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Just one Guy's personal blog of thoughts & sense--common, non, and otherwise--of the world in which we live.

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Location: Nipomo, Central Coast, California, United States

I also blog over at Nipomo News, Messenger and Advocate and Bloggernacle Times

Monday, November 14, 2005

Rough Review Trolling

I just read Larry McMurtry’s review of Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith Rough Stone Rolling, about the Prophet Joseph Smith. You can find it in the New York Review of Books. Unfortunately it is a pay only service, so unless you already subscribe it will cost you $3.00 just to look at the review for a week, which of course you can download and save forever if you were so inclined. Personally I thought it was overpriced.

To say the least, McMurty’s review is unfavorable. To begin, he acknowledges two anti-Mormon books to which he looked as sources in helping him write his review: No Man Knows My History, by Fawn Brodie, and Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer. Brodie’s problem, of course is that she candidly acknowledges her anti-Mormon bent in her book (which is quite evident anyway). So, Brodie has little if any credibility on Joseph Smith. Krakauer, is a mountain climber turned recent historian in his book Under the Banner, which deals not so much with the LDS Church as the extreme splinter groups which are more on a par with radical Islam than they are with mainstream LDS thought and/or practice. Alas, I’m at a loss about why McMurty needed to rely on any other sources in reviewing Professor Bushman’s work, let alone anti-Mormon sources.

McMurty doesn’t make it past the first paragraph of his review without making his first serious error. He confuses Ishmael of the Old Testament, with the Ishmael of the Book of Mormon, claiming them to be the same person, who helped Nephi and his family escape from Jerusalem:
In the Book of Mormon, the biblical Ishmael, son of Abraham, soon appears and helps the questing Nephi out of a spot of trouble with the locals —just the kind of trouble, with just the same kind of locals, that real Mormons, in the 1830s and 1840s, constantly found themselves in.
One doesn’t have to be a believing Mormon to know that Ishmael of the Old Testament, even if a fictional character lived at least several thousand years before Christ was born. Ishmael in the Book of Mormon died approximately 592 B.C.

McMurty then quotes one of Joseph’s more famous (McMurty’s characterization) quotes, from which Brodie takes the title of her work:

You don't know me; you never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it; I shall never undertake it. I don't blame anyone for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself.
A few paragraphs later, McMurty’s sloppiness is manifest again:

About three weeks later (April 27, 1844), Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were gunned down by vigilantes in their jail cells in Carthage, Illinois, where they were held mainly for being Mormons. Joseph had intended to flee across the nearby Mississippi River into the west, but Hyrum thought they might be able to work things out with the local militia in Illinois. The Prophet, who seldom welcomed advice from anyone, took some from his brother, although he knew it probably meant death, producing yet another enigma in a life that was rich in enigma.

While I’d agree with his assertion for the reasons why the Prophet and Hyrum were held in Carthage, his date is two months off. I’ve checked Bushman’s book, and sure enough, on page 551 he has the correct date of June 27, 1844. Did McMurty really read Bushman’s book, or is he just guessing on critical details like the Prophet’s Martyrdom? It’s a bit like asking where were you when JFK was shot on September 22, 1963?

McMurty spends an inordinate amount of time on polygamy, given the amount of time Bushman gives it in his 740 page text. But, of course polygamy is all about sex right? And, of course we know that sex sells. So why not use it to hype your book review?

Certainly polygamy is part of the Prophet’s history, and should be discussed; however, McMurty seems to dwell on it so that it takes a more prominent part of Joseph’s life, than everything else he did, said, or believed.

McMurty also seemed to go off on unrelated tangents during his review. Just after discussing Joseph’s polygamous tendencies, he strays off and talks about Fawn Brodie’s excommunication:

In 1946 Fawn Brodie was excommunicated for heresy from the Mormon Church. Richard Bushman suggests that she was on her way out of Mormonism when she published No Man Knows My History. This may be true; but both her father and her uncle held high positions in the church, so her exit was probably not all that easy. On the day she was to have faced her judges she went, instead, to a hospital and gave birth to a son.
Exactly what Ms. Brodie’s excommunication contributes to a review of Bushman’s book on the Prophet is lost, at least on me. But, again, there is that juicy detail about her relationship to the Prophet David O’ Mckay–a very critical bit of information in helping us understand more about Joseph Smith.

