Mormon Lit: A Believing People

Take a self-guided tour of important works of Mormon literature. That has been my ambition for a little while now. Having come into some book money (picture a cobalt-blue lake in the Canadian Rockies, a little wager with my wife, and me taking a very cold swim), I have started a small collection. I plan to exploit AMV to post reports of what I find. With any luck, good stuff will get some well-deserved attention and worthwhile conversations will ensue. At a minimum, posting this up front should motivate me to read, reflect, remember, and so forth well enough not to embarrass myself too much. 

My first stop: A Believing People (Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert, editors). ABP makes an argument for Mormon Literature: that a Mormon literary tradition exists–and that you should be ashamed of yourself for not recognizing it sooner. ABP’s entries are organized by form, including biography and autobiography, letters, journals and diaries, essays, poetry, and fiction. The earlier selections comprise a small collection of nineteenth century church documents, from excerpts from Parley P. Pratt’s autobiography to Joseph Smith’s letters to Emma and Brigham Young’s last will and testament. The later selections, though better crafted works of literature, were written by authors entirely unknown to me (that is before I read Eugene England’s essay Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects, which inspired my self-guided tour in the first place).

Every ABP entry could probably give birth to many essays; this quick review does not aspire to comprehensiveness. But some things did stand out to me. For example:

Ed Geary’s essay “Goodbye to Poplarhaven.” I was charmed by Geary’s vivid descriptions of a prior incarnation of Southern Utah, its Mormon inhabitants, and their culture. And I was saddened to come to understand something of which I had only a vague notion before reading Geary’s essay: how the unique regional flavor of Southern Utah (huge chunks of Mormon culture in every bite) has lost some of its savor in the process of adopting more bland, mass-produced, rural American culture (i.e., country music, cowboy boots, rodeo, etc.)

Eliza R. Snow’s Hymns. Thanks in part to ABP, I will never again fail to appreciate the green hymn book’s power to soothe me with devotional poetry when talks run dry. ABP’s poetry section is dominated by the texts of familiar hymns, and I found reading Snow’s particularly pleasurable. “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother,” now known as “O My Father,” is sublime.

Donald Marshall’s story “The Week-end.” I was at first distracted by the structure: Marshall’s story alternates between a disembodied voice (apparently the protagonist’s nosy neighbor or perhaps the voice of her hometown itself, Ephraim, Utah) and descriptive passages offered by an omniscient narrator. Yet by the end, I was nodding my head “yes” in satisfaction. In its portrayal of a provincial desperately grasping at and not quite tasting some larger experience, “The Week-end” is touching and sweet and sad.

* * *

Being Mormon and entertaining literary pretensions–at once shamelessly biased and straining for genuine objectivity–I could not resist asking whether each ABP entry was good or even great literature. I want to discover distinctively Mormon literary art that stands on its own–stuff that I could show to a gentile literary-type and say “this is our achievement: read it and tremble at the thought of our genius.”

Yet reading entries in ABP’s poetry section, I almost caught myself thinking about titans of nineteenth century American poetry (Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson) and making comparisons unflattering to their Mormon contemporaries. Almost. Instead, I decided to read Snow, et al. by the light of what little historical context I could muster. Their works are poetic prayers, fervent statements of devotion, verse that inspired and documented and inspired again meaningful sacrifice. Their simplicity signals not ignorance alone, but deliberate withdrawal from sophisticated western culture.

Even so–this is me aspiring to objectivity–ABP’s earlier selections (say prior to the 1930s) generally depend too much on the present reader’s ability and willingness to provide context. I do not mean only that ABP will affect devout Mormons much more than others because it invokes Mormon history and beliefs (although that is undoubtedly true). I mean that many earlier ABP entries made me think not simply “what an achievement!” but “what an achievement considering the author’s apparent social marginalization or persecution or pioneering toil or scant opportunities for education.”

Writing that feels a little unseemly. Who am I anyway? I am talking about pioneers here! The Mormon greatest generation. Yet I feel justified by a notable ABP entry: Orson F. Whitney’s essay “Home Literature.” Whitney’s essay alone probably makes ABP required reading for anyone interested in Mormon art. Whitney’s vision is grand: he makes significant connections (“The Holy Ghost is the genius of “˜Mormon’ literature”) and expresses high aspirations (the well-worn “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own”). Indeed, I wonder whether Whitney sets an impossible standard (“Above all things, we must be original”), but that is the subject of another post. Regardless, the influence of Whitney’s essay is obvious in more recent sermons on Mormon art, for example: President Kimball’s “The Gospel Vision of the Arts” or Boyd K. Packer’s “The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord.”

Perhaps Whitney would have been pleased with the improved craftsmanship displayed in ABP’s later entries, which provide samples of works I hope to read and comment on in the future (works of Virginia Sorenson, Maurine Whipple, Vardis Fisher, Donald Marshall, Douglas Thayer, etc., etc.).

Even if it does not contain the great works of Mormon literature, ABP may be singularly important to the eventual emergence of the prophesied achievements. Reading ABP, I thought of Dvorak and Smetana and other composers who mined national folk music traditions for their own works. Perhaps echoes of ABP will be audible in future towering feats of Mormon literature.

