Bushman v. Brodie: Biographies

February 6, 2004 | 56 comments
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We’ve had several discussions about essential texts in Mormon studies; see here, here, here, here and here. I was hoping we could generate a list, or at least some productive discussion, about a topic we haven’t yet addressed — the great Mormon biographies and autobiographies.

I’ll confess I haven’t read many Mormon biographies. This is in no small part due to the fact that over the past six years or so I have done much of my recreational reading on the subway, and the heft of most biographies doesn’t work well on a crowded train. Poor excuse, I realize. Anyway, I have read a few and here are my favorites:

–_History of Joseph Smith_ by Lucy Mack Smith (I’ve been meaning to check out the “revised and enhanced” version)

–_The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt_ (perhaps the most famous Mormon autobiography)

–_An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown_ (neither a true autobiography nor biography, kind of a “life’s recollection as told to”, but great reading anyway)

–_Adventures of a Church Historian_, by Leonard J. Arrington (like the Brown book, more of a memoir than an autobiography, but quite engaging)

I fully recognize that my list is anemic. For one, none of the books are even remotely scholarly works. I’ve always meant to get around to the two volume biography of J. Reuben Clark; to Arrington’s _American Moses_; to Newell and Avery’s _Mormon Enigma_; and to Thomas Alexander’s _Things in Heaven and Earth_ (a biography of Wilford Woodruff). To my embarrassment, I’ve also ignored biographies of women and of more recent Church leaders.

This is where you come in. What are the great Mormon biographies and autobiographies? Is _Go Forward With Faith_ a good read? Is Eugene England’s _Brother Brigham_ superior to Arrington’s book? What is the best biography I’ve never heard of? Which early Mormon journals are the the most interesting?

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56 Responses to Bushman v. Brodie: Biographies

  1. Nate Oman on February 6, 2004 at 4:21 pm

    I read and enjoyed Abundent life, but I found the epilogue a bit much. It is an essay on freedom and religion that is obviously meant as a not-so-subtle criticism of current church leaders. It is attributed to Hugh B. Brown, but it consists of quotes from a huge variety of sources (not attributed of course) pasted together by Ed Firmage. If Ed did that with any of his law review articles, the editors would discover the fiction and refuse to publish them.

  2. Nate Oman on February 6, 2004 at 4:23 pm

    It is my understanding that much of the so-called “Temple Diary” portion of the Signature edition of William Clayton’s diaries was also cobbled together by the editor and published as primary source material, despite the fact that the editor, George Smith, didn’t have access to the actual Diary. On this, I confess that I am going on second-hand reports, since I have not actually looked through the Clayton diaries.

  3. Julie in Austin on February 6, 2004 at 4:37 pm

    In addition to what has already been mentioned, I liked _Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life_. Although the alternating chapters of ‘real’ history and ‘intellectual history’ did not, in my opinion, flow smoothly, it was an interesting read. I also liked Bradford’s _Lowell L. Bennion_ and _Four Zinas_.

    Nate, can you comment a little more about the epilogue to the Brown book? Are you saying that Brown was quoting others, but that those quotes are attributed to him?

  4. Greg Call on February 6, 2004 at 4:39 pm

    Nate, I hadn’t known that about the epilogue to Abundant Life (I think its called “A Final Testimony”). It contains the following quotes, which I have been attributing to Brown for years: “The church is not so much concerned with whether the thoughts of its members are orthodox or heterodox as it is that they shall have thoughts” and “Generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking.” Are these lifted from others? Who? What has Firmage said, if anything, about such accusations?

  5. Kaimi on February 6, 2004 at 4:43 pm

    Well, Lund has some . . . just kidding.

    But seriously, Greg, I am surprised at your assessment of subway reading opportunities. I just finished _Mormon Enigma_, the majority of which was read on the 1/9 train or in a car on the way home.

  6. Nate Oman on February 6, 2004 at 4:45 pm

    Brown never wrote a complete autobiography. Ed Firmage, his grandson and a law professor at the University of Utah, took some unfinished reminiscences and some other sources and cobbled together an “autobiography.” The book is written seemlessly in the first person, so it is not possible to determine the different sources or the extent of Firmage’s editing unless one is well versed in the methodologies of Biblical source criticism. The epilogue is a first person statement of Brown’s fundamental convictions about religion and life. It is — as I remember — NOT a reprint of anything that Brown ever wrote. Nor does Firmage say that it is some previously unpublished manuscript that he found. Rather, it is simply Firmage cobbling together snippets of Brown language from a diverse set of sources, compling them together, and publishing them. The whole exercise strikes me as a kind of fishy historical ventriloquism. Perhaps something like Franlin D. Richard’s compilation of the DHC? ;->

    Mind you, it has been more than ten years since I read the book.

