Commentary: Plenary Session of the AML Conference

Eric has given a nice overview of the conference; I’m going to concentrate on two sessions I took notes on.

The Plenary Session was titled, “Looking Back: Memorable Moments in Mormon Literature.” Presenters included Richard Cracroft, Thomas Rogers, Margaret Blair Young, and Susan Howe. Laraine Wilkins, editor of Irreantum, chaired this spirited discussion of Mormon literature’s roots and founding influences. This session was charged with a lot of energy. Here are some highlights:

Richard Cracroft spoke first and took the occasion early on to recommend Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, and Robert Rees’s collection of writing in honor of Eugene England, Proving Contraries. Among other things (many other things), Cracroft reviews Mormon literature in his column in BYU Today. During the session, he went so far as to say that any Mormon who had not read RSR is in dereliction of duty. Also recommended to anyone interested in the development of Mormon literature: England’s essay, “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects,” published in David Whittaker’s Mormon Americana: A Guide to Sources and Collections in the United States. Cracroft told how his interest in Mormon literature began in 1971 and described his goal of helping to foster a strain of Mormon literature “”¦ you can read in the temple on Thursday morning.” He remains very excited about the past, present, and future of Mormon literature and is chock full of personal anecdotes about many founding writers and publications.

In his overview of memorable players on the Mormon drama stage, Tom Rogers mentioned Orson Scott Card for, among other things, Stone Tablets; Douglas Stewart for Saturday’s Warrior; Marvin Payne; Steven Kapp Perry; and Clinton Larson; although his remarks on Clinton’s poetic dramas included an anecdote where he attended a performance of one of Clinton’s plays and watched as the “audience drifted out, and then their eyes glazed over.” Having had the priviledge myself of attending two of Clinton’s plays back when, I know that Rogers’s description of audience reaction during these plays is accurate. Nevertheless, Clinton was, as Rogers put it, “a heavy self-promoter,” and his influence upon the Mormon arts scene and many aspiring writers (yours truly included) is undeniable. Rogers also saluted for their work in theater Charles Metten, Charles Whitman, Richard Cracroft, Eugene England, Scott Bronson, and Tim Slover, among others. Speaking personally on his own experience with his play Huebner, Rogers said he wrote it as a response to a challenge from Alan Keele, staying up all night to complete it. Of theater, he posed a question: Is theater an outdated and antiquated art form? His answer: Yes, but it is an impressively developed form.

In her address, Margaret Blair Young said she has lived through the second Mormon Renaissance. Her reflections on Mormon literature took on personal overtones as she spoke of her awakening to her calling as a writer, triggered in part by her reading of The Brothers Karamazov, a novel that opened her eyes to individual responsibility. She cited Don Marshall’s The Rummage Sale and Doug Thayer’s Under the Cottonwoods as works that influenced her and also said that Tom Rogers influenced her as a teacher and mentor. Her list of mentors further included Bruce Young (her husband), Gene England, and Darius Gray.

In Susan Howe’s presentation, which she was forced to shorten because the session had already run over, she referred to poetry as ” “¦ that other art form for which you can get no money and no fame.” In spite of this, there is, in her opinion, a “fine tradition of Mormon poetry blossoming right now.” As an important source for anyone seeking the roots of Mormon literature, she named the anthology A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints. She credited Clinton Larson with being the father of contemporary Mormon poetry, saying he combined principles of the New Criticism of the 50s, 60s, and 70s with Mormon themes. Howe honored May Swenson’s “original vision.” She also credited Harvest, an anthology of Mormon poetry, with ” “¦ help[ing] people realize there was a Mormon tradition.” She saluted Emma Lou Thayne and Carol Lynn Pearson for their poetic visions. Howe mentioned three volumes of poems written by her colleagues at BYU: In All Their Animal Brilliance (Lance Larson), Leviathan With A Hook (Kim Johnson), and The Well-Tempered Tantrum (John Talbot), each of which have received, among other honors, the AML Award for Poetry (Larson’s In All Their Animal Brilliance received this year’s award). Howe concluded that the “tradition of Mormon poets is alive and well.”

Between the banter among participants, the spontaneous eruption of anecdotes, and the nature of the all-encompassing topic the plenary session ran well overtime and much of it went crashing by like a train that had jumped its tracks. But it was an lively session and I thought that it and other sessions I attended went well along toward re-energizing the AML’s sense of purpose and direction. While the theme of this year’s conference was “Legacies and Destinies: the Past, Present, and Future of Mormon Literature,” clearly the conference provided the AML a healthy chance to contemplate its own roots, current state, and prospects. Attendance seemed lighter than during some years I’ve attended, which is unfortunate, given that IMO this conference had a thorough mix of academics, professionals, and just plain interested folk (like me) that gave it more breadth and texture than some AML conferences have had. And who knew Richard Bushman would be there? It’s surprises like this that keep me going to the conference any time I can manage.

Next I’ll report in detail on the Wayne Booth session, which I considered very well done and deserving of its own post.

One thought on “Commentary: Plenary Session of the AML Conference”

  1. Thanks for the summary, PG. It’s nice that Proving Contraries (which I blogged on here ) got an honorable mention. I’m looking forward to the Wayne Booth summary. 

    Posted by Dave

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