9 thoughts on “Mormon Lit: A Believing People”

  1. Thanks for this, Shawn. I don’t have time to do much prerequisite Mormon lit reading so this helps me fill in a few gaps.

    I think of pioneering genius as being devoted not to writing literature but to building settlements and establishing networks of believing communities. Also, I suspect that while many pioneers were justiably pleased with the results of their labor (appraised in streets, irrigation canals, and temples), not that many of them really understood what they had wrought and many of their offspring today have failed to take it all in. IMO that whole incredible story has yet to be pulled together and told in a truly insightful and artistic way. So that great generation may yet provide the brick-and-mortar for the building of brilliant literary work.  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  2. Shawn,
    I, too, have felt a kind of draw to Mormon lit. lately, in part because of AMV, in part because of AML. Unfortunately, there are so MANY things I not only want to read, but write, and with my newborn son and work and etc., I have to be selective with my time, as I’m sure everyone can relate. I recently discovered a good resource, however. I picked up a used copy of “Tending The Garden,” a collection of essays about Mormon literature. It caught my eye and its been a good read.
    — Mahonri  

    Posted by Anonymous

  3. Patricia and Mahonri:
    I hear you about time. I have a beautiful wife, darling fireball of a 2-year old, second child due in July, church responsibilities, busy law practice, reading and writing lists a mile long, gorgious spring days that demand enjoyment, etc., etc.

    Still, I feel compelled to get through the important works of Mormon literature when I can (late at night, waiting for flights, in waiting rooms, etc.). I doubt that the prophesied great works of Mormon art discussed in the post will emerge unless a fairly significant body of serious readers of Mormon art emerges first. (I am contemplating a stand-alone post on that claim.) And what have I done along those lines until now? Almost nothing. 

    Posted by S. P. Bailey

  4. FWIW, I took an 8 yr. hiatus from writing/reading to give birth to, nurse, and care for my kids. I thought the whole literature thing was over. I was wrong. Once time cleared even a little I broke out into words. Probably those days of kid-less lit study and hours of sitting at a keyboard are gone forever, but my time now is not anywhere near as crowded as it was when my kids were little.

    I know William has, but have you guys seen the post that’s kinda on this topic over at SunstoneBlog  ? It surprises me a bit how many people feel something like hopelessness over what MoLit may or may not be able to do.


    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  5. My introduction to Mormon literature came when I found “A Believing People” and “Greening Wheat: Fifteen Mormon Short Stories” in the library of the Berkeley Institute [that’s also where I found the Orson F. Whitney epic poem that led to the name of this site].

    What an institute library was doing with two shelves worth of Mormon literature, I don’t know. But I read everything on there (starting with the two works I mention above) that seemed worth reading (and I admit that I skipped “Added Upon” — which I still haven’t read).

    That then led me to the Internet and a decade-long association with the AML.

    “A Believing People” was important to me because, as S.P. mentions above, it strives to legitimize “Mormon literature” as a valid literary field.

    The act of anthologizing is very important for developing literatures, and it’s quite sad that no important anthology has been published in the field since the early ’90s (or at least none that I am aware of).

    I don’t worry so much about “great” literature anymore because although I recognize that there are some authors and works that I assign more literary value to others, in general, the literariness of a work is just one piece of criteria.

    Or to put it another way, I know longer care if a work is great or not. I care if it is important (to me, to the various communities I feel a part of).

    Regarding Tending the Garden…

    As much as I like the idea of an anthology of Mormon criticism, I found Tending the Garden to be rather unsatisfying — except for Eugene England’s essay.

    Regarding the Sunstone conversation…

    I don’t have time now, but at some point I should post on the anxiogenic state of Mormon literature.  

    Posted by William Morris

  6. I [no] longer care if a work is great or not. I care if it is important (to me, to the various communities I feel a part of). ”

    But doesn’t this beg the question: “why is a particular work important to me or my community?” And shouldn’t literary achievement (together, of course, with satisfaction of other criteria) be central to answering that question? We can’t dispense with greatness so easily.

    (Figuring out what greatness consists of, however, seems absolutely necessary. Assuming there is not some platonic ideal of the Great Mormon Novel, I think we have to ask: what do more-literate-than-average types (AMV authors and readers generally speaking) consider great? What about the authors of the sermons calling for great works of Mormon arts? What about the average person who wanders into Deseret Book ready and willing to spend on Mormon-themed books?)  

    Posted by S. P. Bailey

  7. “I [no] longer care if a work is great or not. I care if it is important (to me, to the various communities I feel a part of).” 

    Hm, I think I hear something very interesting going on in these words. Wm, are you suggesting the possibility that a work may indeed be great but still fail to be important to you and to the various communities you refer to?  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  8. Shawn,
    Thanks for this post. One of the things I hope that A Motley Vision can do is to help list the cannon of Mormon literature. A Believing People was the first and so far the only published attempt at defining the cannon, its a shame that it is out-of-print (although large parts of it are available on Gideon Burton’s Mormon Literature website).

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