Worth Their Salt, Too: More Notable but Often Unnoted Women of Utah
David Alan Allred
Utah State University Press (Logan, Utah), 2000. Trade Paperback:
A follow-up to Whitley's first book of Utah women biographies,Worth Their Salt, Too follows the same pattern in presentingthe lives of a handful of women who have distinguished themselves insome manner. This volume includes sixteen biographies that memorializeand recount the experiences of social activists and religious leaders,poets and royalty, scholars and lobbyists. The biographies arearranged in chronological order from Patricia Lyn Scott (born in 1808)to Emma Lou Thayne (born in 1924), and each has a different author (ofwhich all but one are female). With the different authors comesvariation in the length, depth, and tone of the biographies; some ofthe biographies seem more professional than others. Still, throughoutthe book, the lives of these women unfold to the reader'samazement. There are important stories that are seldom told about Utahwomen.
I see merit in this book for several reasons. First, the basic conceptof book gives it significance. The past, as it appears in history,tends to focus on the radical, the public, the leaders, and thecontroversies. Often the voice of the common people doesn't find itsway into "history." While the histories that focus on the Smiths, theYoungs, the Snows, the McKays are valuable, there should also be aplace for the everyday, run-of-the-mill people, the type of peoplememorialized by J. Rueben Clark. Whitley's book does well in focusingon the "notable but unnoted."
If the book gives the democratic perspective, it also gives themarginal perspective. By this I mean, the book does well in presentingUtah history in complex form. Minority views (racial, religious,social, etc.) come out in the biographies of these women. Whileseveral of the women in the book are Mormon, many are not. Those thatare more have various shades of "activity." For most readers, WorthTheir Salt, Too will tell new stories of Utah history.
For example, the biography of Sarah Ann Sutton Cooke tells the storyof a legal battle between herself and Governor and President BrighamYoung. Cooke became "the first person to win a civil judgment againstBrigham Young" (19). The biography of Verla Gean Miller FarmanFarmaianhints at the perceptions of Utah from the outside world (in the earlytwentieth century). FarmanFarmaian was surprised to see her Iranianboyfriend had a picture in his apartment of "an enormous bed filledwith weeping women." The wreath by the women had the words "'Inmemory of our beloved husband, Brigham Young.'" Questioned aboutthe picture, her boyfriend explained that he bought the image in aParisian flea market because it "reminded him of his own family"(229).
Worth Their Salt, Too has application to Mormon literature studies ina couple of ways. First, the biographies of Emma Lou Thayne andVirginia Sorensen, while being short, give insight into thewriters. Mary Lythgoe Bradford's biography of Virginia Sorenson helpstrack her life after she wrote her classic Mormon novels. The bylineof Bradford also points out the future complete biography beingwritten by herself and Susan Howe. The book also helps contextualizethe Lost Generation of Mormon writers. For example, the EsterEggertson Peterson's biography complements Virginia Sorenson's byshowing how non-writers were also part of the same "generation" ofMormons.
On the whole, the book is easy to read and very engaging. There is adiversity of experience in the book that gives it a wide appeal. Thebook does have limitations as well. Some of the biographies are tooromanticized in telling the life story of their subjects. These overlydramatic accounts point to the fact that biography is a cross betweenhistory and creative writing or that there is a poetics which informsthe rhetoric of presenting fact.
Furthermore, in several places the biographies seem sketchy orincomplete. I'm sure part of this is due to the lack of primarysources, especially about the women who have died. However, importantissues come up in some of the biographies that are not addressed. AdaDuhigg hints at conflict between her Methodist worldview and thedominant Mormon perspective (166). Alberta Mae Hill Gooch Henry isheavily involved in the African-American community in Utah, but herbiography doesn't detail social conflicts that arose over the Mormonpolicy of blacks being ineligible for the priesthood. There are alsopersonal details that are glossed over. We see that Verla Gean MillerFarmanFarmaian's marriage falls apart, but there are fewindications of why.
Still, as I point these areas out, I wonder what business is it ofmine. Reading biography is a sort of imposition on the lives ofothers, and, in the end, it may not be the reader's place to dictatewhat stories are told. These are biographies, but they are nottell-all biographies. Bruce Jorgensen's criticism may applyhere. These biographies are the stories of "strangers," and thestories have something to contribute to the conversation about Mormonand Utah culture.
© 2000 David Alan Allred < email@example.com >