  7. Greg Call on February 6, 2004 at 4:47 pm

    And what is your assessment of the book Kaimi?
    (And I know my subway excuse is bad; maybe I just need a bigger bag, or to take an earlier train so I can get a seat.)

  8. Nate Oman on February 6, 2004 at 4:52 pm

    Greg: my understanding is that all of the words were said or written by Brown in one place or another. It is their conglomoration in the essay that was done by Firmage. Like I say above, however, it has been ten years since I looked at this, so could be mistaken.

    FWIW, I really liked the book, I have used the same quotes myself, and I have been a fan of Hugh B. Brown for years.

  9. clark goble on February 6, 2004 at 4:53 pm

    A lot of the suggestions in the previous lists were biographies. I think the _Son of Thunder_ by Schindler was a great bio of Porter Rockwell. I wouldn’t recommend it to those not familiar with 19th century history but Compton’s _In Sacred Loneliness_ is great. I rather liked Cook’s _William Law_. Arrington’s _Brigham Young: American Moses_ is a little dated but a good biography.

  10. Nate Oman on February 6, 2004 at 4:56 pm

    Fox’s _J Reuben Clark: The Public Years_ is wonderful, especially if you are interested in law and politics in the Progressive Era. I haven’t read Quinn’s new Clark biography, _Elder Stateman_, but I hear it is good.

  11. Nate Oman on February 6, 2004 at 4:59 pm

    Also, Truman Madsen, _Defender of the Faith: The B.H. Roberts Story_

  12. Kaimi on February 6, 2004 at 5:01 pm

    I liked it. Newell and Avery are solid writers. It’s not the most sparkling prose I’ve ever read, but it wasn’t plodding either.

    I thought that it was very well-organized, and that made it easier to read and digest. The authors consistently found put events and ideas into place in ways that made their significance stand out. In particular, the slow, inexorable ascent of polygamy is well-documented and given with good understatement. I thought that the crescendo of church legal problems was also well-presented.

    It is more or less chronological (like most (all?) good bios), but steps out of the chronology at some points to give useful background. Also, the authors don’t assume their audience is comprised of history Ph.D.’s, which is nice.

    It’s not perfect. I felt that much of the last portion (say, the last 70 pages or so) was uneven. In part this is because that portion felt more like straight recounting of events, with less discussion or hint of how these events fit into any broader themes. It may also be because that part of Emma’s life was simply less interesting — polygamy and war in Nauvoo created some great tensions, and once those were gone, she becomes a less compelling subject. (The last section feels in many ways like an extended denoument).

  13. Greg Call on February 6, 2004 at 5:07 pm

    Clark: Looking back at Kaimi’s summary of our discussion, the only non-Joseph Smith biographies mentioned were In Sacred Loneliness, Sisters in Spirit, and Mormon Sisters. No autobiographies either.

  14. Scott on February 6, 2004 at 5:22 pm

    The best LDS biography I’ve read in years is Davis Bitton’s “George Q. Cannon.”

    Scott

  15. Matt Grow on February 6, 2004 at 5:41 pm

    I think one of the best Mormon biographies is Ron Walker’s Wayward Saints: the Godbeites and Brigham Young. It’s basically a collective biography of the Godbeites, the group of mostly liberal British Saints who challenged Brigham’s leadership in the 1870s. It’s very useful for understanding dissent in 19th century Mormonism, and (unlike many Mormon biographies) it is refreshingly well-written.

  16. Kristine on February 6, 2004 at 6:14 pm

    Sisters in Spirit isn’t bio. Vicki Burgess-Olsen’s _Sister Saints_, which might have been mentioned in that thread, is a collection of short bios. Many of them are good.

    Marty Bradley’s _Four Zinas_ is an interesting biographical project, which succeeds in many ways.

  17. clark goble on February 6, 2004 at 6:42 pm

    I think I brought up Sister Saints. It is somewhat interesting. The Zina Huntington bio was good although a slightly better one is included in Compton. The problem with Sister Saints was that most of the figures covered were people I didn’t know about and to be honest didn’t care about. If you find minor figure’s biographies interesting then you may like it. I didn’t really.

