Juvenile Instructor » Review of Veda Hale’s “Swell Suffering: A Biography of Maurine Whipple”
 


Review of Veda Hale’s “Swell Suffering: A Biography of Maurine Whipple”

By: Amanda - January 29, 2013

Veda Hale, “‘Swell Suffering’: A Biography of Maurine Whipple”  http://www.amazon.com/Swell-Suffering-Biography-Maurine-Whipple/dp/1589581245

Note:  There is swearing in the first two paragraphs of this review.  I tried to edit it out, but doing so changed the meaning of the sentences it was in.  If swearing bothers you, skip the first two paragraphs.  Readers should also check out Blair Hodge’s review of “Swelling Suffering” at Faith Promoting Rumor: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2011/05/im-pitching-the-whipple-biography-with-all-my-might/

Every freshman at my undergraduate university was given two things: a laptop and a copy of the same paperback book.  My year, the paperback they chose was The Things They Carried.  It was a gritty book that included meditations on dying in a field of shit and descriptions of bodies blown apart by grenades.  The smell of “moldering flesh” was supposed to provide students with an idea of what it might have been like to have been a soldier in Vietnam.  As a young college student who was desperate to be seen as edgy and intellectual, I ate it up.  I loved the darkness of his writing – the way that descriptions of mundane objects “packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certifications, C rations, and two or three canteens of water” could become political statements.  I loved his willingness to shock, to intersperse his writings with swear words and thick descriptions of death.

When the college was able to convince him to come to campus, I was thrilled.  The reality of meeting him, however, would not be what I had expected.  I had envisioned a man who would provide me with constant insight into the human condition and who would immediately recognize in me a kindred spirit.  What I got instead was a middle-aged man who desperately wanted a cigarette and could barely keep his fingers still because of his desire.  He was contemptuous of everyone he met and sat back in his chair, counting the moments until he could blow off the gig and have a smoke.  I had expected David Thoreau or perhaps the professor from the Dead Poet’s Society and instead got an ass.

I was reminded of my experience when I started reading Veda Hale’s biography of Maureen Whipple, Swell Suffering. Whipple was the author of The Giant Joshua, a novel about nineteenth-century Mormon polygamy that The Chicago Tribune called an “engrossing record of pioneering” and The New York Times feted as “an Arresting Piece of Work.”  In her biography, Hale compares Whipple with Margaret Mitchell who wrote Gone with the Wind.  Both women produced epic novels that dealt with the defining dramas of the nineteenth century.  While Mitchell focused on the Civil War, which had torn apart the South, Whipple told the story of her pioneer ancestors who had struggled to live as polygamists.  At the heart of both novels were female protagonists who often seemed to be involved in dramas not of their own making.  Each novel would also be the only product of their author’s creativity.  Both women struggled to write after they published their first book, perhaps fearing that whatever they produced after their critically acclaimed novels would never be as good.

Hale first met Whipple in 1990 when the older woman was living in a nursing home in St. George.  Her descriptions of that first meeting are filled with a sense of awe and wonder.   “It was in her eyes,” Hale writes.  “Light gray, they could shine with an easy softness one moment and flicker with static the next.  They could also hold a gaze easily, convincing you she understood more about you than you cared for her to know—perhaps even more than you knew about yourself.”  At other points in the prologue, Hale describes Whipple as sensitive and gifted.  She suggests that The Joshua Tree is “perhaps the best Mormon novel of the twentieth century.” As the biography progresses, however, the reader gets the sense that Hale was ultimately disappointed and even frustrated with Whipple.  What emerges from her biography is not a sympathetic portrait of a Mormon genius.  Instead, Hale often describes Whipple as a needy woman who constantly blamed her failures and inability to succeed on other people.  In Hale’s hands, Whipple becomes a whiny, demanding woman who was unable to connect with other people and who failed to capitalize on the opportunities she was given.

The unsympathetic portrait that Hale crafts makes it difficult to like Whipple.  At times, I found it difficult to finish the biography because I didn’t want to read anymore about such an awful woman.  Hale’s biography is well researched from difficult sources.  One of my friends who has seen the papers that Whipple left behind describes them as being full of “grocery receipts” and “half-finished drafts of novels.”  Hale uses the interviews that she conducted with Whipple before her death to make sense of these records.  The biography she crafts, however, is a difficult one.  On the one hand, it’s not an academic biography so it doesn’t make the connections to larger themes and historical contexts that an academically trained historian would.  On the other hand, it also lacks the sense that this person is someone whose life should be emulated, which so often permeates non-academic biographies.  In the end, this biography is neither one that tells more about twentieth-century Utah or that provides a model of how to be an intellectually adventurous person of faith.

Instead, it is a story of a deeply flawed woman who blamed others for her failures and pitied herself whenever things didn’t turn out the way she wanted.  As a result, it’s an unsatisfying biography in many ways.  The reasons why it is so, however, have less to do with Hale’s skills as a writer and more to do with the complexity of authorship and of human nature itself.

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15 Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Amanda. I still remember becoming engrossed with Giant Joshua while at BYU, and it remains one of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read, Mormon or not. I have heard things about Whipple similar to what you describe is in the biography, so I think I’ve subconsciously put off reading it because I don’t want her to fall from my pedastal.

    Comment by Ben P — January 29, 2013 @ 9:52 am

  2. Thanks for the insightful review, Amanda.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 29, 2013 @ 11:18 am

  3. BTW, there is also a review of this book in the latest JMH.I agreed to do it but then as I read the book I remembered that I don’t actually love The Giant Joshua all that much, and I had much the same response to the bio that you did. So I recruited a friend who loves GJ and who knows Veda Hale to co-author the review. I think we came out with a fairly balanced assessment, but for my part it was lukewarm at best. I do respect the amount of work Hale went to in reconstructing Whipple’s life and writing the book. I’m not sure how many people would be willing to do it, and even if Whipple is not much more than a footnote to Mormon history, it is good to have her stories–the novel and her personal life–on the record.

