An Exemplary Biography

Review of Boyd Petersen. Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life. Salt
Lake City: Kofford Books, 2002. xxxi + 446 pp., with index. $32.95.

An Exemplary Biography

Reviewed by Don Norton

It was at one time a tradition, whenever a new volume of The Collected
Works of Hugh Nibley
came off the press, for editors and other helpers
to celebrate with pizza and root beer. Hugh and Phyllis would show up—”Hugh registering
his usual protests (he didn’t like publicity, he didn’t trust editors, he insisted
that everything in the volume was passé, he’d rather be home with books,
etc.) and writing pithy “signatures” in everybody’s books. In short, he seemed
embarrassed by all the attention.

At one point, someone handed him his personal copy. He became pensive as he turned
the volume in his hands. And then he said, more to himself than to the group,
I believe, “Who’d have ever thought all this stuff would ever see
the light of day?” (“Stuff” was one of his favorite words.)
So after all, despite his disclaimers, he did appreciate all the dedicated, often
selfless tedium it took to bring his volumes to press (as many as two hundred
hours might go into source checking only one volume).

I would like to think that he also appreciates Boyd Petersen’s and the Nibley
family’s efforts to document his life and set the record straight. Had Hugh
only had his say, it would probably have never been written; but rumors are that
he at least didn’t get in the way of writing it, and on many occasions he
even cooperated. His corrections and complaints have been minimal. Thus it is
indeed an “authorized” biography, something many of us hoped but doubted
would be written.

How fortunate that it was done by a family member, an “insider,” as
it were. Boyd Petersen, a son-in-law, frequently alludes to his twenty-year close
association with Hugh and the family. A salient strength of the book is that it
answers quite candidly a multitude of questions that readers may have posed and
sets straight the many myths that inevitably surround someone so gifted and eccentric
as Nibley. I, and many other avid readers of Nibley I’ve spoken to, greatly
appreciate the personal context the book provides for the external Nibley we’ve
all known over the years. The stories, the habits, the mannerisms, the knowledge,
the productivity—”they all now make much better sense, thanks to a framework
into which we can fit them.

Some may construe the book as a premature eulogy, a piece of hagiography, another
in a series of “saints’ lives.” An axiom applied to gifted people
applies to the volume—”that their weaknesses are as transparent as their
endowments, and a few readers might have wished for a more “realistic”
appraisal of the subject. Because of Nibley’s competence, even skeptics
and critics have been awestruck by the man’s intellectual stature; his gifts
and accomplishments are that unusual. (The number of people touched, intellectually
and spiritually, by Nibley’s word is frankly staggering—”avid
readers to teenagers through housewives to hard-core academics.)

What about his flaws? Petersen, I think, strikes a respectful and defensible balance
in what he chooses to reveal and omit about Nibley. The difficult issues are handled
well—”acknowledged but not exploited. Tell-it-all biographies have been all
too voguish in the last few decades, a practice I find indefensible; and some
critics have criticized biographies that sanitize Latter-day Saint notables. Mircea
Eliade has something to teach us on this issue: in Eliade’s historiography,
Nibley—”and all of us, for that matter—”take our identities in archetypes
(not in the Jungian sense), in “exemplary models,” as expressed in
myth and ritual among nearly all ancient and traditional societies. The essence
of humanness is not the fallen, but the redemptive potential of “everyman,”
who finds identity in the re-creation, through repeated rehearsal of the myth
and ritual, of the original acts of creation. The profane is to be assumed, not
celebrated; it’s the sacred that’s “real” and thus warrants
celebration.1 It is the capacity of humans to become participants in events that
link us to the other world, the “real world,” or as Nibley often stressed
when he addressed the Saints, particularly our willingness to repent of human
foibles, that dictates what should be recorded about humans. In the eternal scheme
of things, human weaknesses (the profane) do figure, but they are not valid representations
of what is more important in the human record. The scriptures follow this principle,
and so does Petersen in his treatment of Nibley’s flaws. Thus a major lesson
in the biography is that, given the gospel, we all do well to be “above”
humanity’s flaws, “above” the petty concerns and institutions
that consume the time and devotion of all too many of us. The Nibley biography
is aptly subtitled “A Consecrated Life.” More important than Nibley’s
gifts (there are many gifted among us) is his deeply personal commitment to use
his gifts to defend his faith. In that sense, Nibley is no enigma, however unusual
his habits and quirks. Those who know him well see and hear a consistent figure,
accurately and more fully represented in the biography.

The biography is very accessible. I don’t know how it was written—from
beginning to end, or chapter by chapter. It appears that Petersen followed the
latter pattern, and it works well. Readers can dip into any chapter that strikes
their interest. I myself read the chapters on World War II and the Hopis before
other chapters.

Something is to be said for the quality of Boyd Petersen’s prose. First
of all, it’s honest—”and it’s highly individual, devoid of clichés,
readable. Nibley himself is perhaps the master stylist, capable of the academic
style, but also of a style easily accessible to the ordinary reader. He deserves
to be remembered in polished prose.

I hope the biography revives interest in Nibley’s writings. When he wrote
for the Improvement Era, the New Era, and the Ensign, his name was well known
in active Latter-day Saint households. In recent years, I find that only about
one in ten of my current BYU students has read any of Nibley, and not many more
even recognize the name. This is unfortunate, given Nibley’s profound impact
on Latter-day Saint scholarship over the last fifty years.

Nibley indeed was irritated by the people’s constant demands on his time,
as the book notes. I once knocked on the door to his long and narrow office in
the Joseph Smith Building, intending to ask but a very brief question. Through
the vent in the door, I heard a loud “Damn!” Hugh had just opened
a window to let in a little air, and his carpet of papers faced the peril of draft.
Still, he often gave his time freely. A forty-year-old student enrolled in a two-week
seminar on campus innocently asked me if she could possibly meet Hugh Nibley.
I cautioned her on how jealously he valued his time. But then who should be walking
toward us, south of the library, but Nibley himself. I introduced my student,
who fumbled out an awkward question. Nibley invited her to his office, and they
spent the entire afternoon in conversation. The man that Boyd Petersen documents
was quite capable of such selfless and personal acts.

Peterson gives us due access to the man behind the scholarship (a scholarly biography
now begs to be written), a man as real as any of us, though greatly more gifted;
one who excelled in learning and teaching the gospel—”an exemplary consecrated


  1. Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History
    (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959); also, The Sacred and the Profane (Orlando,
    Fla.: Harcourt, 1959).