Criticism: The Mormon Literaturstreit — the response

This AMV series begins here.

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Almost a year after Cracroft’s review of Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems was published, Bruce W. Jorgensen, also a faculty member in BYU’s English Department, responded with To Tell and Hear Stories: Let the Stranger Say. Jorgensen, who had been serving as president of the Association for Mormon Letters (presidents usually serve a one-year term), presented his response in his farwell address at the January 1991 AML meeting. It was later published in Sunstone.

Actually, Jorgensen cites three occurrences that precipitated the theme of his address. In addition to Cracroft’s review, he mentions that in one of his classes a student expressed the opinion that the class shouldn’t read or discuss Anton Chekov’s short story “The Lady with the Pet Dog” because it “glamorized immorality,” and then a few days later during a guest lecture in Eugene England’s Mormon literature class, he encountered “troubled reactions” to “Answer to Praeyer,” a short story by Deniss Clark (yes, the same Dennis Clark that co-edited Harvest — the world of Mormon letters is rather small).

Jorgensen argues against essentialized readings of Mormon fiction and calls for a sort of big-tent approach to Mormon letters. He argues that too many Mormons line up on the side of Socrates in the “quarrel with the poets.” He writes: “Socrates says … that it’s bad for both the poet and the audience to ‘imitate’ a bad man, or a ‘mixed’ man, since what we must do is cultivate virtue, and to imitate badness or mixedness is to make our souls rehearse badness.”

Drawing upon several references to literature and scripture, Jorgensen explores themes of hospitality and seeking to understand “the other” to build his argument for a more open, ‘hospitable’ way of reading.”

“Hospitable reading would be slow to shut out,” he writes. “It would be slow to decide whether a literary visitor is ‘Mormon’ or not, especially slow to gauge this by some presumed ‘doctrinal’ criterion or some elusive metaphysical or ‘essential’ notion of ‘spirituality.'”

He argues that essentialism is the basic problem with Cracroft’s review and then goes on (in what is the strongest part of the essay) to rehabilitate a few of the poems that Cracroft criticized with close readings that point out that the poems are much more Mormon (and much more interesting) than Cracroft made them seem.

Jorgensen does toss in a couple of subtle potshots. In his exploration of hospitality and un-quick judgements in literature and scripture he invokes the “cast the first stone” epsisode in the Gospels. And he can’t resist pointing out that the majority of the poems that Cracroft “excludes” are by women — “I notice that all but one of the specifically named shut-out poems are by women, while all but two of the specifically shut-in are by men.” He also does this weird thing where he refers to Cracroft as “the Reviewer.” No doubt he is trying to separate the critic from the person — just as academics often refer to the “implied author” as different from the author him or herself — but it just seems strange to me — like one of those things where liberals try to be careful and un-judgemental and instead come across as horribly condescending.

And indeed, while I think that the essay is a masterful piece of criticism, I’m not sure that it works in terms of the Mormon audience. It’s too chock full of literary allusions and academic qualifying such as when he writes: “I don’t offer my readings as “definitive” (I don’t believe in definitive readings, though I do believe in worse and better, smaller and larger); but I would say my readings seem to receive and respond more fully to the poems’ available language.”

He also strains just a little too hard, in my opinion, in his attempts at bringing gender into the discussion.

I’m also disappointed that his approach to Mormon criticism is more of what it is not than what it is. For instance, he writes: “A Mormon criticism will surely not judge very quickly by superficial elements such as the presence of the always-ready-to-hand clichés of pop Mormon ‘spirituality’ or ‘virtue,’ or, negatively, by the presence of topics we disapprove or words we must not say.”

In the end he simply argues: “But the step I take here and now is ‘down’ or ‘aside’–to something near a voice whispering low out of the dust in valediction: Welcome to our common room. Tell us your story so our hearing and telling can go on. That would be faring well.”

The thing is I agree with taking a rather broad approach to Mormon reading, that Mormons would do well to read those voices that are marginal or difficult. And I also think that his warning about the dangers of essentializing is a good one. However, I’m still left with the feeling that in the end Jorgensen has sidestepped Cracroft’s arguments and the whole question of Mormon criticism.

Or perhaps, it’s simply that there is an inherent problem with talking about Mormon criticism. As I mention, the most compelling part of the essay is when Jorgensen takes up the poems that Cracroft accuses as being not-Mormon and rehabilates both their Mormon-ness and general literary value with some great close readings.

The question is — can Cracroft come up with a better definition/critical approach for Mormon literature?

Next: Cracroft’s rebuttal

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