Mermaids illustrate the problems faced by non-Mormon readers of Mormon histories, and go a long way toward explaining the decidedly mixed reviews that Richard Bushman’s book has received. Bushman laid out the problem some twenty years ago, writing:
Haw can a description of Joseph Smith’s revelations accommodate a Mormon’s perception of events and still make sense to a general audience? My method has been to related events as the participants themselves experienced them, using their own words where possible. Insofar as the revelations were a reality to them, I have treated them as real in this narrative. General readers will surely be left with questions about the meaning of these experiences, but at least they will have an understanding of how early Mormons perceived the world. (Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism 3)
This seems like a nice intermediate position. Bushman doesn’t try to make claims one way or another about the visions — or so he claims — but simply presents the stories in the words of the participants, letting the historical record speak for itself and offering his narrative not as an explanation of the events but as an explanation of contemporary reaction to the events. For a lot of folks, however, this approach simply will not fly. It seems like cheating, with Bushman smuggling his religious beliefs into the narrative via the backdoor. At this point, so the argument goes, he is no longer doing history and is surreptitiously engaged in religious apologetics jumped up in academic garb.
“Unfair!” cry Mormon readers. Perhaps. However, consider the problem of Mary Ann Hafen’s encounter with mermaids. Hafen was a Swiss convert to Mormonism who pulled a handcart to Utah in 1860. Much later in life she wrote out an autobiography that was published by her historian son, who was a professor at the University of Colorado. It is still in print as Recollections of a Handcart Pioneer of 1860. Her account of the transatlantic voyage from Europe to America contains this passage:
One afternoon while we were playing on the deck one of the sailors pointed out a mermaid. I looked but could see only what seemed to be a lady’s head above the water. The sailors told how mermaids would come up to comb their hair and look in a mirror. They said it was a sure sign of a storm.
Sure enough there arose a great storm next day. The waves came up like mountains and broke over the deck. We were all ordered under deck and the water splashed on us as we went down the steps. All night the storm raged. Our ship tossed about like a barrel on a wild sea. Two large beams or masts broke off and we were driven many miles back. (Mary Ann Hafen, Recollections of a Handcart Pioneer of 1860 19-20)
Does Mary Ann’s account of the mermaid sighting require an explanation? Can we simply incorporate it into the narrative, claiming that it may present problems for some but it will give us a sense of the how immigrants perceived the world? Or should we try to account for it in some way. For example, we might argue that the sailors were just pulling a little girl’s leg. We might talk about maritime superstition, and mention that sailors frequently identified manatees and porpoises as mermaids. Perhaps we can make some point about the genre of Mary Ann’s account, which was after all written many years after the account. Is this perhaps meant to be taken as a tall tale? Perhaps we can make some journey into Mary Ann’s psyche, talking about the unique mental quirks of young Swiss children in the 19th century. Suppose that for whatever reason, however, an author believes devotedly in mermaids, and chooses to write a narrative in which Mary Ann’s mermaid incident is simply recounted as fact. Might one be suspicious? Might one have questions about precisely what kind of history one is reading.
Mormon historians who wish to justify Bushman’s approach to non-Mormons, must, it seems to me, come up with a way of justifying a fairly literal reading of Mary Ann’s mermaid story to non-mermaid believers. It is not clear to me that they have. Furthermore, it is far from clear to me that it is even possible. For myself, I suspect that the tension is inevitable, that we ought to accept it, and that the price one pays for being Mormon is the inability to be thought a serious historian or thinker by some. There are worse fates. I do think, however, that we need to be realistic about the strength of the intellectual devices that we employ to negotiate the strangeness of our own beliefs.