Gabbing with Alex Beam (American Crucifixion)

6 Aug

Once and now, occasional Boston Globe columnist, Alex Beam’s third work of non-fiction, American Crucifixion The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church(Public Affairs)vividly takes the reader to the 1840’s American frontier (Illinois) for a birds eye view the persecution of the nascent Mormon religion and the violent death of its founder, Joseph Smith. And as in his earlier books, Gracefully Insane a history of Mclean Mental Hospital and A Great Idea at the Time about the Great Books, Beam is very respectful of some weird ideas and zany people.

This is the second conversation Alex Beam and I have had. Naturally, we chat about his book, the Mormons, whether Beam is happy, what’s up at the Boston Globe and goofy Jeff Bezos. And Alex’s next book.

American Crucifixion by Alex Beam

American Crucifixion by Alex Beam

RB: You are a practicing Christian, yes?

AB: I am, in fact, a church-attending Christian, mainly Episcopalian by temperament.

RB: The people who tell you, “Shush” in the movie theaters.

AB: (laughs) Are we those people, you mean?

RB: That’s what I have been told defines Episcopalians —

AB: We are a generally disapproving lot. That’s for sure.

RB: That makes for a good newspaper columnist. Here’s what I wonder after reading American Crucifixion, a book about the Mormons’s founder Joseph Smith, how do you define the difference between a religion or sect and a cult?

AB: Well, it’s certainly not a task I set for myself in this book. And it’s a task that interests other people deeply. I always refer to Joseph Smith’s religion as a branch of Christianity, which in itself, as you may know, even in dispute. A lot of people don’t recognize it as a branch of Christianity. I’m a not so naïve as to think many other people don’t view Mormonism as such an intense of form of Christianity that in fact is a cult. In conversation I don’t shy away from that discussion—making clear I am not the definer of the word ‘cult’. I am sure you know, because you know a bunch of languages, that that the French word for religion is in fact “cult”—

RB: — I am afraid to say I didn’t know that. You’re giving me too much credit.

AB: Well, when people start bandying about etymological, you know, “this Sunday I saw you at the altar rail, taking bread and wine as part of your cult ritual” I couldn’t care less. Nothing interests me less. I want to get to one small point, which is, I don’t think people who call Mormonism a cult are deranged or suffused by hatred. I have to say in all honesty when I read the first 120 pages of Lawrence Wright’s book on Scientology {Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief), which is essentially L Ron Hubbard’s biography; I just thought I was reading about Joseph Smith. There were so many similarities. Larry’s book is not fresh in my mind now but it was almost a one to one correspondence. I am dodging your question. I am aware it is valid but I don’t have an answer.

RB: As a godless Jew I think all Christians are off the page. But this particular brand seems to me deranged. At least until he died it was a religion of whatever he decided at the moment.

Alex Beam [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Alex Beam [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

AB: That’s an accurate reading. That’s a correct reading of what I tried to put on the page. I might have shied away from the phrase “Joseph Smith made it up as he went along” but that is certainly my sense. And I have used that phrase in discussions with Mormons. And the ones that really know his life well don’t disagree at all. I don’t think Fawn Brodie, his greatest biographer, disagrees. I encountered a quote of late that was unfamiliar to me and I am not going to reproduce it exactly. Its in Latin but the translation is “I believe in it because it is absurd” In other words, it’s the ultimate apologia. I acknowledge that what I believe is absurd yet I believe in it.

RB: That’s someone’s definition of faith.

AB: Yea. I guess I have a 360 view of Mormonism. Certainly I feel what they are putting across is no more boundary stretching than the parting of the Red Sea or the indeed the ritual that I took part in this previous Sunday. I take part in that ritual probably for very complicated reasons but i supposedly imbibing the metaphoricolized(sic)- blood of Jesus Christ —that has its absurd aspect.

RB: To flesh out the context in which Smith tried to raise up this religion in what was the wild west of the American heartland in the 1840’s is astoundingly ambitious. One small point, was it truly Illinois law that a defendant could not testify for himself?

