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.