Of course, what would a book review of Joseph Smith be without some mention of the Mountain Meadows Massacre? Never mind that the massacre occurred in 1857, 13 years after the Prophet had been martyred. In the same breath and paragraph, McMurty then tars the Church with the sins of fundamentalist offshoots of the original Church, as outlined in the classic story of Under the Banner of Heaven. He drones on and on about the plight of teen aged males supposedly expelled from their communities, leaving more teenaged girls for the leaders of these cult religions. Exactly how this ties into Joseph Smith, is again a mystery to me. The Banner of Heaven events of course took place well over a century after the Prophet’s martyrdom and almost a century after the LDS Church officially renounced polygamy. But, again, polygamy is all about sex, and sex sells.

McMurty also reviews the Prophet’s history with treasure seeking, money digging, folk magic and seer stones. All of these are a matter of historical record; however, I like Bushman’s treatment of these issues in his book, which you can read in a different post here.

The golden plates are difficult for McMurty to digest. It is clear he is sympathetic to Brodie’s view of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, and is rather dismissive of Professor Bushman, just because he is a believing Mormon:

The history of early Mormonism clearly has two phases, the Establishing phase and the Exodus phase. In the former, it is when we come to the rather baroque business of the golden plates and their translation that the fact that Professor Bushman is a believing Mormon becomes a shoe that begins to pinch a little. This is the second of his books to deal with early Mormonism—the first, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, was published in 1984. What is difficult to determine is where biography ends and apologetics begins. Where does this scrupulous scholar stand on the main points, which he knows must seem incredible to most readers? Does he believe in the angel? Does he think the golden plates were real? Does he read the Book of Mormon as literature or as revelation? At one point he says, "Incredible as the plates are, hunting for deception can be a distraction."
A distraction? The golden plates? Surely their existence and Joseph Smith's ability to translate them must be one of the central elements of Mormon belief. Either Joseph Smith was the mouthpiece of God or he was just a clever young man who babbled out a kind of trance-written novel.
Apparently McMurty is the only one able to discern just where biography ends and apologetics begins. If you actually read the Bushman book, it clearly is not apologetic. From what I have read thus far, he presents the Prophet warts and all. If McMurty is seeking apologetics for his attack, he’s looking in all the wrong places.

In dismissing the plates McMurty also dismisses the written testimony of 11 witnesses who actually saw and handled the plates, as well as the witness of Emma Smith who felt and handled the plates regularly:

Somehow, by about 1827, these plates, covered with diverse and curious characters, were transported to the Smith household, where they seem to have been kept either in a box or under the table or plunked on the table and covered with a cloth. Joseph Smith was very loath to let anyone, including his wife, Emma, see the plates. Nearly a dozen men, some of them Joseph's scribes, claimed to have seen the plates, but their claims inspire no confidence. It's not really clear that anyone except Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni really saw the plates, if there were plates—a big if.
McMurty offers no evidence in his review why the testimony of the 11 witnesses inspire no confidence. Perhaps McMurty is again just lazy, or possibly ignorant. Oliver Cowdrey, and Martin Harris, both two major witnesses, never recanted their testimony about seeing the Golden Plates. Yet, both these men for several years were formally excommunicated from the Church Joseph founded. Why on earth would they have remained faithful to that testimony after having parted ways with the Prophet? Martin Harris, in fact lost $3,000.00 he put up for the printing of the original edition of the Book of Mormon. If anyone had reason to recant their prior witness of seeing the plates, both Martin and Oliver would have been likely candidates.

In short, I thought McMurty’s review of Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling was somewhat shallow. It had some legitimate complaints; however, after reading the first few paragraphs it is abundantly clear he is hostile to the Prophetic claims and mission of Joseph Smith. To paraphrase Hugh Nibley, No Sir, that’s not a book review. Here, however, is an excellent book review by a non LDS reviewer. Hat tip to Clark Goble of Mormon Metaphysics.


Blogger Rusty said...

NIce analysis Guy. I still haven't had a chance to read the book yet but it's at the top of my list.

9:27 PM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

Rusty . . . thanks for stopping by. I think you will very much enjoy the book when you pick it up.

9:45 PM  
Blogger Kent Larsen said...

I too read McMurty's "review" and agree with your analysis generally. It seemed like he wasn't reviewing Bushman's book so much as Mormonism in general -- but like sometimes happens with those that reviews books, he hadn't really "read" (i.e., researched) Mormonism either.