AB: Yes. That is an accurate fact.

RB: That strikes me as unconstitutional.

AB: A defendant may not be forced —

RB: I don’t think that’s the way it was presented.

AB: It may not have said that but you are referring to the mass killing where the bad guys were killed. All I can say is I checked it. But again we still have that protection—OJ Simpson didn’t have to take the stand.

RB: The claim was they couldn’t take the stand.

AB: Yes, I did write that and I meant to write it that way.

RB: Another quibble— you used the word ‘lynching’ which I take to be specific to hanging.

AB: I did use the word and I did it deliberately. I am embarrassed that I haven’t checked it. In common usage we think it’s a hanging. We often think it’s the hanging of an African American male. I have come to being very comfortable using that term for the killing of Smith. I think it was a lynching.

RB: What is the distance that Mormonism has traveled from 1840 and the assumption of Brigham Young as the leader, up to now. Is it very much different? Did Young make it up as he went along?

AB: The short answer to that narrow question is no. Joseph had 130 direct revelations from God. Brigham had one. So they were radically different characters. In very general terms, Brigham is the builder, the country maker. He established a country in the West called Deseret. Obviously, it morphed into what we call the state of Utah. But to answer your first question, Mormonism is quite different. In one obvious way. Joseph and Brigham institutionalized polygamy. Which the religion had to back away from in 1890 and then again in 1910. There is an interesting term of art— Mormon Fundamentalist. Which again in reality means these kooky polygamists who hide out at the Colorado border who are occasionally prosecuted by the Feds. Now of course they are fundamentalist in the sense that they go back to the teachings of Joseph. The Old Testament teachings of Joseph. I was just in Utah—not for the first time. There is also a sense and its very muted——I am just going to put on the table —that I am generally empathetic to Mormons. But there is a sense I would argue among Mormon intellectuals —there is a mildly discernable sense, that we lost something of great value here in the past 180 years.

RB: Mormons or everyone lost something?

AB: We, Mormons. We lost the purity of a prophet in touch with God, creating a third testament. This is only hinted at in my book only because Mormonism had moved away from the strict communism of the 1830’s that came to be viewed as impracticable, impractical. But nonetheless in this—what really is a colony, a large colony of Nauvoo, Illinois— a lot of property is shared, a lot of property is held in common. Property is given to people, to the needy. A lot of that lives on the religion, I call it a metaphor but there is, in fact, a Bishop’s Storehouse. In Salt Lake City. Maybe this is like everybody but Mormons are somewhat nostalgic for the kind of, the tighter, original religion. One huge element that is missing is that is not really a persecuted religion anymore.

RB: Well, not exactly.

AB: It’s complicated but it’s harder to make the case when your guy is 6 million votes short of becoming President of the United States.

RB: And when an exceedingly eccentric billionaire [who himself is not a Mormon] has a praetorian guard of Mormons. Isn’t there a Mormon colony in Mexico that practices polygamy?

AB: CBS sent a camera crew down there in 2012.It certainly opened my eyes. What they did was they found large estancia, large Mormon ranches in Mexico that are controlled by Mormon fundamentalists.

RB: Do people convert to Mormonism?

AB: Yes, I was thinking of a writing an article about that. There is a documentary about a member of the New York Dolls who converted. And there a cool band called Four Trees where the lead guitarist is a Mormon. Ultraviolet [of Andy Warhol fame] who just died, she converted to Mormonism.

RB: Jabbari Parker, #1 draft pick in the 2014 NBA draft is a Mormon. And there a controversy about whether he should play in the NBA or putt it off and do is obligatory mission work. Mormon athletes are interviewed who end up rationalizing his decision to play. (both laugh)

AB: Right. I didn’t see the recent news reports. I have heard second hand that a lot athletes did not go on missions.

RB: It makes sense to say that as a professional star athlete Parker will have wider influence. I’m struck by the impression that American Crucifixion is more minutely researched than your earlier work—±the Great Books book or the book on Macleans.

