Almost thirty years ago, Mrs. F. M. Brodie wrote what purported to be a biography of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
It was instantly proclaimed to be the one definitive, authoritative book on Joseph Smith and the Mormons. Reviewers vied in heaping praises on it. Schools and libraries accepted it as the true and official account of Mormonism. Ministers and priests went into ecstasies about it and invariably placed it in the hands of any of their flock who wondered about the Mormons.
Mrs. Brodie went on to produce other biographies, receiving mostly favorable but not enthusiastic reviews, but nothing like the attention and acclaim accorded the Joseph Smith epic.
Then she wrote a long biography of Thomas Jefferson, and promptly the roof fell in. "Two vast things" wrote an eminent reviewer, "make this book a prodigy — the author's industry, and her ignorance. . . . She regularly treats us to sub-freshman absurdity. . . . Error on this scale, and in this detail, does not come easily. There is a skill involved. And much nerve. . . . As usual, Ms. Brodie has her facts wrong, even before she loads them with unsustainable surmise."1 Can this be the same Mrs. B. who wrote about Joseph Smith; is it her vaunted scholarship of which we now read, "the same appetites can be more readily gratified by those Hollywood fan magazines, with their wealth of unfounded conjecture on the sex lives of others, from which Ms. Brodie has borrowed her scholarly methods"?2
It is the same Brodie. With one important difference. Now, at last, she is writing about a man whose life and character is the close concern of many students and some eminent scholars.
When she writes about Richard Burton, who is going to bother to check up on her? Does it really make that much difference just what kind of a man he was? Is it anybody's intimate personal concern? Even when she writes about Thaddeus Stevens she is on safe grounds — few are they who love or remember him, or care about him at this distance.
She could proceed with the most slapdash methods on such neutral ground, having once established her status by her first mighty opus, which was a sure thing. For in that she ran not the slightest danger of offending anybody but the Mormons; she told everybody exactly what they wanted to hear about Joseph Smith. Her huge bibliography was accepted at its face value, and awarded her prize after prize.
Those of us who presumed to point out her foibles are still denounced as "flippant." But it needs no profound learning to detect crude and persistent cheating—and that was obvious.
It took this venture into the biography of a man who really interests people, and who is really liked by them, to show the Brodie method for what it is. "One can only be so intricately wrong by deep study and long effort, enough to make Ms. Brodie the fasting hermit and very saint of ignorance. The result has an eerie perfection, as if all the world's greatest builders had agreed to rear, with infinite skill, the world's ugliest building."3
Exactly the same charges which we brought against the Brodie method in 1946, with scandalized hushings from the intellectuals, are now brought against her later and with riper effort by the most respected scholars. As her students at the University of Utah reported, the lady was all out to "get" Joseph Smith, and her motivation was betrayed on many occasions. But with nothing against Thomas Jefferson, she gives him exactly the same treatment. Her manipulating and tangling of evidence, which we once compared to a nest of garter snakes, is now as vividly described in Mr. Wills' illustration of what he calls "the garbled mess she has made of things."4
He comments, as we did, on her gross ignorance of the larger background of the subject she was treating, on her manipulation of words ("she constantly finds double meanings"),5 and on her obsession with sex ("Ms. Brodie delights in the small titillation of finding sexual references wherever possible").6
Were we flippant? No more than this: "It seems a shame to deprive her of such innocent fun; but the game becomes tedious to anyone who has not got her endless appetite for it [sex]."7 "Guilt, torment, and conflict are interlineated through all his writings to make his soul quiver in tune with la Brodie's. Yet there is no scrap of evidence for this passion."8 It was just the same with Joseph Smith — "la Brodie" could look right into his soul with her Freudian intuition: "Ms. Brodie proves that the attempt to construct one [picture of Jefferson] more to the liking of today's romantic daydreamers involves heroic feats of misunderstanding and constant labor at ignorance."9
No one listened when we protested the unfairness of Mrs. B.'s sly and constant insinuations. But now Mr. W. writes: "Typical of Ms. Brodie's hint-and-run method [flippant again] [is] to ask a rhetorical question, and then proceed on the assumption that it has been settled in her favor, making the first surmise a basis for second and third ones, in a towering rickety structure of unsupported conjecture."10 We called this the "House-That-Jack-Built" method, a great favorite of all anti-Mormon writers.11
*These brief comments on reviews of Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York: Norton, 1974) were written around 1974 and presented as a talk.
1. Gary Wills, "Uncle Thomas's Cabin," New York Review of Books 21 (18 April 1974): 26-27.
2. Ibid., 28.
3. Ibid., 26.
8. Ibid., 27.
9. Ibid., 28.
10. Ibid., 26.
11. Hugh W. Nibley, Sounding Brass (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1961), 81-85; reprinted in this volume, pages 407-727.