Writing a biography of President Heber C. Kimball, Brigham’s First Counselor and pioneer Utah’s number two man, requires a skillful and steady hand. The man was a kaleidoscope of jarring images. When standing behind a pulpit, he could be irrepressible to the point of coarseness and gaucherie. In contrast, his domestic moments were often filled with tenderness and timidity. His contemporaries saw him as incurably optimistic; yet there is ample evidence that he doubted, at times severely, his own abilities. His boisterous humor, like the celebrated wit of his son J. Golden Kimball, masked a serious-minded, meditative, and private soul. The Eastern press caricatured him as an artless bumpkin, but those who knew him best recognized his integrity and even spiritual majesty. In short, he was Heber—unique and idiosyncratic, a phenomenon.
Stanley B. Kimball is the second kinsman to attempt a biography. Orson F. Whitney, a grandson, completed his Victorian portrait in 1888. The two works show the distance Mormon biography has traveled in the last century. The first, like most religious biography of its era, was heavy with quotation, exhortation, and adulation—and correspondingly weak in research and characterization. At first glance, Stanley B. Kimball’s sketch is far removed from the other work. It is a “historical” biography, displaying the tools and mood of a twentieth-century research historian. Footnote paraphernalia show the author’s wide-ranging, longtime study of the sources, and the reader will be introduced to a large body of new and interesting material. There is also candor. As the author pledges in his preface, “Heber has not been prettied up for contemporary tastes” (p. ;xiii). The result may be distressing for those who like their biographical figures to be universally praiseworthy. But after one notes how the author has stacked Heber’s discordant features against his considerable strengths and remembers that Utah was a rough-and-ready frontier, this portrait is not unflattering. Indeed, while Stanley Kimball’s prose is far more detached than Orson Whitney’s, it still conveys Mormon sympathy and idiom.