Who has written the best biography of Joseph Smith? The two most prominent authors are Fawn Brodie and Richard Bushman. Dr. Newell Bringhurst weighs in on the Bushman-Brodie issue and talks strengths and weaknesses of both approaches.
Newell: Well, I tell people if they really want to know Joseph Smith, I recommend those two in tandem for this reason. Number one is that Brodie really was a path-breaking study in trying to attribute reasons or motives to Joseph Smith and his practice of polygamy. It was controversial because she starts it out by her major premise is Joseph Smith was a conscious fraud. When you make that statement at the beginning of the book, that’s immediately going to send up red flags all over the place, but when you get into the book itself, she actually is quite empathetic to a lot of Joseph Smith’s behavior and actions.
She was able, I think, to create a more human figure. In previous biographies, they have either pictured him as a scoundrel, anti-Mormon books that had been written by Smith, or in the case of books written by faithful Latter-day Saints by Joseph Smith, had been made almost as a hagiographic, almost a demigod. I think even though she didn’t believe that he was really a prophet of God, she tried to give you a sense of the whole man.
The sources she used, the critics that had problems with Brodie, not only had she started with the premise that Joseph is a conscious fraud but she uses a lot of/a disproportionate number of anti-Mormon sources, so that does make it a little bit of a skewed as far as she doesn’t give Joseph Smith enough credit as the religious leader that he was or that he purported to be. That was one of my major criticisms that I saw from the book when I read it.
But when you compare Bushman’s arguments with Brodie’s, his is based a lot more on contemporary documents. He had access to a lot more materials and documents that Brodie didn’t have access to, so his is a much more thoroughly researched and documented history, but I don’t think it is as engagingly written.
Fawn Brodie was trained in English literature and received her degree in English so she brought that expertise and is able to write in a very engaging way. To me it’s a much more readable biography, but Bushman’s is more carefully documented and gives you all sides of the argument. He’s arguing also from the vantage point of a faithful practicing Latter-day Saint. He believes what he said he was a prophet of God and pretty much goes along with the divine origin and various doctrines and practices. It’s far from being a hagiography because Bushman does acknowledge his faults and his shortcomings and the mistakes that he made and so on, so it’s good in that regard.