, making Rough Stone more palatable to the skeptic than No Man is to a believer. Although Bushman’s belief in Mormonism certainly affects his work, he presents a Joseph Smith that can be shared, in large part, by Mormon and non-Mormon alike. This can hardly be said for Brodie, however, who ostracizes the believing Mormon from the beginning—nowhere does Brodie take seriously even the hypothesis that Joseph Smith was who he said he was. The second difference can be summed up in one word: more. In addition to being more recent, Rough Stone Rolling is more comprehensive, more contextually rich, and more thoroughly documented. This makes for a more honest and relevant biography, but it might come at the cost of not relating as much to a lay audience. In this sense, Brodie’s storytelling trumps Bushman’s historical craft; indeed, it is much easier to imagine a popular movie based on No Man than on Rough Stone.
Characterization of Joseph’s Personality
As mentioned earlier, both Brodie and Bushman paint a complex and many-sided Joseph Smith. Brodie’s No Man, commonly called a “psychobiography,” grounds Joseph’s personality in psychoanalytic theory. In her second edition’s supplement, Brodie explains this underlying theory, characterizing Joseph as having a “basic inner conflict . . . between what he really was and what he most desperately wanted to be” (417). Embodying the collision of a puritan superego and the “the pleasures of the average man” (288-89, 294-95, 326), Joseph was constantly “troubled by the necessity of rationalizing his own impulses or of squaring himself with God” (310). Combine his defense mechanisms with his imaginative genius, quest for knowledge (169), and hypnotic charisma (103)—and voila, the elaborate Mormon empire emerges, complete with lustful harems and military pageantry (148, 271, 283). For Joseph to maintain his kingdom required pathological delusions of reality and grandeur (84, 417-20); otherwise a “persisting consciousness of guilt” would have crushed him long before Carthage (84-85).
Bushman also portrays Joseph as a man of inner conflicts—having “anxiety under his confident exterior,” for example (250)—but not under the umbrella of psychoanalytic theory. In fact, Bushman is hesitant to portray a clear-cut view of Joseph’s personality. For Brodie, the difference between the Hurlbut affidavits and descriptions of Joseph’s followers stinks of inner conflict and a reconstructed Mormon history. For Bushman, however, the difference “shows how differently a man’s life could be represented” (233). Bushman also touches on a private side of Joseph Smith that Brodie is somewhat silent on—the “restless, yearning soul,” unknown even to his family (233). According to Bushman, “By his own account, Joseph frequently felt cast down, lacking, or falling short, never enjoying all that he needed, whether wealth or spiritual assurance” (234). This difference undoubtedly comes from Bushman having greater access to Joseph’s private writing, as well as his seeking to portray a many-sided Joseph Smith.
On many counts, Bushman and Brodie give similar reports of Joseph’s personality. Joseph was “a gregarious, cheerful, imaginative youth,” having a sense of humor that repulsed some but “endeared him to many others” (Brodie 18, 104). He “did not like to be crossed” and occasionally exhibited “flashes of anger,” but his followers’ “dismay at his anger was balanced by their love of his good nature” (Bushman 249-50). At times he did not deal “skillfully with opposition” (Brodie 377). He was sometimes arrogant, and yet quite open about his imperfections (Bushman 153, 296).
Coverage of Key Events
A casual perusal of the biographies’ chapters reveals important similarities and differences in the way Bushman and Brodie cover key events in Joseph Smith’s life. In nearly all cases Bushman is more comprehensive, as mentioned earlier, but both give the same amount of proportionate coverage for key events prior to Kirtland: Joseph’s family history and upbringing, his first vision, his preoccupation with magic, the production of the Book of Mormon, and the organization of the Church. Between New York and Nauvoo, however, Bushman covers considerably more turf. Brodie lumps the period between 1831-33 into one chapter; Bushman fleshes out four chapters, equal to four times the amount of proportionate coverage. This is perhaps due to Bushman’s greater interest in the revelations concerning Zion and exaltation, including their sociocultural relationship to frontier America. Moreover, it is between New York and Nauvoo that Bushman goes to great length to describe Joseph’s inner turmoil and struggles. In contrast, Brodie provides only superficial accounts about the prophet, especially during the Missouri persecutions and the Kirtland bank tragedy. At this point her narrative loses much of her punch and turns into a rather dry accounting of facts—preserving her firepower for Nauvoo, I suppose.
For the scope of this paper, I will compare Bushman’s and Brodie’s coverage of only three topics: the First Vision, the production and content of the Book of Mormon, and Joseph’s polygamous relationships. Concerning the First Vision, both Brodie and Bushman illustrate the complexities behind the reconstructed histories of the First Vision, but they interpret them much differently. Brodie sees a gradual elaboration of Joseph’s storytelling—first angels, then the Son, then the Father and the Son (91, 405). Bushman also sees the varying accounts as a change in focus, but does not automatically reify it as a cover-up or reconstruction. Instead, it is a matter of appealing to a more rational-minded audience—a realization that folk magic was not consistent with the future of his prophetic calling (69). This construction is consistent with Bushman’s desiring to appeal to both Mormons and non-Mormons.
Perhaps nowhere are Bushman and Brodie more different than in their accounts of the production of the Book of Mormon. For Brodie, it can be nothing more than an elaborate creation. With this conclusion in mind, she searches for plausible explanations for the book as Joseph’s creation. In this respect she is laughably presumptuous, claiming that “painstaking research can uncover the sources of all its ideas” (67). She applauds its imaginative complexity (69), but derides its plausibility as a genuine history of ancient America (67). Instead it is an eclectic combination of Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (47), autobiographical projection (58), and borrowing from the Bible (62-63). In her discussion of the Book of Mormon, her preoccupation with explaining its origin is glaring.