    I forgot about Walker’s _Wayward Saints_. I’d second that one. There’s an other related book of biographies about dissidents whose name escapes me that is reasonably good as well. I have it at home and will look it up.

    I’ve only read excerpts, but the _Life and Thought of Orson Pratt_ by Breck England was good although I’d like to see a version updated with recent research. Bergera’s _Conflict in the Quorum_ is a mixed bag. The first chapter is an important account of the polyandry incident and largely the same as the article in Dialog. The rest is fascinating if you aren’t familiar with the debate between Pratt and Young. If you are then it is disappointing as there is little contextualizing or tying it to larger issues. As such it is very disappointing related to say England’s book on Pratt which does try to tie events to larger philosophical movements. (Although it too is somewhat incomplete in certain ways) But perhaps I’m just spoiled as I read _The Metaphysical Club_ which, while somewhat superficial, does an admirable job contextualizing everything.

  18. Greg Call on February 6, 2004 at 6:52 pm

    I suspect Clark is referring to Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, a collection edited by Launius, Thatcher, and Arrington. I have read some of the essays, but none really stand out in my memory as great.

    Does anyone know the provenance of Signature’s BH Roberts autobiography, edited by Bergera and McMurrin? Is it a pastiche work like An Abundant Life?

  19. clark goble on February 6, 2004 at 7:01 pm

    Yeah, that was the one Greg. I seem to recall there being some interesting stories in it, although clearly nothing stands out in my mind. But its been a long time since I read it last.

    The other one that is an excellent read, albeit somewhat controversial, is the biography of the Church Patriarch from back in the 1930′s. _Lost Legacy_. The author has a fair bone to pick which undoubtedly biases it. But it is very interesting, especially if you have a lot of “extra-textual” history you are bringing with you while reading it. i.e. the succession crisis with Brigham Young and after Wilford Woodruff. Like Compton’s book it is fairly controversial although unlike Compton not quite as balanced.

  20. Nate Oman on February 6, 2004 at 7:06 pm

    I remember hearing someplace that that book was written by the guy who would have been patriarch of the church had the office not been abolished. I understand that the office actually did decend lineally. Is that correct?

  21. Kristine on February 6, 2004 at 7:49 pm

    Oops–I guess I wasn’t clear. _Four Zinas_ is a different book than _Sister Saints_, not a chapter in it.

    And Clark, almost all Mormon women are, by definition, minor figures in the institutional life of Mormonism (try naming a dozen General Relief Society or YW Presidents–almost every Mormon I know fails this test) It seems a little dismissive to say, “well, yeah, if you like that kind of thing…”

  22. clark on February 6, 2004 at 7:53 pm
  23. Kaimi on February 6, 2004 at 7:55 pm

    Umm, Emma, Cheiko, Eliza, Zina, . . . uhh, Emily Partridge? Mary Fielding? Vilate Kimball?

  24. clark goble on February 6, 2004 at 7:58 pm

    Kristine, to a degree that’s true. To an other degree it isn’t. Clearly Eliza R. Snow and Zina Huntington are *huge* figures. I’ve not read it, but I’ve heard the history of the Primary is also interesting. There were various “prophetesses” in church history who were interesting. But by and large the figures in _Sister Saints_ left me going, “huh, why would I care?”

    Perhaps you are right and it is harder to find women with interesting stories because of the social structures women found themselves in. But there are lots of stories I’d love to hear. What about one of the first sister missionaries? What about artists?

    Its been a while since I read the book, so forgive me if I get things wrong. I seem to recall one of the stories being of a person important in medical care. But even there the *way* in which the biography was written was anything but engrossing and left me going, “who cares?” Where was the conflict? Where were the lessons? Where was the connection to larger movements through history or ideas? It was just lacking.

    Contrast this with say Zina Huntington who did a great deal (being one of the “Elect Ladies” in SLC) but also had some amazing drama in her life. I truly learned a lot from her story and she is now one of my heros for her testimony. It is just an intrinsically interesting story, as is Eliza R. Snow’s. (Although I’ve not found a well written biography of her)

  25. Kaimi on February 6, 2004 at 8:33 pm

    Kristine,

    Now that I’ve failed at your test, let me nit-pick it just a little. On the one hand, you have a very valid point.

