March 16, 2011

Review: Orson F. Whitney, "Life of Heber C. Kimball"

Title: Life of Heber C. Kimball
("Forgotten Classics" edition)
Author: Orson F. Whitney
Publisher: Grandin Press
Genre: Biography
Year: 2010
Pages: 449
ISBN13: 978-1-936416-07-3
Binding: softcover
Price: $19.95

Grandin Press has republished Orson F. Whitney's century-old biography Life of Heber C. Kimball as part of its "Forgotten Classics" series.1 In the first section of this review I look at the biography as a product of its time with a few words about Whitney's style and stories. The second section takes a closer look at the Grandin Press edition.

I. Style and Substance

Biography (at least in the western world) has its origins in the educational or inspirational stories told of remarkable men. From Moses to Jesus, Socrates to Alexander the Great, Sir Walter Raleigh to Samuel Johnson, biographies have been written to entertain, as well as to promote moral and political agendas.

Historian Hermione Lee suggests two contrasting metaphors for biography: the autopsy and the portrait. The former, a "forensic examination of the dead body," can be lauded as scientific, detached, and meticulous or decried as invasive, gruesome and uncaring. The latter suggests empathy, warmth, and attention to detail but can be criticized for overlooking unpleasantries or relying too much on conjecture or artifice. Lee notes that while these metaphors might blend into each other, both remind us that biographies shape the ways posterity remembers the subject.2

Concern for the memory of posterity was paramount in Orson F. Whitney's portrait-like biography of his grandfather, Mormon apostle Heber C. Kimball.3 "In presenting this work to the public," Whitney prefaced,  "I not only fulfill the desires of my own heart and those of my kindred...but likewise, I am persuaded, the wish of our departed ancestor" whose unseen presence "hovered near" him while writing (xv). Whitney was commissioned to complete Heber's "sacred legacy" at an 1887 Kimball family reunion. His self-disclosed methodology situates the volume comfortably with other Victorian biographies popular from the 1830s into the 1890s and later:

"This book is written from the standpoint of a Latter-day Saint. It makes no apology for the honest expression of views, which, however false or fanatical they may seem to others, are in the opinion of the author only such as ought to be entertained by every sincere believer and defender of the faith. It is issued with the humble and earnest hope that it may go forth as a messenger of Truth...The life of a man like Heber C. Kimball, with its lessons of faith and humility, of virtue, courage and devotion, cannot fail, if prayerfully read, to do something in this direction" (xvii). 

Many Victorian biographies were written by a descendant or disciple of the subject—Whitney was both.4 It was common for such biographies to accentuate the positive, downplay or avoid the negative, while presenting the subject as an exemplar to descendants and other readers. “Relatives are the biographer’s natural enemies,” notes a recent historian, especially if they control the source material from which the biography is crafted. Whitney made liberal use of excerpts from Kimball's own journals and personal letters between Kimball, his wives and children.5 In Whitney's case, he is his own worst enemy if we anachronistically apply contemporary standards of historiological methods to his attempt.6

Elements of Victorian biographies, including Whitney's, hearken straight out of the hagiographical "saints' Lives" genre of late antiquity to the middle ages (from the Greek "agios," holy, and "graphia," writing). Such accounts contained lessons of exceptional godliness and purity in a standard pattern outlined by Hermione Lee: early signs of spirituality, a conversion, examples of sayings, miracles, and acts, culminating in a farewell address, a holy death or martyrdom.7 Each of these characteristics are found in Whitney's account as he details Heber's early life, conversion to Mormonism, travels with Zion's camp, missionary activity, call to the apostleship, assistance in directing the colonization of Utah under Brigham Young, and his deathbed exhortations to friends and family. Like other Victorian biographies, Whitney's was written with a loving heart. He had lessons to teach, as his discussion of the craft of "Home Literature" made clear.

Whitney published "Home Literature"—an article encouraging fellow Mormons to aspire higher in their writing —in 1888, the same year his biography of Kimball was published. While it doesn't specifically mention the biography, the article gives insight into Whitney's overall literary approach and intentions: "It is impossible to compute in figures, or express in words," he declared, "the blessings that books and book-makers have been to humanity." He cited Thomas Carlyle, who himself had written on the subject of biography, regarding the role of a writer: "The writer of a book, is not he a preacher, preaching not to this parish or that, on this day or that, but to all men, in all times and places?"8 This helps to account for Whitney's not-infrequent didactic asides, extolling various Mormon tenets or Kimball virtues. Whitney was a preacher:

"Are we not too prone to heed the tale-bearer, the secret enemy, who, striking unawares with 'the shaft that flies in darkness,' perchance seeks to build up his own, upon the ruins of his brother's reputation?" (72). 

