Wednesday, July 19, 2006

An Underrated Joseph

This is the third and last 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.

Joseph Smith: The First Mormon by Donna Hill

Positive: This biography manages to do something that others have not reached. It treats Joseph Smith and his friends and enemies as people. She does more than talk about what people say and do, but how they felt during their experiences. The way this is accomplished is to allow sources to tell the story, often revealing what those involved felt about events. It becomes much more personal than other biographies have been written. Her extensive use of a variety of sources also helps the reader feel they are making discoveries right along with her. Whenever she narrates the story, she allows a quote or two to fill in the details.

No matter how controversial the subject, she remains as neutral as possible. As an “orthodox believer” none of what she talked about was troubling. Her approach was never like correlation or trying to be revisionist. It seemed like good story telling with the inclusion of pertinent information. There was nothing new and groundbreaking, but the book did seem to fill in the details. As great as the biography was, it is still strange that it remains to this day in the background.

Negative: The start of her problems might be the title of the book. The saying goes that you should never judge a book by its cover, but in this instance it becomes hard to ignore such a boring name. I have tried to think of a more interesting title appropriate to her writing without success. It would have to be a quote from one of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo sermons to follow precedent.

Another weakness occurs right after Liberty Jail about the time Nauvoo was to be established. She decides to write some essays about such topics as polygamy and the priesthood ban. As important as these subjects are, they detract from her otherwise wonderful linear narration. She loses focus and never gets it back. Perhaps I should give the Nauvoo section another read, but it seems the personal nature of her writing never recovers from the tangents. What could have been my personal definitive biography of Joseph Smith flounders.

Implications: It seems that biographies on Joseph Smith can either be about the history or the personality and never completely both. Some may believe that they are dealing with both by focusing on one, but it is never that easy. Donna Hill comes close to achieving that combination, but misses the mark. It would be great if there was an author that could combine the talents of both Bushman and Hill as they compliment each other. Luckily, we can read what they wrote and compare the two.


Anonymous said...

I would like to thank you for these reviews. I have been trying to read Bushman's book since Christmas, and I spend so much time reading blogs and other material on my computer, I have gotten bogged down. I find that I do not read books nearly as much as I should because of how addicted I am to this electronic machine. Your reviews, particularly of the Bushman biography and the one by Donna Hill have reinvigorated my desire to learn more about Joseph Smith.

Jettboy said...

I am glad these have been worthwile to you. My interest in Joseph Smith started in my mid-teens when I first felt the more adult sense of a testimony. I understood then, and continue to realize, that Joseph Smith is the key to faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is important for us to learn as much about him as possible in order to better appriciate what he left behind through his mission.

Now for a strange comment. What one would I want if there was no others written? I would say Donna Hill's book. At the least I would read that one before Bushman's to get a clearer picture of the person and events.