This is the second in a series of discussions on biographies of Joseph Smith. It is a look at the best and worst of important works dealing with his life. Each criticism is broken down into three sections: positive aspects, negative aspects, and implications.
Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman
Positive: Most of what makes this particular book good was done in Joseph Smith and the Beginning of Mormonism by the same author. There is a lot of information crammed together in a seamless narrative. It takes careful concentration to not miss a source or worth while insight, either of Joseph Smith or history of the LDS Church. Personally, I don't think his complete biography is as "can't put down" engaging as his shorter work. Still, part of that is his commitment to telling the whole story of a singular individual. It probably would have been much better to try and write two volumes. Then again, that could just be wishful thinking on my part with how much I enjoyed the book.
What he does proves how good of an author and historian he can be at his best. Instead of going simply from one incident to another as most biographies by nature do, he treats each chapter as an essay on several topics. This wouldn't work well with a lesser writer (as I will explain on my third installment), but it seems to fit the intentions of Bushman. Again, I can't help but be reminded of B.H. Roberts who seems even more to be a architype of Mormon history writing than ever. This time, instead of the bibliography it is the theology that comes to mind. Bushman returns Joseph Smith to his rightful place; a theologian and community building prophet. The book tries to look at Joseph Smith on his own terms, rather than define those terms for him. True, that is something that a believing Mormon might do who agrees with him more than disagrees. The brilliancy is that for the most part this isn't an apologetic as much as a study of religious ideas expressed and developed. For once Joseph Smith's theology and organizational building are focused on as much as his history and trials or motivations. For that alone the book should be commended. You come away from this book understanding Joseph Smith, because you understand his religious ideas. Without that foundation the man cannot be fathomed.
What marks this book as "definitive" where others lack is Bushman's synthesis of decades long studies. He doesn't seem to ignore major works simply because he disagrees with them. In fact, he uses them to get a clearer picture. He has his favorites to be sure, but not at the quick rejection of others. It might not be the most comprehensive book about Joseph Smith, but it is for studies about him. I had waited about ten years for the release of this book after reading his first major biographical treatment. Such a passing of time ended up crucial to the end result. This is a must read for Mormon history enthusiasts and others.
Negative: His strength is also his weakness. There is not a lot, if anything, new in the book. The main problem with the book might be my own. There is really very few new things or insights that haven't been expressed elsewhere. Perhaps that just says something about the state of Joseph Smith history research. There was nothing substantially new to be said. All of it was written somewhere by someone in this book or that symposium. However, he has only claimed to be an historian and not an investigator. His genious and that of this book is that he can take desperate elements and create a life rather than an argument or test subject.
Still, Joseph Smith sometimes did get lost in the shuffle of his essay approach. He could have used more personal sources, such as journals and letters, for a more intimate treatment of the people involved. That includes Joseph Smith where personality becomes essay subject a few times. Perhaps a look at the inner individual was not the main concern of the book. It was labeled "A Cultural Biography" on the cover. With that in mind, Bushman did well exploring Joseph Smith's influence from and creation of culture. There is another book that has a better personal approach, although often overlooked and underrated. That will be talked about later.
Implications: I have already said some things above that would go here. Two main points I would like to reiterate. First, in order to understand Joseph Smith the biographer has to take his religion seriously - even if they don't believe it. Otherwise it becomes expose and not biography. You can't seperate the man from what he considered his mission. Second, after ten years the amount of new information seems to have hit a brick wall. The Joseph Smith papers project might change that, but we have yet to see. Finally, even with no new info, there is plenty that exists to evaluate a complex religious personality in several ways.
Next Installment: Joseph Smith the First Mormon by Donna Hill