Saturday, December 20, 2008

Book Review: Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard

“There is an unclean thing, born and nursed on our soil, polluting our soil, which must be driven away, not kept to destroy us.” Sophocles, Oedipus The King Act I

In the southwest corner of Utah, along Highway18, sits an alpine valley called the Mountain Meadows. It is a quiet place, out of the way from any major traffic. There are a few farms that sprawl across portions the valley but it is, by and large, undeveloped. At an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet the valley is a pleasant place to escape the summer heat that beats down on the surrounding dessert. In 1857 this valley was the scene of one of the most tragic events in the history of the West. That year a group of Mormon settlers disarmed a California-bound wagon train under a flag of truce and then systematically slaughtered approximately 120 men, women, and children.

For several years after the massacre fragments of clothing and the sun-bleached bones of victims lay strewn across the meadows, their shallow mass graves having been unearthed by coyotes. In southern Utah legends cropped up after the massacre about herds of wild cattle haunting the region surrounding the spot where their masters were slaughtered. Even the land itself seemed to bear a mark of guilt as a testament to the terrible crime that occurred there. In the two decades following the tragedy, natural erosion replaced the lush grasses of the meadows with scrub oak and sage, carved deep gullies across the fields, and turned the little rivulet that ran through the valley into a wide arroyo. Even the natural spring was replaced with “a sunken pool of slimy, filthy water.” Some said that this transformation was a “cu[r]se of God.” But much more pronounced than any supposed effects on the land have been the guilt and shame that have been experienced by the Latter-day Saint and local communities to this day.
Nearly one hundred years after the event Southern Utah historian and Mormon Juanita Brooks referred to the Mountain Meadows Massacre as “a ghost that will not be laid.” She continued: “Again and again, year after year, it stalks abroad to cast its shadow across some history or to haunt the pages of some novel...until it has been made the most important episode in the state [of Utah], eclipsing every achievement and staining every accomplishment.” The feelings of guilt associated with the massacre have never fully been put to rest. Mormons born many decades after the event feel pains of guilt and shame at its very mention. Collective guilt on the part of the Mormon faith has been persistently laid at the feet of its adherents by historians, novelists, and film makers ever since the event.

It has now been 150 years since the Massacre and it appears that Mormonism is finally beginning to come to some kind of terms with the event. The new book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy is a significant part of this reconciliation. This has been one the most important publications in Mormon studies in the past few years. The historical work done by the authors is first rate. The reasoning behind their conclusions is clear and transparent. Over one third of the book is citations and footnotes. This basically allows diligent readers to do their own history to check the book’s conclusions. This transparency is refreshing in any work of history but it is especially important with any work dealing with the subject of the massacre, where there is so much disagreement about even the fundamental facts concerning the tragedy.

In the book’s introduction the authors stated: “Only complete and honest evaluation of the tragedy can bring the trust necessary for lasting good will. Only then can there be catharsis.” I find the use of the term “catharsis” particularly apropos. Catharsis is the purging or cleansing of the tragic emotions. Understanding the massacre in the context of cathartic reconciliation provides an effective way to resolve the feelings of collective guilt as well as to purge the state being collectively guilty.

In 2001 the church commissioned three historians to write a history of the massacre. This history was not to be a response to prior histories but rather rely on original documents. To this end the church provided an enormous amount funding for original research. The church also wanted full disclosure of all the material that it possessed. The church opened up all of its archives for the project. These included the personal recollections that had been collected by Assistant Church Historian Andrew Jensen over one hundred years before and had up until this time been kept from the public. Perhaps most significantly, the church surrendered editorial control over the manuscript, allowing the historians to do their work without supervision.
The book has been a major hit among L.D.S. faithful. The first printing of 5,000 copies sold out before it was even released. As of November 27, 2008 (only two months after its initial release) book was already in its fifth printing, having sold more than 44,000 copies, most of them in Utah. The narrative of Massacre at Mountain Meadows proceeds like a Greek tragedy. As the authors move through the events the motivations of the perpetrators pervade the background. The book describes, in terrifying detail, how decent ordinary people were able to let themselves murder innocent men, women and children.

The institutional support for this book and it’s acceptance among mainstream Latter-day Saints shows a willingness on the part of the church and its members to come to terms with the massacre. This reconciliation is just beginning. But as Mormonism rediscovers the Mountain Meadows Massacre, its adherents are forced to confront the question of what they would have done had they been there. The difficult part of this is realizing that the perpetrators cannot simply be dismissed as evil, violent men. The perpetrators lived good decent honorable lives before the massacre, committed a terrible atrocity, and then returned to living good decent honorable lives. Anyone who sees this fact is forced to ask the question; “would I have acted any different in the circumstances?” I believe that by asking this question is the first step to healing the wounds left by the tragedy. When this question is honestly asked, we can purge whatever part of us may have caused us to do what the murderers if we had been in their situation so that we will never again repeat the tragic mistakes of our collective past.

Richard Turley, one of the co-authors Massacre at Mountain Meadows, highlighted the need for an emotional understanding and connection with the perpetrators; “and I think that those emotions that we felt are important to understanding what really happened. I think sometimes people try to tell the story of what happened at Mountain Meadows from a pedestal of righteous indignation that allows them to separate themselves form those emotions and if they never felt what happened there they don’t really understand it.” In Greek tragedy the end of the tragedy is catharsis, a cleansing or purgation of the tragic emotions of pity and fear. It is by going through the process that the tragedy evokes, that one reaches catharsis. This is not easy or always pleasant. The purpose of tragedy is to bring to the surface negative emotions so that they can then be cleansed from the spectator. Aristotle remarked: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper catharsis of these emotions.” C.S. Lewis likewise remarked: “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.” I believe that this is because literature puts us in the position to feel and experience our shared identity with other people. By experiencing their crimes, sins, and flaws we identify whatever shared nature and, hence shared guilt, we have with others. By seeing a commonality with tragic figures we begin to understand the flawed parts of our own nature. It is then that the healing can begin. It is this process that can bring catharsis.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Great review. Love, Mom