“It was one of those periods when everything suddenly becomes unstable, indeterminate, and called into question, including the truth.” An interview with Miles Harvey

Miles Harvey
Author Miles Harvey (photo by Anne Ryan)

Interview by Donald G. Evans

Miles Harvey is always in teacher mode. For Miles, this way of being is not just the habit of a longtime professor who landed in his current role of Associate Professor on DePaul University’s English faculty via stops at Northwestern University and the University of New Orleans. It stems from intellectual curiosity. An almost jubilant interest in the world. He’s also a stickler for facts, and that’s more than just a byproduct of his past journalistic work for United Press International, In These Times, and Outside. It’s an almost obsessive need to get things right, not just the surface things but the way they connect.

His wide-ranging interests lead Miles in a lot of directions, and his ability to spot a good story is extraordinary, as evidenced in The Island of Lost Maps (2000) and Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America (2008). In his recent (third) book, Miles has again spotted a beautiful, worthwhile story to tell, and he has again told it with an enormous amount of passion and panache. The King of Confidence is a rumbling account of James Strang’s rise from a nobody going nowhere to the self-appointed ruler of an island community, a fascinating case study of a character who in many ways became what he pretended to be.

A failed attorney and self-avowed atheist, Strang joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1843, just a few months before an anti-Mormon mob murdered church founder Joseph Smith in Carthage, Illinois.  In the aftermath of that slaying, he produced a letter, purportedly written by the martyred prophet himself, which named Strang the heir to control of fast-growing church. According to moden experts, the letter was a fraud, one of many such fabrications in the saga of this self-mythologizer. Nonetheless, Strang soon attracted hundreds of followers. After leading them to a small island in Lake Michigan, he declared himself King of Earth and Heaven. Despite a raid on the island by the U.S. Navy’s first ironclad warship, Strang managed to keep his kingdom intact until 1856, when he was gunned down by his own followers.

On the surface, this book is about Strang’s rise and fall, but more compelling still are the issues of faith, power, and truth that arise through the action. The book’s release was pushed back more than two months to July 14. I had the good luck to talk to Miles on the phone about the new book. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Evans: I’m an admirer of your previous books, and I find this new one, The King of Confidence, to have exceeded even those extraordinary accomplishments.

Harvey: I’m really grateful to you. What you do in the city for the literary scene is just galvanizing and important. The admiration is mutual. And thanks for saying that–I feel like it’s my best book, too.

The subtitle of your book is A Tale of Dystopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch. It’s a mouthful. What are you trying to convey there?

What I wanted to do was capture the feverish energy of the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike previous biographers of Strang, who saw his story as a sort of quirky, self-contained tale or a sidelight of Mormon history, I saw him as a kind of a lightning rod for all the craziness of the Antebellum period. That’s period leading up to the Civil War when there was so much happening, such tremors in the social structure, in politics, and in technology. It was very much like our own era in that way. I just was amazed by how many of these radical changes of the mid-nineteenth century kind of expressed themselves through James Strang. I wanted the subtitle to reflect the wild momentum and anxiety of the era.

On the very simplest level, your new book is about a con man. I’ve always gravitated to stories about con men and women, and there is a truly superb body of literature, fictional and non-fictional, on the subject. I’m thinking about Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley and Jim Thompson’s Roy Dillon, as well as people like Cassie Chadwick and Charles Ponzi. You refer in your book to Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade and P.T. Barnum. Are you a fan of the genre?