"For know, O reader—if thou art a stranger to this truth—that Satan is well-satisfied with their condition who 'only believe' in Jesus, if they are not 'born of the water' according to His righteous example and holy will" (106). 

"In Heber, his character, manner and methods—we say it reverently—there was much of the Christ; the might of the lion, with the meekness of the lamb" (143).

As is still the case with many popular Mormon historical accounts (especially those employed in Church Sunday school lessons), history is full of lessons for the present. But Whitney was not lacking in emotions other than the pietistic. Some anecdotes from Kimball's journals depict Kimball's wry humor, as when he described an overnight stay in "an unfinished storehouse" owned by the wealthy father of one Brother Fordham: "he owned many storehouses and buildings, but never invited [the moneyless missionaries] into his house to sleep or eat, though he did invite us to assist him two days in raising a building, as a compensation for lying on his storehouse floor" (92). Elsewhere, Whitney's own sarcasm and even anger are on display when reflecting on the Mormons who were driven from Missouri in 1838. Whitney records that the The Missouri legislature appropriated the sum of $2,000 "to be distributed among the people of Daviess and Caldwell Counties, the Mormons not excepted" and exclaims:

"Oh lavish generosity! Two thousand dollars for a city sacked and pillaged, fields and farms laid waste, and homes given to the flames...Oh world-wide philanthropy! Magnanimity unparalleled!" (198). 
Whitney includes plenty of anecdotes and observations which may surprise contemporary members of the Church. In chapter two Whitney discusses Heber's involvement in Freemasonry. From Heber's journal Whitney copies: "I have been as true as an angel from the heavens to the covenants I made in the lodge at Victor...I wish that all men were Masons and would live up to their profession" (9-10). Heber noted that Hyrum and Joseph Smith were Masons, "yet they were massacred through the instrumentality of some of the leading men of that fraternity, and not one soul of them has ever stepped forth to administer help...although bound under the strongest obligations to be true and faithful to each other" (9-10). Whitney adds:

"Yes, Masons, it is said, were even among the mob that murdered Joseph and Hyrum in Carthage jail. Joseph, leaping the fatal window, gave the masonic signal of distress. The answer was the roar of his murderer's muskets and the deadly balls that pierced his heart" (10). 
Perhaps seeking to buoy up fellow Mormons under pressure for their peculiar practice of polygamy, Whitney invokes the martyrdom of Joseph Smith to remind them of the price paid for their faith, and the cosmic battle waged behind it all: 

"Without doubt, the revelation of the great principle of plural marriage was a prime cause of the troubles which now arose, culminating in the Prophet's martyrdom and the exodus of the Church into the wilderness. True, the old causes remained, sectarian hatred and political jealousies, and these were the immediate reasons for such results. But back of all was the eternal warfare of truth and error, battling each for the world's supremacy, and the mailed hand of Omnipotence pushing the chosen people along the thorn-strewn, blood-sprinkled path of a glorious destiny" (280).

As the practice of polygamy dwindled, reference to its practice and its connection to Joseph Smith's death dwindled in popular Church accounts. Polygamy is not explored in depth in Whitney's account, but he describes Heber as "a husband of many wives and the head of a multitudinous posterity." Perhaps resulting from his personal connections with family members he provides a paragraph-long bibliographic blurb of each wife and a list of their children, including Christeen Golden and her colorful son Jonathan Golden Kimball (361-368). The Grandin edition is missing material from the first edition, including information about some of Heber's children (like Jeremiah, who "was accidentally killed by falling from a railway train" on the way to the mission field or Hyrum H. who "fulfilled an honorable mission to the Southern States").9 Some of the information about various wives has also been edited. In the first edition Frances Swan is described as "one of Heber's wives who left him, was the mother of one child, a daughter named for herself,"10 but in the second edition (and thus Grandin's), Frances Swan "was of striking appearance, tall, slender and with dark complexion. She never lived in Zion, but visited the entire family here. She had one daughter, named Frances" (367). 

Whitney wasn't entirely archaic in his construction of the historical narrative. A notable Mormon twist on contextualization is his employment of certain "Elias" figures, Elias having "the mission of preparation, the lesser part before the greater" (120). Sidney Rigdon and Alexander Campbell are noted as some of the American "orators and divines" who prepared the way for Joseph Smith. Whitney also credits the temperance movement in England as preparing the soil for Mormon elders who arrived to preach the Word of Wisdom in hall's like the "Cock Pit," ready-made for their purposes with temperance enthusiasts willing to listen (126-127).

The biography is filled with other items which contemporary members of the Church may find surprising, including apostles smoking the peace pipe (329), ship races on the high seas (96), battles with demonic spirits (251), relic-like canes made of wood from the coffin of Joseph Smith, and plenty of miraculous healings and prophesies to boot. 

