A Review of the Dust Jacket and the First Two Pages

Review of George D. Smith. Nauvoo
Polygamy: “. . . but we called it celestial
Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008. xix + 672 pp., with bibliography, appendixes, and index.

A Review of the Dust Jacket and the First Two Pages

Reviewed by Robert B. White

A great advantage of reading a book review is that one is
assisted in choosing whether a book is worth its price and the time required to
read it. A disadvantage of many book reviews, however, is that they run to such
length that one often is obliged to have already read a great deal before making
the critical decisions about whether to part with his money and then his time.

Bearing that in mind, readers will be relieved to learn at
the outset that this review is only just over four pages long. That will be sufficient
to adequately inform a prospective purchaser or reader about whether to buy and
read this book, or to do something else, such as clean the garage. Furthermore,
I say “the dust jacket and the first two pages” rather than “only the dust jacket and the first two pages” because the whole book can be assessed
from just those. One cannot, of course, assume that this book just misses being
judged by its cover alone because the author didn’t try his best. Simply put,
however, he nevertheless did not do well, and he received no evident assistance
from his editors (who work for him).

Although the book is accordingly longer than is necessary
for the purposes that are so quickly evident, the author must be congratulated
for his obvious understanding of the need for brevity and for his willingness
to accommodate it. There is an obvious and genuine attempt to compact the text
by using the ellipsis a great deal. Although the choice to make abundant use of
this mark of punctuation is favored by a certain class of historian in order to
obscure what was actually said by someone, or because the full contents of a
document do not suit the writer’s purpose, the plentiful use of the ellipsis
here was clearly meant for the reader’s benefit. That is obvious, because without
an abundance of ellipses the volume would have been bulked up by setting out entire documents, or at the very least entire paragraphs from
some of them, and although this is considered an important way to align a work
more closely with the facts, this author has recognized that it does require
space; and when paper and ink and the reader’s available time are at a premium,
something has to be sacrificed. Regrettably, the author’s thoughtful consideration
of the time and means of the reading public has been lost on another reviewer,
whose work supplies complete rather than edited quotations of primary sources,
and who goes so far as to put them into their historical context. In doing
this, the other reviewer, who is admirable in all other ways, has produced a
long review, completely defeating the efforts and purposes of the author and
editors, and gives no credit to their obvious anxiety to spare the public an
expensive and thick volume. While that review is otherwise highly commendable
and deserves to be read in full, it misses the point of the editorial decisions
to include enough fragmentary material in the book to ensure titillation but
not so much as to demand information. After all, if readers are going to insist
on full or contextual use of primary sources, they can look them up themselves.
A publisher cannot perennially pander to those obsessed with having books
cluttered and bulked up with the actual documents or their historical setting.

So, with all that said, here is my
review of the dust jacket and the first two pages.

The dust jacket fairly and frankly advises the readers that
they “can judge for themselves as they and the author retrace the steps of
the Mormon prophet” through places where “rumors and disclosures”
apparently abound. How true, and how fair of Signature Books
to say so. This encouragement not to take George D. Smith’s Nauvoo
and its “rumors and disclosures” at face value is
a welcome departure from the practice of some publishers to tout their wares as
accurate, documented, seminal works that now set the standard for any treatment
of the subject. This world needs more publishers with the candor thus demonstrated
by Signature Books. It is to be hoped that no one will ever handle a copy of Nauvoo
without first ensuring that the dust jacket is attached and
has been read.

Now for the book itself. The first
two pages come close to being a great read—although they are jumbled up
with references to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and excerpts from a letter by
the emperor that the author appears to believe may have been plagiarized by Joseph
Smith, the book’s protagonist. The locale is somewhere in the woods outside
Nauvoo. We are informed that Joseph Smith is hiding from due process of law
(the author, as part of his commendable surrender to brevity, saves us the
bother of telling us that the law in question is in the person of some
hate-filled folks from Missouri who still hold grudges and have come to kidnap
Joseph and haul him back to the dungeon in Liberty). We eventually learn that
he is holed up in the back room of a log cabin belonging to friends and that
care must be taken when visiting him so that the chaps from Missouri won’t
follow anyone there. From deep in the woods, he sends a letter to young Sarah,
whom he has recently married as a plural wife (hence documenting at once the
reference in the title to polygamy), telling her that it is God’s will that she
come and comfort him because of his strong feelings for her. “Now is the
time to afford me succor,” he writes, and adds that he has a room entirely
to himself for the purpose. “Come,” he writes, “come and see me
in my lonely retreat” out in the bush. At night! Now, there’s the making
of an arresting beginning!

A sprinkling of ellipses informs us that we have not been burdened
by the entire text of the letter; but on this occasion it is not only to save
space, paper, ink, and time—more importantly, it is to protect the
reputation of Joseph Smith. (With so many books being written in an effort to
debase Joseph’s character, an author as protective of Joseph’s reputation as is
this one must be commended.) You see, the entire letter is addressed not only
to Sarah, but to Sarah’s parents as well; and Joseph asks that Mom and Dad come
along to the nocturnal tryst. Well, one can see right away that this would have
reflected poorly on Joseph’s sophistication because it would portray Joseph
Smith as something of a klutz in the steamy midnight romancing field. One can
imagine the enthusiasm with which those hostile to the Prophet would poke fun
at yet another proof that Joseph was only a dumb yokel after all. Worse,
because Joseph occupied only a single room, when all the sweating and moaning
the book leads us to assume was to be going on, there wouldn’t have been much
room for Mom and Dad to stand around, let alone sit down to play a game of
crib. The author thus conceals the revelation that Joseph was impractical and
inconsiderate of older people.

Obviously, then, the author is biased and will stop at
nothing, not even the removal of pertinent parts of paragraphs and sentences
from the first document cited, to make his case about Joseph Smith. After all,
if we can’t get past page 2 without the excision of large portions of a letter
that, quoted in its entirety, would reveal Joseph’s ignorance of the needs of
carnality, what, then, can we hope in the way of objectivity from the rest of
the book? Having read it, I can tell you: we can hope for none. George Smith
and his press have made their bias clear to any erudite reader in the first two
pages (and we were, after all, fairly warned in the dust jacket); and the many,
many other pages, even littered as they are with an abundance of doubtless
well-meaning ellipses, do nothing to redeem the beginning. We are fortunate
that in his efforts to portray Joseph Smith in the way intended, the author has
made his bias and methodology so immediately transparent. But, as I said, he
doubtless did his best.

Well, that’s about enough information to let you know if you
should shell out your book budget for the author’s egregious efforts in the
expectation of reading anything accurate or unbiased. I know that if you don’t
buy a copy, it might hurt Signature’s revenues (they must be getting strapped
for money when the publisher writes his own books—any suggestion that
instead it is because he has some sort of agenda doesn’t bear thinking about);
but better them than you.

I hope you like this review. I wish I’d read something like
it before I read the book. You see, my garage still
needs cleaning.