Against the Grain
Memoirs of a Western Historian
by Brigham D. Madsen
Hardback / 400 pages / 1-56085-113-9 / $31.95
BEST MEMOIR, MORMON HISTORY ASSOCIATION
As he approaches the end of a long and distinguished career, veteran historian Brigham D. Madsen turns an eye toward his final research subject, himself, with equal candor, aware of the same possibility for controversy, that has characterized his other works. Raised in Pocatello, Idaho, at a time when automobiles were just coming into fashion, Madsen’s first real encounter with the outside world was on a Mormon mission to the Cumberland Mountains. He faced an even more daunting transition when he attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he eventually received a Ph.D. in history. From there to Germany as chief historian for Patton’s Third Army, he observed the War Crimes Trials in Nuremberg, among other significant experiences.
After the war he accepted a faculty position at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, a small school at that time just beginning to emerge as a regional academic center. However, his curiosity about Mormon history soon brought him head to head with the limits of academic freedom there, resulting ultimately in his resignation and forcing him to work in construction for seven years until a Utah State University position opened.
Throughout this period he retained his idealism, especially in responding to President John F. Kennedy’s call for Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s. Madsen signed on and became a program administrator in Washington, D.C.—a circumstance which brought him to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to hear Martin Luther King’s famous speech.
Returning to Utah, Madsen turned his attention to Native American history. In pursuing the truth about an 1862 military campaign against the Northwestern Shoshoni, he discovered the amazing “revelation . . . that the engagement was not a ‘battle’ but a brutal slaughter.” His dogged persistence in this area resulted in the establishment of the Bear River Massacre National Historic Landmark. By contrast, when he found that an alleged massacre of white settlers, memorialized by a nearby monument, never happened, this produced not only displeasure but denouncements from the majority population.
It would be much the same for other Western topics, including Mormon history, through a string of fifteen landmark books. He found that emotional responses from those who took personal offense to his research indicated how “keenly and intimately [history] touches people’s lives.”
Most of his professional recognition came relatively late in life. For instance, he was sixty-fix years of age when he received the Westerners International Best Book Award for North to Montana: Jehus, Bullwhackers, and Mule Skinners on the Montana Trail, followed five years later by the same award for The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre and a Best Book Award from the John Whitmer Historical Association for the highly controversial Studies of the Book of Mormon. He was seventy-six when he received the Utah Historical Society Best Military History Award for Glory Hunter: A Biography of Patrick Edward Connor.
Perhaps the greatest test for the former Peace Corps administrator’s commitment to equality and open mindedness came at the University of Utah. Serving in one administrative post after another—as chair of the history department, dean of continuing education, director of libraries, deputy academic vice president, and administrative vice president; and while retaining some classroom assignments in the history department—he struggled to balance student and faculty needs with political and financial realities. Still, he was ultimately honored for his efforts with a Distinguished Service Award from the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters and two awards from the University of Utah: Honorary Doctor of Humanities and Distinguished Teacher of the Year.
Few people make as lasting an impressino on the intellectual and ethical climate of their community or remain so modestly good-humored. Madsen’s philosophy has been to “demolish untruth [and] to write clearly . . . without fear of the consequences,” a determination that has served as an antidote to discouragement.
“Some people are able to compartmentalize logic and reason from supernatural and spiritual beliefs. I do not have that facility,” Madsen admits in outlining his philosophy of life. “I do not criticize the compartmentalizers. Many of them are highly intelligent and, in other respects, have high criteria for truth; I, however, . . . cannot surrender my independence and rationality to such a process but must follow the road where reason and evidence take me. I have only my mind and its tools to reveal reality to me. . . . I cannot deny myself the opportunity of venturing into the unknown where there may be a God with ‘body, parts, and passions’ or, more likely, nothing but this temporal life where all of us should be helping each other in the ‘pursuit of happiness’ toward a good life in the present.”
Brigham D. Madsen is Professor Emeritus of History and past vice president of the University of Utah, recipient of a Distinguished Teacher of the Year Award, as well as the Distinguished Service Award from the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters. He is the author of Glory Hunter: A Biography of Patrick Edward Connor (Utah State Historical Society Best Military History Award), North to Montana! Jehus, Bullwhackers, and Mule Skinners on the Montana Trail (Westerners International Best Book Award), The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre (Westerners International Best Book Award), Studies of the Book of Mormon (John Whitmer Historical Association Best Book Award), and other volumes, including his own popular autobiography, Against the Grain: Memoirs of a Western Historian.