The Bushman Diaries

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.

32 comments for “The Bushman Diaries

  1. I wish they had published a “non-limited” edition at a price slightly more reasonable than $150.

  2. Pauline Maier, for those who don’t know her work, is a terrific historian of early American history. It’s very interesting to hear that she is a sympathetic and imaginative enough scholar to be willing to take Joseph Smith’s claims on their own terms.

    Thanks very much for these excerpts, Nate; I’d heard about this book, but didn’t think I’d have a chance to learn more about it.

  3. As the book\’s official distributor (see Mormon Pavillion) I have discussed the option of a commercial printing regularly with the publisher. I believe it will happen, but may be as much as a year away, depending on exactly how it is done. In the meantime, I suggest that those interested register at Mormon Pavillion and put their name on the \”notification\” list there so they will learn when the new edition is released. Registering also puts them on the list to hear about other products from the publisher, the Mormon Artists Group.

  4. Fascinating review. I take it that all 105 copies are sold already? Anyone out there who can lend it to me?

  5. I’d second those who wondered why it was printed with such a limited run and high price. I expect that of say proceedings of conferences with limited interest: the idea being that libraries are in effect paying the printing costs. But in this case I think it would have done much better, especially considering the interest of the book.

    The bit about the blessing by Pres. Packer was very interesting. I wonder what Pres. Packer thought about the book.

  6. I’m sorry, you have to have an account to access the Bushman review, or you can purchase it for $3.00. The response, however, is free.

    I should have stated that before.

  7. It seems that McMurty’s inability to disentanble his sheer hatred for the LDS Church jaundiced his views in a way that he becomes simply irresponsible. He is correct that Brodie’s sheer mind-reading approach (given the scholarly name of psycho-biography) is far better written because it is written with more verve and flare — and a good deal of sheer fictionalism to boot. He likes historical fiction — which is exactly how is account of Mountain Meadows should also be read. The “what ifs” and the speculation about non-existent evidence should be clues that McMurty isn’t interested in responsible history — he likes gossip and sensationalism!

  8. Thanks for the review. Very interesting stuff.

    I think writing a biography about Joseph Smith would be a very difficult thing to do. He’s a very complex man and prophet.

  9. What wonderful remarks from Bushman! I sent segments to my husband and to my daughter. I admit that I often have a hard time with the emphasis the Church puts on Joseph Smith, and with the selective way we describe his life. When I see a title like _Joseph and Emma: A Love Story_, I can’t help but think of how deeply Emma was hurt by polygamy.
    Richard Bushman is a godsend to people like me. I have not yet finished _Rough Stone Rolling_, but it has been a great help already.

  10. Margaret, I certainly have no love for the oversentimentality with which we often prefer to view our historical icons, but what do you think better defines Emma’s own view of her relationship with Joseph, the love, or the polygamy?

  11. Clark and others:

    The question of why such a limited run and high price simply shows that you haven’t yet looked at the site for the Mormon Artists Group. Limited editions is the kind of work that this group does. Each project on their website is a hand-crafted masterpiece, a work of art. In this particular case, this isn’t a book in the traditional sense. It isn’t even bound — its loose pages in a slip cover, slid into a solid cherry-wood presentation box. These projects aren’t generally aimed at the general public, but at collectors.

    One of the advantages to creating a project like this is that it gives the publisher an idea of whether or not a broader market exists for these items. It is relatively easy to make a project successful when you only have to sell 10 or 25 copies. When you have to invest enough to print and sell 1000 copies, that’s an entirely different matter, especially in a market so dominated by one giant book chain (see my rant about this at Motley Vision).

    I think in this case the publisher may have planned to eventually do a larger edition, but I understood that Richard had some reservations about a wider edition. On the Road With Joseph Smith is quite a personal account, and he wasn’t sure at first how it would be received. This limited edition has given him a chance to become comfortable with the book. As I said above (comment #5), I believe a commercial edition will happen, its just a matter of time.