    On the other hand, would it really be that much of a step forward if church members could roll the names of RS presidents off their tongues like they do the names of prohpets now? — i.e. without a smidgen of actual substantive knowledge of who these people were. Seminary students memorize lists, and names are referenced often enough in Sunday School that they may be vaguely remembered, but I doubt the average member could tell you anything about, say Heber J. Grant or Lorenzo Snow, other than that they existed. In fact, I would venture to guess that most members don’t know much about prophets past Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. They _might_ know that Wilford Woodruff got the proclamation, that Spencer W. Kimball received the Second Proclamation, and maybe about John Taylor’s watch.

    Which is more than most members could tell you about Zina Huntington, yes. But still not much.

    Bottom line, I think you’ve identified a phenomenon (inability to name women) which has two distinct (and probably related) causes — bias against women, and general lack of historical knowledge.

  26. Greg on February 6, 2004 at 9:44 pm

    I know it is a bit older, but I really enjoy the “feel” of Donna Hill’s, Joseph Smith, First Mormon. Also the Newell and Avery book, Morman Engima: Emma Smith was wonderful. Spiritual experiences were presented at face value without the bad habit of either justifying or debunking. Another related book that fit Mormon origins into a larger American context was Dan Vogel’s ” Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism”. Vogel examines religious practice and aspirations within American rural culture preceding and including the 2nd Great Awakening. I found it filled some gaps for me as a new convert who has had a love for history for a long time.

  27. Kristine on February 6, 2004 at 11:29 pm

    Kaimi, I don’t disagree; it’s not a terribly useful test, and it wouldn’t be a great leap forward if the missionaries at the MTC recited the names of the RS Presidents while doing situps (though they would get stronger abs). Except that it would tell them women (at least some women) matter in the church. People may not know anything about the presidents of the church, but you can still quote any prophet and have people think that what they say is important. We simply don’t have any women whose voices we regard as authoritative in that way. I think that simple fact makes a difference (in a completely unconscious and unintended way) when the Ward Relief Society President voices an opinion in Ward Council. Elder Ballard doesn’t need to give talks about treating the Elders Quorum President as respectfully as the High Priest Group leader, and that’s because church members are used to regarding men as figures whose voices matter.

    And, btw, Clark, I agree about most of the bios in Burgess-Olsen’s book–there’s not a lot of theory or big-picture thinking there, but that’s because the good, professional historians are busy writing about “major” figures (with notable exceptions, of course, more now than when that book was first published).

  28. Clark Goble on February 7, 2004 at 1:08 am

    Kristine, the issue was less theory or context than it was how interesting the figures were. I really do think there are many more interesting figures than who were included in that book.

    I should add that my memory was off. Zina Huntington isn’t in the book. Rather Eliza R. Snow is. But there were (IMO) only about three interesting stories in the book.

  29. Melissa on February 7, 2004 at 1:42 am

    The relative invisibility of female leaders extends beyond early Mormon history however. How many members of the church know who the women are in the current RS presidency or the YW presidency? They serve for short periods of time, are not pictured in the conference Ensign issues and are not allowed to have any institutional presence beyond the limited time of their calling. For example, no previous RS president can be quoted in the Visiting Teaching message even though a previous prophet or apostle can. Perhaps this is to prevent or diminish personally powerful figures like Chieko or Sheri, but it keeps most female leaders faceless and nameless to most of the Church.

  30. lyle on February 7, 2004 at 4:56 am

    Firestorm time:

    Re: relative invisibility, faceless and namelessness…

    Isn’t this the policy that HF follows with HM?

  31. Adam Greenwood on February 7, 2004 at 11:36 am

    My favorite (auto)biographies are poorly written, slapdash histories of my own ancestors. The spirit turning your heart does something that clear writing and elegant reasoning can’t.

    That is not to say that I won’t pick up any the books on this list, however. :)

  32. Dave on February 7, 2004 at 2:48 pm

    Barlow’s Mormon’s and the Bible isn’t a biography per se, but includes some interesting biographical material on recent LDS figures such as Bruce R. McConkie and Lowell Bennion.

    It’s interesting how interest and work in serious LDS history and biography drops as one moves into the 20th century. Quinn’s work on J. Reuben Clark is one biography exception; Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition a general history exception.

  33. Melissa on February 7, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    Lyle wrote:

    “relative invisibility, faceless and namelessness…Isn’t this the policy that HF follows with HM?

