That Daguerreotype Again (part 1 of 2)

May 2, 2008 | 6 comments
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Jared T. at Juvenile Instructor is posting a formal, detailed, academic review of S. Michael Tracy, Millions Shall Know Brother Joseph Again: The Joseph Smith Photograph (Salt Lake City: Eborn Pub., 2008), Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. What follows is not a formal review, but simply a personal reaction to the whole book here, with reactions to the chapters concerning the Scannel daguerreotype reserved for part 2 of this post, as a follow-up to my earlier posts concerning purported Joseph Smith photographs here, here, and here.

General remarks first:

The subtitle (The Joseph Smith Photograph) and virtually all of the pre-publication buzz focused on the Scannel daguerreotype, so I was surprised to see the book’s forematter identity this not as an entirely independent publication, but as the “Second Edition, First Printing, Revised and Enlarged” of Tracy’s 1995 book, In Search of Joseph. The present book contains chapters on the death masks, skulls, paintings, artefacts, etc., covered in the 1995 book; I have not yet made a careful review to know what might have been added to or revised from those chapters in that earlier work. This inclusion is in part necessary to the chapters on the Scannel daguerreotype because Tracy uses all those items in his evaluation of the image. It is also a pleasant feature for readers on a budget, given the enormous prices commanded by the 1995 book in the collectors’ market.

The inclusion of this material also reinforces Tracy’s purpose in writing the book, as presented in his introduction. This is not a book intended solely to exploit interest in the Scannel image, or to market the new painting that appears on the book’s cover. Tracy is genuinely interested in determining, as far as can possibly be established, what Joseph Smith did look like, and he uses all tools available to him – descriptions in words, images of all kinds, and artifacts associated with Joseph Smith in life (locks of his hair, clothing) or those associated with his death (death masks, photos of the exhumed skulls of Joseph and Hyrum). Regardless of one’s opinion of any specific item, this material should create a powerful “mind’s eye” image of Joseph for every reader.

The book itself is physically attractive – probably the best Eborn product I’ve seen. It is a large format (approximately 8×11) and is relatively heavy due to the high quality coated paper used. But the book is slender (264 pages) so is not at all uncomfortable to carry or too imposing to look through – its appearance is so inviting and non-intimidating that I suspect even ‘tween-age children and visitors to your home will be likely to spend a lot of time turning its pages. The pages are well designed with lots of white space, scores (maybe hundreds?) of illustrations, and frequent side-bar captions and quotations.

The book does suffer, though, from a lack of editorial oversight, possibly beyond Eborn’s scope as a publisher. There are occasional typos, not too distracting to me except when a spell-checker should have caught them (“superceded,” p. 146). More distracting are the malapropisms that an editor should have identified (“excitement … can be contributed to …,” p. 141 – should be “attributed”; “we are not cognately aware of this …,” p. 211 – should be “cognitively”).

Possibly because I have focused on the chapters concerning photography without yet making a detailed reading of the early chapters, or possibly again due to lack of editorial input, I am not quite sure who is the intended audience for Millions. The author at times seems to be speaking to a seminary or fireside gathering, appealing to the spirit for confirmation of debatable matters; at other times, he seems to address an academic audience, appealing to hard-headed, cold scientific facts to make a point. In my opinion as a believer, both methods are acceptable in their sphere – in my T&S posts, for instance, I sometimes write that the Lord did not forget so-and-so, or that so-and-so was where the Lord needed him, while at other times I write as dispassionately and humanistically and academically as I can manage. The two styles – devotional and scholarly – demand two different skill sets from a reader, though: when I read devotional material, I am sensitive to the reactions of my heart and spirit as well as my head, and I can’t be persuaded into a testimony by charts and graphs; when I read scholarly material, I deliberately wall off my heart and require that arguments be presented logically and in full detail, open to the most unemotional examination. Millions, however, is an awkward blend of devotional and scholarly – the author appeals to the spirit for confirmation, yet claims to present the logical evidence of a scientist. There are too frequent, too jarring transitions between the two modes; a reader like me becomes skeptical that the author can make a satisfactory case using either mode, because whenever one mode can’t sustain the argument, he appeals to the other.

Part 2 contains my evaluation of the two chapters devoted to photographic images, including the Scannel daguerreotype.

6 Responses to That Daguerreotype Again (part 1 of 2)

  1. Randy B on May 2, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    That was a far kinder review than I was expecting given Jared’s reviews thus far. Any comments on Jared’s criticisms?

  2. Ardis Parshall on May 2, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    Just that I think he is accurate from an academic point of view, and that my part 2 won’t be this kind.

    As a scholarly book, this fails completely. I think it wants to be a scholarly book, and Jared’s criticisms are well deserved. But I think it also wants to be, in part, a friendly, communal remembrance of Joseph, responding to a natural and entirely understandable craving to know what he looked like, as well as who he was and what he said and where he walked. On that level, and for a far less academic audience than most of the bloggernacle, Millions succeeds a little better.

    That is not entirely a good thing, since it no doubt will persuade a lot of uncritical readers that they know something about Joseph that is not supportable. Heck, how many have been persuaded solely by gossip and breathless email, without seeing any of the evidence, weak as it is? No review is going to change that.

  3. Christopher on May 2, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks for the review, Ardis. I look forward to part II.

  4. Jared T. on May 2, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Thanks Ardis, I’m glad to hear you are feeling better :) By no means am I the posterboy for what it is to be an academic and write academically, but I think I have some understanding of it, and in that spirit I wanted to approach the book.

  5. Jared T. on May 2, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    D’oh, I hit send too soon…I’m looking forward to what else you have to day.

  6. Just me on May 2, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Book reviews by Ardis Parshall and Jared T., pos or neg, rock!

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