  12. I’m not disputing one can make books as art. I had a friend who did that a lot. (She even taught me how to make paper) I’m more looking at the content.

    As to the DB issue, that’s a good point. But don’t most people who buy more “technical” LDS books typically buy them online rather than at DB (who has a poor selection) or Seagull (who has an awful selection) or perhaps the BYU bookstore.

  13. In case you haven’t heard, Seagull and Deseret Book are merging. So basically, there are now two LDS presses: Signature and Deseret. Obviously different slants.

    Ryan–the service Bushman does to people like me is to remove the “either/or” and give a larger framework in which to view Joseph Smith. He does not avoid the hard subjects, but contextualizes them in a wonderfully insightful way.

    As far as Emma and Joseph go–I think love AND pain come into the picture. I would not reduce either of them to one emotion or one sensation. The best writing always presents fully realized characters–flawed and quirky and fascinating. Bushman presents a Joseph Smith I can love and appreciate. I’m afraid the Church productions, being so sentimental and selective, fail to move me.

  14. (Forgive my continuing threadjack)

    Margaret, I shouldn’t quibble, because I really agree with you. If it’s artistic merit we’re talking about, there’s no question that a nuanced and flawed characterization is far superior to a saccharine, pat one. I’m with you on the church productions, as much as I try to ‘get’ them. But your comment implies a distaste for narratives, even historical vignettes or summaries, that fail to show us the ugly side of things. The critique appears to be not only about aesthetics but about honesty.

    My only point is that we really can’t expect a single blemish, no matter how significant, to be presented in every treatment of a life, relationship, or institution. That standard is just unfair.

    I know I’ve wounded my wife deeply a time or two, but I hope that in the end she wouldn’t think it innaccurate to sum up our relationship as a “love story,” glossing over some significant bumps, which will ultimately be seen as transitory, even minor. I imagine Emma must feel the same way, don’t you?

  15. I think what defines the “love story” of the Smiths includes the love/pain of polygamy. That is, that Emma seemed to love Joseph in spite of the deception and deep pain caused her by his plural marriages, and Joseph seemed to love Emma in spite of her doubts about the legitimacy of, and her opposition to, his plural marriage revelation.

    Ignoring plural marriage in a church presentation about Joseph and Emma is like ignoring the “elephant” in the room–I believe it is much more than a “significant bump” to be “gloss[ed]” over.

    That being said, I am sympathic toward the de-emphasis in the correlated church of plural marriage in our history and theology (or historical theology). Mentioning polygamy, even today, can cause great pain even to those members who never lived it. One of my daughters–who is among the most faithful committed members I have ever known–told me, in all sincerity, that even the “thought” of polygamy makes her “want to throw up.” (I have similar feelings about the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac.)

  16. I remember after the panel discussion on RSR at MHA in Casper last May, Richard stood up and said something to the effect of “Well, that wasn’t so bad!” It was clear to me that he was expecting harsher treatment than he received in that forum.

    (Thanks for telling us about this, Nate. I saw a notice for it and was curious about it.)

  17. Sounds like a wonderful resource in the social history of contemporary Mormonism. I look forward to a commercial version. I found RSR a warm and tender salute to a man/prophet whom Richard clearly reveres, one that was able to utilize the language and methods of history to frame the salute. What distresses me more than people like McMurty (who I agree comes off quite buffoonish), are the reports circulating of people within Mormonism attacking Richard’s gift. Something that is offered with considerable skill and faith, in a spirit of kind and responsible attention, should not be attacked, in my opinion. Respectful disagreement, absolutely, but the claims of heresy that I hear vaguely circulating within sectors of Mormonism seems at best contrary to the spirit of the Gospel and at worst frankly malevolent.