Yes, I think maybe in a different way. For example, one of my favorite books, a book that I have read many times and a [non-fiction] book I teach to my students at DePaul, is Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary. It’s about a guy that lived a double life unknown to even his wife and kids. For years and years, he drives off and wanders into forests doing almost nothing. Meanwhile, he has figured out a way to con people out of money because he’s known as a respected physician. What intrigues me about this tale is that not even the con man seems to understand his own motivations. He deceives people because he can—even himself. In the end, Carrère questions whether there’s anything behind the mask, other than perhaps more masks.  Another really formative book for me in this was Melville’s The Confidence-Man. I adore that book. I know a lot of Melville scholars will roll their eyes, but I think it’s his best work. I just found it to be this really important touchstone for me as I worked on The King of Confidence. What Melville was saying about some fundamental American impulse toward deceptions and a fundamental American love of being deceived I think is still very much with us. When Charles Dickens came to the United States in 1842, he was amazed and appalled by what he called the American love of “smart dealing” and “smart men.” He talked about how Americans would excuse people who conned or ripped off people, were total deceivers. Somehow being able to pull off a big lie was a thing to be applauded and respected. I definitely think that this may explain some of Strang’s appeal in the mid-nineteenth century, and I think it explains some of Donald Trump’s appeal in the twenty first century. I’m not saying Americans have a patent on this stuff; being susceptible to fraud is, of course, part of human condition. But it’s no coincidence that P.T. Barnum and Strang came from the same era, or that the term “con man” spread during this period. Nor is it a coincidence that Trump grew out our own unstable times. We see this at different periods of American history where we’re just going through shock waves. People like Strang and Trump offer easy answers in times of huge complexity. And we seem to crave that. The trouble is that times of huge complexity—a pandemic, for instance, or a crisis over racial inequities—demand thoughtful solutions and decisive action, not a bunch of fifty-word Tweets.

Like Trump, Strang really understood emerging technology. The nineteenth century had its own version of the internet–the exchange papers. Because of laws regarding the post office, newspapers could trade papers for free, so papers from all over the country were getting hundreds of other papers from all over the country. They would clip and publish articles, often without checking their veracity, much like we retweet and repost unverified information on the internet today. Strang, who was a good writer and experienced newspaper editor, realized he could take advantage of this system for his own purposes of propaganda. The first thing he did when he started his sect was launch a newspaper. Because of this give and take of information, which was being sped up and amplified by the recent invention of the telegraph, he could spread what we now call fake news. And he was also smart enough to realize he could do it from the hinterlands, in much the same way that some little lab in Russia producing fake news can affect U.S. politics today. Disinformation specialists now realize they don’t need to be in the center to change and control dialogue; they just need to get propaganda into the mainstream, and Strang realized that right away. People complain about Trump being the first Twitter president, but he realizes that he can get around traditional news that is curated; he can do an end-run around fact-based news. Strang similarly realized that he could get his own version of the world in the press.

There are other con men in American history who were like this as well. I just watched a great documentary by the filmmaker Penny Lane about John R. Brinkley, otherwise known as the Goat Gland Doctor. He was this guy that transplanted goat testicles into men; the idea was that it would cure impotence and fertility problems. Brinkley was also a pioneer of radio. He established one of first really big radio stations, and when his radio and medical licenses got revoked in the United States, he set up a pirate radio station in Mexico. He too understood how technology could go around traditional institutions.

What about Strang appealed to you as a storyteller?

I got very lucky with this book. Seemingly out of the blue, my agent called me one day, saying an editor at Little, Brown wanted to talk to me about a book idea. I was of course intrigued, but the few times such opportunities had presented themselves, I quickly realized I wasn’t right for the project. But this time was different. When the editor, Ben George, asked me to look into James J. Strang I was instantly drawn to the material. First, it was a Midwestern story, which was important to me. I do think the Midwestern contribution to the national narrative is often overlooked. But even more importantly, I knew right away not only the kind of book I wanted to write, but how I wanted to write it. Strang felt to me not like an interesting historical footnote or an interesting figure in Mormon history, but an important figure in American and nineteenth century history. I saw him as this fundamentally American figure.

The King of Confidence is a story about a con man, but it’s equally a story about Antebellum America. Tell me a bit about the importance of the historical setting in this book.

It was one of those periods when everything suddenly becomes unstable, indeterminate, and called into question, including the truth. The photograph had just been invented during this period, and the telegraph had just been invented. Those two inventions changed people’s perceptions of space and time radically. There was a fundamental readjustment of reality, but also this incredible ferment going on in other parts of the culture. The women’s movement was just getting started. The anti-slavery movement was burning through the country. The early prohibition movement was going strong. So institutions, technologies, and human beings were very much in flux at this time. It’s not a coincidence that the Communist Manifesto came out of this period. And although he never read Marx, Strang briefly became a socialist, realizing he could firm up power by having his followers turn over all their individual property to the group and its leader.

