Wednesday, January 17, 2007

On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author's Diary

Author Bushman's diary of 'Rough Stone Rolling' tour is a page-turner
By Dennis Lythgoe
Deseret Morning News
      A little over a year ago, I reviewed "Rough Stone Rolling"
(Knopf), Richard Bushman's splendid biography of the first LDS
prophet, Joseph Smith. I thought Bushman accomplished what no
historian had before, a balanced, interesting, perhaps even definitive
look at the life of the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints — "warts and all."
      As a prolific American historian, a respected Columbia
University professor, and a believing, practicing Mormon, Bushman
seemed right for the task. He spent seven years researching and
writing the book, which may yet change the Mormon intellectual
      To date, 80,000 copies have been printed, which would seem to
clearly indicate that both Mormons and non-Mormons are reading it.
      Interestingly, Bushman kept a diary about this book project and
about his speaking and signing tour last year, which has been
published in a limited edition, titled, "On the Road with Joseph
Smith: An Author's Diary."
      The diary is possibly unparalleled — an author of a recent book
candidly dissecting his experiences with both Mormon and non-Mormon
audiences. There are even descriptions of his own feelings of
      This is no arrogant academic proclaiming his perfect product to
the world. It is a humble, gentle man with whom we can identify,
discussing feelings of anxiety, even panic and frustration over his
performance at the podium and the answers he gave to difficult
      Now that this limited edition has attracted such avid interest,
both the author and the publisher have proclaimed their willingness to
pursue unlimited commercial publication. The document certainly
deserves wider distribution — in part because it shows a talented
historian laying open his vulnerabilities, and also because it shows
how much any historian lays on the line when he writes about Joseph
      During a conversation by phone from his New York City home,
Bushman said he was "flabbergasted" by the print run, and he wondered
aloud if there is any other profession (a historian writing about the
church leader he reveres) in which someone "joined professional
qualifications and personal philosophy so completely."
      Bushman said he enjoyed writing the diary. "It was like eating
peanuts. It lures you from one page to another."
      And reading it is a similar experience.
      The reasons for his candor lie "partly in my age," said Bushman,
who is in his 70s. "I'm not protecting anything now. I think we reach
other people by opening ourselves. So I go back to who I really am
rather than to use any pretense."
      As he traveled, reviews of the book gradually popped up in
journals and newspapers. When the book was reviewed in The New York
Review of Books and the New York Times, Bushman found himself perhaps
unaccountably bothered by critiques that seemed not to understand
Joseph Smith.
      Yet none of the writers of those reviews — Western novelist
Larry McMurtry or popular novelist Walter Kirn, for example — is a
historian or academic. Kirn is a lapsed Mormon, and Bushman said he
doubts that McMurtry read the entire book.
      They both tended to review Joseph Smith as a "scalawag, a bit of
a buffoon or con artist" rather than the author's treatment of his
      But now the reviews have become much more positive, although
Bushman is convinced that "it's not possible to hit the right tone
with academics — at least not yet. If a non-Mormon, non-academic were
to have written the book exactly as it is, they might like it."
      Bushman remains happy the book is selling all over the country
(including at Deseret Book and the LDS Church Museum of Church History
and Art). "No one has put it on any forbidden list, as far as I know.
It's healthy to get Joseph Smith's history out in the open. It
shouldn't be concealed."
      At any rate, Bushman is glad he did it — and now he's
gravitating back to his study of farming in early America. He's also
proud of his faith. Being a Mormon is "something I could never give
up. It's too delicious." That's a term he borrowed from the preacher
of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, "who had a taste for the
doctrine of grace."
      Bushman is happy that wherever he goes LDS readers seem to like
the book — and he gets many complimentary letters. "The book seems to
have hit the right tone for Mormons," said Bushman, "and every
academic will at least have to take it seriously. That's fine with

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