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.