    There are so many assumptions in this comment that I disagree with that I hardly know where to start. For the moment, I will answer with a long sigh. No, I don’t think that this is the “policy” that Heavenly Father follows with Heavenly Mother. The reasons we don’t know about her have to do with human weakness, historically-conditioned writers of texts, the kinds of questions we ask, and so on.

    Beyond the reasons I think we don’t know more about HM (which are my own and probably uninteresting to the wider audience), the most troubling implication of your comment, is that it makes my purely descriptive account prescriptive.

    Your comment suggests that the faceless, namelessness of female leaders and their utter lack of institutional presence is normative. Again, I’m not sure where to begin to explain all the flaws in this kind of thinking because I am unsure where they originate in you.

    Besides the deep theoretical problems I have with making female invisibility normative, it is problematic on a very practical level. The women of the Church (particularly young women) do not really have strong institutional role models. A young man can listen to Elder Maxwell, Elder Holland or (heaven help us) even President Packer throughout their youth and adolescence, can read their biographies, study their words and life and find a model to emulate. What life-long models are there for young women? There are strong women in the Scriptures—Eve, Rebecca, Esther, Deborah, Abish but they are usually entirely overlooked in most Sunday School lessons. The models we are taught to follow are for the most part male. Be like Nephi, be like Moroni, be like Alma, be like Paul, etc, etc, etc. Although being obedient, faithful, virtuous are gender-neutral virtues we can all seek, in some very key ways women cannot be like these scriptural heroes.

    I was once in a meeting where a young woman asked the following question, “I know we are to try to be like Jesus. But, Jesus spent his life healing blessing, ordaining, teaching and those are the things that men do in the Church. As a woman how do I follow Jesus if I can’t do the things Jesus did?”

  34. lyle on February 9, 2004 at 3:20 pm

    Pre-s: This is long folks, feel free to skip it. I promise that my own blog will be up soon and that I’ll keep the hot air over there…

    All: Please read this article as if you were neo-semitic, i.e. start from the bottom and work your way up. For some reason, there is no cut/paste or other word processing functionality in the comments box here at T&S and I like the spiritual energy to repost my writing…which sadly contains my weak defensiveness up front and my sensitivity on the backside.

    “Lyle” did NOT write: “Re: relative invisibility, faceless and namelessness…”

    “Lyle” did write: “Firestorm time” and “Isn’t this the policy that HF follows with HM?”

    I love T&S but think I need a break. Because there are no ‘tones’ nor body language, every single word written on this blog is often taken in a different way. Personally, I love how mutable langague is. I salue Matt Evans, and others, for their capacity to create blog entries that strike provacative arguments. I guess I simply don’t have what it takes. I try to take what others say in the most charitable light possible…and I am glad that others here do similarly.

    Personally I hurt when my comments are “heard” by others in more ways than I can consciously pre-determine despite my attempts to be sensitive to others sensitivities.

    One thoughtful Blogger here wrote the following:

    “I know we are to try to be like Jesus. But, Jesus spent his life healing blessing, ordaining, teaching and those are the things that men do in the Church. As a woman how do I follow Jesus if I can’t do the things Jesus did?”

    To this, all I can do is weep and empathize with a Saint who wishes to follow the Lord. And, if I spoke with that young woman, or any other, I would share my disbelief that she really hasn’t been spending her life healing, ordaining, teaching, etc. I don’t need to receive a blessing with holy oil to be healed from my wounds when my mothers holy tears have equal potency, I don’t need to be taught a doctrinally challenging sunday school lesson, or see how Male X, Y, or Z has been elevated to a certain office of service in the Priesthood when this young lady, or that one…is so eagerly striving to live the gospel by her mere question/ing strivingful ponderings. Such is the woman that does as Jesus did.

    I think of the story of Ruth, which I recently put into play format, and how she taught and ministered…and how my mother, sisters, female friends, past romantic relationships, etc…have all helped teach me how to be more like Christ by their examples…from my mother going without buying new “certain articles of apparrel” and making do with the olde so that her children could have opportunities, to my sister heather who is raising children who are actually friends with each other…which I certainly wasn’t w/her when we were younger, to my sister sarah who struggles with MS and trying to be a single mother after being divorced by a lapsed RM who thinks he can hide his porn addiction from the world, or my little sister 3 year olde sister addie who used to run to me, when I was a newly minted RM and throw her arms around me and tell me that she loved me. And recently, of the example of one daughter of Heavenly Parents who has chosen to protect her thoughts and feelings while also seeking to be considerate and compassionate of those of others. Maybe I’m the only one that believes that my life, feelings, agency and preferences has no more value than a man in Cuba, a woman Iraq, or an east coast graduate student…but as a soldier, a graduate student, and an inner city ghetto dweller who foregoes personal safety to be able to interact with those people that others in their SUVs and suburban homes eschew. Yes, I’m willing to both live and die in order to live the gospel and give others the opportunity to have social, economic or political freedom to do likewise. And for this, I would lay the blame squarely on the teachings of my mother.

