This Sunday Greg will be hosting a Study Group at his home featuring Alex Beam, author of American Crucifixion, a book recounting many events associated with the life, death, and legacy of Joseph Smith. In preparation for Sunday, we have purchased the book.
Coincidentally, someone forwarded a link to an except from Alex Beam’s book posted on Salon. I suppose they thought that I would rise up from my leisurely repose and contradict Mr. Beam.
As I read the excerpt, which jams polygamy-related stories in a manner admitting only one interpretation, I found nothing that isn’t common knowledge. There is nothing in that excerpt that asserts anything new.
I decided I should scan the entire book, to be prepared for Sunday. I did find a few irritating things:
1) Like many of the texts that portray Joseph as a sexual opportunist, Beam’s book skips around chronologically. This is something journalists do. The Ostlings did it in Mormon America, and Newell and Avery did it in Mormon Enigma. As I write this, I suspect one reason for the temporal skipping is that everyone has been doing it, making it very difficult to assemble a chronological narrative. Much easier to simply re-mix the disjointed stories others have told before. And Alex Beam puts his re-mix together powerfully.
2) I adore footnotes. Alex Beam does have end notes, but he flings many quotes, and the end note portion of the book ought to be about four times as thick as it is. Further, when he does cite a source, he often cites the book where he found the information, not the original source from which that book might have obtained the information.
3) Alex does not appear to discriminate between sources. He uses quotes from Brodie as well as the occasional original source.
4) He has some facts wrong. However only someone extremely familiar with the data would ever know those facts were wrong. I was surprised to hear the Juvenile Instructor termed a children’s periodical, and Beam claimed Joseph married Elvira when she was “a girl living in the Smith household.” Punchier than the true version, that Elvira was a spinster in her late twenties who Joseph had publicly married to one of his bodyguards six months before sealing the spinster to himself.
5) Obviously, Beam did not include anything significant about Bennett and what spiritual wifery had actually done to Joseph’s Nauvoo. How could he? It’s not as though that theme has been put forward by other writers.
There were some good things.
1) The book is highly readable. True, it paints a picture of Joseph as a sex-crazed megalomaniac, but my goodness, as a reader I am entertained.
2) The book covers not only Joseph’s polygamy, but provides a survey of his entire life, with particular attention to polygamy, the last months of Joseph’s life, the martyrdom, the trial, and the aftermath. So in this one relatively slender book (277 pages of content, excluding notes, etc.), it is easy to find quotes regarding a vast expanse of Joseph’s life, suitable for plugging into google if you want to find the original source of the facts.
3) There are numerous colorful facts that I haven’t found in other books. For example, Beam mentions the heavy rains of 1844, which had caused flooding throughout the Mississippi River Basin. I knew about that from ancestor diaries, but it was nice to read his anecdotes about the flooding and starvation–no doubt contributor to public unrest around the time Joseph Smith was killed. Beam also notes that it was legal to marry someone 14 years old in Nauvoo, mitigating the natural concern about the marriage to Helen Mar Kimball. Though Beam goes on to craft the quotes so artfully that you almost see Joseph force himself upon a surprised and far-too youthful Helen Mar.
4) Beam does point out similarities between the events surrounding Joseph’s death and the events surrounding the death of Christ. However I’m not sure that does anything to recommend Joseph. More likely, it would tend to make a doubter even more dubious about Christ.
But What of A Faithful Joseph?
Beam’s book does not contain any new information that changes my view of events. Beam doesn’t have time in his fast-paced narrative to point out that DNA investigations have failed to demonstrate Joseph fathered children on women other than Emma. Most the children alleged to have been born to Smith are proven to be the get of their legal fathers. In one case the data was found to be inconclusive (Josephine Lyon Fisher). The lack of provable children would have been a useful factoid, perhaps nestled next to the mention that Joseph married dozens of women (33 to 48, depending on who was counting).
As long as Beam was casting the Expositor as the cry of the people, “Crucify him, Crucify him!” and Governor Ford as Pontius Pilate, it would have been nice if Beam could have cast Bennett as Judas, the insider who betrayed the Christ. It would have improved the literary resonance Beam was attempting to create between Joseph and Christ.
Anyway, I look forward to the opportunity to chat with Alex Beam this Sunday. I will post a follow-up, which I may allow to displace my next planned post in the Faithful Joseph series.