By Richard H. Cracroft
Think about this: Our various and individual worlds are variously refracted through our various minds. When we recount events, tell stories, write our memoirs, or create biographies of others’ lives, we believe we are accurately replicating events as they occurred. In fact, we are not. At the very moment the event happens, we begin to customize and individualize “reality”‹changing, shaping, and imposing our own form and meaning on the experience, according to our own background, vision, intellect, experience, and other factors. And so does everyone else.
Though Truth is “Eternal, unchanged, evermore” (Hymns 272), our own understanding of absolute truth is not very absolute. As the writer Tobias Wolff told The Boston Book Review in a recent interview, our culture has come to view memory (and thus perspective) as a videotape or computer diskette “that gets filed away that will be exactly the same when you pull it out.” We fail to recognize, WolV continues, that “memory is something that you do, . . . not something that you have. You remember, and when you remember you bring in all the resources of invention, calculation, self-interest, and self-protection. Imagination is part of it too.” In fact, the computer is not an adequate metaphor for the far more complex human mind. We forget, WolV concludes, that “computers are incapable of imagination and intuition,” and we rely too much upon the impossibility of perfect recall of events and perspectives which have been processed and reconstructed by our changing selves.
You see, then, the problem of recapturing and retelling the perspectives of our lives and others’ through recollection, personal history, autobiography, and journals‹which all become unintentional fictions of a sort. The problem is compounded when others attempt, while peering through the spectacles of their own human perspectives, to recreate histories and write biographies from data based in others’ skewed perceptions and perspectives.
So we approach with interest this month’s gathering of four recent books by BYU alumni and faculty, recorded perceptions which are stories, biographies, diaries, and journals recounting someone’s perceptions of life as recollected by the memories of the subject and his/her associates, as retold by an author whose challenge is to sift through layers of individual perceptions, filter them through his/her own world-view, and present some generally acceptable version of The (elusive) Truth. Of course, whether we like the book or not depends on our own perceptions, on whether we approve or tolerate the perception of the subject and the author or (gulp) of the ever-sagacious Book Reviewer. For example, consider Robert Kirby’s Sunday of the Living Dead (Carson City: Buckaroo Books, 1995), which is, from my personal perspective, a very funny and refreshing collection of 37 of Kirby’s Mormon essays from his newspaper columns in The Salt Lake Tribune, as delightfully illustrated by cartoonist Pat Bagley. Following the humor dynamic made particularly American by Mark Twain, Kirby identifies an LDS convention or pretension; balloons it to enormous proportions, distortions, and absurdities; then sticks a pin in the balloon and shrivels the exaggeration to a Diminished Thing, restoring its human contexts and proportions. Among other topics, Kirby examines “5 Kinds of Mormons” (Liberal, Genuine, Conservative, Orthodox, and Nazi) and notes, for instance, that “Genuine Mormons” are a minority class, most of them having already been translated (correctly, I hope).
For fairness’ sake, he examines “5 Kinds of Non-Mormons” (Ignorant Nons, Tolerant Nons, Irked Nons, Furious Nons, Rabid Nons). “Irked Nons,” he insists, “have a hard time understanding why a state founded by Mormons, populated largely by Mormons, and generally run by Mormons, should reflect mostly Mormon values.”
In “A Moving Experience” he reflects on the 200-plus times he has moved freezers from Saints’ basement apartments at the behest of the elders quorum presidency and concludes that in the interest of gender equality, “it’s the Relief Society’s turn.” And of his and Sister Kirby’s record four-month stint as ward nursery workers, he growls about the incessant noise: “I can’t vouch for the offspring of other faiths, but the average Mormon kid separated from its mom makes more noise than a Chihuahua being sucked through a Shop Vac.” In his hilarious “If I Was the Bishop,” he announces his platform should he ever become bishop of the Dogpatch 8th Ward (“All small children . . . must now wear muzzles in the chapel,” and “Up-to-the-minute sports scores will be electronically posted on a board in the chapel near the hymn numbers”).
With his fine sense of how far to go and what lines not to cross, Robert Kirby makes us laugh at ourselves, without threatening our spiritual equilibrium. This cantankerous but believing Saint‹a wide-awake fellow citizen in the household of God‹allows us to look at Mormon life from a refreshing and delightful perspective‹it’s simply the best LDS humor around.
Another BYU Alum, Davis Bitton, professor of history at the University of Utah, oVers his incisive, scholarly, and faithful perspective on Joseph Smith’s death at Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844, in The Martyrdom Remembered: A 150 Year Perspective on the Assassination of Joseph Smith (Aspen, 1994). Bitton, a major LDS historian, has compiled in five chapters the letters and diaries and poetry written by the Saints immediately after hearing the shocking news from Carthage. He follows with the mixed non-Mormon perspective on the event, and in the last two chapters he traces “The Martyrdom in Later Prose and Poetry” and “The Carthage Tragedy Visualized” (featuring art from both centuries). In the epilogue, Bitton steps from his historian’s objective perspective to talk about Brother Joseph’s meaning to him and generations of Latter-day Saints.
Imagining Joseph’s perspective on his own life, he allows the Prophet to speak across time, urging us to hear him. Bitton responds: “By your prophetic deeds our lives have been inestimably deepened and ennobled. Yes, Brother Joseph, we hear, we hear.” Bitton’s perspective, grounded in history (others’ perceptions) and his personal witness, is, from my perspective, “uplifting and of good report.”
A very different but exciting perspective is presented in Jerusalem, The Eternal City (Deseret Book, 1996), by David B. Galbraith, D.Kelly Ogden, and Andrew C. Skinner, respectively professors of political science and ancient scripture at BYU and former residents of “the most famous city on earth.” They describe, in this readable history of the Holy City from 2000 b.c. to 2000 a.d. ‹Melchizedek to Millennium‹the geographical, topographical, and physical setting of this city which many consider “the center of the earth.” After treating the philosophical centrality of the city to various Paganisms, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam‹and the sad but perpetual struggle, as “piety and blood, belief and battle have mingled here for more than three thousand years”‹the book fuses in 28 chapters‹and from an LDS perspective‹theology, history, geography, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and political science as the authors examine the various periods of Jerusalem’s fascinating history and its remarkable influence on world history across 40 centuries. The chapter, “Jerusalem at the Time of Christ,” is particularly illuminating. This first LDS perspective on the Holy City lends new meaning to the Psalmist’s words: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem . . . let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy” (Psalms 137:5–6).
Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, BYU English professor and Joseph Fielding Smith Institute research historian, has given members of the entire Church a new perspective on Eliza R. Snow. In her brilliant book, The Personal Writings of Eliza Roxcy Snow (University of Utah Press, 1995), Beecher makes available in one volume Snow’s original and complete version of her 45-page “Sketch of My Life” (1877), in which Zion’s Poet, Presidentess, and Prophetess recounts her reorganization of the Relief Society, founding the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, the Primary Association, the Deseret Hospital Association, and the Woman’s Commission Store.
In her recently discovered Nauvoo journal and notebook, Snow, who was a plural wife to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, describes life in Nauvoo and makes carefully veiled allusions to her 1842 sealing to Joseph. Her two trail diaries (1846–1849) give a new perspective on spiritual sisterhood, relationships, and personal difficulties encountered on the plains and in the early settlement years in Salt Lake Valley. Interspersed through these writings are Snow’s poetic reflections and occasional poems. Beecher’s excellent interpretive introductions clarify otherwise elusive points and make the book a significant contribution to our perspective on the perspectives of a magnificent woman and Zion Builder, par excellence. 8 Richard H. Cracroft is a professor of English at BYU and director of the Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature.