Beyond Prescription? Part Two

I take up today where I left off .

More or Less Mormon? The Problem(atizing) of Mormon Identity

In his 1997 Dialogue article, “‘Awaiting Translation’: Timothy Liu, Identity Politics, and the Question of Religious Authenticity,” Waterman interrogates the notion of a coherent Mormon cultural identity, a religious sense of communal self constructed around nineteenth century Mormonism’s flirtation with nationhood and ethnic identity separate from that of the nineteenth century American mainstream. This “incipient nationality,” Thomas F. O’Dea observes, was born of the “combination of [Mormonism’s] distinctive values, separate and peculiar social institutions”–as, among other things, its lay ministry and its insistence that humans can receive direct revelation from God–“and [its] geographic segregation” from the rest of America (qtd. in Mauss 291 [from this]). Such “protonationality,” as Armand Mauss labels it, was “strengthened by three ‘Mormon wars'”–the 1838 conflict with neighbors in northwest Missouri, the 1844-46 conflict with neighbors in west Illinois, and the 1857-58 conflict with the Federal Government over Utah Territory–and “”˜constant … conflict’ with the [world] outside [Mormonism] to produce a total Mormon cultural environment and worldview that became ‘progressively more distinct'” (291).

Yet this distinctness faded some as Mormonism made inroads into secular American culture, assimilating, to a degree, in order to accommodate the organization’s need for expansion: if the culture of the saints had stayed too peculiar, refusing engagement with what O’dea labels “modern secular thought” in order to be wholly separate from the world, the institution may have remained indefinitely stagnant and small.

Such accommodation, even in the midst of–perhaps even in spite or as a result of–the church’s continuing growth and church leaders’ efforts in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s to return this “new” Mormonism to its earlier theological and cultural distinctness (most notably through the continuing effort to correlate church policies, programs, and teachings under a single banner) has had a profound influence on Mormon cultural identity. For instance, though some may lament the religious culture that has room enough for the church headquarters bureaucrat and New York Doll, the minivan-driving at-home mom and the powersuit-wearing business executive, the tatoo-toting-former-drug-dealing Maori and the long-bearded caucajewmexdian, the writer of YA love stories and the writer of erotic romance novels populated with flawed-enough-to-be-human Mormon characters, I find such cultural pluralism a mark of contemporary Mormonism’s growing vitality.

And I’m convinced Waterman would agree, though, as he implies throughout his essay, this increased plurality has been a source of anxiety and concern for others, especially those with a vested interest (for whatever reason and however justifiably from a theological standpoint) in correlating and perpetuating a fairly rigid cultural identity.

Working from similar assumptions about the dynamic making of Mormon identity, Waterman takes up the efforts of many Mormon literary critics (specifically England, Cracroft, and Jorgenson) and (as an aside) of those reviewers adhering to what he calls “the thirteenth article of faith school” of Mormon criticism. He positions the latter as an attempt to codify and perpetuate aesthetic standards of moral “loveliness, etc., [that can be] as difficult to pin down as the word ‘Mormon’ is to define.” And he concludes that this difficulty–which begs the question, “[I]f ‘we’ base our literary tastes and canons on prescriptive categories such as ‘virtuous, lovely, or of good report,'” then “What authority polices these categories?”–“only increases the muddiness of the ‘Mormon’ critical pool,” bogging the critic down in the murky work of trying to fix, patrol, and/or defend relatively dynamic and diffuse cultural, aesthetic, and (increasingly) market boundaries, something I don’t consider the literary critic’s job.

Yet, this is where much of Mormonism’s critical energy has been spent: on prescribing, policing, and defending boundaries. To be fair, Waterman does acknowledges “that ‘Mormon’ criticism’s tendency toward prescription […] has been paralleled in the early stages of many ‘minority’ literatures and criticisms.” As an example, he cites Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong’s 1993 observation that “critics [of Asian-American literature] have not reached any agreement on how their subject matter is to be delimited. Prescriptive usages exist side by side with descriptive ones; some favor a narrow precision, others an expansive catholicity.” The question of critical approach, then–whether it’s best to outline what makes a text (and by extension, a writer) more or less part of the tradition in question or to allow descriptive categories and theories of literature to “grow […] out of a body of work already recognized as belonging to the tradition”–is not unique to Mormon letters. In fact, the expense of such critical energy seems necessary in the initial stages of canon formation, allowing early critics (and on) a position from which to build/expand the tradition.