  18. “the claims of heresy that I hear vaguely circulating within sectors of Mormonism”

    I haven’t heard any such vague claims or rumors. I understand even CES people (the “church within the church”) are reading it with approval of their bosses (and without carrying it in a brown paper bag).

    But, then, I don’t live in Utah anymore, and I am not a church employee.

  19. I’ve definitely heard claims of heresy. I’ve heard from multiple sources whom I consider to be honest and reliable that there are people on the correlation committee who are frustrated (if not infuriated) at what they believe to be Richard’s willingness to take the “anti-mormon” side on a number of questions. One close friend of mine, a bishop of a student ward and a retired CES guy with close friends still working in correlation, even tried to pull me aside and warn me about Richard when he found out that I would be working with him last summer at BYU. I think things have probably softened some since then (in fact, that same friend was the one who first called my attention to the Des News article on RIchard’s RSR memoirs under discussion here and seems to be trying to be openminded about the whole thing–though he still has not read the biography out of deference to warnings he’s received), but make no mistake–there are influential people within Mormonism’s more conservative bastions that are less-than-enthusiastic about Richard’s work. Don’t get me wrong. I love Richard. I consider him to be a great friend and mentor and among the finest and most dignified scholars I’ll ever have the opportunity of meeting. I’m terribly saddened that anyone in the church would question his motives or reliability. But unflinching loyalty to mythologized history can produce staggering lapses in rational judgment.

    On the brighter side, I think church members who find fault with Richard’s work are in the overwhelming minority (even if some of them are irritatingly influential). I personally know perhaps four dozen active church members who’ve read the book and with whom I have discussed its contents–ranging from fellow college students to my personal and extended family. Of that entire list, only one person (my grandmother) took issue with Richard’s portrayal of Joseph. And it wasn’t over his inclusion of Fanny Alger, Danite violence, polyandry, whatever. It was his depiction of Joseph as someone who slowly and incrementally gained a sense of his own prophetic identity and calling, who had to develop an understanding of the things that were being revealed to him, who didn’t walk out of the sacred grove knowing everything about the nature of God or out of his visitation from the Baptist knowing everything about the nature of priesthood. Everyone else–without exception–found it illuminating, invigorating, endearing, faith-promoting, and love-strengthening.

    I think we scarcely comprehend now the impact that Richard’s consecrated scholarship has had and will have on the lives of latter-day Saints.

  20. “I think we scarcely comprehend now the impact that Richard’s consecrated scholarship has had and will have on the lives of latter-day Saints.”

    I agree. A fuller, more careful and complicated appreciation of Joseph Smith and the early church has been, from what I can tell, slowly but surely making its way into the CES/BYU-religion-classes/Know-Your-Religion/church-curriculum mainstream for some years now; I think Bushman’s biography of him marks the point of no return in that transition. There will be many people, for sure, who will downplay certain aspects of the biography, but its reception–and its author’s impecable scholarly and spiritual credentials–is going to serve as a bulwark against any possible retrenchment. Missionaries or investigators or seminary students (or teachers!) looking for answers or insights into Joseph Smith will not be able to be warned away from Bushman’s work by invocations of any kind of irresponsibility or anti-Mormon agenda on his part. So yes, Bushman’s scholarship will have, I think, an enormous impact on the thinking of Latter-day Saints generally in the years to come.

  21. “there are people on the correlation committee who are frustrated (if not infuriated) at what they believe to be Richard’s willingness to take the ‘anti-mormon’ side on a number of questions”

    I wonder if Mulling and Musing has any inside information on this.

  22. I’m not Mulling, but I also have heard from a trustworthy source that one senior member of Correlation was quite opposed to RSR. It’s good to hear that Elder Holland liked it. I think the middle management (Correlation, some CES) are often more Catholic than the Pope, so to speak.

    I know of a former Bishopric member outside of Utah, smaller town, who read RSR, and reported to my Dad (a Stake President) that he shouldn’t expect to see him at Church again. He clearly did not deal with some of the information well, much of which was new to him. My Dad, on the other hand, has been recommending it to people, sometimes from the pulpit.

