In November 2005, I discovered, in a review of the Wikipedia article on Mormon Fiction, that the authors of the article thought Mormon Fiction essentially didn’t exist before 1979. Since I knew this wasn’t true, I corrected the article, and many others have added their own corrections and improvements. (I drew my information principally from Eugene England‘s Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects, lest someone thinks I’m some kind of expert on the field.)
But last week I finished reading William’s graduate school paper (available in his July 31st post, Slowly Flowering: My grad school paper on Mormon literature), and I realized that I’m uncomfortable with the way that England has presented this history. I’m not sure it tells the whole story. And I’m not even completely sure that most literary histories tell the whole story.
Again, I’m not an expert in any area of English, I just dabble in studying Mormon literature. I know more about Portuguese and Brazilian literature than anything else in literature, and I’m no expert there either.
Before I address my doubts about the classification of Mormon Literature, let me first give a bit of an overview of England’s history. He divides Mormon Literature into four periods:
The first period, Foundations (1830-1880), England characterizes as “largely unsophisticated writing, expressive of the new converts’ dramatic symbolic as well as literal journeys to Zion and their fierce rejection of Babylon, and often intended to meet the immediate and practical needs of the church for hymns, sermons, and tracts.”
The second period, Home Literature, 1880-1930, begins with Orson F. Whitney‘s call for a “home literature” in Utah, which England calls “highly didactic fiction and poetry designed to defend and improve the Saints but of little lasting worth”“-and also the refining of Mormon theological and historical writing, especially in James E. Talmage and B. H. Roberts, into excellent and lasting forms.”
England calls the next period The Lost Generation, 1930-70, which he says was “a period of reaction, by third- and fourth-generation Mormons, usually well educated for their time, to what they saw as the loss of the heroic pioneer vision and a decline into provincial materialism, which impelled an outpouring of excellent but generally critical works, published and praised nationally but largely rejected by or unknown to Mormons. Most of them wrote from “exile”–out of Utah, hence the comparison with American literature’s “lost” generation of Hemingway, Stein, and other expatriates.”
The last period, Faithful Realism, (1960-present), England calls a “slow growth and then flowering from the 1960s to the present of good work in all genres, combining the best qualities and avoiding the limitations of most past work, so that it is both faithful and critical, appreciated by a growing Mormon audience and also increasingly published and honored nationally.”
I’m with England for the first two periods. They fit my own observations. But when I get to the third period, I see a problem. Specifically, I wonder how it is possible for a reactionary group that wrote from exile to characterize most of what was happening in Mormon Literature at the time! Surely there were a substantial number (and probably the majority of authors) that were NOT outsiders. I suspect that not only the majority of works created during that time, but also the majority of copies of works sold in those years don’t fit the label of “The Lost Generation.”
I see a similar problem when I look at the final period in England’s divisions of Mormon literary history. I’m not sure that all (or even most of) the works we now see really fit this characterization. I have doubts about characterizing many of these works as both “faithful” and exhibiting “realism.” For example, I have a hard time characterizing Orson Scott Card‘s work (or even Stephanie Meyer’s work) as “realism,” and I think many of members of the Church would not call works by critically noted but extreme Mormon authors like Brian Evenson, Walter Kirn or perhaps Brady Udall particularly faithful.
There is a possible solution to my views — I may simply misunderstand what is going on when academics divide literary history into different periods. Are periods meant to represent the majority of what is going on among all works published during that period? Or do these divisions represent the avant garde of the time — those works that are paving new ground or are of interest and lasting value.
If so, then I guess I have a bit of a problem with literary histories in general. Surely it is of more value to give a larger picture of literature than just what is academically interesting, isn’t it?
For example, I suspect, from the little bit of reading I’ve done of Mormon works published in the middle of the 20th century, the period of England’s “Lost Generation,” that Home Literature continued during most of that time, parallel to what was written by the expatriate authors, who perhaps represent the works of lasting value.
More recently, Mormon literature, like American literature, seems to have fractured into several genres, each with different styles and even their own divisions into periods. I don’t believe that some genres really have less value than others. Wouldn’t a more complete picture look at histories in all genres, or find some way of looking at styles across genres (if such a thing is even possible).
Of course, this all probably demonstrates my ignorance of literary criticism. If so, well, I warned you.