New Book Reviews: Laurel Ulrich’s HOUSE FULL OF FEMALES and John Bicknell’s AMERICA 1844

I’ve slacked a bit on my book reviews here on the blog—though I have a couple queued for the next two Wednesdays—but a couple more formal reviews have appeared in recent weeks that should make up for it.

First, I had the great honor to review Laurel Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism (Knopf) for the most recent issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. It won’t come as any surprise that I loved the book. It is, I’d argue, the best book in Mormon studies to appear in at least a decade. Here’s a brief excerpt of my review:

The subtitle for the book, however, is somewhat misleading: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism. Though the introduction and final chapter that frame the text indeed focus on Mormon women arguing for “women’s rights,” that particular theme is much subtler and, at times, subservient throughout the story. Ulrich is, of course, arguing that the notion of “rights” is much more malleable than traditional, male-centric definitions, but that tension is never explicitly investigated. And while the jolting paradox of the title—how could women who participated in polygamy simultaneously believe in women’s rights?—is readily apparent, “rights” seems a bit too restrictive for what Ulrich is doing. Further, plural marriage is not always the sole focus of the volume: the early chapters that precede Joseph Smith’s introduction of the practice, as well as the later chapters that focus on male missionaries abroad and missionary wives at home, are as interested in monogamous relationships as they are polygamous ones. This is to say, the subtitle of A House Full of Femalessells the volume’s importance short: more than a history of polygamy and women’s rights, this is a revisionist social history of Mormonism between Kirtland and 1870, as seen through the eyes of the women who lived it. Ulrich is asking a provocative question: what would the history of Mormonism during the tenure of its first two prophets, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, look like if its leading men were re-cast as supporting actors?

I had a few critiques, but overall the review is quite positive. I conclude by saying that,

A House Full of Females is a master historical work by a master historian. This is a narrative of the LDS tradition deserved by an age that is focused on inclusion and diversity. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich demonstrates what Mormon history can look like when we integrate women’s voices, concerns, and experiences into our larger narratives. And in doing so, she issues a clarion call for how Mormon history should be written in the future.

You can download the pdf of the review here.

I also wrote a review of John Bicknell’s America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation (Chicago Review Press, 2015) for the recent issue of BYU Studies Quarterly. The book offers a kaleidoscope view of 1844 and covers the political, social, and religious developments of a tumultuous year. Mormonism plays a small, yet colorful, part of that story, which I focused on given the journal’s interests. I praised Bicknell’s attempt to tell such a broad tale, but I came away somewhat disappointed, for a couple reasons. A taste:

America 1844 is at its best when teasing out the political developments in a year where Congress and the White House were facing crucial national issues: a presidential campaign, the Texas annexation, and the future threat of war. Subtler anxieties included the decline of the Review of America 1844 V 155 Whig Party only four years after its first presidential victory, the bubbling controversy over slavery, and the Machiavellian machinations of politicians attempting to save their careers. Yet Bicknell struggles when he attempts to connect these activities to broader cultural evolutions like William Miller’s millennialism and Joseph Smith’s prophecies. Mere chronological overlap, geographic proximity, and occasional correspondence do not narrative connections make. As a result, the book is often more a scrapbook of events taking place throughout a momentous year, while the interpretive overlap is more assumed than proven.

You can read the full review with this pdf download.

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