Beyond Prescription? Problematizing Mormon Identity and the Future of Mormon Literary Studies

Note: What follows is part one of a serialized essay in/on Mormon literary criticism. It was catalyzed by William’s series on the radical middle and some other recent posts elsewhere dealing with the problem(s) of Mormon literature (that litany of links is just a sample). My hope is that this series and any ensuing discussion will be something of a departure from “normal” conversations about Mormon lit and that it can open up new ways of reading as a Mormon.

Feel free, of course, to talk back with me as this four to five part series unfolds. The “theory” I posit is still very much in progress.

Look for part two sometime Thursday.

* * * *

Beyond Prescription? Problematizing Mormon Identity and the Future of Mormon Literary Studies

[T]he multiplicity of religious and irreligious practices engaged in […] by those who lay claim to the nominations “Mormon” and “post-Mormon,” much less “Jack Mormon,” […] boggles the mind.

-Bryan Waterman


These past several months I’ve been wrestling with myself, with the Heavens, trying to gain some hold for my intellectual desires and work in a broader conceptual universe. This struggle has really just been an extension and intensification (due to the academic path I’ve been negotiating recently) of my continuing quest to find what Wayne Booth might call “a plausible harmony” between “my many selves.” Among others, the believing Mormon, who seeks greater communion with God by trying to live by His laws as voiced by His prophets and to serve with faith in what he considers God’s church (no matter the institution’s flaws); the husband, who has obligated himself through what he considers unbreakable promises to honor his bride, her potential as a human being, their combined potential as wife and husband, and the fruits of their eternal marriage; and the poet, teacher, and literary scholar who is compelled by the incessant prodding of vocation to share his rhetorical gifts with the world–you know, the whole don’t-hide-your-light-under-a-bushel deal.

My continued challenge is learning to balance these passions, to engage with each in an honest, quality, pleasing, even–ideally–transformative experience for the parties involved. In short, I yearn to make a positive difference in the world (though I admit the intangibility and the potential “O, that I were an angel“ discontent of that desire), to create a space in which I can identify with and influence others, in which I can allow their voices, their stories, their selves, to gather, to mingle, to develop, to expand into and revise the stories I came from.

I stole that last phrase–the stories I came from–from James Goldberg’s recent Mormon Artist interview with Nicole Wilkes. When asked how he came up with a name for the protagonist who wanders through the amalgam of mythologies he’s gathered in “Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenberg,” Goldberg cites his unique ethnic heritage–his many selves–as inspiration. Says he,

When I decided to write a story in which I was free to use the stories I came from, I came up with the name “Teancum Singh Rosenberg.” It was almost a joke at first: I’m going to create this guy with a first name so Book of Mormon I’ve never actually met anyone with it, the middle name all Sikh men take, and a sort of stereotypical Eastern European Jewish last name.

So Teancum Singh Rosenberg, as his creator, stands at the confluence of at least four overlapping cultural traditions: Mormon, Indian, European, and Jewish. He thus represents a multi-faceted identity constructed from the rhetorical material of Goldberg’s multi-faceted self.

My appropriation of Goldberg’s language seeks to borrow something of this pluralism, even as I subtly–perhaps somewhat radically–recontextualize his phrase, revising its intended meaning in order to suit my own rhetorical need, which at present is twofold: 1) to initiate a critical narrative knit around my many selves and our experience with the varieties of Mormon narrative art; and 2) to problematize the notion of a coherent and prescribed Mormon cultural identity, an assumption around which many Mormon critics have constructed their theoretical paradigms and critiques and upon which much of Mormonism’s critical energy continues to be spent (see the litany of links in my note as a small sample).

Reading through the Stories I Came From: A Critical Autobiography

A number of years ago when I happened upon the Mormon literaturstreit of the 1990’s and began considering the possibilities of and for a Mormon literature and criticism, I started to frame my own theoretical paradigm around what I thought were the essential matters at stake in the world of Mormon letters: the teachings, rites, and ordinances of the Restored Gospel. I think I titled or sub-titled my attempt “The Rites of Mormon Criticism” because it was centered (if I remember correctly) around the sequence of rituals required for entrance into the Heavenly City. The effort was born of my imagined position as the next great Mormon literary critic and, looking back, I see it was meant to suggest that for a critic to rightly judge Mormon literature and for a writer to truthfully create Mormon literature, s/he needs to have been initiated into the literary ministry through the proper gospel rites. Only when dressed in the billowing robes of this priesthood should they be qualified to write by, for, and about the Mormon experience.