AB: Well, it’s a book of popular history. Its funny, not all Mormons would agree with you (laughs).

RB: Meaning they take exception to your presentation of facts?

AB: First of all I am going to take what you said as a compliment. This was a strange situation where I literally started from zero. I literally knew nothing about the subject. At some point somebody warned me— a very helpful lady Mormon historian said, “Be careful with your footnotes.” I didn’t know what she meant but, in fact, Mormons have called me out on my footnotes. They are very punctilious and for entirely the wrong reasons.

RB: Why not make them endnotes? What is the rationale for one over the other?

AB: I don’t know. I have trailing end notes—I find the whole thing (pauses} jejune, if you don’t mind [me using that word]. In fact, I have never has the opportunity to say this but indisputably, in my view, the best work of popular history ever written is a book called The Reasons Why [about the charge of the Light Brigade] by Cecil Woodham Smith, a British lady, that came out in the beginning of the 20th Century. You won’t find a footnote in her book. She also wrote a book called The Big Hunger, which is somewhat controversial about the Irish Famine. There is not a footnote in there. When people attack the Big Hunger—which they do—they don’t attack because of a lack of scholarly apparatus. I find the whole thing ultimately trivial. So, yeah, I had to do a lot of research because I didn’t know anything.

RB: What was the focus when you started? Was it the same as after you concluded your research?

AB: The idea, which came, did not come from me but came from a book editor. The idea was that Smith’s death —there hadn’t been a book written about it, which is true —it was extremely violent and involved one of America’s largest religions, it involved sex and it took place on the American frontier. And it took place in a very compact time frame. The whole mission was to write about the last 18 months of Smith’s life and then the mission becomes somewhat confused because the reader, I’m the reader, doesn’t know who he is, why he is in Illinois. So there are 80 pages of throat clearing —that’s selling it a little short but I had to get the reader to the banks of the Mississippi.

RB: You are satisfied to use the word ‘lynching’ in the narrative and the title of the book is American Crucifixion.

AB: (laughs)

RB: That’s a strong word, is it not?

AB: It is a strong word. I came up with the title a few months into it. People have had reactions to the title. I only noticed recently that one of the first pieces of front matter is a letter written by a Mormon lady where she compared Joseph Smith’s killing to Jesus’s crucifixion. And there are other examples in the book where people say; oh this is the saddest thing since Gethsemane or something like that. I wasn’t trying to make a point. In fact, it’s totally your call —there’s things about Joseph’s death that interested me that aren’t in the book. For instance, I was interested whether Joseph reappears to the Saints—darned interesting to me. The short answer is, yes. And indeed that’s answer you might expect. But in a way it didn’t make it in to the book because he appears in dreams and things. It’s not like the New Testament. I am happy to give myself a little credit for not pulling the taffy as far as it would stretch.

RB: Do I have this right—Smith, his brother and his wife are still buried in Illinois?

Joseph Smith's grave site , Nauvoo, Illinois

Joseph Smith’s grave site , Nauvoo, Illinois

AB: Brigham wanted to take the corpses to Utah, for sure.

RB: And the bodies were moved around.

AB: Yeah, they were hiding them from a lot of different people. They thought that they would be desecrated. By the gentiles and then they were hiding from Brigham. One of the interesting things about this religion is —there is a picture of their graves in my book— which shows how modest the graves are. They are incredibly modest. Joseph is not a deity or viewed as a divinity in any sense of the word. I was just in Salt Lake and some guy, at lunch, says, ”You know Brigham Young is buried over by that apartment building.” I just couldn’t believe it. He’s just in a little graveyard. You really wouldn’t know. I doubt it’s in a guidebook or anything.

RB: No big thing for the Mormons.

AB: No and again it speaks a little bit to the theology —these men now—these old white men, they view themselves also as prophets and revelators. Just as Joseph and Brigham were. They are not holy people. They are people who have been chosen for this job by God and they are occasionally gifted with revelations. As are many other Mormons which is part of the doctrine.

