Will Bagley, the Mississippi River, and “The War for the Liberation of Mormon History”

Though my first, and still primary, attachment to Mormon history focused on the movement’s first two decades, I originally became familiar with the field in the midst of the Mountain Meadows Massacre battles. The first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed several of the most significant books on the topic since Juanita Brooks’s classic 1950 work, and the conflicting interpretations were often explosive. Was Brigham Young responsible for orchestrating the killing of 120 unarmed men, women, and children? It was a hotly contested question. Though outside my field of study, I devoured everything I could on the topic, and attended a number of public lectures and debates while I lived in Utah. And anyone somewhat familiar with these developments would have been well-acquainted with Will Bagley, a western historian known for his dogged research, lively prose, and well, let’s call it “lively” personality.

BagleyI was intrigued, then, when I saw that he had written a memoir, River Fever: Adventures on the Mississippi, 1967-1971, that Signature had published just in time for this year’s MHA. Knowing I’d need some reading material for a coming trip, I picked up a copy and dove in.

Though my “to read” pile was already ridiculously high, I decided to move River Fever to the top of my list for two reasons. First, even when I disagree with Bagley’s conclusions, or am annoyed with his antics, I find him a fascinating character, and I, of course, know he’s a very talented writer. And second, having recently finished my book on Nauvoo, as well as being a longtime fan of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, I’m always intrigued by any narrative of traveling the mighty Mississippi River. Happily, the memoir proved both entertaining and rewarding, and I devoured it in only a few sittings.

I won’t spoil too many narrative points, but River Fever is a coming-of-age story of “Bill” Bagley finding himself—or something of that kind—as he traveled America as a young man. He hitchhiked across the country, bicycled across the midwest, caught transcontinental trains with hobos, and, of course, voyaged the Mississippi River. Twice, in fact. Bagley really knows how to paint a scene, and his descriptions of the majestic river, climactic weather, and civil rights-era South are often poignant, and at times even quite moving. Even when I had difficulty determining the relevance of a number of moments and details, overall this is a worthy contribution to the vast literature of young men discovering their purpose while traversing America’s mightiest water-flow.

Indeed, after immersing myself in the literature of voyagers to the Mississippi River during the 1840s–one of the best sources for reconstructing Mormon Nauvoo–I’m struck by the persistence of this narrative trope. There’s something about the power of the river, the reminder of nature’s omnipotent presence, that’s meant to remind humanity of their tenuous state. I particularly appreciate the fact that Bagley ends his narrative on an ambiguous note: when trying to detail the lessons he learned, he admits he knows few certainties like how being warm and dry is better than being cold and wet. Deep stuff, that.

Nauvoo 1848

A classic image of Nauvoo that captures the dynamic of the Mississippi River: the “civilization” of Nauvoo is juxtaposed to the “natural” world around it.

It’s yet another theme of the Mississippi River literature, however, that stands out as similarly crucial to River Fever purpose: that of corporatization versus nature; or, to put another way, the pitfalls of “civilization.” Many authors have invoked the river as an example for returning to a more pristine, less corrupted state. This is certainly the case for Bagley, as navigating the waters is a way to postpone getting a real job, and he never gave up the chance to denounce the pitfalls of modernity. A modern day Huck Finn, indeed.

But this dynamic proves an important tether between the 230-page memoir—most of which was written in 1975 and was very lightly revised—and the nearly 40-page epilogue, which brings his story to 2019.

I had wondered whether “Bagley the Flamethrower” would appear in the narrative alongside “Bagley the Adventurer”; for the most part, however, his critiques of the LDS Church and Mormon historians are absent in the memoir, though he gets in some barbs in the few pages he spends on Nauvoo. But the epilogue is classic Bagley: he details how he has been deeply, not to mention bravely, involved in “the war for the liberation of Mormon history,” including how he fought against both the institutional church and its apologists for the last few decades.

The shift between these two parts of the book can be jarring. Indeed, it seems as if the memoir and the epilogue were written for two separate audiences: the former a general audience interested in things far beyond Mormonism, or even history, and the latter for those who enjoy the intricacies and insider baseball of Mormon, Utah, and Western scholarship.

This is where the Mississippi, once again, comes in: just as Bagley’s voyage down the river was his way of “sticking it to the man” and rejecting the evil vagaries of modern America, so too is are his revisionist histories meant to poke, prod, and provoke the LDS institution and those who defend it. In both realms, Bagley is the countercultural hero, the dissident ready and willing to call “foul” on the establishments that were leading society down the wrong course. River Fever is, among other things, the origins story for Blood of the Prophets.

Whether one agrees with him or not, Will Bagley is a prominent figure in the modern world of Mormon historical writing.[1] It is fitting, then, that we have a work from his own hands that helps place his ideas, attitudes, and approach in proper context. Placed alongside other recent memoirs, like those by Armand Mauss and Levi Peterson, and edited collections of people like Dale Morgan and Juanita Brooks, we can get a better sense of the development of Mormon thinkers in the post-World War II world—the dawn of the modern Mormon mind.


[1] One of the few things with which I vehemently disagreed with in his epilogue was that the Kingdom in the West series he edited for the Arthur H. Clark Company might turn out to be “a colossal waste of time” given recent digitizations and online resources. Such couldn’t be further from the truth–the series is one of the most important in the field, and should stand the test of time.