I abandoned that effort soon thereafter 1) because I didn’t know where I was going with it, probably because I was still wet behind the ears when it comes to having engaged much–if any–Mormon lit beyond the scriptures and Mormon devotional texts; and 2) because it never quite sat right with me. I see now that one reason for my uneasiness was the exclusivity of the framework: not only does it deny the varieties of Mormon cultural experience that exist outside of Church Headquarters (even those, admittedly, that exist within church headquarters), it also betrays a bias toward a masculine worldview, especially because those invested with priesthood authority and the stewardship to judge in institutionalized Mormonism are men and the framework parallels that investment. Another reason I think I never got on board with myself was because I couldn’t be satisfied critically with such a culturally exclusive, boys’ club mentality. And though I probably couldn’t have articulated this reasoning then, I can trace the roots of my present theoretical narrative to that (inter)textual experience with Richard Cracroft, Bruce Jorgenson, and Gideon Burton.

At around this same time, I met Dialogue, Irreantum, and AMV, each of whom introduced me to writers and critics whose ideas have had a significant impact on the development of my own theories of language and literature. Among others:

Eugene England, father of my intellectual engagement with Mormon culture, whose short poem, “The Firegiver” (which I’ve explored elsewhere), and short essay, “The Possibility of Dialogue,” invited me into the rhetorical space and potential of intra- and inter-cultural discourse–of the possibility that I could profitably “speak with sensitivity to [another’s personal] framework or ability to hear and speak in order to communicate for each other’s welfare, not to justify or exalt [myself] at [their] expense” and that I could “truly listen to other[s], respecting our essential” kinship as part of God’s family “and the courage of those who try to speak, however they may differ from [me] in professional standing or religious belief or moral vision.”

Patricia Karamesines, whose award-winning essay, “The Rhetoric of Stealing God,” persuaded me, not just into AMV’s fold of regular readers, but into the power and authority of responsible and sustainable language use–into rhetoric that “questions itself as thoroughly as it questions Other, and when it finds itself lacking, it takes upon itself the responsibility to find the next best thing, the revelatory metaphor, the liberating paradox, the ever-expanding symbol, thereby crossing boundaries established by less productive, less creative, less pro-active, and less kind words.”

William Morris, whose “In Memoriam: Laraine Wilkins“ justified my decision to study literature over sociology:

Wilkins […] articulated an inclusive, diverse, unabashedly literary view of Mormon letters. To quote from a recent e-mail: “I’m interested in seeing more dialogue happen–*dialogue* in order to have some groundwork for Mormon culture to enjoy more respect, or at least better understanding, from the outside community. Such dialogue requires both insiders and outsiders. I’d like to see AML do more of this. I think literature has great–perhaps even better–potential than history (though history is where most work is being done) or sociology to achieve this. Literature, although an expression of cultural identity in many respects, ultimately addresses individual experience…”

And whose continued insistence that Mormon literary criticism should focus on specific examples from Mormon narrative art has kept me from circling (too far) into theoretical abstraction as I engage the growing body of Mormon letters and try to find my niche in the field of contemporary literature.

And Laura Craner, whose titillatingly short post “If You Can “˜Queer’ a Book Can You “˜Mormon’ a Book?“ poses a question (about what it might mean to read as a Mormon) and a correlation (between gender/sexuality studies and Mormon studies–my main research interests) that, eventually, led me to Bryan Waterman and new ways of considering Mormon literature as an expression of diverse cultural and personal identities and experiences.

And what might those new ways be? Tune in Thursday as I lean heavily on Waterman (specifically this article he published in Dialogue 30.1 (1997)) and some others to take up the problem(atizing) of Mormon identity and what that might mean for Mormon literary criticism.

10 thoughts on “Beyond Prescription? Problematizing Mormon Identity and the Future of Mormon Literary Studies”

  1. I can’t wait.

    Incidentally, there’s a lovely tribute to Larain in poem form by Paul Swenson in the most recent issue of Irreantum.

