Monday, January 28, 2013

Brigham Young - John Turner Review Prologue

Continuing where we left off, we now move into the Prologue. I should preface my continuing critique of Turner's book by noting that I certainly do not intend to be critical of his entire book without highlighting the positive as well. However, thus far Turner is simply setting the stage for the biography itself. When interesting and unique information or insightful perspectives are shared, I will eagerly acknowledge these contributions. For the time being, we really are just covering preliminary background information, and thus my concern of atmosphere looms heavily over this segment of the story.

Turner's Prologue uses a New Year's Day speech given by Brigham Young in 1877 at the dedication of the St. George Temple to introduce his character. What is striking to me is how Turner interprets the text of this speech. His preconceived notions color the atmosphere through his choice of text that he quotes and the language he employs in describing how Brigham spoke to the people gathered at the temple. Turner starts by noting President Young's emphasis on the restoration of sacred temple ordinances not exercised in full since the days of Adam, so far as any knowledge had been given. "Then," Turner sets the stage, "Young's tone gradually changed." From this point forward Mr. Turner narrows his focus solely upon his perception of Brigham Young's escalating tone and scathing remarks to the gathered saints. He points out that Brigham accused Elders of choosing hell over heaven, of choosing a dollar over salvation, and calls attention to Brigham's mention of too many Mormons being "damned fools." He continues to bolster this paradigm by using phrases such as, "Young demanded...," and "Building to a crescendo, Young upbraided...," and "Young thundered as much as his aging lungs would permit...." Turner concludes by saying that President Young was "blunt spoken, pugnacious, and sometimes profane."

Monday, January 14, 2013

Brigham Young - John Turner Review Preface

Why read the preface?

In my first post on this book review I suggested that Turner's preconceived notions and biases would inevitably present themselves throughout this biography. Since the preface introduces the outline and scope of the book, it is the appropriate place to assess the highlights and agenda of his work. My initial concerns with respect to how Turner would portray Brother Brigham is reflected to some degree in the preface and is further enhanced by what is said, as well as by what is left unsaid. A biographer may cast their subject in whatever light they so choose based on how their arguments and assertions are structured, even if the facts have been incorporated into the narrative. Hugh Nibley pointed this out years ago in a book he wrote that similarly addressed critiques of Brigham Young and Joseph Smith. He cites Hugh Trevor-Roper as follows:
Nowadays, to carry conviction, a historian must document, or appear to document, his formal narrative, but his background, his generalisations [sic], allusions, comparisons remain happily free from this inconvenience. This freedom is very useful: against an imaginary background even correctly stated facts can be wonderfully transformed."1
What the author can successfully achieve is staging an atmosphere so that everything else is judged under the desired lighting. To argue that scholars are above this petty notion is simply naive. The extent to which a facade is presented of course will vary based on the integrity and objectivity employed by each author, and of course by the extent to which they recognize their own lack of objectivity. At any rate, I am still optimistic regarding this book, but share the following brow-raising statements.

Brigham Young - John Turner Review Intro

So I had been deliberating about whether to buy this book based on the available online reviews thus far. Some tout it as the definitive biography on Brigham Young, surpassing Leonard Arrington's masterpiece, or even as the companion volume to Rough Stone Rolling. It has been labeled as fair, balanced, and critical. John Turner is a respected scholar and is an Assistant Professor at George Mason University. After determining that I'm sufficiently open minded and acknowledging an appreciation for sophistication, I decided to buy it.

From the get go, I already have my reservations. Considering that the book is only 500 pages (413 pages of text), I can hardly imagine that this book will do Brigham Young the justice that he deserves. Rough Stone Rolling barely covered sufficient ground on Joseph Smith's short life of thirty-eight years in its 740 pages (561 pages of text). It is hard to imagine that Brigham Young's life of seventy-six years and his volume of accomplishments in mortality can be sufficiently captured in a book limited to this length; especially so when one considers the mountains of data that exist relative to his life. Any reasonable assessment must take into consideration the thousands of discourses he delivered, the volumes of notes, journals, and letters composed by himself and dictated to scribes, the personal actions he took as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, as well as Governor of Utah, colonizer, patriarch, temple builder, economist, and the cultural context of his character development, as well as personal assessments formed by his closest associates and character perception by his public audiences. I am certain that my short list vastly understates all of the dimensions which culminate in the man, Brigham Young. At any rate, based on my judging the book by its size (the cover seems good enough), I am apprehensive about Turner's alleged monumental accomplishment in condensing Young's life into such a little book.