However, I do have one small quibble with your thoughts, Rusty. While it is certainly true that Fawn Brodie doesn't have much credibility among Church members, her credibility is more complicated in the academic world.

While No Man Knows My History is dated, much of the information in the book is essentially correct. Brodie also was something of a pioneer when she wrote the book, which was one of the first 'psycho-biographies' (biographies that purport to use psychology to understand their subject). She went on to write a controversial biography of Thomas Jefferson as well.

Of course, her 'psycho-biographical' techniques are among the chief objections to her work. But in spite of the objections, its clear that these techniques have drawn academic attention. And between that attention and the fact that No Man Knows My History was the most thorough and academic biography of Joseph Smith for many years, her book has never been out of print in its nearly 60-year history. In fact, it was the first biography of Joseph Smith to write about many of the accepted facts that are recounted in Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling.

Yes, its clear Brodie was biased against her subject. But she hasn't been dismissed outside of Mormonism as much as many Mormons would like.

One of the great advantages of Bushman's biography is that it does acknowledge the truths known about Joseph Smith. Hopefully, it will soon superseed Brodie's book.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...


Thank you for your comments. I agree with you that McMurty hasn't read/researched Mormonism. I'm not certain, from his review he even read Rough Stone Rolling. This, I think is what was most irritating to me. Making the very sloppy errors he did in his review, is inexcusable for a review of the caliber of work Bushman produced. Regardless of the fact it was a negative review--McMurty's was the most shoddy analysis and poorly writen of all the reviews I have read, positive or negative.

I also agree with you that Brodie's credibility is more complicated in the academic world. My own personal view (likely biased) is that hers was the first biography of the Prophet that afforded a naturalistic explaination of his work and mission, at least proffered by someone with Brodie's academic credentials. She affords academics an way out regarding Joseph Smith. He was a fraud, and here are the academic reasons and support for that proposition.

I agree that much of No Man's information is technically correct; however, I think Bushman's work far surpasses Brodie's,(as you suggest it one day will) and will be the definitive work on Joseph for years to come.

I also agree her psycho biography approach is, to say the least disturbing. If I'm not mistaken I think she ran into trouble with a similar biography of Thomas Jefferson.

Thanks again for stopping by and commenting.

7:55 PM  
Anonymous blog responder said...

I was surprised not see any rebuttals of the review in the letters column of the New York Review of Books. But either they received no letters on the topic; or, they received them but didn't print them; or, I just didn't happen to see them. Did you write to the NYRB to let them know about the mistakes?

9:20 PM  
Anonymous blog responder said...

You wrote:
'McMurty spends an inordinate amount of time on polygamy, given the amount of time Bushman gives it in his 740 page text. But, of course polygamy is all about sex right? And, of course we know that sex sells. So why not use it to hype your book review? [...] Certainly polygamy is part of the Prophet’s history, and should be discussed; however, McMurty seems to dwell on it so that it takes a more prominent part of Joseph’s life, than everything else he did, said, or believed.' To be fair, he ultimately bows to the authority of Professor Bushman:

"How many of these ordered-by-God wives Joseph Smith married is constantly being recalibrated. Fawn Brodie, in an appendix to No Man Knows My History, lists forty-eight wives, many of which have since been discounted. In the book's second edition (1971) she suggests that the number may be as high as eighty-four. Professor Bushman considers that extravagant. He thinks a modest count of between twenty-eight and thirty-three is more like it. To a bachelor such as myself, that still seems like quite a lot of wives."

It is, after all, a review of a biography, and a man whose life includes 20 wives is going to attract attention for that very reason. Just as, I suppose, an article about the the life of King Solomon might also understandably pause to mention that he had something like 700, not counting the additional 300 concubines.

I think you are right to believe that McMurtry has a bone to pick, but, then again, he doesn't seem to be trying to hide it, either. The innacuracies/ingorance you point out seem to be the most legitimate points of contention.

9:32 PM  
Anonymous blog responder said...

I just read the other review you recommended, the review by Jeffrey Needle. You said that McMurtry's review dwelled overly much on an insignificant issue -- polygamy -- and yet, reading the other review, I note that Needle wrote that "[t]he polygamy issue looms large throughout the [Bushman] book."

9:47 PM  

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