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.
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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.