Like any historian worth his salt, Richard Bushman was determined early on to write about Joseph Smith's life "warts and all."
"I didn't want to cover up anything," he said by phone from his New York apartment. "I purposely sought to deal with all the problems, trying always to see things as Joseph saw them. I wanted to be empathetic, because that's what readers want."
Bushman's historical philosophy was strictly applied to "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" (Knopf, 730 pages, $35), his work on the Mormon prophet. "I wanted to write a book in which Joseph could recognize himself.
"I once told a graduate student that I do it this way because I might meet this person in the afterlife. You have to write the book thinking the subject is in the room."
In fact, Bushman has written what is likely to be considered the definitive biography of Joseph Smith for many years to come.
"I liked the rolling part — a man in motion," Bushman said. "I also liked the rough stone. He knew he was rough and didn't pretend otherwise. I once wrote a book on gentility ('The Refinement of America'), and Joseph saw the artificiality of gentility. He didn't like Martin Van Buren (the U.S. president in the 1830s) because he was prissy and Joseph was rugged, and he felt more authentic."
Will the book be the definitive study of Smith? "It was the best I could do in the time I had — seven years. But I could have worked on the prose forever. By the time it was done, it didn't sound bad to me. I thought it was pretty much OK. My biggest reservations are that there are depths of Joseph Smith's thought I just could not reach. I hope the book works for at least one generation."
Bushman, who is himself a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he tried not to be "nervous in the writing.
"I don't try to rationalize polygamy or explain it. I just come at it head-on. I hope I give people courage to say that this is something we did — and God commanded it. And we don't do it anymore."
When asked about the balance of his work, Bushman said, "I'm not sure I want 'Joseph Smith' to be balanced. Prophets have a right to be wild. I want him to be a sculpted figure with distinctive qualities of his own.
"We are so sold on the genteel, noble kind of prophet that we forget about the Old Testament prophets. I take Joseph and I love the warts. None of his flaws stopped him from getting the job done. He was tremendously effective."
Whatever readers or critics think of his book, Bushman remains respectful of older Smith biographies, even Fawn Brodie's controversial "No Man Knows My History," which Bushman considers "a classic, a fabulous piece of journalism. No one will ever match the zing in her writing. Brodie will always be useful in studying Joseph.
"My book is more sympathetic to Joseph than Brodie's was. She thought in her heart of hearts that he was a fraud. I think he was sincere, and she didn't."
It is evident that Bushman feels an affinity toward his subject. "Joseph was warm, affectionate and intensely loyal to his family. I think it's remarkable that he remained that way considering his father's failings, but he never wavered."
Because Joseph Smith initiated plural marriage, Emma, the love of his youth, was very unhappy about it. But Bushman believes that he always had a unique relationship with Emma. In his letters to her, he invariably spoke of their "friendship" continuing forever.
"Friendship was a very powerful word then," said Bushman. "It meant affection, but it also indicated candor and openness. You speak your heart to your friend. I think Emma was the most influential person in his life. That's why plural marriage was so excruciating for him. It ripped him apart and it came close to breaking up their marriage. But when he was killed, she took a lock of his hair and kept his portrait up in the living room. She always believed the Book of Mormon was inspired and she never gave him up as her love."
Bushman is especially impressed with Smith's determination to acquire knowledge. "Joseph's interest in knowledge is inexplicable. His parents had no ambitions to see their kids in the professions, such as law or the ministry. What is remarkable about Joseph is that he believed knowledge was part of salvation. He thought you could grow in intelligence. He was inspired to translate but he also wanted to learn Hebrew from a professor of Hebrew."
It is the famed King Follett discourse, a funeral sermon, that stands out for Bushman as a crucial element of Joseph's teachings. "That sermon pulled together the doctrines only hinted at in other sources — the eternity of intelligences, the creations of worlds, preparing people to become like God. There are four different accounts of the King Follett discourse, written in great detail. That means that people in the congregation knew something important was happening, and some of them wrote down the details."
Bushman was "frankly amazed" at the way ideas came to him during his research and writing. "In my mind I saw the image of a man sitting around a fire, and occasionally figures would come from the dark into the firelight. That was fun when I got to the bedrock stage, trying to figure out what it all meant."
If you go ...
What: Richard Bushman, book signing
Where: Deseret Book, ZCMI Center
When: Today, noon-2 p.m.; Thursday, Oct. 27, noon-2 p.m.
How Much: Free