Friday, December 9, 2016

12/9, Thomas Mira y Lopez: The Biography as Seer Stone

Let’s start with some disclaimers. I’m interested in writing about Fawn M. Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, the celebrated and controversial 1945 biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. I, however, know very little about Mormonism—you might say I am as unlettered in the subject as Brodie says Smith was when he translated the Book of Mormon at the age of 23—and am aware the position of an outsider brings certain limitations. To boot, I am currently flying over the Artic Circle in a China Southern aircraft about to enter Siberian airspace. We hope to land in Guangzhou in the morning. Things look dark outside the plane. My computer tells me it’s 9:30 am, though I have no idea what time it really is.

What interests me about Brodie is the difficulty and enormity of her task. No Man is a celebrated and controversial book because Joseph Smith is a celebrated and controversial figure. The word mercurial seems to put it lightly. In his lifetime, Joseph Smith was a prophet, visionary, farmer, treasure hunter, populist, Lieutenant General, presidential candidate, charlatan, polygamist, mayor, and founder of the greatest popular religious movement in the United States.

That a woman has written the definitive biography of Smith should not be taken lightly, given the historical restrictions Mormonism has placed on female members. Brodie, a Mormon herself and the niece of David O. McKay, the ninth president of the church, managed to gain access to confidential LDS church archives. She submitted the manuscript to a prize held by Knopf and won. After the book’s release, the church ex-communicated her on charges of apostasy. Often afterwards, I read, she was referred to as “that awful woman.”

Joseph Smith is, if this is indeed a category, one of America’s best secret keepers, particularly surrounding the foundation of Mormonism—the story, of course, being that Smith found the Book of Mormon buried in the earth and inscribed in an ancient language on a set of golden plates—and some of its early practices, in particular, polygamy.

How then do you write about this guy? How can a biographer maintain both objectivity and interiority, especially given the fact that a powerful organization has spent much effort and time to ensure that certain records are interpreted a certain way? Consciousness without conjecture seems impossible. It’s as if whenever Brodie closes in on a certain conclusion about Smith, a little explosive is triggered and scatters his motivations in a number of different directions. Brodie must then run down, cross-reference, and categorize each piece before arranging them together again in the most plausible explanation.

The result is a book that does not state who Smith was, but explores who he might have wanted to be. It’s a definitive biography without being definitive. While Brodie certainly presents damning evidence about Smith, she doesn’t simply undermine or expose him. She treats him as neither myth nor man, but instead as a man growing aware of his own myth, whose “memories,” like all of ours, “are always distorted by the wishes, thoughts, and, above all, the obligations of the moment.”

Specifically, Brodie contends Smith concocted the story of the golden plates as means of self-gain—i.e. that he never took the religious part seriously—but that with his growing following and power, he became convinced of his own status as a prophet. As for the actual construction of the Book of Mormon, Brodie supposes it neither divine revelation nor forgery. She accords Smith perhaps the larger honor: he was someone with the capacity to narrate and author his own book, a testament to the energy and nerve of its creator and an “absolutely American…compound of folklore, moral platitude, mysticism, and millennialism.”

This seems crucial. While Brodie pans the book as lacking “subtlety, wit, and style” and providing “three thousand years of history” in which “not a single harlot was made to speak,” she also acknowledges its power and rhetoric. She takes it seriously. In this year of post-truth, her analysis seems eerily prescient:
The Book of Mormon was a mutation in the evolution of American literature, a curious sport, at once sterile and potent. Although it bred no imitators outside Mormonism and was ignored by literary critics, it brought several hundred thousand immigrants to America in the nineteenth century. The twentieth century sees the distribution of 35,000 copies a year…It is easy enough to deride its style and painstaking research can uncover the sources of all its ideas. But nothing can detract from the fact that many people have found it convincing history.
It’s hard not to see Brodie’s accounting of Joseph Smith’s audacity and boastfulness as a parallel to this country’s current situation. The improbability of his rise and the sheer ridiculousness of it in some regard—that people believed he found golden plates containing the word of God which only he could “translate” with a set of two stones, while concealed behind a cloth—I cannot help but compare to another man who claims the roles of prophet and savior. Ditto for Smith’s venality, his command of oratory, the cabal of acolytes and connivers who curried favor with him, and the abuse of authority to offer divine revelations that suited his own personal interests. One should also remember the persecution and violence early Mormon communities faced in Missouri and Illinois when perceived as strange and other. It’s especially hard not to see the parallel—hopeful or not—in that what finally did Joseph Smith in was his destruction of a printing press that revealed the corruption and profiteering of his own business interests.

Maybe this is just how autocracy works. Or maybe, as Brodie points out, this is a peculiarly American story, now on repeat. The past informs the present, sure; one might argue the social prerogative of a biographer is to change that present by changing the past.

Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s the right move to search for these parallels. To do so may be a bit of the same convenience Smith used himself in reinterpreting events in the Book of Mormon to fit his own current interests: a reading just short of comprehension if it looks only for evidence to bear itself out. We are always being asked to buy a past as a selling point to fit the interests of a present. Either way, Fawn M. Brodie resists that convenience. She’s called the book “No Man Knows My History,” after all. And she knows the man well enough to know that Smith said that about himself.


Thomas Mira y Lopez lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Ohio. He’s an editor of Territory, an online literary project about maps.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. Warp or woof, a persistent if bare thread in American life. See also Gaddis and Coover.