April 6, 2010

Why Utah Isn't Deseret—or Pop History, Ahoy!

180 years ago on April 6, 1830, the now-named Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded.
In commemoration, here's an admittedly overlong and snarky rant about history!


Pop history. Not history of popular culture, but history produced ostensibly for the masses. Pop history is the McDonalds of academia. Drive-through history, Big Mac history; call it what you will, it's the bane of good historians' existence because it actually sells!

I got thinking about this subject again when I heard a story on NPR's "All Things Considered."1 They were discussing Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It, a new book by Michael J. Trinklein. I checked out the excerpts from the book on NPR's website—lo and behold, discussion of Deseret gets the ball rolling. Warning: quirky and snappy soundbites ahead:

The Mormon church was born in New York in the 1820s. So how did it end up in Utah? Almost from the beginning, the church's unusual beliefs led to persecution, and members kept transplanting themselves to avoid harassment. 
Things got especially messy when founder Joseph Smith received a revelation that he should start taking more wives. Lots more. Soon he was encouraging other Mormon men to do the same. This diminished the available supply of comely young women, which upset a lot of non-Mormon men, especially the bachelors. For this reasons [sic] — among others — an angry mob killed Smith in 1844. 
This left master-organizer Brigham Young in charge. He solved the angry-bachelor problem by deciding to move the Mormons west to a place that had no white settlements. Thus began the Mormon exodus to the Salt Lake basin in the mid-1840s.2

Plural marriage played a role in the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the problems in Nauvoo, and the exodus of the Mormons from Illinois. But this take on the matter seems ridiculous. Comely young women shortage? Any mention of the federal struggles and state's rights, religious belief and the Constitution, etc.? Not here. And Trinklein wraps it up with this weird observation:

The state's final size was much smaller than the Mormons had originally hoped. The entire western half of the Mormon empire was sliced off to form Nevada, establishing one of the oddest geographical juxtapositions in the United States. Could two states like Nevada and Utah be more different? Is it a joke that they are adjacent? In Utah, it's really hard to get a drink. In Nevada, it's really hard not to get a drink.3

Hyuck, hyuck! I haven't read the whole book, perhaps it has better coverage of other almost-states. When an author butchers something you are already well-familiar with, however, it doesn't inspire confidence in the rest of their work. Selection in writing history can skew any story, but the weird thing is, there are plenty of interesting things to be said about Utah's struggle for statehood without such distortions. I'm not praising hyper-revisionist sort of history, to be sure, but clearly stories can be told more accurately than this. The premise of the book is interesting, but why the creme filling?

This question is even more poignant for some of the up-and-coming historians interested in Mormonism, like Ben over at the Juvenile Instructor blog. History is meaningful to Ben, and he carries the weight of academic training on his back, which means the sort of history he finds meaningful will be different than the popular fluffy stuff. He's asking different questions and seeing things differently. Above all, he's wondering how to help fellow faithful Mormons better understand history when they're already confronted with popular books Ben finds less-than-perfect. "My experience," he writes, "is that academically trained historians, especially within the Mormon tradition, wish that the faithful masses had a better understanding of the history of the Church; we wish that they would leave back a lot of the “silly” folklore we hear in Sunday school. However, when we write, we often only write for fellow academics..."4

I'm not a professionally trained historian. I'm an amateur who tries to stay current with philosophy and methods of history, as well as the current state of Mormon history generally. But in the spirit of semi-elitist-navel-gazing I join Ben in asking some of those same questions. I wish more people were interested in history. I feel like it's part of my religion to seek wisdom out of the "best books" (D&C 88:118), not the high-calorie fast food books, the sort of books David Bentley Hart lamented:

Sadly, however, it is not serious historians who, for the most part, form the historical consciousness of their times; it is bad popular historians, generally speaking, and the historical hearsay they repeat or invent, and the myths they perpetuate and simplifications they promote, that tend to determine how most of us view the past. However assiduously the diligent, painstakingly precise academical drudge may labor at his or her meticulously researched and exhaustively documented tomes, nothing he or she produces will enjoy a fraction of the currency of any of the casually composed (though sometimes lavishly illustrated) squibs heaped on the front tables of chain bookstores or clinging to the middle rungs of best-seller lists....
After all, few have the time or the need to sift through academic journals and monographs and tedious disquisitions on abstruse topics trying to separate the gold from the dross. And so, naturally, among the broadly educated and the broadly uneducated alike, it is the simple picture that tends to prevail, though in varying shades and intensities of color, as with any image often and cheaply reproduced.5


FOOTNOTES
[1]
"Beyond 50: American States That Might Have Been," All Things Considered, 2 April 2010.

[2]
Ibid.

[3]
Ibid. 

[4]
Ben, "A Pillar of Light, The First Vision, and History for the Masses," Juvenile Instructor, 29 May 2009.

[5]
David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, (Yale University Press, 2009), 35. See my review (or pop review?!) of this book here.

7 comments:

rameumptom said...

I agree that this is awful history. "Comely young women" in LDS polygamy? Mark Twain noted in his trip to Salt Lake that he originally was against polygamy, until he saw how ugly the women actually were. After that, he realized just how merciful such a program was for the women....

Ben said...

These are indeed some important questions, Blair; thanks for asking them and for the shout-out.

This has been even more on my mind lately, especially after reading Louis Menand's new 'Marketplace of Ideas.' There is often too big of a separation between the ivory towers of academia and the popular culture of today.

BHodges said...

I hadn't heard of that book, Ben, it looks interesting.

John Mansfield said...

Who are the historians who have done the best job bringing out serious history in a form usable by the public? Take Stephen Ambrose or David McCullough as a standard of comparison if that is useful for measuring quality along the two dimensions of 1) writing good history, and 2) writing for the public.

BHodges said...

John, I honestly don't know. McCullough is one who comes to mind, I wonder who Ben and other people looking at graduating and writing history see as filling the role right now.

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