In this light, Waterman recognizes the value of England’s call for a Mormon literature that “contain[s] elements derived from Mormon experience and history,” tropes formed around “a certain epic consciousness,” around “mythic identification with ancient peoples and processes,” even as he (Waterman) wants to move beyond such categorization. Indeed, he observes that, “Rather than allowing one pat label […] to pretend to unlock all the secrets of a text, we can use such categories (if we want or need to) as starting points” for discussing a text, always “recognizing the primacy of individual experience over the group identity of the author.”

The Primacy of Individual Experience

Waterman thus calls for a movement in Mormon criticism beyond the cataloging of tropes–a taxonomic effort that belies, not so much the desire to facilitate identification with a distinct Mormon cultural identity (although that does play a role here), but to pre-scribe the texts of Mormon writers. That is, to write or to order them before they’re written. Or more accurately, to dictate the standards against which a text–written or to-be-written–ought to be judged worthy of the community’s sanction and, by extension, its intellectual and literary attention and investment. He calls for Mormon critical discussions to move beyond the essentialism of group identity, beyond asking only, “Is this literature Mormon?” or “Is this author faithful?” to recognizing the problems of group identity–to wondering, “How can this literature be profitably read as coming out of a Mormon tradition?” and “What does it have in common with other work that is recognized as “˜Mormon’ in some way?” His focus, then, is less on preemptively excluding texts from the Mormon canon based on how Mormon the writer and the text is or is not and more on the process of reading as a Mormon, of attending to the Mormon aspects of a text “without seeking to quantify or define Mormonness.”

As a case-in-point, Waterman points to Susan Elizabeth Howe’s insightful exploration, ““˜I Do Remember How It Smelled Heavenly’: Mormon Aspects of May Swenson’s Poetry,” which opens by admitting Swenson into the Mormon canon by virtue of her lifelong engagement with the Mormon experience:

Any discussion of Mormon culture or doctrine in the work of nationally prominent American poet May Swenson must begin with the caveat that Swenson, for virtually all of her adult life, was not a believing Mormon. She rejected Mormonism when she was in college, moved to New York City a few years after graduating from Utah State University, and never looked back. Nevertheless, she was raised in a devout Mormon family, her parents having emigrated from Sweden to live with the Saints. She learned Mormon teachings at home and attended church meetings weekly throughout her childhood and youth. She maintained lifelong affection for her parents and eight brothers and sisters, and occasionally came to Utah to visit them. Mormonism shaped her attitudes and perceptions both consciously and unconsciously. And because her poetry rises directly from her life experience–her interests, her study, her thought, her travels–she could not help but respond to Mormon culture and beliefs in some of her poems.

Poet Javen Tanner mirrors Howe’s observations about the lasting influence of early life experience in his 2007 interview with Meridian Magazine’s Doug Talley. When asked how “[his] religious sensibility inform[s] and guide[s] [his] work,” Tanner responded by referring to Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, who writes his poems “first in Polish and then translate[s] them into English” because, Milosz observed (according to Tanner’s paraphrase), “you must write in the language you learned as a child,” the principle being that the experience we’re socialized into when young has a profound influence on how we perceive and respond to the world for the rest of our lives, even if we drift away from that experience as we mature. And since “Mormonism is the language [Tanner] learned as a child,” he affirms that, while “[his] poems are not overtly religious, […] the language of [his] experience [as an active Mormon] is in them,” an unconscious inclusion that can add another layer to any critical interpretation of Tanner’s poetic corpus. (Of course, it’s not the only thing to consider about Tanner’s identity and work, even though a person’s religiosity/spirituality can inform most every aspect of their lives.)

However, as Howe and Waterman imply, every Mormon-ism is not constructed equally and the critic should attend to these differences by considering the possible ways a text might, yes, acknowledge, but also revise or subvert conventional Mormonisms according to the writer’s degree of (self-)identification with Mormon culture and theology. Howe provides an excellent example of such critical consideration in her discussion of the Mormon aspects of Swenson’s work, which includes an exploration of Swenson’s poetic critique of (among other things) Mormon conformity to unquestioned cultural norms and of Mormonism’s rigid patriarchy.

Howe also provides here an excellent example of the politics involved in canon-formation and of the fluid matter of (group-)identity construction. By claiming Swenson as one of Mormonism’s own (though I’m sure Howe wasn’t the first to make this claim and she definitely isn’t the last), she radically challenges the decision made by Eugene England and Dennis Clark, editors of Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems, to exclude Swenson from the main body of their anthology–and by extension, of Mormon literature–by sitting her at the “friends and relations” table, which, though an amenable place of (relative) acceptance and honor, is still a place apart, an-other place: a place of Otherness. Constructed as an outsider, it becomes easier, I think, to dismiss her pointed critique of Mormonism and to gloss over a sexual identity not in keeping with the Mormon theological or cultural standards of her time or, for that matter, of ours. But to dismiss either aspect of Swenson’s identity is to deny the agency of her experience, is to make less valid and compelling her position on the fringes of cultural Mormonism.

And what does the Mormon literary community lose by opening space in the canon for those speaking from the fringes? Or to phrase that more positively: how might the community be enhanced, made more rich, more meaningful, even more transformative, by recognizing the validity of Swenson’s experience–or anyone else’s–as a “post-Mormon”?

So where to from here? Find out next week when I confess my personal agenda and search for Mormon criticism’s liberating paradoxes.

18 thoughts on “Beyond Prescription? Part Two”

  1. .

    I’m reading a Swenson collection now and I am very much asking questions like “How can this literature be profitably read as coming out of a Mormon tradition?” and that angle is proving fruitful.

    Though I do run the risk of reading things in that may not actually be there.

  2. Which collection are you reading, Th.? I’ve picked through New and Selected Things Taking Place and Iconographs, but have been taken with other reading lately, so I haven’t invested in them like I should.

  3. I think Waterman’s questions are a good move forward, keeping in mind, though, that there are somewhat starker boundaries and markers of activity and belief with Mormon-ness than perhaps other ethnic-religio-minor literatures. But I would add that we should also be examining how works of Mormon literature interrogate other cultures and literary forms and traditions in addition to Mormonism — after all, pretty much every example of Mormon culture-making involves some stolen materials. It seems to me that Waterman’s approach is going to privilege texts that work to “subvert conventional Mormonisms.” If the only focus is that which supports (and those works and authors are often ignored or dismissed by Mormon critics) or revises/subverts then we remain with an insular criticism that is still creating boundaries even if they are, technically, wider.

  4. Very nicely done. I find myself looking for something to say, on the theory that talking back to the author is the best form of engagement/praise, but I can’t think of anything to say…

  5. Th. and Tyler– FWIW, the poem Swenson wrote about her mother’s death, “That the Soul May Wax Plump” (I believe it’s in the collection _May Out West_), references the temple clothing and, in my mind, comments directly on Swenson and Mormonism. So does her poem, “Nature”. I always figured she wasn’t included in the Mormon canon simply because she wasn’t well-known enough. . . makes me sad to think it might have been for other reasons.

  6. Regarding this:
    “[Waterman’s] focus, then, is less on preemptively excluding texts from the Mormon canon based on how Mormon the writer and the text is or is not and more on the process of reading as a Mormon, of attending to the Mormon aspects of a text ‘without seeking to quantify or define Mormonness.'”

    The process of reading as a Mormon? Certainly this isn’t suggesting that only LDS readers/critics are capable of discerning whether or not a piece falls within the Mormon canon. Or maybe it is?

    Maybe I just don’t get this Waterman section. This sounds to me like a hearken back to the days when we only spoke to our own community, and that seems counter-intuitive to the rest of what you’re saying. Guess I should go read the original article.

    Thanks for posting this, Tyler. Its intriguing.

  7. Me again. I wanted to ask you, Tyler, if you think its possible for a non-Mormon writer’s work to be part of the canon (sort of by proxy) if his work is strongly influenced by Mormonism. I’m thinking of Wallace Stegner. I’m currently working my way through his novels and short stories. Knowing his biography, I’d say his upbringing in a Mormon area was an obvious influence even if his family was in no way, shape, or form LDS. I can’t for the life of me figure out why Mormon lit readers– and critics I suppose–haven’t paid him more attention. If someone knows of work done in this area, pls inform.

  8. Lisa,

    In response to #8: It’s my reading of Waterman that he’s actually rejecting (or at least suggesting that we move past) the process of canon-formation entirely — focusing not on whether a work “is” essentially Mormon, but rather on ways that reading any given work “as” Mormon may prove illuminating. Waterman writes:

    “In contrast to these approaches [i.e., those of Cracroft, Jorgensen, and Austin], I would argue that the “Mormon” critic’s initial task is not only to be slow to determine the visitor’s “Mormonness,” but also to refuse the notion of essence (rejecting the question “Is this work really Mormon?”: a question literary or general authorities really cannot answer) and problematize the concept of “Mormon” identity from the outset…. The initial critical questions, then, are not “Is this literature Mormon?” or “Is this author faithful?” but “How can this literature be read profitably as coming out of a Mormon tradition?” and “What does it have in common with other work that is recognized as ‘Mormon’ in some way?”

    Back to Jonathan: The notion of “Mormon literature,” in this way, becomes displaced from a classification of texts to a classification of ways of reading. It seems to me that a non-Mormon certainly could read in this way, just as a non-Catholic could do a Catholic reading of a text, but it would require a steeping in Mormonism (whether from an insider or outsider perspective) in order to do it well.

  9. The process of reading as a Mormon? Certainly this isn’t suggesting that only LDS readers/critics are capable of discerning whether or not a piece falls within the Mormon canon. Or maybe it is?

    Thanks for pushing me to clarify, Lisa, and for hopping in, Jonathan. (Another benefit of blogging: the chance to get feedback on ideas in process.) “Reading as a Mormon” is my phrase, not Waterman’s, though it is an attempt to encapsulate the ideas Waterman posits when he suggests that attending to the Mormon aspects of certain works can add to the general critical understanding/critical milieu of those works. I appropriated the phrasing from Jonathan Culler’s essay “Reading as a Woman,” which suggests the performativity at work behind a person’s critical identity. That is, to read as a woman, a critic must perform certain acts of feminism in order to front the gendered demands a text makes on readers. (This is, of course, an oversimplification based on my own reading of Culler’s text and my own rhetorical needs, but I think the interpretation stands, nonetheless.)

    I think this idea of reading/criticism as an act of performance, of consciously attending to/acting out certain aspects of the critic’s or the writer’s identity while moving through a text translates well into the process of reading as a Mormon, even as it complicates the issue, especially because I don’t know how many Mormons would be willing to consider their “Mormon” identity a matter of religio-cultural construction/performance. But I’m convinced it is something that’s learned and performed, even unconsciously, through an individual’s life experience with Mormonism. In this light, it can be learned/acted out, with a bit of work, of course (as Jonathan points out), by critics/readers coming from outside the Mormon tradition.

    So, no: I’m not saying that LDS critics/readers have a monopoly on reading as a Mormon. The process is open to anyone willing to grapple with the complexities of Mormonism as manifest in texts/cultural artifacts (though reader beware getting it wrong or over-extending the performance!).

    Which leads me to your second comment/question (about whether I “think it’s possible for a non-Mormon writer’s work to be part of the canon [sort of by proxy] if his work is strongly influenced by Mormonism”): By the same token, I do think it is–or at least should be–possible for writers coming from outside the Mormon tradition to be included in the Mormon canon. You reference Wallace Stegner as a possibility and I was thinking earlier today about the case of Leslie Norris, whose later work, as I understand it (though I haven’t read much of it), reveals the influence of his experience among the Mormons. England and Clark place him on the fringes of Mormon literature (at the same table as May Swenson, John Davies, Brewster Ghiselin, and William Stafford) and he, along with the others (who I am less familiar with), might qualify to varying degrees based on the general classification offered by AML: Mormon lit being literature that is by, for, or about Mormons (Stegner and Norris might qualify under this “about” categorization). Might we also include literature that, based on a writer’s experience with Mormonism, incorporates or comments on aspects of the Mormon tradition? (See the John S. Tanner quote I posted here for a caveat about why this knowledge about an author is needed to save us from the perils of misreading.)

    I find a parallel for this in Mormon history, sociology, and cultural studies with the apparent inclusion of Jan Shipps and Thomas O’Dea, among others, in the critical canon.

  10. As for your comment on Waterman rejecting the notion of canon-formation altogether, Jonathan: I read the quote you offer up a bit differently, especially in light of the last question Waterman outlines there on what any given text might have in common with texts that are “recognized as ‘Mormon’ in some way” and also in light of the concession he makes in footnote 24 that the presciptive process “has been paralleled in the early stages of many ‘minority’ literatures and criticisms.” As early critics grapple with the possibilities of literature/criticism grounded in a certain cultural/ethnic/psychosexual experience, they must necessarily establish a textual basis from which to read. In other words, they must outline–for themselves and others–a canon of texts against which other texts can be read and recognized as arising out of the tradition. One use of such a canon, then, is to help critics recognize commonalities across texts within a tradition and to read the tradition accordingly. (If that makes any sense.)

    This must necessarily be a more open or diffuse canon, however, and I think that’s something Waterman implies here–let’s not close our literary tradition off to the full spectrum of Mormon literatures and identities because the full range of texts, taken individually and together, might have something to say about 1) Mormon culture, 2) the relationship between Mormonism and other cultural experiences, and 3) cultures that exist outside the boundaries of Mormonism. As he suggests in his conclusion, such an expansive gathering of texts “opens critical possibilities” based on the “multiplicity of Mormonisms” growing out of and complicated by the Church’s continuing globalization.