  35. Kristine on February 9, 2004 at 4:28 pm

    Lyle, Melissa didn’t accuse you of being insensitive or of not appreciating women. She said there are some problems with thinking that because we don’t know much about Heavenly Mother, we should prescribe a “background” role for women. You don’t need to demonstrate your compassion or appreciation for the virtues of women, you just need to address her critique.

  36. clark goble on February 9, 2004 at 4:48 pm

    It’s an interesting question. Yet, at the same time, we have no information. How can we speak without the Lord telling us what to say? There is a presumption, I think, that the Lord doesn’t speak because no one is asking. I’m not sure that is the case. I don’t know why God reveals what he reveals when he reveals it. Why not reveal a nascent feminism to Moses, Peter or Paul?

    But perhaps this interesting question ought to be given its own thread? We’re kind of off the biography track now. Personally I think Eliza R. Snow or Zina Huntington would make excellent role models for modern women. *However* I think the issue of polygamy would possibly turn off many women. (Especially in the case of Zina’s polyandrous relationship with Joseph Smith)

  37. lyle on February 9, 2004 at 4:50 pm

    Kristine: Thanks for the clarification…however, I addressed the only part of the critique that was warranted…even if it wasn’t meant as you mention.
    As I DID NOT advocate a background role for women, merely made an inquiry, with a pre-clarifier re: controversy, I’m not going to try and defend vs. something I didn’t advocate or suggest.

  38. Kristine on February 9, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    OK, so now’s your chance. Do you believe that the fact of Heavenly Mother’s apparent silence and invisibility mandates or justifies a secondary or recondite role for LDS women? If not, why did you bring it up?

  39. lyle on February 9, 2004 at 7:55 pm

    because i knew it would spark discussion…which it has failed to do. i’m more interested in learning that pontificating. I think Clark has the right idea…this needs it’s own thread.

    re: Autobiographies/Bios, I’m going to look for one’s on early non-members that have significant interaction with Joseph Smith, etc. I think the Lawyer/Illinois military guy (donaphan?) was an interesting character.

  40. clark goble on February 9, 2004 at 8:01 pm

    An interesting related topic would be what biographies are most egregiously missing? (Either because one was never written or existing ones are too short or missing significant new data/theories)

    Now that it has been a few years, I’d love a more thorough one of Pres. Benson. I enjoyed his autobiography, but it definitely was “guarded.” However I recognize that perhaps it isn’t quite long enough for good bios of McConkie or Benson.

    I know not much is known about them, but I’d love to see bios of Josephs teachers of Hebrew and related disciplines. Especially Neibaur and Sextas. (Sp?)

  41. Greg Call on February 9, 2004 at 8:35 pm

    So here are our suggestions so far for best Mormon bios/autobiographies:

    –History of Joseph Smith by Lucy Mack Smith
    –The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt
    –An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown, Firmage
    –Adventures of a Church Historian, Arrington
    –Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, Peterson
    –Lowell Bennion, Bradford
    –Four Zinas, Bradley
    –Son of Thunder, Schindler
    –William Law, Cook
    –Mormon Enigma, Tippets and Avery
    –Brigham Young: American Moses, Arrington
    –Defender of the Faith: The B.H. Roberts Story, Madsen
    –George Q. Cannon, Bitton
    –Wayward Saints: the Godbeites and Brigham Young, Walker
    –Sister Saints, Burgess-Olsen
    –Conflict in the Quorum, Bergera
    –Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History
    –Lost Legacy, Bates and Smith
    –Life and Thought of Orson Pratt, England
    –Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, Hill
    –J Reuben Clark: The Public Years, Fox
    –J Reuben Clark: Elder Statesman, Quinn

    Its interesting to me that the Clark, Roberts, and Brown books are the only ones one the list centered on 20th century Church leaders. Why aren’t there good biographies of other, arguably more “important,” Church leaders of the past century? I suspect it may have something to do with control of their personal papers and the inability of biographers to access the information that would be most interesting and useful in writing a biography. Clark (Goble, not J Reuben) suggests we just need more time before we can expect a good bio. Is there something more at work here?

