Histories R Us

Whom do men say that I am?

In an excellent discussion on the New Historicism, Rick Duerden says the following in a section he titles “Histories R Us.”

This combination of language and history complicates our notions of history just as it complicates our notions of language. Thus, because language is not a simple and transparent medium, our statements about the past are not clear windows on history, nor are they perfect mirrors, direct reflections of a past world; histories we write are constructs, shaped by what we take from old texts and by what we decide to put into the new texts we ourselves write. Histories are the way we choose to represent the past to ourselves. Like our own memories, they are not storehouses of objective fact, but the images and fictions which we choose to believe. We all color our memories somewhat; I select and retell to make the past explain the present, to make my memory justify my current consciousness. In the same way, the biases and ideology of the historian become part of the story. New historicism requires a fervent self-consciousness about our own commitments and prejudices. The critic is not outside history and language, calmly and objectively commenting; the critic too is located in history, in a culture, with an ideology that makes some things invisible, some things important.

(Rick Duerden, “Cultural Poetics: The New Historicism,” in The Critical Experience: Literary Reading, Writing, and Criticism, ed. David Cowles, 2nd ed. [Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1994], 247.)

This is exactly the point that has been made by Louis Midgley, Steven C. Harper, and others about Mormon history.

If you don’t think this is so, I’d invite you to pick up a copy of the different biographies of Joseph Smith written by, respectively, George Q. Cannon, Preston Nibley, Fawn Brodie, Truman G. Madsen, Dan Vogel, Dona Hill, and Richard Bushman. Go ahead. After you’re done reading, ask yourself how Joseph Smith comes across in these different retellings of his life.

Then you’ll see that Duerden is spot on in his analysis.