Utah Historians and the Reconstruction of Western History

In this engaging and creative study, Gary Topping, associate professor of history at Salt Lake Community College, examines the historical work and legacy of five scholars who wrote about Utah and Mormon history: Fawn Brodie, Bernard DeVoto, Juanita Brooks, Dale Morgan, and Wallace Stegner. The five never constituted a cohesive group. Brodie, Brooks, and Morgan grew up in Mormon households whereas DeVoto and Stegner did not. Only Brooks retained her religious faith past her youth. Morgan alone interacted closely with each of the others. They resembled one another in their lack of university degrees in history, their tireless research, and their engaging literary style.

While Topping surveys these Utahns’ scholarship broadly, his incisive analysis of their interpretations of Mormon history will be of particular interest to readers of this journal. DeVoto grew up in Ogden as the son of an apostate Catholic and a lapsed Mormon. Theology held no more appeal for DeVoto than it did for his parents. DeVoto bid good riddance to Utah in 1915 when he departed for Harvard. As an expatriate he lampooned Utah and Mormonism in a series of articles published in American Mercury in the 1920s, characterizing Ogden as a “scurvy little Mormon-Gentile dump” and Mormonism as “equal parts of smugness, ignorance, and superstition.” DeVoto later expressed admiration for Mormon pioneering and solidarity in his classic Year of Decision 1846, and in 1943 he apologized publicly for his “ignorant, brash, prejudiced, malicious, and what is worst of all, irresponsible” criticism of Utah and the Mormons. But he retained his contempt for Mormon doctrine, which he labeled “simply preposterous,” and for Joseph Smith, whom he regarded as paranoiac and incapable of effective leadership. Topping does not accept Joseph Smith’s theology any more than DeVoto did, but he censures DeVoto for his one-sided interpretation. He finds DeVoto’s unflattering portrait of the founding prophet, along with his portrait of many other historical figures, to be a “caricature” and an “interpretive distortion” that underestimates Smith’s capacity for organization and leadership.

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