  42. lyle on February 10, 2004 at 12:56 am

    I’ll ask Brother Reed Benson his opinion re: his father…and give an answer if he is ok with me doing so.

  43. Clark Goble on February 10, 2004 at 2:15 am

    My personal feeling is that probably it would be inappropriate to focus too much on the warts of recent GAs, even if treated sympathetically. That’s what I meant by distance and not simply access to papers. I think we’re far enough removed from say B. H. Roberts to not get too affected by his many failings. Same with larger than life figures like Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball or so forth. More recent figures like McConkie or Benson probably ought to be treated differently.

    Of course I recognize many here won’t agree with me.

  44. lyle on February 10, 2004 at 2:34 am

    What, you don’t want Orson Scott Card trying to bring President Benson to life? Lol…

  45. Matt Grow on February 10, 2004 at 5:57 pm

    This thread may have already died, but for what it’s worth . . .

    Clark: Great question: “An interesting related topic would be what biographies are most egregiously missing? (Either because one was never written or existing ones are too short or missing significant new data/theories)”

    In many ways, the field of Mormon biography, particularly scholarly biographies, is wide open. Among just major elite leaders, I would point to the need for good scholarly biographies on Joseph F. Smith, Lorenzo Snow, George A. Smith, Eliza R. Snow, Heber J. Grant, David O. McKay, and Ezra Taft Benson, just to name a few. (Some of these are already in the works–Jill Derr’s working on Eliza and Ron Walker’s working on Heber J. Grant.) I’d also put Parley P. Pratt on the list–his Autobiography is great, but it’s an uneven treatment of his life, and a good scholarly biography could add a lot of understanding. It’s arguable that Parley is the least understood of the early major leaders.

    Not to mention the already commented on need for more attention to women and “average,” rank-and-file Saints. Of course, it’s much harder to pinpoint who these would be, because most of us know so little about them. I also like Lyle’s idea about the need for biographies of non-Mormon figures who interacted with the Saints in significant ways. I like it so much, in fact, that I’m probably going to be writing on Thomas Kane for my dissertation.

  46. clark goble on February 10, 2004 at 6:09 pm

    Regarding the “average rank-and-file.” The problem with that is that I’m not convinced very many are interested in them. Surely part of scholarship is to investigate things that are interesting. Now studying general trends in the average populace I think *is* important and unfortunately still overly neglected.

    However, as I said about _Sister Saints_. One is left say, “who cares?” I try to read through a lot of the stuff in the Mormon History Association and perhaps someone cares about these mundane matters, but I can’t imagine why. (Which isn’t to say it all is like that — far from it) I mean if people are interested I can write a 20 page history of my programming tasks. But I can’t imagine why anyone would care…

    Maybe that’s just my bias. I want stories about people that are interesting and relevant to my life. Hearing about mundane matters doesn’t seem too helpful… Certainly I’d never pay $20 – $40 for such a book.

  47. Greg Call on February 10, 2004 at 6:23 pm

    Matt,

    A full treatment of Thomas L. Kane’s life would certainly be interesting. Is there any more/better information about him now available than there was at the time of Arrington’s 1981 article?

    As for biographies of the rank and file — check out _Mormon Lives_, by Susan Taber. It is basically chronicles a year in the life of one ward in Delaware, and includes mini-autobiographies of several ward members. Its a fascinating project.

  48. Nate Oman on February 10, 2004 at 6:45 pm

    Arrington did a collection of short bios of “normal folks” called _Saints Without Halos_ which is pretty interesting.

    Some other “major figures” worth looking at:

    Hyrum Smith — I don’t think there is a scholarlly biography of him.

    Oliver Cowdry — no scholarlly biography of which I am aware.

    Bernheisal — the chief church lobbyist in DC during most of BY’s adminstration.

    Frank Cannon — a major political player in the pre- and post-statehood church/politics manuvering.

    B.H. Roberts — Madsen’s biography is all right, but doesn’t even scratch the surface. In particular it pays very little attention to Robert’s intellectual life other than to say that he had one. A really solid intellectual biography would be very valuable, especially given his status as Mormonism’s leading intellectual.

    Joseph Fielding Smith

    James E. Talmadge

    Hosea Stout — he has a fabulous journal and a colorful (read: often violent) life.

    Lot Smith — A Porter Rockwell-esque figure

  49. Matt Grow on February 10, 2004 at 7:17 pm

    Clark: I think rank-and-file biographies can be interesting–it all depends on how it’s done, how they’re placed in their historical context, etc. For example, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale is about someone not intrinsically interesting by your standards–a rural Maine midwife in the late 1700s whose only unusual quality was the diary she kept. And Ulrich’s book is fascinating (not to mention Pulitzer-prize winning). Is it harder to make the rank-and-file interesting? Perhaps, but it’s not impossible and certainly doesn’t need to become the resort to general trends (I assume, quantified trends) that you suggest. I think the rank-and-file can be dealt with in interesting ways that don’t reduce them to statistics or anecdotal role players. (Having said that, I agree about the mundaneness of much Mormon history.)

    Greg: Yes. BYU opened a major collection of Thomas Kane’s papers a few years ago–we’re talking about thousands of letters and other records. And Kane is a fascinating individual besides his numerous Mormon connections–a disciple of Comte, an abolitionist, a Civil War major-general, a major land-developer, etc. His family is also very interesting–his father was an important Jacksonian politician and federal judge, his brother Elisha a famous Artic explorer, and his sister-in-law Margaret Fox largely began the spiritualist craze of the mid-19th century.

    Nate: Great list. We could probably add David Whitmer, Karl Maeser, Daniel H. Wells, John Widstoe, and a bunch of others. Also interesting (and sorely needed) would be some good biographies of international Saints–particularly in the 20th century.

  50. Kristine on February 10, 2004 at 8:17 pm

    [donning my feminist nag hat]:

    How about Emmeline Wells, Amy Brown Lyman, Louisa Greene-Richards, Susa Young Gates, Belle Spafford, LaVern Parmley, Elaine Cannon…

  51. Greg on January 12, 2005 at 7:30 pm

    This thread has long been dormant, but I linked to it today and thought I’d add that, sparked by this thread, I recently read my new favorite Mormon biography: Elder Statesman, the J.R.Clark bio by Quinn. It’s really a terrific book.

  52. Nate Oman on January 12, 2005 at 7:37 pm

    I got _Elder Stateman_ for Christmas and I have been thoroughly enjoying it. I have to admitt, however, that I still like _J. Reuben Clark: The Public Years_ better, but that may be because I simply find law and diplomacy more interesting at the end of the day that Church administration. Still, I agree that ES is a great book.

  53. Greg on January 12, 2005 at 7:45 pm

    I actually found _Elder Statesmen_ in my ward library. Unfortunately, it didn’t have _The Public Years_ . . .

  54. Bret on March 22, 2005 at 1:48 am

    Can anyone comment on the difference between Elder Statesmen and JRC: The Church Years, both by Quinn. Statesmen came 2nd, so is it a lot of regurgitation of the Church Years? I’m just finishing the Church Years (Started out wonderfully, I’m bored with the last 75 pages) and wonder if it is worth my time (and money) to get Elder Statesmen.

  55. David Rodger on March 22, 2005 at 3:09 am

    Historians it’s time to get to work.

    We don’t really have good biographies of the 133 leaders who have served in the First Quorum of Seventy, or the 139 who have served in the Second Quorum of Seventy, or the 44 who have served in the Presiding Bishopric, or the 18 (plus their counselors), who have served in the Sunday School General Presidency, or the 20 who have served (plus their Counselors), in the Young Men Presidency, or the 10 who have served (plus their counselors) in the Primary Presidency, or the 13 who have served (plus counselors) in the Young Women Presidency, or the 14 who have served (plus counselors) in the Relief Society Presidency. I have left out the Assistants to the First Presidency, the Council of the Seventy, the Assistants to the Quorum of the Twelve, plus some others.*

    How many of those names roll trippingly off your tongue?

    Hmmm, I thought so.

    We need more biographies!

    *Approximate figures from the Church Almanac.

  56. Bret on March 22, 2005 at 1:32 pm

    My site might be helpful to some of you who are interested in biographies.

    http://www.ldsbooklovers.com/index.asp

    Click on the “Collections” menu item, then “Biographies/Journals.” It’s a work in progress (and will probably always be) but has some useful information.