  23. Our ward Sunday School Gospel Doctrine teacher, a post-modernist high school English teacher recommended “Rough Stone Rolling”—though I had seen it before at the book stores. It was given to me for my birthday, and I read it.

    My take on it was that Bushman was not the scholar many claimed that he was, though some of his insights on the prophet were insightful and even enlightening.

    As a small business owner, I lost a Small Claims case brought against me by a disgruntled customer. The judge thought he was exhibiting the wisdom of Solomon by giving my accuser less than he asked for, and me for none that I deserved, by “cutting the baby in half”, which still meant a judgement against me. Justice was not served, nor wisdom used.

    Likewise, Bushman tries to wield the wisdom of Solomon by “cutting the baby in half”, giving LDS Church members some of what they want and claim, and by giving non-believers some of what they want and claim.

    When I told our ward SS teacher I had read the book, he asked me for what I thought of it. I told him frankly that I thought Bushman pandered to non-believers, which is what I really think. And he did.

    I realize what a tough task it would be to write a book that would appeal both to the NY Times and to FARMS. While neither, in my opinion, necessarily represent the mind of God, I found he tried too obviously to pander to the Times and their ilk. I personally thought that, by and large, Will Durant did a better job in his portrayal of early day Christians, than Bushman did of our dear “Mormon prophet”, though Durant was far more secular than Bushman is LDS.

    Bushman seems to be a nice, accomodating fellow. He just accomodated too much that isn’t truth, in my opinion. He could have presented evidence, including contrary opinion to his subject, without siding with it.

    I am still awaiting some de Tocqueville to write the ultimate biography of “the prophet and seer.” Bushman, unfortunately, though a nice guy, is not, in my opinion, that scholar.


  24. DMP–

    I have seen similar complaints on the Deseret Book website.

    Could you please give an example or two of how Bushman splits the baby by “pandering” to nonbelievers?

    In particular, I am curious whether you think the “pandering” represented bad history–in the sense that the historical evidence does not support what Bushman wrote–or bad history in the sense that it is wrong to acknowledge or accept any historical evidence that casts “too much doubt” on the character of Joseph or of the Church’s truth claims.

  25. The last post in this thread was several months ago. But I was in Provo this week to take my daughter to BYU and bought On the Road w JS at the Deseret Book in the Mall. I thereupon devoured it (though I have had Rough Stone Rolling for months and have not yet finished it). Kofford Books is now publishing it. I thought in case anyone chanced into this thread they ought to made aware this wonderful book is now widely available.

    I was particularly touched by Bushman’s expressed concerns for young Mormons and the shock that comes to some upon first comparing what they were taught in seminary with views of Joseph Smith from less laudatory perspectives. My son, a returned missionary who has a brilliant mind, recently left the church, apparently after such an experience. The pain of this can hardly be expressed. I had been my son’s seminary teacher and had been his priest quorum advisor. I had read Brodie after my mission but survived the experience. It never occurred to me it might be beneficial to talk to my son about anything in the life of Joseph other than what is found in the church manuals. Now I am not sure about what I should have done.

    Though I am uncertain about Rough Stone Rolling, I am certain I profoundly wish I could get him to read On the Road.

  26. My mom gave me “On the Road with Joseph Smith” for Christmas yesterday. Reading it is a guilty pleasure. I’m not done yet, but I am especially enjoying the parts dealing with the reactions of General Authorities and the sales figures of the book.

    I bought Rough Stone Rolling in the fall of 2005 and I finished it right before the end of the year. I thought the book was great even though I find LDS Church history a little dry. I already knew about the unflattering elements of Joseph Smith’s life, many of which I had learned in a Church history class at BYU. I think a sympathetic acknowledgment of the “warts” in Joseph Smith’s life is an effective antidote to enemies of the LDS Church.

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