REVIEW: Richard Van Wagoner, Natural Born Seer

Prior to his untimely death, Richard S. Van Wagoner was a prolific and respected amateur historian of the LDS faith. Besides an excellent biography of Sidney Rigdon, he also authored a well-received history of Mormon polygamy. It was therefore justified when the Smith-Pettit Foundation tapped him to write the first of a three-part biography of Joseph Smith. Though the entire series never appeared as the originally-conceived trilogy, two of the volumes appeared last year. Martha Bradley-Evans authored the Nauvoo-era biography, which I reviewed here. And now Van Wagoner’s volume, Natural Born Seer: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1805-1830, which covers the Prophet’s first 25 years, is also available for perusal. This is a meticulously researched, thoroughly argued, and and impressively written resource for scholars of Early Mormonism, and a helpful repository of scholarship from the New Mormon History era. 

Natural Born Seer, due to its purpose and scope, shares many of the strengths of Bradley-Evans’s sister volume. The length and depth allows the author to dig into issue and events in ways that are typically glanced over in broader volumes. But the occasional reliance on problematic sources, including Lucy Mack Smith’s memoirs and, to a lesser degree, History of the Church, at times causes problems. Thankfully, Van Wagoner buttresses HoC sources with other primary material, many of which was new to me. Truly the book stands on the shoulders of decades of archival workers like Dan Vogel and Michael Quinn. The book will be an essential crutch for scholars of Mormon history for quite some time. 

Perhaps one of the most useful accomplishments of the book is it collates and summarizes an entire generation of New Mormon History scholarship. Work on treasure seeking, the Book of Mormon, Smith family dynamics–even if Natural Born Seer doesn’t provide much novelty, it makes up for it in exhaustiveness. It will be imminently convenient to keep this book at arm’s length for a quick resource when needed. However, there are some limits to this secondary literature. Most of the books Van Wagoner cites for Smith’s cultural context are a few decades old, and therefore the book misses out on some of the most recent historiogrpahical trends in American frontier, folklore, and religious history. So even from this angle, Natural Born Seer is reflective of an earlier age. 

The major problem facing any biographer of Joseph Smith’s early life is the lack of contemporary sources and the proliferation of later reminiscences. Van Wagoner takes an interesting approach to solve the issue. On the one hand, he sets out to privilege the earliest material; however, he doesn’t shy away from using later developments to shape what he believed were central character traits. And one of the primary Smithian features, according to Van Wagoner, was deception. So while he insists that The Peophet’s life was not “dominated by deception,” he still insists that “it is an important trait–one of many that define his character and personality. Ignoring the prophet’s duplicitous self will result in a failure to understand the man” (xiv). The introduction even goes so far as to share a number of anecdotes of Smith lying during the Nauvoo period in order to frame key questions of the narrative, since he believes it reveals Smith’s deeper character. Such is a fair and justifiable decision. But it does bring consequences. There are moments, especially related to majors events in LDS sacred history, that become politicized. Smith’s First Vision, for instance, is treated more as a later creation than a contemporary moment. Van Wagoner claims that Smith was much more interested in treasure seeking than religious visions in 1820 (186-188), implying the two things could not exist simultaneously. Such a dichotomous framework, of course, was Smith’s own later construction. The older Smith claimed a distinction between divinity and folklore, but did the younger Smith feel similarly?

One episode in this volume epitomizes these larger tensions of the entire book: the chapter on Joseph Smith’s leg surgery as a kid. On the one hand, Van Wagoner unearths the lecture notes, private and public writings, and student reminiscences related to Nathan Smith, the Dartmouth surgeon who performed the operation. That was excellent detective work, and revelations like that sprinkled throughout the text justify the volume on their own. But Van Wagoner also heavily (and uncritically) relies on Lucy Mack’s memoir to reconstruct the family psyche. So it’s a careful and tedious reconstruction of the nuts and bolts of contemporary medicine while still couched in the narrative of Lucy’s triumphant tale. And further, for secondary sources Van Wagoner overlooks recent scholarship on medicine and folk culture in favor of dated psychoanalysis. Thus the mix of useful and frustrating detail.

I don’t want these critiques to take away from my praise. Van Wagoner was a careful historian whose work deserves acclaim. This book is a fitting culmination for a career cut too short. And even more than exhaustive detail, I found the writing–save for an unfortunate reliance on block quotes–to be exceptional. Would that all Mormon history books featured this prose. 

I’m going to close this review with a discussion of audience. Who was this book written for? Due to its meticulous detail and parochial scope, not to mention frequent and sometimes unexplained references to later episodes in Smith’s life, Natural Born Seer probably won’t find many readers amongst those unfamiliar with LDS history. And because it does not really engage current academic questions, it likely won’t catch the eyes of the non-Mormon scholarly community. But that’s okay, because I’d argue this book wasn’t designed for these people. Rather, this book is written for Mormon readers who, after reading classics in the field, are ready to make a deeper dive into Joseph Smith’s life. This is the Mormon history book for the Mormon history nerds. And because of that–because it carries certain assumptions concerning its audience–it can dig deeper than other volumes. 
For those anxious for a deeper look into Joseph Smith’s origins story, Natural Born Seer is an exceptionally useful resource. 

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