Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Ann Eliza Webb Young (Denning) (1844-After 1908)

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Ann Eliza Webb Young (Denning) (1844-After 1908)

Article excerpt

Ann Eliza Webb Young, the one-time plural wife of Brigham Young, has not been invisible in either her time or our own. The 1875 publication of her autobiography, Wife No. 19, or the Story of a Life in Bondage, Being a Complete Expose of Mormon-ism, and Revealing the Sorrows, Sacrifices and Sufferings of Women in Polygamy, caused a furor, and for a decade Young kept her name in the public eye by going on the lecture circuit. In 1908, she revised Wife No. 19, adding new material and giving the volume a new title: Life in Mormon Bondage; a Complete Expose of Its False Prophets, Murderous Danites, Despotic Rulers and Hypnotized, Deluded Subjects. More recently, she has been the subject of Irving Wallace's extensive biography, The Twenty-Seventh Wife, and the newly released novel by David Eber-shoff, The 19th Wife.

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Yet her years as Brigham Young's fifty-second wife and, apparently, his nineteenth living wife (the total number of his wives is believed to be fifty-five, but may be as high as seventy), her civil suit for divorce from him, her repudiation of Mormonism, and her meteoric success on the lecture circuit have hitherto overshadowed her contributions to American literature. (1) With this Profile, I hope to begin the recovery of Ann Eliza Webb Young as an orator and writer for three reasons. First, she played a role in her era's important cultural circuits, such as the lecture platform. Second, her decision to cast her life story in the familiar form of the captivity narrative further expands the definition of that genre at the same time that it gives readers insight (however biased) into Mormon culture. And last, her three marriages and divorces foreground the contradictions of marriage, chastity, and womanhood during the intense nineteenth-century debates on "the woman question."

Ann Eliza Webb was born in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844, the youngest child of Mormon converts Chauncey G. and Eliza Webb. After the revelation of plural, or "celestial," marriage in 1843, Joseph Smith himself instructed Chauncey Webb to take another wife. Accordingly, when the Webbs left Nauvoo for Utah in 1846, the family consisted of Chauncey, his two wives, and four children. In the autobiographies, Ann Eliza describes what it was like growing up in such a family and claims she was traumatized by the complex dynamics of polygamy, especially as they affected women (Wife No. 19 108): Chauncey's family eventually included five wives and numerous children.

At eighteen, Ann Eliza became an actress in Salt Lake City. This was a perfectly proper activity for a young Mormon woman since Joseph Smith had sanctioned theatrical productions and dancing as appropriate amusements. But the Salt Lake City theatre--which Smith's successor Brigham Young originally called Fun Hall but which others soon dubbed Brigham's Theatre--was a venue for both pleasure (for the masses) and profit (for the church) (Wife No. 19 378-79). Here Ann Eliza met actor James Dee, whom she married in 1863. They had two sons, but the marriage was so unhappy that they divorced in 1865.

Why did Ann Eliza marry Brigham Young three years later? Her autobiographies indicate that he and her parents pressured her into accepting his proposal to save her brother Gilbert from bankruptcy and excommunication since he owed Brigham money (Wife No. 19 440-54). But other theories, especially those held by Brigham's supporters, contend that Ann Eliza was a social climber who courted the great man's favor and protection until he agreed to marry her in April 1868. From her perspective, Brigham was a "turbulent, passionate, shrewd, illiterate, strangely powerful man" who "ruled" people "with an absolute sway"--in other words, a charismatic villain (Wife No. 19 456). From his perspective, she was an ambitious woman over forty years his junior who exploited and embarrassed him.

In addition to containing Mormon history and anti-Mormon propaganda, both Wife No. …

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