  11. Tyler,

    Good point with respect to Waterman’s reliance on the existence of a canon in order for (at least part of) his suggested literary approach to work. I fall back, though, to my second suggestion of “moving past” canon-formation and on to new questions as being, at least rhetorically, what Waterman is trying to get Mormon critics to do–though as you point out Waterman’s approach feeds in turn back into questions of canon-formation.

    With respect to literature “about” Mormons… I had always interpreted that (and I’m sure it was originally meant) as meaning, having Mormons as part of their subject matter. But I suppose we can conveniently re-interpret it as meaning “among,” “within,” or “around the edges of”: e.g., “dancing about the house.” So Leslie Norris was indeed writing “about” Mormons: couldn’t escape ’em (us)…

  12. I fall back, though, to my second suggestion of “moving past” canon-formation and on to new questions as being, at least rhetorically, what Waterman is trying to get Mormon critics to do

    Oh, definitely. I think the need for Mormon critics to ask new questions is at the core of Waterman’s essay. We’ve got a fairly respectable “canon” now, so it’s time to formulate a different approach in our criticism.

  13. Tyler,

    While I’m not arguing with your claim that we now have a respectable canon of Mormon literature, it occurs to me to ask: In what sense do you mean “canon”? I normally think of canon as including particularly illustrative or noteworthy works, not everything published within a category. In particular, it seems to me (as we’ve been discussing on your Part One post) that many works can be fruitfully “read” as Mormon without necessarily forming part of any Mormon canon. Or do you mean “canon” in a broader sense, as being synonymous with anything that’s read in a Mormon way?

    And by the way, I like your notion (borrowed from Culler) of acts of reading/criticism as acts of performance. I’ll need to think about that…

  14. In what sense do you mean “canon”? I normally think of canon as including particularly illustrative or noteworthy works, not everything published within a category. […] Or do you mean “canon” in a broader sense, as being synonymous with anything that’s read in a Mormon way?

    Good questions, Jonathan. I haven’t necessarily been using “canon” in the broadest sense you suggest with that last question—as any text that can be read in a Mormon way, especially because I can read texts that come from a completely different tradition in a Mormon way (reference The Mormon Review, which only accepts reviews of “non-Mormon” texts read from “the Mormon view”; sidenote: in light of present considerations of Mormon culture’s increasing pluralism, I’m wondering what “the Mormon view” refers to?). But I haven’t been using it in its narrowest sense as a set of authoritative texts either. Maybe closer to your “particularly illustrative or noteworthy works” definition . . . though now that you’ve pressed me to think about it, I was more liberal with the term in #12 than that, using it to describe the full spectrum of texts that could be considered “Mormon.”

    So to pin myself down, I’m deferring to Merriam-Webster (def’n 3c): “a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works”—in this case, the body of work sanctioned/accepted by the MoLit community, which should be open to include texts from the full range of Mormonisms.

    Don’t know if that necessarily clarifies the issue or complicates it. But that’s where I stand for now, terminology wise.

  15. Laura:

    FWIW, the poem Swenson wrote about her mother’s death, “That the Soul May Wax Plump” (I believe it’s in the collection _May Out West_), references the temple clothing and, in my mind, comments directly on Swenson and Mormonism.

    This one’s also included in Harvest and Howe explores it a bit in her article on Swenson.

    I always figured she wasn’t included in the Mormon canon simply because she wasn’t well-known enough. . . makes me sad to think it might have been for other reasons.”

    Do you mean “well-known enough” in the Mormon community or “well-known enough” in the field of American lit? Because she’s fairly prominent outside the purview of MoLit, which, I think, makes her an interesting case study in terms of how Mormonism plays into her poetry as well as in terms of the political move inherent in including her (or not) in the Mormon canon.

    I don’t know exactly why England and Clark categorized Swenson the way they did. Maybe they thought it was too presumptuous to include a national poet of her caliber in the Mormon canon, though 15 years earlier, Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert had included her in Believing People. Maybe it was because of her psychosexual identity, though, if that were the case, why include Karl Keller who left the church and was somewhat vocal about its weaknesses, self-identified as homosexual, and died of AIDS? Or maybe it was because they considered her (as Bruce Jorgensen categorized her) an “expatriate” of Mormon culture, though that begs the question, Why include Lewis B. Horne or David L. Wright, who were also, as categorized by Jorgensen, “expatriates”? Or maybe it was something else altogether. I can only speculate, though I do find her relegation to friend or relation an interesting move, to say the least.

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