I began work on a cultural biography of Joseph Smith during my year at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, in 1996. Facing a mountain of material and scores of difficult questions, I looked for a way to crystallize my thinking as I burrowed through the sources. I hit upon the expedient of preparing preliminary sketches like the small paintings that sometimes precede a mural or larger work.
Joseph Smith's entry into the religious world as a translator fascinated me, so I read up on other translators, scurrying about the Huntington learning how Champollion cracked Egyptian. I had not plans for the essay other than as background for the book. The essay was sitting quietly in my files when Bryan Waterman, then a graduate student at Boston University, wrote about the collection of essays he was assembling for The Prophet Puzzle (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999). I knew I would disagree with some of the essays in the volume but felt my argument spoke for itself, regardless of its companions. [From the author]