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.

  • vii - "No biographer, however, had enjoyed anything close to unfettered access to archival material because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would not give scholars access to documents that peered behind ecclesiastically sanctioned narratives of Mormon history."
    • The implications of Turner's assertions are:
    • 1) No scholars have had sufficient access to desired documents, therefore, by implication, if any Latter-day Saint did have "unfettered" access then they were clearly amateurs and could by no means be considered scholars.
    • 2) The idea that non-LDS scholars have a right to the Church's private collection. This, of course, is absurd. The Church is a private institution and has no obligation whatsoever to the public to provide source documents to any and every scholar and pseudo-scholar who feels that they have an intellectual right to tell their colored version of Church history. Laying claim to private church documents simply because they say that they want them isn't exactly a compelling argument. This type of accusation casts a shadow on the Church as the bad guy, while the poor old scholar is simply trying to do what is best for everybody. This is a well structured argument in light of creating a desired atmosphere.
    • 3) The Church is accused of withholding data because (note Turner's ability to interpret the Church's motives) the Church wanted to be the sole author of Mormon history. While there is certainly merit in this assertion, it is only reasonable that the Church would hold themselves accountable for how its history was presented. To Latter-day Saints, Church history is considered sacred, and if anything, what the Church likely felt was the vulnerability of being perpetually misrepresented, as has been done from inception. Further, Turner implies that the only reason the Church has withheld access is because of how the Church has desired that its history be presented. He never acknowledges the possibility that perhaps the documents themselves are aged and because of their historical value to Latter-day Saints, they have been restricted to avoid the risk of exposure and damage. Certainly the Church's attempt to digitize its collections speaks strongly in support of this position. Accordingly, this is a gross fallacy employed by Turner, and either speaks to his intent to misrepresent, or his inability to break out of his paradigm; neither of which helps his case in this scholarly endeavor.
    • The subtle implications of Turner's statement are a notch above trivial, but this first statement contributes towards an atmosphere that attempts to skew the reader's perception.
  • vii-viii - Leonard Arrington's American Moses is complemented, but is also critiqued for not giving adequate attention to "controversial but central topics such as polygamy and the Mountain Meadows Massacre." Turner also notes that Arrington neglects to adequately address President Young's vindictiveness and "unwillingness to shoulder responsibility" for bad decisions.
    • Turner's focus on controversial and negative qualities bespeaks a possible foreshadowing of what he feels are the important issues to understanding Brigham Young. If Mr. Turner believes that such controversies comprise the man Brigham Young, than I am going to be sorely deflated as I read through this book. A focus on such issues has been done before and may imply that there will be nothing new brought to the table.
  • viii - Newell Bringhurst's treatment on Brigham Young is praised as "more balanced," especially on "topics such as plural marriage." 
    • Again, if Turner believes that plural marriage is the core defining characteristic of Brigham Young's existence, than he has already failed as a scholar to capture an accurate portrayal of this larger than life figure.
  • viii - Justification for this book: there has been an increase in scholarship of the early Utah period of Mormonism since Arrington and Bringhurst's writings. "In particular, these studies permit a much more precise examination of the pivotal events of 1856-1858: the Mormon reformation, the handcart tragedy, the Utah War, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre."
    • Based on the foregoing brow-raising statements, I am losing hope in Turner's success in writing a definitive biography of Brigham Young. What I am more fully anticipating is a biographical historiography. "The historian as biographer must resolve questions that reflect the dual challenge of telling history and telling lives: How does the biographer sort out the individual’s role within the larger historical context?"2  While this question is imperative in any biography, it can also cause the text to quickly become one dimensional by defining larger history as biography. I don't necessarily have a problem with this approach, so long as that is what is being represented. But it isn't. This book is labeled as a biography, and that is what I'm hoping for. Highlighting events that happen in an individual's life is crucial in the story, but it is only one of many crucial facets.
  • viii - Turner informs us that he has had access to source documents such as letters, notes, journals, minutes, sermon transcripts, etc.
    • Perfect. While the biography is hopefully not limited to these, I do hope that these sources have provided the largest contribution to the biography.
  • viii - "Sermons published in the Journal of Discourses eliminated much of Young's color, coarseness, and profanity while presenting his ideas in more polished form."
    • Having personal copies of over one thousand discourses by Brigham Young outside of the Journal of Discourses, it astounds me that John Turner represents the primary form of President Young's sermons as being profane. This is simply a sensationalistic and untrue representation, and it raises the question as to why Mr. Turner would feel inclined to introduce a controversial issue that has very little merit.
  • viii - "The field of Mormon history is a hall full of mirrors, full of distorted and imcomplete reflections, of nearly any event."
    • This is true of history in all fields, although I suspect that it is probably less true in Mormon history than in other fields considering the diligence Latter-day Saints have employed in documenting their history from nearly the beginning. This assertion is unwarranted, and the burden of proof by contrasting other historical fields with Mormonism is upon John Turner; although I suspect that he doesn't attempt to do so in this book.
  • viii - "I have relied upon the most contemporary, firsthand, and unedited sources in at attempt to untangle what actually took place."
    • This is good, but only so far as its limitations. Certainly a sermon off the cuff by me in Elder's Quorum does not more accurately reflect what I'm thinking and how I'm feeling on a given subject than a lesson that I've edited multiple times for presentation. What it does reflect is my inadequacy as a speaker in contrast to my writing and editing skills, which I believe to be slightly more polished. Both represent me, but at very different levels. Emphasizing one over the other would actually take away from defining my character. Similarly, I hope that Turner is able to delicately balance the importance and relevance of raw notes vs. an edited presentation, as both are relevant; and I'm sure we'll find out what he means by "untangl[ing]" things as we go through the book.
While my above assessment has been critical thus far, I am still optimistic about Turner's book. Prestigious venues have lauded it, and I hope that his preface is not representative of the rest of the biography.
1 Hugh Trevor-Roper, Men and Events: Historical Essays (New York: Harper, 1957), 116, as cited by Hugh Nibley Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales About Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, 19 Vols., ed. David J. Whittaker (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company; and Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Brigham Young University, 1991), 11:507
2 Lloyd E. Ambrosius, Writing Biography: Historians and Their Craft (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), viii

No comments:

Post a Comment