Gary Topping, a professor at Salt Lake Community College, has previously published a number of books and articles on Utah environmental history and historians who have lived in Utah. In some ways, Topping’s article on Robert Dwyer and his book on historians Bernard DeVoto, Juanita Brooks, Wallace Stegner, Dale Morgan, and Fawn Brodie can be considered precursors to this book.
In other ways, this book is also somewhat of a new foray; unlike most of the other historians Topping has treated, Leonard Arrington was neither a non-Mormon nor a lapsed Mormon. He remained an active Latter-day Saint throughout his life. Arrington served in numerous ecclesiastical positions, including as a counselor in a stake presidency and Church Historian—the only person whom the First Presidency has called to the position who was not also a General Authority. President Gordon B. Hinckley asked Arrington’s widow, Harriet Horne Arrington, for permission to speak at his funeral, which she gladly gave.
In spite of the title, Topping’s book is a selective intellectual biography rather than a complete “Historian’s Life.” In the preface, Topping clearly states, “I have confined my attention to those works that strike me as most important and also from which I can most efficiently and persuasively make the points I wish to make.” This procedure results in a book that touches on Arrington’s early life and education but focuses almost entirely on his books and articles on Mormon topics, especially those about the nineteenth century. With the exception of Arrington’s biography of Brigham Young, the biographies Topping reviews are those commissioned by families, and all of them consider Latter-day Saints who lived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While Topping examines works such as Building the City of God, The Mormon Experience, and Mormons and Their Historians, his book does not consider the extensive body of Arrington’s work, often written in collaboration with others, on twentieth-century Utah and Western economic and social history.