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Stu Levitan welcomes Miles Harvey for a conversation about his new book, The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch. Miles gave a very successful talk at the Wisconsin Book Festival last fall. Alas, Stu was not able to schedule him before that appearance, and he’s very happy to be able to bring him and his wildly entertaining book to you now.
James Jesse Strang was born in rural western New York in 1813. As a man, he was short and balding and entirely unprepossessing except for his eyes. He became a jack-of-many useful trades – most importantly attorney, postmaster, and newspaper editor. He called himself “a perfect atheist, an inveterate unbeliever and opposer of the Mormon faith.” Yet in early 1844, on a happenstance visit to the large Mormon enclave at Nauvoo Illinois, he was baptized by the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith himself. A week later, he was ordained an elder of the church by Smith’s older brother, Hyrum.
And when Joseph Smith was murdered by an anti-Mormon mob five months later, Strang declared that the prophet had chosen him as his successor. And he pressed his case so successfully that he attracted hundreds of followers to the Walworth County community of Voree, then thousands of devotees to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, where he proclaimed himself King of Earth and Heaven – and also got elected to the Michigan House of Representatives.
How James Strang pulled it off – and how he, too, met a violent end – is the business that occupies Miles Harvey in The King of Confidence, which also serves as a portrait of the weird and wild world that was antebellum America, and features cameos by P.T. Barnum, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, John Brown, and even the President of the United States, Millard Fillmore.
The King of Confidence is Miles Harvey’s third book, following the national and international bestseller The Island of Lost Maps and Painter in a Savage Land, which was named a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year and a Booklist Editors’ Choice. He also teaches creative writing at DePaul University in Chicago, where he is a founding editor of Big Shoulders Books.
It is a pleasure to finally welcome to Madison BookBeat Miles Harvey.