This is the first 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.
No Man Knows My History by Fawn M. Brody
Positive: It is hard for me to pick out much good out of her book, as its whole purpose is to attack and destroy the reputation of Joseph Smith and those who believe him to be a prophet. Yet, to be completely fair I am going to try. It is clear that she is an engaging writer with a smooth writing style. Dealing with as complicated a subject as she is, the text remains easy to read and directly to the point. There is no awkwardness to the flow as readers are able to follow the arguments effortlessly.
She is the first to really look closely at a number of original newspapers and documents. Most other biographies used The History of the Church practically as the only document. It was because of her that the real discussion of things could get off the ground and be discussed. However, how much "original" information and sources were new to her work is arguable. You cannot look at her bibliographical notes without a reminder of B.H. Roberts' historical works. She used far less unknown material than what it at first seems. Most of her "discoveries" come from examinations of long neglected newspaper articles of Joseph Smith's day. Still, she started the New Mormon History; both for good and bad.
Negative: The books biggest problem starts nearly from the first page. As was said, it is too full of bias and expose narrative to be of much historical use. That the vast majority of historians and lay people use this as the definitive biography shows an ignorance and lack of charity toward him and his followers. The facts are slanted and evidence pieced together by innuendo. For a more in-depth study of the vast flaws of the book, it is best to read "No Mame, That's Not History" by Hugh Nibley.
She uses two bait and switch tactics to redirect the evidence more toward her liking. The first is to say something happened, or didn't happen, by emphasising something totally different. An example of that is the classic accusation that Joseph Smith didn't beat his wife at a particular moment, as if he had done so at other times without any evidence that he ever did. Second and more troublesome for her use of sources is expressing reservations about the writings, but using them anyway as the main information. That goes as much for anti-Mormon as for pro-Mormon sources. Those parts that don't fit her preconcieved ideas are tossed aside while those that do are branded as indespensable. Yet, they often come from the same documents without justifying the choice with at times anything more than an out of context throw away statement from somewhere else.
I would suggest ignoring this work if it wasn't so important as a history making book on its own. She pretty much invented the Liberal, Atheistic, Expose driven history of Mormonism seen today. Still, she did write it at a time when "Historical Jesus" studies were slowly gaining momentum in the United States. It much more resembles them than a general biography. Both have at the center a disdain for faith and the divine.
Implications: Her book has never fully been looked at for the number of flaws and false evidence. There was a whole book dedicated to looking at "The God Makers" and refuting its lies. The same could easily be done with this book for anyone who is interested in such a task. It would be time consuming to be sure. There is a lot of information available for use. Still, it wouldn't be impossible and already there has been many chinks in the armor from years of studies. It would be the ultimate attack on the Sunstone and Signiture Books group as this is their sacred scripture.
Luckily for those like myself who love and have faith in LDS Church history and doctrine, hers is not the last word. There are two other books that I feel do a more admirable job of understanding Joseph Smith. They don't have as much of an underlying axe to grind. At least one of them is a bonefide and well respected historian. His book will be looked at next time.
Next Installment: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman