On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary by Richard Bushman is a very difficult book to get a hold of, which is unfortunate. In the summer of 2005 as Rough Stone Rolling approached completion, Glen Nelson, who is associated with the Mormon Artists Group in New York City, approached Bushman with the suggestion that he write something about his book and people’s reactions to it. The result was a diary from July 12, 2005 to May 31, 2006, spanning 11 months in which the book was published and Bushman confronted the first round of reviews and reactions. The MAG then published a limited edition of the diary — 105 copies in all. It is a facinating read if you can get your hands on a copy.
The diary is largely about Bushman’s reactions to the reactions to his book. From the beginning of the journal, you can feel his anxiety about the reception of the biography. As pre-publication copies began circulating, Bushman started recieving praise from readers. On September 13, 2005 he wrote:
But each of these little bits of praise reminds that I will be subject to public humiliation too. I keep thinking of The New York Times review when it comes. More likely than not, it will go to someone who thinks Joseph Smith was a scoundrel and Mormons fanatics. There are lots of people like that in the world, and lots of them have opined on Mormonism. They will think my book is a celebration and anything but a balanced history. Me and my works will be demeaned in the public prints. . . . Reviewers will have to knock it down because it stands up to their point of view. The Harvard religious historian Robert Orsi who also writes empathetically has observed that his critics object to his sympathetic portrayals of people’s religious faith and practices. The fact that he is a substantial scholar standing in the profession makes him all the more dangerous and annoying to the skeptics.
Why do I care about this? I worry that my friends in the chuch will see their friend and champion struck down and bleeding. They may be crushed when they see that I cannot vanquish the disbelievers. They will lament the foul treatment and sympathize, but they will be less courageous as a result. They may worry that they may be hurt too. IF they cannot be protected in their faith, are they safe? This will be a minuscule event in their faith history but it troubles me nonetheless. I will have fallen short. I have always feared that I will disappoint people.
The diaries are much more than simply a record of what Bushman calls “pre-review jitters.” There are also some facinating facts about the book’s writing and its reception. For example, Bushman records, “I sought a blessing from Elder Packer before getting started, and insofar as I was worthy, I think the blessing was fufilled.” Elder Holland sent Bushman a letter (reproduced in the diary) praising the book, but one unidentified emeritus general authority suggested that RSR would undermine the faith of new converts and provide ammunition for the enemies of the church.
Equally facinating was the reaction of non-LDS readers. On September 5, 2005 Bushman gave presentation at Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center on the Book of Mormon and American intellectual history. The reaction (as recorded by Bushman) was mixed. David Hall said “if the Book of Mormon is a kind of bible, why don’t people at the [Harvard] Divinity School use it to understand Christ more completely. The answer seems obvious; they think it is a hoax. Why should they take it seriously?” On the other hand, one MIT professor, Pauline Maier, suggested that we ought to take the perspective of Mormon missionaries on the book more seriously. “Why not consider the possibility that the book was inspired, and liken it to the Great Awakening. Might it not have been a work of God?” Another academic, however, noted, “We have to ask whether such an assertion closes down discussion or opens it up. That is the problem with talking about the inspiration of the book; it stops conversation.”
I am happy to say that the bloggernacle makes an appearance in the diary. Bushman notes reactions by both M* and the T&S reviews. He also reproduces Terryl Givens’ excellent reply to Larry McMurty’s vicious review in The New York Review of Books. Givens was short, punchy, and right on. “Responsible journalism calls for reviewers to show evidence of having read the books they purport to review. Responsible citizenship calls for editors to foster religious understanding and tolerance rather than caricature and gratuitous defamation.”
In the end the diary is the record of a believer who wants to write a believers biography that speaks to both believer and unbeliever. It is also the diary of a man who realizes that neither audience is wholly comfortable with what he did. In the epilogue, he writes:
Even though I wrote for a diverse audience, as the views came in I realized that I had not kept everyone with me. As was probably inevitable, readers who came to the book with their own strong notions of Smith found my account wanting. Those on the Mormon side thought I failed to describe his noble character and supernatural gifts; non-Mormons said I painted too rosy a picture and failed to acknowledge the obvious fraud. At both ends of the spectrum, I lost readers.
At times I thought there was no middle ground for my version of the Mormon Prophet. I came to envy historians who write about slavery or patriarchy; no one doubts their basic beliefs. But on second thought, I realized that my book was better for being written for a divided audience. I cannot say that Rough Stone Rolling achieves a perfect balance, but it does offer an empathic and, so I hope, candid view of an extraordinary life.