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No Man Knows My History

by Fawn Brodie

When this book was first published in 1945 it was hailed as a landmark sholarly work on the life of Joseph Smith. The Eastern press was lavish in its praise.

Orvill Prescott of the New York Times characterized it as "one of the best of all Mormon books, scholarly, comprehensie, and judicial" and "scrupulously objective." Newsweek described Brodie's book as "a definitive biography in the finest sense of the word," while Time magazine praised the author for her "skill and scholarship and admirable detachment" in describing Joseph Smith. (Bringhurst 1996, 39)
Fawn Brodie's uncle David O. McKay (an apostle) was distressed at the publication of her book. Within his family he expressed, "feelings of resentment, disappointment, and betrayal" (Bringhurst 1996, 45) In a talk at BYU he stated, "My heart aches this morning because one who was pretty close to me failed -- violated conventions in childhood -- later broke through the fence of consideration and decency -- found the poison grain of unbelief, and now languishes in spiritual apathy and decay." (Bringhurst 1996, 46)

Vardis Fisher, the noted Utah novelist, stated in a review for the New York Times that the book was, "almost more of a novel than a biography because she rarely hesitates to give the content of a mind or to explain motives which at best can only be surmised." (Bringhurst 1996, 49)

Hugh Nibley exposed this an many other problems in the brief review, "No Ma'am That's Not History".

Those outside of Mormon circles considered our hesitancy to accept Mrs. Brodies book as clear evidence of our religious bias. However when she used the same techniques on Thomas Jeffereson, then historians objected. Louis Midgley gives us the following insight.

I learned from this experience a lesson that frequently has been reaffirmed: those outside the Church often think they have the objective explanation for Joseph Smith in Ms. Brodie's book. Mormons' complaints about her treatment of the Joseph Smith story are either unknown or brushed aside as biased special pleading. Fawn Brodie has built a career on the fame she gained among scholars who were troubled by Joseph Smith and the Mormons and who wanted to see them put in their place.

But recently something has happened that has called into question Ms. Brodie's previously towering reputation as a scholar: she has written another book which has turned into an academic scandal. Ms. Brodie has traveled a road leading from Nauvoo to Monticello, and it is with Monticello that the non-Mormon world has learned what certain Latter-day Saints had known way back when she started with Nauvoo. (Midgley 1979, 59-60)

. . . In 1946, when Hugh Nibley first attempted to challenge Ms. Brodie's scholarship, he was denounced as flippant and his arguments were discounted; but there are some rather remarkable similarities between his objections to No Man Knows My History and the current scholarly criticisms of Thomas Jefferson, which complain as Dr. Nibley did of Ms. Brodie's manipulation and tangling of evidence, of her obsession with sex, of her ignorance of the larger background of the subject she is treating, and of her special "intuition" into the minds of people. Perhaps it is time for non-Mormon historians to examine once again Fawn M. Brodie's still-respected earlier work, No Man Knows My History; for that book may suffer from the same faults now so painfully evident to the reviewers of Thomas Jefferson. (Midgley 1979, 66-67)

Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, reviewed by Louis Midgley.