Review: Craig Harline, “Conversions”

Title: Conversions: Two Family Stories From the Reformation and Modern America
Author: Craig Harline
Publisher: Yale University Press
Genre: History/Narrative
Year: 2011
Pages: xi, 320
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 9780300167016
Price: $27.50

“The human intellect demands accuracy
while the soul craves meaning.
History ministers to both with stories.”1

Conversions, a new book by Craig Harline, presents exactly what the subtitle suggests: Two Family Stories From the Reformation and Modern America. In one story, Jacob Rolandus cuts himself off from his Reformed family by converting to Catholicism in 1654. In the other, the pseudonymous Michael Sunbloom converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the late 1970s, devastating his Evangelical Christian parents.

By juxtaposing these two narratives, Harline foregrounds a perennial question about the importance of historical scholarship: “So what?” This is the “relevance” question. Congratulations, Mr. Harline; while you’ve been digging around in dusty old archives or kicking back in your ivory tower, we’ve been out here creating jobs and doing other Important Things.

This is an attitude many historians are familiar with, as Harline himself candidly acknowledges:

The problem is, it’s not always easy to see what some old story, especially a really old story, can possibly have to do with you, right now. If a story is about, say, your ancestor, your religion, or your country, then its relevance may seem obvious enough. But a story about an obscure Dutch family that lived 350 years ago and 3,500 miles away and isn’t related to you and doesn’t speak your language or share your religion can seem as foreign as the moon (19).

It isn’t unusual for a historian to make such remarks in general. But it is unusual for a historian like Harline to make such remarks in the fourth chapter of a history book, and to do it using contractions like “it’s” and “doesn’t.”2
The quote isn’t part of an introduction to a historical essay, or an aside in a academic conference paper, or part of a plea for more funding in a letter written to donors or departments. It’s part of chapter four in Conversions.

Harline doesn’t stop there, either—he’s not simply lamenting the problems of a generally disinterested or distracted public. He’s expressing some of his own very personal reluctances, making explicit a few of the nagging questions a scholar deals with privately, sharing his vulnerability too:

Even when you sense the immediate relevance of such remote stories, as historians often do, you might be reluctant to explore it, because the task of showing how the past connects to the present is just so difficult. The past is strange, and other, and foreign. Sometimes it’s even completely impenetrable, despite your best efforts to understand it. Other times you think you have it right, then it slips between your fingers and fools you…If you can’t ever be sure that you’re right about the shadowy past, then how can you ever hope to compare it to the flesh-and-blood present? It’s a lot safer, and simpler, to stick to the past alone, especially the small corner of the past you’ve chosen to study, rather than to discuss how that past might also be about you today (19).

While a few contemporary scholars still cling to an outmoded understanding of “objectivity,” most historians today bear the scars of postmodern critiques; scars which remind them they don’t sit atop Mount Olympus declaring the absolute way things were. They don’t simply dig up facts from the past and set them in a row on the table for all of us to see. Three respected historians explain it this way: “Lived experience alters the questions historians ask, foreclosing some research agendas while inspiring new ones.”3 Harline himself could have written their description: “all histories start with the curiosity of a particular individual and take shape under the guidance of her or his personal and cultural attributes.”4 But those historians make those declarations in a book about history. Harline makes his declarations—then enacts them—in the middle of a history book.

Of course, Harline’s move is unconventional. Conversions is part of Yale University Press’s series, “New Directions in Narrative History.” It is a daring move toward explicit relevance by presenting “creative nonfiction.” It offers “significant scholarly contributions while also embracing stylistic innovation [through the] classic techniques of storytelling” (ii).

Such storytelling techniques are used to draw the reader in, as well as to bridge the past and present by inverting the time gap. Jacob Rolandus’s daring night escape from home in 1654 is narrated in the present tense: “And now the field at last! But here more disappointment: the horse still hasn’t arrived, and the friend waiting with the bag says that he can’t make the journey either, because he has a bad foot” (5). In contrast, Michael Sunbloom’s family reacted to his conversion in the past tense: “When the cousin started asking about Mormonism, and what in the world had moved Michael to convert, Michael hesitated, stepped as far into the hallway as he could [to avoid letting his parents overhear], and took the risk of answering. Big mistake” (76-77). These two stories are told alternately, one chapter relating Jacob’s tale, the next, Michael’s. This back-and-forth, “too be continued” construction naturally pulls readers to the next episode.

The structure of the book also invites readers into the world of a practicing historian. Harline includes pictures of the Da Vinci-esque code he had to crack in order to interpret Jacob Rolandus’s secret journal, a journal he excitedly discovered bundled up in an old archive (9-12). Harline describes how he found the journal, then how the journal’s story began feeling importantly, but vaguely, relevant to him. The journal ended up being connected through lineage to Harline’s own grandparents, which added emotional connection, but he reports: “Something else, someone else, had been working away inside me first, and it didn’t take long to recognize that it was Michael Sunbloom” (44).

I was mistaken above when I described Harline’s book as tracing only two conversion stories. The third, less-explicitly identified conversion story in Harline’s book is his own. By alternately centering Jacob, Michael, and himself as the main protagonists, Harline’s book inhabits a borderland between academic excellence and dangerous self-disclosure/didacticism. The idea of “conversion” itself is the conceptual bridge between radically different times, circumstances, motivations, characters, and outcomes. The heartrending interpersonal conflicts involved in each story tie each narrative to the others, and—more importantly, Harline might hope—ties these narratives to the heart of the reader.