RB: Are you inclined to think all or many Mormons will read your book? Is it on any Mormon reading list?

AB: I went to the Mormon Historical Association annual meeting which, for me, was a huge treat. A really friendly Mormon guy— he was such a friend to me throughout the writing of this book, I sent him the book and he said come on down and give a presentation. I gave a presentation and it was very well received. Having said that, the church has an official history department where they create the official history. In my talk I likened their history library to the Lenin Library, which wasn’t all that well received. It was funny — I talked to these people—they knew who I was, let’s put it that way. And this one guy, he wrote the definitive apologist account of the Mount Meadows Massacre—he’s a guy I was trying desperately to reach for three years. He wouldn’t talk to me. And I met him in person. He said to me “I downloaded your book the first day it was available and read it on one sitting.”Now this is a real, genuine church authority in every sense of the word. And I said, “Well, what did you think?” (laughs) And he’s a diplomat—he said, “Well, it’s not the book I would have written.” (giggles)

RB: Hmmm.

AB: Others would say, “Its an interesting perspective.” And they are trying to be polite. The Deseret chain of bookstores is not carrying this book. It’s a chain owned by the church. Basically they have only faith affirming literature there. BYU bookstore sold out of this book. This is not going to be required reading for orthodox Mormons. Mormons as a category are highly literate and highly inquisitive. So the book has done very well in that community but it will not ever be in a case in the front of the Church library.

RB: And mainstream attention?

AB: It has been in the LA Times. It has been in the Chicago Tribune. It’ll be in the New York Times. It was in the Wall Street Journal. Boston Globe. With the sole exception of the Washington Post its been reviewed. The reviews were all favorable. I don’t know what that means.

RB: It means “attention is being paid.” Knowing you to be a fussy guy, are you happy with this book? Or would you like another year to fiddle around with it?

AB: Uh, uh (laughs). I am happy with the book. I was worried that you were going to ask me if I was happy generally.

RB: I have a story about that but go ahead.

AB: Let me think about that for a second. Now I have had really interesting feedback and serious feedback. I think I would cut a little more. The editor wanted to keep cutting and I think I would cut a little more. It was longer —we cut a lot. I don’t think that’s what you are asking. I think you are asking about tone and things like that.

RB: Will you change anything for the paperback? Revise it?

AB: No, is the short answer. What you don’t get to do in a second edition is reedit.

RB: Even with the benefit of feedback?

AB: I am a 100% behind the voice and the order — I like everything about the book.

RB: This project took you how long?

AB: Started in the summer of 2011 finished—2 years.

RB: Now you are done with it—though as a historical work I expect the conversation continues. So what do you do now?

AB: I am still writing for the Globe. I have a contract to write another book, actually. About Vladimir Nabokov (laughs) and Edmund Wilson. I have been so happy since April 22 (pub date of American Crucifixion) and I have just been happy living inside of this book. I have to get off my rear end.

RB: So you have things to do? You are not wondering, ‘What am I doing next?”

AB: Yes, I am not at sea. Quite the opposite.

RB: I am not going to ask you if you are happy.

AB: Thank you very much.

RB: I find it peculiar that this is a question people feel comfortable asking each other—what does that mean?

AB: Well, it is a massive externalization of something that—there is an industry that I and others have made fun of. A huge industry of how do you achieve this state that other people didn’t even bother to worry about.

RB: It looks like PBS has devoted itself to this kind of programming—snake oil shows.

AB: I simply don’t watch that kind of thing. Those things just shock me. It’s all about the solipsism of our generation.

RB: Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book about the industry after her bout with breast cancer.

AB: That’s passed over me—I have no comment (laughs)

RB: How are things at the Boston Globe?

AB: I took a buyout from the Globe 2 years ago so I am no longer a staff member. I am just contributing one column a week. I haven’t actually set foot in the building.

RB: How many of your peers are still there?

AB: A few, a precious few.

