Interview • Ed Breslin's "Brigham Young: A Concise Biography of the Mormon Moses" takes balanced approach to controversial figure.
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When approaching biographies of famous Mormons at the bookstore, there tend to be two types.
Some lionize the subject, with a liberal use of sugarcoating. Others vilify, with plenty of exaggeration.
In the new book "Brigham Young: A Concise Biography of the Mormon Moses," author Ed Breslin examines Young's life using a scholarly focus with a sense of measured admiration, but he doesn't gloss over the darker aspects such as Young's role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Breslin left his job as publisher and senior vice president of HarperCollins to be a full-time writer after more than two decades in publishing, and has co-written biographies of William Tecumseh Sherman and George S. Patton. In 2008, he collaborated on Sen. Mel Martinez's memoir, "A Sense of Belonging."
Breslin recently answered questions via email about the Brigham Young biography.
Why do you say in the book that Brigham Young was a "quintessential American"?
Born into poverty, Brigham ended as the equivalent of a multimillionaire today. He was truly self-made, having received only 11 days of formal schooling in what we can assume was a one-room schoolhouse in frontier New York State. Like all Americans, except Native Americans, Brigham was an immigrant, called originally a pilgrim and, later, a pioneer. Like all immigrants to America, which covers most Americans stretching back to Jamestown and to Plymouth Rock, Brigham's forebears came to America seeking freedom from poverty and from religious persecution and in quest of a better life. Working hard and complaining little, while capitalizing on every opportunity, no matter how small or large, Brigham achieved a better life for himself and ensured a better life for his offspring.
Why were you drawn to Brigham Young?
He's fascinated me for a long time. My cousin Frank and his family live in Salt Lake City and my wife's old hometown friend Fred Reimherr also lives there. It's a gorgeous place. I admire Mormon industry, business prowess and humanitarian generosity. I became more and more intrigued by this towering figure, Brigham Young. Though it's out of fashion and academically déclassé, I subscribe to the Great Man Theory with one codicil: I also subscribe to the Great Woman Theory. Reading a great deal of 19th-century history, I became extremely curious about Brigham Young.
Here in Utah, he remains a controversial figure beloved by many, criticized by others. How did you find a balance?
Like most great men and women, Brigham was multifaceted. There is much to applaud and much to rue. He was neither the saint his idolaters would have us embrace nor the villain his detractors would have us condemn. In the main, he was a good and admirable man; however, as he aged and as he suffered repeated depredationseven travesties of justice and barbaric atrocities heaped on him and on his co-religionistshe lost perspective and gave in to that base impulse to respond in kind, to retaliate. This is an understandable but regrettable lapse in judgment. Here is an indubitable fact: He did vastly more good in life than he did harm.
Is America going through a "Mormon Moment"?
Clearly there is a Mormon craze going on. That's not a bad thing. There is much to admire and emulate about Mormons. Then again, in certain of their manifestations and in some of their now-abandoned practices, there is much to eschew. But their positives far outnumber their negatives. Also, the Mormons are prominent now, identified one-on-one with a whole state. The only other state with a so clearly defined individual profile is Texas. Before it became a state, Texas was a nation. So too, in effect, was Utah. Before it became a state, Utah evolved first as the Deseret Territory and then as the Utah Territory. Utah, especially in its earliest manifestation as Deseret, contributed more to the settlement of the Far West than any other state. Also, Mormons have accomplished so much in religion, in commerce, in charitable work and in education that they fascinate people wanting to know how they did it. The polygamy issue, somewhat regrettably, also spikes lascivious curiosity.
Why are there so many misconceptions about Brigham and Mormons' beliefs?
From its inception Mormonism was vilified by its detractors. People react negatively to anything that is different. See the history of the Nativist Party, the "Know Nothings." Naturally, when Brigham became the leader of this new religion following the murder of Joseph Smith, his mentor, idol and hero he too was vilified. The truth is that despite repeated and virulent efforts to stamp out Mormonism and to blacken Brigham's name, none of these efforts succeeded. Lies about Mormonism abounded, and a good deal of slander spread about Brigham. When you get a "We/Them" system going, the outsiders are vilified. That's what happened to the Mormons.
Why did you choose to write a "concise" biography?
Ever since I read Lytton Strachey's "Eminent Victorians" in college, I've loved short biographical profiles. This passion was reinforced by reading the great profiles in The New Yorker. Now I love the art of the short biography, which is only an expanded profile. The Penguin Short Lives series is stupendous, especially Patricia Bosworth's book on Brando and Edmund White's on Proust. Unless you're a scholar, you have neither time nor interest enough to read a scholarly biography. It's too long, too time-consuming and too much information for our sped-up age. Having said that, let me hasten to add that the scholarly biographies listed in the bibliography section of my book are all worth reading, especially the recent one by Professor [John G.] Turner, though he sees Brigham more pejoratively than I do.
What does the Mountain Meadows Massacre reveal about Brigham Young?
Everyone makes mistakes in life. Brigham wasn't infallible. In his later years he succumbed to war fever and erred in judgment. Churchill will never live down the wanton destruction of Dresden, great man though he was. He bombed Dresden in payback for the destruction of Coventry Cathedral. It didn't bring back Coventry Cathedral. It succeeded only in demolishing the precious and irreplaceable artwork and architecture of the Florence of the North. From this crime he will never be rehabilitated. Neither will Brigham be rehabilitated from the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The heinousness of each atrocity, however, does not negate the overwhelming good done by both these great men.
Near the end of the book, you write, "As a colonizer, he has no peer in American history." Why do you make such a bold claim?
The great American explorers who preceded Brigham to the Far West by four decades mapped the territory and forged the first primitive paths, but Brigham opened the Far West (except for California) to settlement more than any other individual. He is largely instrumental in the settlement of all the nine states that were subsumed wholly or partly in the vast area that composed the original territory of Deseret. California had seaborne Anglo settlers earlier, and also Spanish colonization even earlier, but Brigham opened the way for permanent settlement basically between the Mississippi and the Pacific, an amazing feat. To put that accomplishment in perspective, it amounts to nearly 20 percent of the Lower 48. Sam Houston was incomparable in the Anglo settlement of Texas, and John C. Fremont was a driving force in the Anglo settlement in California, but neither of these great men had the reach and impact of Brigham Young. The Mormon vanguard wore the track smooth for thousands of later pioneers to follow, both Mormons and non-Mormons. Brigham led them.
Have you visited Salt Lake City and Utah?
I regret to say I've only been there once on a flying business visit. But I did stand in awe in Temple Square and couldn't get over how kind and helpful the kids were who served as guides. My wife has seen a lot more of Utah than I have, and loved it: the whole metropolitan area of Salt Lake City and Moab and all the scenic territories in the southern parts of the state. And every movie nut in New York City loves Sundance, so I'd like to see Park City too, as well as to catch up with my wife Moab and the southern canyons and rivers.
Twitter: @davidburger "Brigham Young: A Concise Biography of the Mormon Moses"
Pages • 242
Price • $24.95