By comparing Michael Sunbloom’s turmoil to Jacob Rolandus’s, Harline is simply doing the sort of implicit work a lot of readers already do when they read history—not least of all Mormons, who often employ history for exemplary moral ends in talks and Sunday School lessons. This moral use of history is certain to make readers squirm, not least of all any historians who believe it only blurs the lines between history and propaganda. While Harline pays close attention to the historical circumstances which made Rolandus’s decision so heartbreaking, he pays no less attention to Sunbloom’s personal context, because he is a living part of it. In fact, it is this same element which will likely make some Mormons increasingly uncomfortable as Harline’s narrative follows up on Sunbloom’s conversion by relating the way Sunbloom eventually drifted from the Church due to his emerging homosexual identity. As a Mormon himself, Harline’s discomfort over Sunbloom’s conversion experiences made Rolandus’s old papers seem all the more relevant to him, despite their deep differences. So his book candidly explores the tragic circumstances bridging three different-but-the-same conversion pathways.

Certainly this is what Yale University Press’s “New Directions” series is aiming for by presenting books which are “intended for the broadest general readership,” which explains the lack of footnotes and index, although he snuck in a very detailed bibliographical essay at the end (273-298). In addition to popular accessibility, the series aims to “speak to deeply human concerns about the past, present, and future of our world and its people” (ii). It will be fascinating to see what sort of reactions his efforts elicit. It’s possible that he could be criticized from a variety of perspectives. In the postscript, Harline describes worrying about what his fellow historians might think of his so explicitly tying the past to the present, his decision to stress “the psychological sameness of the past rather than its otherness” (267). He worries that “fellow Mormons…might dislike my sympathetic treatment of homosexuality,” (after all, he’s a professor of history at Brigham Young University), “while critics of Mormonism might dislike my sympathetic treatment of Mormonism,” (after all, he’s a professor of history at Brigham Young University). Not to mention what his parents, friends, Protestants, Catholics, and others might think (268). Whatever the obstacles, he reports, “I wanted to try anyway” (272).

This is history-as-catharsis:

Suddenly the burden of dealing with contemporary crises was lessened by the awareness that whatever people might do, they are not the first, nor probably the last, who will be forced to wrestle with this human problem.5

This is history-as-covenant:

…as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort…(Mosiah 18:8—9).

___________________________________________________

Footnotes:

1. Joyce Appleby, Lynne Hunt, Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), 262.

2. Richard L. Bushman is another model of such academic self-disclosure, though his confessions are found in books like Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) and On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), not in the middle of his magisterial Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005).

3. Appleby, Hunt, Jacob, Ibid., 271.

4. Appleby, Hunt, Jacob, Ibid., 254.

5. Appleby, Hunt, Jacob, Ibid., 290.

Comments

  1. Steve Evans says:

    Interesting. So is this “history”? You call it a “history book” — but given where Harline goes, is that accurate — it doesn’t sound like traditional scholarship.

  2. Great review, Blair. Now I fear that my review of the book, going up in the morning, will only be redundant!

    Steve: I think the book is still very much history because it still focuses on a historical topic and Harline utilizes sophisticated tools from the historical profession. But it certainly is, as you note, not a conventional scholarly monograph–but that is by design, hoping to broaden the parameters of what is typically referred to as “scholarly history.”

  3. Thanks for the review, Blair. I finished this a few weeks ago, and enjoyed it.

    Steve, it’s very purposefully not traditional scholarship; there are no footnotes or citations of any sort, and the essay explaining source material at the book’s end reveals that among the sources used for the contemporary story are Harline’s own memories. That narrative, at least, it part memoir, part history. As a historian, that doesn’t sit quite right with me, though as Blair notes, Harline seems to have anticipated that sort of reaction.

  4. I was going to add that others’ mileage may vary, and then read Ben’s comment, which proves my point. If nothing else, Harline’s approach should generate some good discussion.

  5. Steve, that’s one of the central questions Harline’s book raises: where does history meet historian? Should history meet historian this way? Where does history meet reader? Where should it meet reader? There’s also a more explicitly moral element to it, because one could imagine a historian inviting readers along his or her own investigations in the archives, stunning discoveries, personal views. But conversion is a loaded topic. It seems to me one of the biggest risks Harline took was to enact this approach to history using a fire-button topic, rather than making his points using less-divisive story examples.

  6. Will comparisons with Stegner’s Angle of Repose come naturally to the reader’s mind?

  7. Whoah — I didn’t see that conclusion coming! Thanks for the review. You continue to impress, Brother Hodges.

  8. Wow, I’m pretty sure I saw this book reviewed before, both reviews were interesting, both brought out a great deal that the other did not. Thanks for sharing this review.

  9. Thanks for the review, I enjoyed your comments.

  10. Harline led my capstone seminar. Nice guy; one of the most thoughtful professors I had while I was at the Y, so definitely wanting to check this book out… The other day I was semi-critiquing a high-school family member’s history textbook (verdict: no wonder high-schoolers hate history) and my mother-in-law mentioned how she loved reading historical fiction, so it got me thinking on all the ways to introduce historical topics to audiences who don’t necessarily care about history for its own sake (weirdos). There are bad ways to weave history into our lives (in politics for example, most talking heads beat history with a stick until the points they’re trying to make bleed out of its carcass [as an aside-within-an-aside, I'm proud of of that macabre metaphor]), there are less bad ways (historical fiction often ends up here), and there are good ways (Sarah Vowel!) Hopefully Harline’s found a good way to get non-historians engaged. For everyone else, they can discover R.G. Collingsworth in a used bookstore and dive straight into the deep end like I did :)

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