RB: Any talk about the new regime? I talked with Ben Bradlee JR and he was impressed with John Henry’s initial editorial laying out his intentions for the paper

AB: Right. My view—and this is a viewer as a consumer— I am actually a subscriber. I am interested in the Globe. It seems to me the coin is still in the air. Ben is correct that initially John Henry did a lot of right things. He got that editorial coverage. Everybody he has hired is about the newspaper, is about quality. There is some stuff going on —I wouldn’t say I am privy to it in any way. I am quite interested in Bezos at the Washington Post. And the Times is interesting in and of itself — there are things happening there. With the Globe, these are three papers that interest me. Bezos for whatever you think of him —you might see the more interesting stuff happening there first.

RB: Watching him on 60 Minutes announce his drone delivery plan — he went giddy. The Rickets still own the [Chicago] Tribune? And what about the LA Times?

AB: That’s completely at sea. It’s been for sale of a long time. It’s part of the Tribune Co and they are trying to get rid of it.

RB: I read that Time magazine has moved out of a corporate umbrella and they hired Norman Pearlstine who was there years ago. Time magazine has become irrelevant and to bring a person back from its history doesn’t seem a like move to change that.

AB: I couldn’t tell you. All the action is taking place at a chronological place where you, me and Norman Perlstine are not. He’s this talented New York guy. He is like the Flying Dutchman—he’s always looking for work. He’s been everywhere. He was at Bloomberg for a while. But he’s not the answer. The answer really ios with the younger generation.

RB: Sure, but what you still get is a homogenized POV. This American Life clearly has talented people but the palette is monochromatic or to use another metaphor, it’s a tune in the same key.

AB: I don’t have beef with you in any way on that one—that’s an NPR issue. They have a homogenous culture in my opinion. But I guess what I am talking about is technically skilled younger people. I meant presentation issues. People are cynical now about some of the innovations the Times came up with. They are going to be many, many small experiments that will add up to helping.

RB: Like introducing a Sin column

AB: (laughs) Where?

RB: In the Times. And one of the first pieces was about strip clubs with vague but appropriate images. I didn’t notice the column until I saw a letter to the editor. And the front page features something called “the Insider”. My reaction —who cares?

AB: They are hyping it, relentlessly. I do have a different view of this. I have not been inside the paper for a couple of year. The desperation for revenue streams is like craving heroin. I can’t tell you how many dozens of excellent people had to be let go because of shrinking revenues. Yeah, the Times sells golf balls with their logo on it. (laughs) Its tough out there.

RB; Are you aware of the Baffler? Or its resurrection?

AB: I know its been resurrected —some people in Cambridge did that. It’s not on my reading diet.

RB: It should be. It’s a contrarian’s delight. Have a look at a piece called The People’s Republic of Zuckerstan on the innovation economy in Cambridge and Boston. You are not interested in being part of pow wows about newspapers. I’m sure you must have some ideas.

AB: I‘m not sure I do. I’ll be straight with you. I‘m not sure I do.

RB: Ideas are generated by conversation. Someone says something dumb and then someone else says, “That’s dumb, here’s the way to do it.”

AB: I completely agree with you. But given that I am not on anybody’s staff.

RB: You have lived most of your life here in Newton Massachusetts.

AB: Now I have—since 1984

RB: Is there a place you would go to, not necessarily to retire but say, to write your memoir about your fabulous life.

AB: I don’t want to write a memoir about my fabulous life. I don’t know. I am in the position of so many people. I have children who are adults now. That’s something I think about constantly. Obsess about—what about you?

RB: I am thinking of the Gulf Coast—maybe Fairhaven, Alabama, across the bay from Mobile. But my current health insurance, only available in Massachusetts, may keep me here

AB: I looked at the panhandle of Florida, which has no culture what so ever, which I found kind of appealing.

RB: Well, thanks. We’ll meet again in the fall of 2016 for your Nabokov-Wilson tome.

AB: I’d be happy to.

Currently reading The Drop by Dennis Lehane (Wm Morrow)

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