On the History of LDS Literature

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.

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6 thoughts on “On the History of LDS Literature”

  1. England does mention that Home Literature continued to be written during the third and fourth periods, but I completely agree that the two later periods need a lot more fleshing out and more complex critical frameworks.

  2. Kent:

    I think you bring up some interesting questions in relation to the accuracy of literary histories in general and, as Wm mentions, that you’re spot on when you observe that the home literature movement–largely didactic and less focused on the aesthetics of form–continued during the “Lost Generation” period (a designation England took, in relation to LDS lit, from Edward Geary’s essay, “Mormondom’s Lost Generation: Novelists of the 1940s”). That particular strain also continues today in much of the popular literature holding shelf space at LDS bookstores and in LDS homes, something England doesn’t fully account for in his framework, which, to be honest, is in need of updating and expanding.

    Perhaps England may have done better to label his final period “Spiritual Realism” rather than “Faithful Realism” and then stated more clearly what he meant by the term. The former designation, which is where England may have taken his inspiration for the latter, comes from Lavina Fielding Anderson, who in her 1983 AML Presidential Address, as England says elsewhere, “described how this new voice is developing in fiction, as we move beyond the sentimental literature of the late nineteenth century that persists in our official magazines and popular novels and also beyond the somewhat alienated fiction of the 1930s and 1940s”. Says she: “I see the new Mormon fiction as attempting something more ambitious. It is literature of intelligent affirmation, not of alienation, fiction that takes as its province the hitherto unexplored field of spiritual realism.” And by “spiritual realism” she means, again in her words,

    the conflicts that a character may encounter in his or her social settings are primarily important as they provide information about the interior spiritual life of that person. The experiences move the person toward a greater understanding of the ambiguous nature of human good and human depravity. They affirm or challenge the reality of God. They illuminate by recording those perplexing moments when prayers are not answered and the equally perplexing moments when they are. They shoulder the burden of a community with a vision of holiness and unity that stands in contrast to its inevitable pettiness and cruelties of daily living. They attempt to make sense out of a large picture of human interaction that includes the values of faith, commitment, deepest doubts and anger focused on a seemingly uncaring God and swelling rejoicing and gratitude focused on a seemingly loving and watchful God.

    Spiritual realism, then, isn’t so much an attempt to depict things as being objectively real (as in the more general realism literary movement) but to illustrate the way spiritual realities and the paradoxes and ethical dilemmas of the universe weigh in our lives. In this light, Card’s ethical fiction is spiritually real because it, for the most part, involves us with his characters in the quest to resolve or transcend the difficult ambiguities of existence. Meyer’s fiction, what Anderson might call “pretty romances” or “cute tales of cute adolescents” isn’t so much spiritually real as it is, well, “cheap and easy fiction” that “deals in simple conflicts, simply resolved”–just let Edward do all the thinking–and that, IMO and Anderson’s words, “considers the craft of fiction as relatively unimportant.”

    But, I’ve gone on too long. Maybe someday someone will pick up where England left off and, doing as Wm suggests needs to be done, flesh out these Mormon literary periods into more complex critical frameworks.

  3. Tyler, as far as I’m concerned, you can go on as much as you need to. I found your analysis quite enlightening.

    I’d love to see someone flesh out a more detailed history of Mormon literature. I clearly don’t have the background to take it on.

    Perhaps you do, Tyler?

  4. Kent:

    Frankly, I can’t say I haven’t considered the option, especially since I’ve been participating more heavily on AMV the past couple of months. My biggest obstacles to undertaking such a project, however, are access, as Wm and I have briefly discussed in another context, and (of course) time. But it’s something I’d love to do.

    Maybe I can eat this elephant bite by bite as part of my doctoral studies and my continued affiliation with AMV.

  5. My basic feeling is that Mormon literature deserves two big divisions: those authors who are conscious of a Mormon-only (or Mormon-predominately) audience, and those who try to write for a greater scope. Another division would be that between devotional art and art for art’s sake; I suspect that the latter of both pairings has emerged more in the third and fourth periods. It would be an interesting study.

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