Joseph Smith wasn't just a man. He was a man with thousands of people who counted him a dear friend. And these people either wrote in journals or had children.
It becomes nigh unto impossible to know enough about a milieu that includes Joseph to avoid conflicting viewpoints.
And that is just with the people who love Joseph, whether then or now.
Just imagine the millions who despise or hate Joseph. It's enough to make a writer curl up and want to clean house or pay bills or do any number of productive (or even unproductive) things rather than write.
On the other hand, I am reminded of an experience I had on my mission. I was in Quartu Sant'Elena on the island of Sardinia (Sardegna as I still call it). My companion and I took a break and ducked into the shop of a man we met in the piazza that week.
Our new friend was a jeweler, and that day he was smelting gold. Specifically, he was purifying a bit of gold for a piece.
He started out with a lump that looked perfectly fine. But when the metal liquefied in the crucible, it glowed bright red. I'd seen movies of molten iron, so I didn't realize the red was a sign of impurity until later.
Our jeweler friend the proceeded to drop a pinch of white powder into the molten gold. The liquid gold burned bright and then the jeweler was able to draw off bits of junk. "Impurities," he said in Italian when we asked.
After many repetitions of this process, I was shocked to see a gleam of pure molten gold. No red, no glowing on that small patch. Just pure liquid shimmering gold peeking out from the angry sea of red.
The gold patch grew over time until finally the entire surface was metallic liquid shimmering gold. Now the surface burned red only when the white powder was first cast into the crucible, until eventually even this became the briefest flash of red, localized to the bits of white powder.
This was pure gold.
I feel similarly with respect to the story of Joseph in Nauvoo, specifically the events regarding Joseph and the woman who were his "plural wives."
When I was first introduced to the idea that Joseph had wives other than Emma, it was as though my soul were burned in the crucible. I was angry, untrusting, shaken from my childish certainty. I was fourteen at the time.
I didn't leave the church, but there was a wedge in my heart and mind against Joseph. During those years it was God I trusted, the God who told me to stop kicking against the pricks, who spoke peace to my soul, who assured me my faith was enough.
I was in my late thirties before the gold began to shine for me. My husband was reading the book Mormon America to write a review for Dialogue. As is his habit, he read aloud to me. It was in the course of that process, hearing the words of a non-Mormon try to explain Joseph's theology, that I first understood how much of my worldview was only possible because of Joseph Smith.
But I still didn't like the polygamy thing.
When I first felt the compulsion to write about Joseph and his wife Elvira Cowles, my rationale mind balked. "I like being Mormon!" I cried in my mind. At the time I took it for granted that no good could come of such an endeavor. That was in April 2001.
It's more than eight years later. I have focused persistently, consistently and in some ways obsessively on polygamy. To my surprise, I have discovered a Joseph who desperately loved his wife, Emma. My Joseph did not go behind Emma's back.
And this Joseph, my Joseph, is fully consistent with the extant record.
That is not to say he did not covenant with dozens of woman. But my Joseph did not consummate those marriages with one exception--the two girls who Emma specifically granted to him in May of 1843. The Partridge girls, Emily and Eliza, who Emma promptly turned out of her house.
Every once in a while I learn a new tidbit and I am unsettled. But I have not come across a factoid since August 2008 that has run contrary to my Joseph. This includes the entirety of George D. Smith's book, Nauvoo Polygamy, Todd Compton's more excellent work, In Sacred Loneliness, Richard Bushman's work, Rough Stone Rolling, or even today's challenge: friends who are sure their ancestor was Joseph's love child from a 1832 fling.
All the factoids from which baser Josephs are inferred are consistent with my Joseph.
The problem with writing about Joseph Smith is the sea of facts touching his life. I will not live long enough to understand the entirety of the complex web of human relationship in which he existed. As today, I'm sure the future will bring new information.
That said, I am confident that "my Joseph" will be consistent with the entirety of the data that exists or will emerge.