II. Grandin Press Edition: Problems and Possibilities

Two official (that is, family-directed) publications of Whitney's Life of Heber C. Kimball have been published, the first in 1888 and the second in 1945. Eborn books published a hardcover reprint of the first edition in 2007 and Grandin Press released this paperback edition in 2010. Unlike Eborn's edition, Grandin Press's does not contain an added index, a fairly minimal but useful tool which might have helped justify the printing of a new edition.

Grandin's typography seems faithful to the second edition. To be nit-picky, I only noticed five new typos, and the italics were not always consistent between editions. The Grandin edition lacks the book's original publication information, chapter synopses, and the book's subtitle and epigraph—a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Missing also are the chapter overviews in the first edition's table of contents. Each chapter is broken into subsections with short titles, which provide nice resting spots between changes in the subject, but these were not in the first edition. I imagine they were introduced in the second. Grandin also omitted the portraits of Heber and Vilate Kimball (in the front of the book) and Joseph and Hyrum Smith (between pp. 272-273). At least one other image is not included: a drawing of  "Vauxhall Chapel, 1875."11 Thus, William Barton's reminiscence seems odd: "I was fortunate in securing a photograph of this chapel, but had no idea at the time that it would ever be used to illustrate a history of the founder of the British mission" (373).

As far as improved readability, Grandin Press introduced indentations to offset quoted sources from Whitney's own text. They also added citations in parenthesis when Whitney quotes a scripture. Footnotes, represented by asterisks in the original edition, have been turned into numbered endnotes, although chapter 34's single footnote is missing (209, 448).

I enjoyed reading Life of Heber C. Kimball, but perhaps my biggest complaint is a personal one. The changes, errors, and differences I've noted in this review appear silently in Grandin's edition, and it's likely I didn't notice them all. With the reissuing of a book I typically expect some contemporary analysis, a new preface, a contextual essay, an index, or references to updated scholarship. Whitney's inaccurate depiction of Heber being the instigator of the first Relief Society gatherings in Nauvoo could stand a corrective footnote, for instance (283). While reading a paperback copy is preferable (in my view) to .pdf or website version, other people may prefer those free avenues, which are even more accessible on improving e-reader technology. Why not add something new to the book to help justify the republication or to help guide the reader through outdated or surprising material? A full-out critical edition may be unnecessary, but perhaps a few instructive footnotes or contextual essays would be enough. The crafting of biography is an exploration of identity and community, the interior and the public. How does Whitney's approach to Kimball help us better understand Mormon identity and worldview? This is just one interesting question an essay could pose. I'm happy to see these old books back in print, I just hoped for a bit more.

To round out my reviews of the "Forgotten Classics" Orson F. Whitney trilogy, Saturday Night Thoughts is next.12  

1. Although their edition does not specify, Grandin Press evidently reprinted Life of Heber C. Kimball, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Stevens & Wallace, 1945). The Grandin edition silently dropped the subtitle, An Apostle, the Father and Founder of the British Mission, also part of the first edition (Salt Lake City: Kimball Family, Juvenile Instructor Office, 1888). 

2. Hermione Lee, Biography: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 1-3.

3. Whitney understood his own work as portraiture, although he felt he could keep the brush in Heber's hand by including generous excerpts from Heber's own journals: "I have deemed it best to thus project upon the reader's mental vision, by means of the most superior process, the portrait of the man and his mission as painted by himself" (xviii).

4. Lee, Ibid., 58.

5. See pp. 131, 162, 204, 240 for examples. Whitney does not track provenance or provide documentation notation of these sources, nor does Grandin Press. Such details would be especially useful in a re-issued version of the biography.

6.Janet Malcom, cited in Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History, vol. 88, no. 1 (June 2001): 136.

7. Lee, Ibid., 24-25. A comparison of earlier hagiographies and Whitney's biography would make an interesting contextual essay for this volume, but Grandin republishes the "Forgotten Classics" collection without additional information, as discussed later in this review.

8. See Orson F. Whitney, "Home Literature," Contributor 9 (June 1888): 297-302.

9. Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, An Apostle, the Father and Founder of the British Mission 1st ed. (Salt Lake City: Kimball Family, Juvenile Instructor Office, 1888), 434.

10. Ibid., 435.

11. Ibid., image on 139.

12. The back cover of Life of Heber C. Kimball notes two other Whitney volumes, Saturday Night Thoughts and Classic Works of Orson F. Whitney. Their catalog includes Classic Works volumes for Parley P. Pratt and Orson Pratt, but the third Whitney book they offer is EliasAn Epic of the Ages. For some reason Elias and Life are both numbered "2" in the Whitney group.