Brigham Young

by M. R. Werner. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. 1925. 8vo. xviii+460 pp. Illustrated. $5.00.
I SUPPOSE most Americans of to-day, like myself, really know little of the facts about Mormonism. They will find in Mr. Werner’s book a vivid and exhaustive presentation of those facts. There is the strange, mythical, creative figure of Joseph Smith. There is polygamy in all its sordid promiscuity, with a trifle more luxury of detail than I myself can relish, but perhaps not with more than was necessary to historical veracity. There is the rambling, fighting, proselyting exodus of a people who seem to combine the keen commonsense of the Anglo-Saxon with the mystical passion of Jews or Orientals. And there is finally the founding and construction of an orderly, happy, prosperous, flourishing commonwealth, beset no doubt by the ordinary range of human troubles and difficulties, but apparently destined to endure.
Out of this confused and picturesque background there emerges the really substantial and impressive figure of Brigham Young, who of course is Mr. Werner’s main interest. And no one can fail to carry away a clinging memory of this figure, whether it is always an agreeable memory or not. Mr. Werner, I think, in the main establishes Young’s sincerity. Where personal advantage and enthusiastic belief are so intimately intertangled, it is not always easy to draw the line between hypocrisy and fanaticism; but Mr. Werner does draw it with great skill. As to Young’s tact in the management of men there can be no question: no man could have done the work he did and have been without such tact. Nor is there any question as to the man’s rough, practical Yankee sense, though it is sometimes strangely mingled with fantastic rhapsodies. Again and again he was confronted with the most difficult problems of business and politics, and he solved them or eluded them with a statesman’s skill. But I am most of all impressed with the numerous specimens which Mr. Werner gives of Young’s rough-and-ready eloquence. He may not have been a great orator; but he had the gift of finding homely words that flashed and hammered and sparkled and did the work. It would certainly be profanation to compare such a man and such a career with such great and significant figures of his own time as Lincoln or D. L. Moody; but Brigham Young was a person who counted in the age that produced these and Mark Twain and P. T. Barnum.
Mr. Werner has done a skillful and a scholarly piece of biographical writing. He has dealt with a vast amount of material and his handling of it is as judicious as it must have been thorough. The narrative power which was evident in his Barnum shows here also, in the gift of drawing complicated threads together and of developing varied episodes so as to make the central figure stand out. Here and there I find touches of the cynical spirit so dear to the young lions of the American Mercury, touches not entirely acceptable to my antiquated taste. But in the main there is a direct, vigorous, scientific method of treating the subject. One may not always agree with Mr. Werner’s conclusions or sympathize with his attitude; but it must be admitted that the book is profoundly interesting and gives a vivid picture of an important episode in American history.