  2. .

    I’m excited too. And I can probably get you Bryan’s email if you want to contact him. (We’re related by marriage.)

    I’m particularly interested because I am on the cusp of returning to gradschool and if a PhD in literature is the direction I head in, I’ll probably be moving in a direction similar to yours. At this moment, everything you say is my vicarious dry run on returning to institutional smarts.

  3. @Th. Perhaps years of endless grad school have dulled my senses, but at this point I’m ready to announce that institutional smarts are highly overrated. Sigh.

  4. At this moment, everything you say is my vicarious dry run on returning to institutional smarts.

    Well, I hope I don’t disappoint too badly. Like I imply above, this essay/series is really just the starting point of a theory-in-process. Who knows where it will lead, though I hope to some kind of discussion. And to say that working on this has helped me clarify whatever smarts I hope to institutionalize through the dissertation process. (I second that *sigh*, RC.)

  5. Tyler–I didn’t realize you referenced me in part one. How kind 🙂 I’m still waiting for someone to come up with a proper term for what we do when we impose Mormon theology/culture on a text. Maybe you’re that guy!

  6. Years ago, as I recall, John Tanner had an essay published in BYU Studies titled “Making a Mormon out of Milton” (or something like that) where he talked about “reading” Milton in Mormon ways. (I don’t remember if he commented on ways that we misread when doing this…) He concluded by noting that someone has done Milton’s temple work for him, and quipped that we Mormons insist on making our favorite writers Mormon one way or another…

  7. Thanks for reminding me of this, Jonathan. It’s been a while since I read Tanner’s article (you can find a copy here) and your mention of him prompted me to pull out my copy and reread it.

    Here’s something I found interesting from his first few paragraphs, especially in light of the present discussion of “reading as a Mormon”:

    I fear that the number and degree of our shared beliefs with Milton are often overstated, resulting in significant distortion of both Miltonic and Mormon doctrine, each of which has its own integrity. We need to be more judicious in our attempts to assimilate the poet into the fold.

    Because restoration theology adopts a broadly inclusive view of truth–whatever is true is the gospel–the impulse to discover proto-Mormons among our favorite writers becomes nearly irresistible. I recall as an undergraduate at BYU that nearly every author we read was upon occasion seen as a sort of closet Mormon: from Shakespeare to Swift, Thoreau to Twain, Kierkegaard to C. S. Lewis. While this inclusiveness is admirable, it is attended by perils. Frequently our assimilative zeal is prompted by insufficient knowledge both about the author in question and about the distinctive character of LDS theology.

    Great points for further discussion.

  8. It’s certainly possible for a Mormon reading of a work to add power that wasn’t necessarily there in the original. I remember Kathleen Woodbury commenting on how Patricia McKillip’s Riddle of Stars trilogy read, to her Mormon eyes, like an extended (and powerful) illustration of the Plan of Salvation — something I had also noted.

    And then there’s Angels in America, which, I finally decided, I was reading at a deeper and more sympathetic level with respect to Joe, the gay male Mormon character, than Kushner really intended me to — because for me, Joe giving up his religion (symbolized by stripping off his garments) was a much bigger sacrifice than it apparently was for Kushner. And then I realized that for Kushner, his characters’ Mormonness was a superficial trait, not important for any reasons deeply related to who they were. I suppose what I’m doing in critiquing that is similar to what African American critics might do in critiquing superficial depictions of blackness in works by non-African Americans…

  9. I suppose what I’m doing in critiquing that is similar to what African American critics might do in critiquing superficial depictions of blackness in works by non-African Americans”¦

    And I find that a very satisfying and valid approach, especially as you relate it here in terms of Angels in America (which I have not experienced).

  10. I’ve only read Angels in America myself. Based on that reading, though, I wound up writing a kind of review/essay for Irreantum talking about my sense of his use of Mormon elements. (A gay non-Mormon friend of mine had suggested I read it, saying it had important things to say about sexuality and religion. My reply, once I had read it, was that even though it might have some important things to say about sexuality and religion, it had largely missed the boat with respect to Mormonism by treating it, on this issue, as essentially another flavor of conservative Protestantism. And that turned into the starting-point for my essay…)

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