Bushman takes Brodie to task for her explanation of the Book of Mormon. According to Bushman, a “skeptical analysis” of the authorship of the Book of Mormon is lacking evidence—it is concerned merely with what “Joseph ‘may’ have done or ‘probably’ did.” This hunting for “signs of trickery” is a distraction that “throws us off track . . . of the Joseph Smith who has a place in history” (58). Indeed, it seems that Brodie is more reactionary to Smith’s miraculous story than she is an objective handler of the historical evidence. Unlike Brodie, Bushman does “not claim [his] case is conclusive; [he] accumulates evidence, but admit[s] belief in the Book of Mormon requires faith” (93). Also unlike Brodie, Bushman discusses the complexity behind two competing theories of the book’s production: composition and transcription. Brodie’s theory, however, has no competitors. In addition, Bushman has much more to say about the richness of the text of the Book of Mormon, including it being a “profound social protest” against the prevailing culture of Joseph’s day (104).
Another area in which Brodie and Bushman differ is in the discussion of plural marriage. Fifteen percent of No Man focuses on Joseph’s polygamous relationships, compared to just 5 percent in Rough Stone. Indeed, Brodie seems to be fascinated with a wife-hunt, the subject of one-third of the second edition’s preface about research findings from 1945-1971. The questions that absorb her thoughts include: How many wives did Joseph have? How many were polyandrous relationships? Who are his children? How did he keep from having more children? Considering that psychoanalytic theory is grounded largely in the central motivation of sexual libido, Brodie’s fascination is hardly surprising. Bushman is less concerned with the sexual nature of these relationships, contending that the historical evidence for such is slim to none—a possibility that squares with Bushman’s openness to non-sexual motivations for the marriages.
Interpretation of Teachings and Doctrine
Given their differences to this point, it is hardly surprising that Brodie and Bushman differ significantly in their interpretations of Joseph Smith’s teachings and doctrine. For Brodie, nothing shouts louder than Joseph’s equating God’s favor with material prosperity (263-294-95, 402). This was Joseph’s magnum opus, explaining his doctrine of plural marriage, the dissolution of immaterial spirit, and the desire to unite church and state. Clearly, this interpretation is an extension of Brodie’s underlying psychoanalytic theory of Joseph’s inner conflict between God’s favor and worldly indulgence. With this theory as her guide, Brodie dubs the maxim, “Man is that he might have joy,” as “one of his first significant pronouncements in the Book of Mormon” (294), but she says very little about other significant doctrinal teachings from the book. In the end, she sees Joseph’s system of salvation as void of spirituality: “he created a book and a religion, but he could not create a truly spiritual context” (403). There is “no new Sermon on the Mount, no new saga of redemption” (403). Instead, religion is “as raw-boned and pragmatic as Joseph himself, and as dynamic” (295)—an eclectic patchwork of his imaginative genius and other resources (72, 403).
Bushman does not ignore the role of Joseph’s temporal kingdom, but he presents a view of his doctrine that is much more intellectually rich and spiritually sensitive. Instead of a narrow psychoanalytic theory, Bushman relates Joseph’s doctrinal thought to other important tensions, such as between folk magic and the Enlightenment. He also offers much more of a contextual discussion about Joseph’s revelations. Brodie seems not at all concerned with such. Instead of merely seeking to explain the sources of Joseph’s revelations, Bushman emphasizes the originality and brilliance of Joseph’s thought. For Bushman, plurality of gods is about radical freedom (535). For Brodie, it’s merely the result of reading Thomas Dick (171-72). Bushman mentions Dick, but is silent about speculation on Joseph’s doctrines, emphasizing instead how Joseph’s theology is vastly different (457-58).
The key strengths of Rough Stone Rolling are its recency, its contextual richness, and its historical accuracy. It provides a comprehensive view of Joseph Smith that both Mormons and non-Mormons can appreciate, although some skeptics will take issue with certain interpretations. In comparison with No Man Knows My History, however, Bushman demands much more of his reader, rendering Rough Stone as liable to ostracize the lay audience, even many Deseret Book card-carriers. However, this does not mean that it will not be widely incorporated into future works about the prophet. The measure of its impact, to a large degree, will be the extent to which, directly or indirectly, it engages, challenges, and enlightens Latter-day Saint readers.
In my opinion, No Man Knows My History needs to step down from its title. However, it is important to recognize it as a catalyst in improving and influencing historical research about Joseph Smith—even Bushman’s latest biography. And with all of its flaws, No Man still comes home the victor when it comes to a parsimonious, engaging story. Indeed, the biographical world of Joseph Smith is still looking for a believing, yet historically accurate, story of Joseph Smith, unobstructed by technical commentary. Perhaps “no man” can ever know this story—and perhaps it belongs more in the domain of film than literary biography. But until such a story is written, or revealed, much of the magical and mysterious world of Joseph Smith will remain hidden.
Brodie, Fawn M. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.
Bushman, Richard L. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Albert A. Knopf, 2005.
Filed under: History, Mormon Doctrine | Tagged: biography, Book of Mormon, Fawn Brodie, First Vision, History, Joseph Smith, Knopf, Mormon Doctrine, No Man Knows My History, plural marriage, plurality of gods, prophets, psychobiography, Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, Scripture, Theology |