    Comment by LisaT — January 29, 2013 @ 11:21 am

  4. Thanks for the review, Amanda. I haven’t read the book, but given your review and LisaT’s comment, I’m curious about the book receiving MHA’s Best Biography award last year.

    Comment by Christopher — January 29, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

  5. Thanks everyone! Lisa, I’m in California and the Journal of Mormon History isn’t recognizing me as a subscriber right now so I can access things electronically, but I’ll look at your review as soon as I get home.

    Christopher, it’s not a bad biography. She does a good job of reconstructing Whipple’s life and Blair loved it, but it just wasn’t a satisfying book for me. It’s not an academic text and so doesn’t make broader comparisons with the historical context, and Hale doesn’t appear to have liked Whipple so she doesn’t craft a biography that makes you sympathize with her. I just found myself deeply disliking Whipple and not wanting to finish a book about someone I disliked so much. Perhaps if I had a deep affection for her novel?

    Comment by Amanda — January 29, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

  6. Amanda, thanks for this great review. I wanted to revisit The Giant Joshua for a while after reading it several years ago. I remember coming across several correspondences between her and Juanita Brooks in the Juanita Brooks Collection at the Utah Historical Society. I have always wondered about Whipple’s childhood experiences in her church and family. Does the biography get into that at all? I think your reviews adds more to the ongoing discussion here at JI and other venues about writing a biography and the biographer’s relationship to their subject. I wish I had picked up the biography in Salt Lake when it was more accessible at bookstores.

    Comment by NatalieR — January 29, 2013 @ 1:23 pm

  7. And, also, curiously does the biography or you know why her first name is sometimes spelled as Maurine?

    Comment by NatalieR — January 29, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

  8. Natalie, There is a chapter on her childhood experiences and another on her girlhood. Both are built on her recollections as an elderly woman and are somewhat soured by her belief that she had been mistreated by fate.

    Comment by Amanda — January 29, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

  9. Natalie, Not sure. It might be a mistake. Barnes and Noble has the book listed as Maureen Whipple and Amazon as Maurine Whipple. In her review of the book, Claudia Bushman refers to her as Maureen. I just checked the cover and it says Maurine. As a result, I edited the title of the post to reflect that. It looks like Maurine is more common.

    Comment by Amanda — January 29, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

  10. Looks like it’s time to read The Giant Joshua. Thanks for piquing my interest Amanda.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — January 30, 2013 @ 12:49 am

  11. Amanda, I gather it’s your impression that Hale’s seeming conflicted feelings, if not dislike, for Whipple developed over time–the more time she spent on the project, the less she liked Whipple. Is that a correct reading of your review? If so, do you think Hale should have tried to be more “balanced,” “compassionate” even? Or do you appreciate it when a biographer’s feelings for her subject some through? In your view, what does an ideal biography do and accomplish? Thanks.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — January 30, 2013 @ 11:14 am

  12. Gary, that was my understanding from reading the biography but it’s partially from reading through the lines. I don’t know Veda Hale personally, so I might be misreading what she’s saying.

    For me, an ideal biography will always be one that makes larger points about American or Mormon history as whole. I have always loved books that use individual lives and events as a prism or lens through which to view the context in which they lived. That said, I do think there is a place for biographies which seek to understand someone’s motivations and personal experiences. I also think that a biographer should feel free to dislike their subject and that they shouldn’t necessarily try to be objective. Where I think the biography failed for me is that I couldn’t understand Whipple’s actions at the end of it. I couldn’t sympathize or understand why she acted as she did. I just developed this image of Whipple as a whiney woman who had one major book and had squandered the rest of her life. In Hale’s hands, Whipple seemed a little one note. She never emerged as a complex character who might have had complicated emotions and motivations for what she did. She seemed too flat to have been a real person.

    I don’t know if that completely answers your question.

    Comment by Amanda HK — January 30, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

  13. Amanda, Yes. Thanks. So from your reading, Hale simply could not overcome her dislike of Whipple? And this inordinately colored, if not overwhelemed, her portrait of Whipple? I have to assume that Hale was unaware of this bias. Though I also have to wonder what the manuscript’s advance readers/editors thought. Who was it who called biography an impossible art?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — January 30, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

  14. Either that… or she was never able to get beyond the image that Whipple had created of her life as an elderly woman. It was tough to tell how much of the bitterness came from Whipple as a young woman and how much was retrospectively added by a woman who was disappointed with her life.

    I actually think that the biography would have been better if Hale had included more of her interactions with Whipple and her reflections on them. It would have been a different book, though, and perhaps wasn’t the one Hale wanted to write.

    Comment by Amanda — January 30, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

  15. Thanks for the review. I assigned The Giant Joshua the first semester that I taught Utah history at the U. Some students liked it, but others complained that it was too long. One student refused to read it: “I don’t watch trashy movies,” he said, “and I don’t read trashy novels.” He was convinced that Whipple had been excommunicated for the novel and that it was not worthy of his attention. My protests otherwise could not convince him to change his mind. The U has a “reasonable alternative” policy, the first of its kind in the nation (other schools have since modeled policies after the U’s). I allowed him to read Annie Clark Tanner’s A Mormon Mother instead. I’ve assigned that ever since. I really like The Giant Joshua, partly because my ancestors were sent to the Cotton Mission in 1861 and partly because Whipple created characters with whom I could identify. I’ve resisted reading the biography mostly because I was already aware of Whipple’s complicated life.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 2, 2013 @ 5:53 pm