Criticism: The Mormon Literaturstreit — opening salvo

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I would discuss the Mormon Literaturstreit. For those unfamiliar with the term — Literaturstreit is one of those wonderful German creations that precisely and pointedly describes a phenomenon. In this case you take the word ‘Streit’ — which means fight, quarrel, dispute, argument, etc. — and pair it with an academic discipline. Yes, I guess one could just use the English but “Literary Quarrel” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Now academics are always in debate, and such debates can often be quite heated, but as I understand it, something rises to the level of a “—streit” when it is an academic quarrel that is conducted very publicly — sometimes even in leading daily newspapers — and involves discussion of either the credibility of leading figures in the field and/or the foundations and directions of the field itself.

The two best German examples I know is the Literaturstreit of the early 1990s and the Historikerstreit of the 1980s. Click through the links for details, but in brief…

The German Literaturstreit took place after the publication of Christa Wolf’s Was Bleibt (What Remains), a semi-autobiographical novel she wrote in the 1970s (but was unable to publish for obvious reasons) about an East German writer who goes about engaging in some semi-dissident activities while under surveillance by the Stasi (the East German secret police). Wolf was very popular in many western nations at the time (and remains so) and was seen as a sympathetic figure. Was Bleibt came out shortly after the reunification of West and East Germany. A little later so did revelations that Wolf and other prominent’ dissident’ East German writers collaborated (or at least received some perks) with the secret police. It led to a whole firestorm of recriminations, defenses and discussions of credibility.

The Historikerstreit was even more intense (and important, imo). I won’t get into the details, but basically it was a debate among German historians over whether the Holocaust was a unique event in relation to other genocides and state killings (esp. the actions of Stalin). Basically, conservative German historians called for a return to national pride and identity and a distancing from the burden of guilt created by the Holocaust. Liberal historians maintained that conservatives were trying to revise and normalize the Nazi past.

So that’s the background. Now on to the Mormon version — which was nowhere near as public and personal, but still got kind of intense.

The opening salvo

In 1989, Signature Books published Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems, an anthology edited by BYU English faculty Eugene England and Dennis Clark. It was a momentous event in the field of Mormon letters, and the work remains the most important collection of Mormon poetry to date.

In the spring of 1990, a review of Harvest, by Richard Cracroft, also a member of BYU’s English department and a long-time Mormon literature reviewer and critic, appeared in BYU Studies. Perhaps this simply hindsight, but you can tell from the opening sentence that the review was going to attract controversy. It deserves repeating here:

“For the Latter-day Saint who keeps one eye peeled for the Millennium and the other fixed on the encroachments of Babylon, the publication of Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems is both a satisfaction and a consternation: a satisfying confirmation that many (middle-aged) Latter-day Saint poets are beginning to harvest a literature commensurate with their vision of the Restoration and at least as good as the writing of their Gentile counterparts; and a consternation, a storm warning that at least some (younger) Mormon poets, while achieving significantly as artists, seem to have replaced their Urim and Thummims with self-reflecting spectacles that essentially make these artists no different from other contemporary poets.”

The rest of the review is basically a development of that idea. Cracroft lauds the efforts of the poets born before 1939, but then faults the newer stuff. Indeed, he takes great pains at pointing out the differences the two editors may have had in creating the volume — England’s and Clark’s picks are clearly divided with Clark choosing poems by poets born after 1939 that are lumped in a section titled “New Directions.”

Cracroft’s complains that the “[later] poems are testimonials to how the educated modem Mormon poet has assimilated the secular culture and modes of poetry, repressing and replacing soaring spirituality with earth-bound humanism.”

He also attacks Clark’s closing essay, writing that in it “he [Clark] reveals his own rooting in the humus of recondite and not-very-fertile, Structuralism.”

Despite his “consternation,” Cracroft still recommends the anthology, and he does point out a few poems by the younger poets that he likes, but the review is clearly an attempt to define Mormon literature as separate from (and even resistant to) what he calls “the self-fascination of much contemporary poetry.”

I have to admit that my reaction to Harvest was somewhat similar. I found the earlier poems much more approachable and much more Mormon. At the same time, I don’t agree with all the poems that Cracroft points to as failures. For instance I happened to really like Lance Larsen’s “Passing the Sacrament at Eastgate Nursing Home,” which Cracroft calls a “competent, earth-bound (non-Mormon) poem.” However, I’m not completely satisfied with Cracroft’s definition of the “Mormon” in Mormon literature and certainly don’t have quite the allergic reaction to humanism that he does.

Of course, considering Cracroft’s review and the importance of the book being reviewed, it was evident that someone was going to have to respond. Bruce W. Jorgensen, another BYU English professor, did in his 1991 farewell address as president of the Association for Mormon Letters.

Next: the reply.

3 thoughts on “Criticism: The Mormon Literaturstreit — opening salvo”

  1. WM, this conservative BYU response to “modernist” style in poetry is close in timing to the institutional spasm in Mormon history that occurred about the same time, and Signature was involved in that episode as well. Any connection? Was it young poets that first stirred up trouble? 

    Posted by Dave

  2. Dave:

    That’s a good question. The BYU English department certainly was affected by “the spasm.”

    However, I don’t think that there’s that much of a connection in terms of the poets who appeared in the anthology or the resulting literary debate. Some of the personalities involved may have been part of both (Eugene England, for example), but the Mormon Literaturstreit was strictly conducted among literary types.  

    Posted by William Morris

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