I was a bit surprised at how much I enjoyed reading Fawn Brodie‘s biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History (NMKMH), especially since it is infamous in Mormon circles and sometimes described as anti-Mormon. I have to disagree with that assessment. To me, Brodie was not attacking the faith tradition, Joseph Smith, or his early followers she was merely doing history on a fascinating person and used a secular non-believing analytical lens to do her work (which is the primary contention believing members will have with the work). In fact, she was a pioneer in Mormon history traveling across the country to collect sources in addition to early published works like Mormonism Unvailed and B.H. Roberts 1930 compilation of early church writings (Brodie seemed to rely on these two sources more than others). Also, I understand that she was also indebted to Dale Morgan who is said to have corresponded with and helped direct Brodie and Juanita Brooks in both of their early and invaluable contributions to Mormon history.

As I said earlier I found the writing fluid and easily read (a sense that many have reported) but I think there are a few other reasons why numerous people have said that they enjoy reading Brodie’s book over Bushman’s, reasons other than Bushman’s somewhat dry writing in Rough Stone Rolling (RSR). So I did a little figuring and this is what I came up with.

Brodie’s book has fewer pages and fewer chapters (here chapters are on average 3.4 pages shorter than those in RSR). Additionally, Brodie’s book has about approximately half the number of words in it in total (a product of having fewer pages that are smaller than those of RSR). I think a part of the reported enjoyment (relative to RSR) of reading NMKMH is the little rewards we get by reading the shorter chapters more quickly (Mmmm. . . dopamine). Add to that the less dry writing style and you have a winner (for readability). I have not read other biographies of JS (like Remini’s) but I imagine the sheer size of RSR is a significant factor that makes it harder to gulp down than others.

Despite the relatively small size, NMKMH is the playbook or starting point for Mormon critics. There are many stories that I have read or heard through various online sources regarding Joseph Smith’s sayings or doings that seemed so obscure to me that I assumed they were buried in some archive and only a select few knew of them and fewer still knew of their veracity. It turns out that every one of these stories are in NMKMH, which goes to that NMKMH is truly a highly influential work and still produces interest and controversy.

I have to say that though Brodie is non-believing and is quite critical of Jospeh Smith, NMKMH is not a polemic and is not ‘anti-Mormon.’ As Brodie describes the response to, Joseph’s once friend turned enemy, John C. Bennett’s expose writings (which were largely though not completely thought to be fabrication and exaggeration by even those outside of and opposed to the church) she points out that “It was the prophet’s good fortune, however, that Bennett so egregiously overstated his case that it was possible to discredit him in the eyes of the of the Mormon People.” [2] Unlike Bennett, Brodie does not overstate her case. Some details have needed amendment over time but she actually wrote a fairly balanced view of Joseph, limited by the secular lens of history which cannot readily include the supernatural or miraculous that are so intimately tied to all religions, especially Mormonism. She looks at Mormonism from the standpoint of a non-believer, which is perfectly fair, yet retains a degree of admiration for Joseph and the religion he founded/created. It is her balance as well as her non-lurid yet persuasive prose that makes NMKMH a formidable challenge to traditional Mormon faith.[3]

Discrediting NMKMH has proven quite difficult and even Hugh Nibley had to turn to invective writing in order to attack the work. The problem today is compounded by Richard Bushman’s RSR which largely supports many of Brodie’s claims (you can’t get around strange ‘translation’ methods for the BOM or the BOA problems let alone the mess of polygamy among other ‘complexities’ surrounding Joseph’s life) and characterized with a similar analytical device, psychobiography though from a believing perspective (for a real historians view of Brodie’s work read Ben Park’s post from 2014). Every lay-historian like myself needs to be familiar with Brodie’s work. It is one of the ‘noble and great ones’ that we still respect and regard today.


Notes:

[1] No Man Knows My History

Pages (narrative section): 426
Chapters: 29 (including epilogue and the supplement but not the appendices)
Average Chapter Length: 14.7 pages
Word Count (approximate): 150,000

Rough Stone Rolling

Pages (narrative section): 562
Chapters: 31 (including prologue and epilogue)
Average Chapter Length: 18.1 pages
Word Count (approximate): 320,000

Word count was approximated by counting the words on a full page of text and multiplying by the total number of pages in the narrative section of each book. Blank pages and partial pages were not accounted for so both counts above are over-estimates, RSR is probably a overestimated to a higher degree.

[2] Brodie, Fawn McKay. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet. 2nd Ed., Rev. and Enl., 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage, 1995. page 318.

[3] On a personal note I did find NMKMH to be a bit disturbing at times. When I say that her writing can be quite persuasive it is because it did force me to rethink who Joseph was and how he became a Prophet followed by so many. I read RSR in Aug 2014 (it took me over a year of intermittent reading to complete it) and found it less challenging but I’d already been made aware of the many strange things in Mormon history at that point so my thoughts on Joseph Smith have been ‘complex’ for quite some time now. I’m trying to say that while I didn’t learn anything new through NMKMH, it did affect me. I continue to I find it odd that the character of one man in history can still have such strong effects on my own state of mind.

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