The Antebellum period was, in fact, full of what we now call cults. There was not a word for it them—it was when people were first noticing this phenomenon on the national scene. Strang was just one of many self-proclaimed prophets running around America and especially around the frontier at this time. There was a sense that the world was coming to an end. People had very different views about how that end would happen, but time seemed to be speeding up and spinning out of control. The reason Mormons called themselves Latter-day Saints was because they believed they were in the last days. Strang was one of many people who were able to take advantage of that—in his case, by telling people they were creating the conditions by which the Second Coming would happen on Beaver Island. His followers truly believed he was a prophet of God, a conduit directly to God, and that he would enable them to help bring around the Second Coming, in which all of the fevers they were feeling would disappear.

The book begins in a suspended moment (June 27, 1844) in which Joseph Smith appears certain to die at the hands of a mob, and ends, more or less, with Strang’s demise. Those two events effectively bookended a structure that allowed you to create and maintain tension, though the ending was all but foretold. Tell me a bit about the challenge of organizing this vast amount of material. What were your biggest challenges?

I had expected that the biggest challenge would be a lack of information, but in fact it was just the opposite. Not only did Mormons in general keep great records, but Strang and his followers were meticulous hoarders of their documents. When you feel you’re the chosen people and are making history, you tend to keep records. As a result, there are great archives of Strang material, especially at Yale and Central Michigan University. There was a lot of stuff available, including Strang’s diary as a young man, so you have a sense of what he wanted in his wildest ambitions before he became a prophet. Then there was the recent proliferation of wonderful nineteenth-century newspaper archives in digital form. Such databases, which were largely unavailable to previous researchers, were a great advantage to me. I was making important discoveries about Strang while in my own basement at one o’clock in the morning as I sat in my underwear.

In the prologue, an angel witnesses the demise of Joseph Smith in Carthage, Illinois, and flies to Burlington, Wisconsin, where he or she presumably encounters Strang. This was a clever and useful device that enabled you to give an overview of the landscape in context, and also inject a supernatural element into the narrative. The ensuing fact-based narrative relies on an understanding that a certain portion of the population, maybe greater than we would guess, based their lives on religious doctrine and even belief in supernatural phenomena. To what extent did you feel it important that the reader reconfigure their point of view, or at least rethink their definition of logic?

I think you interpreted what I was doing in that opening section exactly right. I wanted to give readers a sense of what the perspective and world view of people at the time meant, and how a man like Strang could suddenly emerge from obscurity [and attain] the status of prophet in a very short time. This was a period in which many people believed in angels—angels were especially important in Mormon theology—and Strang claimed to have been anointed by an angel at the moment of Joseph Smith’s murder. I strongly believe in not making up fictional elements in nonfiction, but I wanted to use this device to give readers a sense of the world not only through the eyes of Strang and his followers but many other people in the nineteenth century. I also thought the angel gave me a way of linking Smith’s murder to Strang. An angel flying over the Midwest gave me a chance to describe the landscape, the place we’d be talking about the rest of the book.

This book succeeds, in large part, because you’ve created a web of details that allow us to follow Strang through this fascinating part of his life, and even the gaps in the historical record are accounted for in mostly satisfying ways. In short, we’re able to feel as though we’re there with him. Give us a few highlights from your exhaustive research into this subject.

I guess I had three goals. One was to tell an interesting story. That was pretty easy with Strang. He was a fascinating guy, hugely intelligent and a really good writer but also interested in a huge range of subjects—he was an amateur naturalist, among other things. The second thing I wanted to do was to tie him into the broader fevers of the nineteenth century, including the anti-slavery movement, in which Strang took an active role. The third thing I wanted to do was to fill out the details of Strang’s life best as I could. For instance, on the issue of slavery, I found a letter Strang had written to his father-in-law, a completely corrupt canal contractor, who had been using slave labor on the James River and Kanawha Canal in Virginia. Strang was appalled by the conditions he saw there. The letter he wrote about it was in plain view at the Yale archives, but I’m not sure other researchers knew what to do with it, since, to the best of my knowledge, no previous biographer had mentioned it. My hunch is that they couldn’t even figure out what he was doing in Virginia. But I found that letter as crucial to understanding Strang as a sincere, or sincere as he could get, anti-slavery activist. He seems to have had very few solid beliefs, but abolition was one of them. In fact, he later took political risks as a member of the Michigan Legislature by supporting anti-slavery legislation. So I tried to fill him out in all his complexity. I tried to bring him to life in three dimensions.

