Monday, January 14, 2013

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.

On another note, since I've decided to share my two cents on this book by posting a review of each chapter, I should be clear on one other matter. My reading of this book is through the lens of an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have a testimony (a spiritual confirmation) regarding Brigham Young as one of the Lord's anointed servants, and believe that he held all of the priesthood keys necessary to lead the Lord's church. I respect and appreciate Brother Brigham and have my own subjective perception of him that is quite at odds generally with the stereotypical non-Mormon perspective. I've read enough of Brigham Young's discourses, letters, and biographies to realize that he is far from the egotistical, controlling, chauvinist man that he is frequently portrayed as. I hope Mr. Turner's book is a strong departure from these sensationalistic portrayals, and truly narrows who he really was. While the scholarly goal is to be objective as possible, it is impossible to eliminate bias altogether.1 Whether friendly or antagonistic, John Turner's bias will have inevitably affected and permeated, to a greater or lesser degree, the picture that he has painted.

At its very best, I must concede, Turner's book will inevitably come up short in one regard, one that is crucial for assessing Brigham Young (or any Latter-day Saint for that matter), which is that without a spiritual confirmation from the Holy Spirit regarding the restoration of the gospel, it is impossible to accurately understand Brigham Young and fully empathize with his motives. While biographers tend to disassociate themselves as far as is possible from their subjects, I wonder if they sometimes achieve an understanding of the subject in context, but not necessarily the subject itself. They see the forest from the trees, as it were, but not the tree from the forest. I do not yet know what Turner's approach is in his book, but I thought it only fair for anybody reading my reviews to understand my perspectives and apprehensions since it will color the results of my reviews. Perhaps I will be proven wrong as I read this biography, and of course it is easier to criticize a book than it is to write one, so credit should certainly be given to Mr. Turner for attempting to accomplish such a necessary, but difficult task. Ultimately, I hope to find that Turner's reviewers have been accurate in their assessments of his work.

To be continued...
1 Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988); also see Virgil Hinshaw, Jr., "The Objectivity of History," Philosophy of Science 25/1 (January 1958):51-58; and see J.A. Passmore, "The Objectivity of History," Philosophy 33/125 (April 1958):97-111


  1. Just FYI: often in today's academy, it is rarely up to the author to determine the length of a book, especially with the most prestigious presses. (Trade presses, like Knopf which published Bushman's RSR, have a bit more flexibility, but young academics typically stick with university presses so that they can advance their career.) Harvard University Press gave John a strict word count, and it took a lot on John's part to even get them to extend it to 400 pages. (I think his original limit was 300 pages.) You are right that it is impossible to cover the complexities and nuances of Brigham Young in those few pages, but unfortunately there are practical limits to going longer.

    Just thought I'd add some reaction to your critique on the book's length.

    1. Hi Ben,
      Thanks for the comment. I was unaware of page limitations imposed by Harvard's press. To be honest, this doesn't make much sense to me. One would naturally assume that a for-profit, trade publisher, like Knopf, would generally impose page limitations more than an academic press. Since the trade press would be more concerned about the average reader's loss of interest on a lengthy book, it would seem they would be inclined to impose a given length. An academic press, one would think, would be more concerned about scholarly standards and accuracy and depth in order to perpetuate their scholarly reputation. Accordingly, it would seem that inhibiting length would not be much of a factor.
      While the reality of the situation doesn't make much sense in my opinion, I appreciate you sharing this information with me. At any rate, the comparison of Turner's book to Rough Stone Rolling, or as the definitive Brigham Young biography, appears to simply be marketing propaganda.
      I'd like to see a more definitive biography of Brigham Young, but this book certainly isn't it.

    2. On another note, James Kugel's Traditions of the Bible is almost 1,100 pages, published through Harvard University Press. I wonder what the difference was in imposing page limitations. Kugel taught at Harvard for many years, whereas, Turner did not, maybe that is why?

    3. Hello Ben,
      One last comment. I found this pertinent information from John Turner in a recent interview:

      "First, when writing a biography of a man with such a long and multifaceted life and who left behind a veritable mountain of sources, I did have to make many strategic decisions. Several reviewers noted that the length of the book (about four hundred pages of text and another hundred pages of notes and index) did not permit sufficiently sustained interpretation of any number of given topics. Steve Taysom rather sympathetically assigns blame for this fact to the publishing industry and to the press. As it turns out, I’m responsible for the length or brevity of the book, depending on one’s perspective. I decided at the outset not to write a 600-page or 800-page biography, partly because I didn’t want the length to scare off potential readers. I didn’t want the biography to become unmanageable and unwieldy. I also believe that limiting one’s length forces one to write and edit more carefully. Finally, I wanted to finish it."

      Apparently it was his decision to limit the length, not Harvard's. I understand where he is coming from, but if the goal is to write a definitive biography, then imposing restrictions on the length as he has, it should come as no surprise that the adjective 'definitive' is poorly applied.