You write that “Strang was a shuffler of the first order,” and document many of the ways in which your subject shifted or defaulted on debts, invented stories in order to insinuate himself into enterprises for which he seemed unqualified, ghosted his way out of predicaments, and generally how he left disorder in the wake of his own profit seeking. Antebellum America seemed to aid and abet this combination of ambition and unconscionable behavior. One fascinating aspect of the book—one important enough to make its way into the title—is this notion of Strang as self-appointed King. I mean, it’s metaphorical, but more than that—he actually commandeered an island and set himself up as the ruler of a more or less self-governed entity. How in the world was this possible?

I think it was possible because all things were possible on the American frontier at this time. Americans were—and still are—wonderful inventors and reinventors. Strang could fashion himself as king and realized he needed an island to do it. Burlington, Wisconsin—the site of his first utopian colony—was too complicated. His followers could leave; his enemies could remain; and there was just too much information he couldn’t control. So he moved to an island in northernmost Lake Michigan. As far as him being a king, there is something comparable to Trump: he both knew he was deceiving people and saw himself as a savior. My sense is that Trump is aware he is lying, but that his fictions are worth it because he believes the world needs him. And I think that was also true of Strang. A central clash in his life was this idealism he had in droves and this awareness that had a unique ability to fool people. What’s interesting is that in 1851 Millard Fillmore sent in the U.S. Navy’s first iron-hulled warship to invade the island and bring Strang to justice. But when Fillmore left power with a whimper in 1853, Strang’s kingdom was still going strong. So he literally outlasted this president that tried to dethrone him. His deception didn’t last forever, but he had a really good run. Like the current U.S. president, he had a really profound ability to make people believe in things that otherwise would strike them as irrational and to create a cult of personality around himself.

I found there to be an eerie connection between the media landscape of that era and our own. What was the media like and how did it play into Strang’s story?

Among other things, the press was, as in our own times, really divided, and Strang was a longtime political activist. He was a Democrat, so Democratic newspapers tended to believe and support him, partly for political reasons. He got elected to the state legislature in Michigan. What was striking in this hugely divided media landscape, even some of these newspapers on the other side were really impressed with him. He was a trained lawyer, good at making a case. A good writer. Even by the reports of some of his fiercest enemies, he seems to have been an able and engaged lawmaker.

Media and politics, then and now, seemed inextricably a part of the social fabric of America. This is not a political book, but politics are part of the foundation of the time in which Strang lived. You do not, until the epilogue of the book, draw any direct parallels between then and now, and yet that comparison is embedded in the narrative. Tell us a bit about those connections and your authorial choice towards subtlety?

Trump hangs over every sentence in this book, partly because I wrote it during Trump’s rise. I woke up every day thinking about Trump and thinking about Strang. A great consolation to writing the book was that it proved to be a vehicle by which I could sort through the past and the present and vice versa. The fact that I was writing in the Trump era gave me insight into thinking about Strang, and writing about Strang gave me some insight into thinking about Trump.

Nonetheless, I made a really conscious choice not to mention Trump. There are only two oblique references to the twenty-first century, and they are not direct references to Trump or our times. I tried not to make easy comparisons, even in my mind. Comparisons can go awry; history does repeat itself sometimes, but not in ways you anticipate. I preferred to let readers connect the dots.

The King of Confidence is due to be released in July. At best, your public appearances will be reduced and at worse….no public appearances until much later. Are you doing anything different in anticipation of the health pandemic possibly impacting the launch?

I’m trying to work that through with the publisher now. To be honest, it seems like the publishing world, like the rest of the planet, is just trying to improvise as best it can. It concerns me of course to have a book coming out in the middle of a pandemic when bookstores aren’t open. On the flip side, anecdotally it seems like more of my friends are reading during the crisis. Perhaps there are ways to tap into that, but it also may be that I am just a little bit unlucky. Sept. 11, 2001 was the paperback launch date of The Island of Lost Maps. I was on what’s called a radio book tour–you just go from one station to another, to another, just jumping around all day. At some point in the morning, I had to call into a station in Boston, but I couldn’t get in. Same thing at the next station. Finally, somebody at one of the stations picked up the phone and said, “Don’t you know what’s happening?”

“No, what’s happening?”

“A plane just flew into the World Trade Center. I don’t think you’re going to be doing a lot of interviews today.”

After 9/11, who wanted to read about maps? Not even me.

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Don Evans PhotoDonald G. Evans is the author of three books, most recently the story collection, An Off-White Christmas. He is founding executive director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.