Essentialism disguised as authenticity

“…[E]ssentialism, usually regarded as dead in contemporary cultural studies, has survived and is thriving, having gone incognito under the rubric ‘authenticity'” (9) writes Jeff Karem in the introduction to The Romance of Authenticity: The Cultural Politics of Regional and Ethnic Literatures. Karem goes on to show how that plays out in the reception of the works of the writers William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Ernest Gaines, Rolando Hinojosa and Leslie Marmon Silko. It’s been good reading so far (I’m about halfway through), and, in particular, it’s an excellent example of reception studies (which dives into reviews, sales, correspondence, etc. to show how particular works are received by various publics/publications/peers).

How this essentializing plays out is fascinating to me. For example (and I’m reducing Karem’s careful scholarship here to make a point), in the case of William Faulkner, he had more critical and sales success when he wrote works that confirmed what people already believed the hallmarks of Southern Literature to be. Readers and critics were looking for work that, while well-crafted and new, reflected their notions of the South. Indeed, Faulkner’s more complicated (formally) and complex (thematically) novels — the ones I’ve actually read like Absalom! Abaslom! and The Sound and the Fury — were largely rejected (or recommended-with-reservations) by many critics and definitely by the reading public. This rejection, according to Karem, actually affected Faulkner’s later fiction, where he more or less accepted the role that he was expected to play.

Mormon literature has yet to produce a writer who has received the type of reception that the authors included in Karem’s study have gained with their fiction. But I do think that Mormon literature as a field is bedeviled by essentialism operating under the guise of authenticity. This is especially true of the representations of Mormonism and Mormons in popular culture, but also more broadly in the public sphere.

It appears, especially in this Mormon Moment (but also in past ones) that many (most?) critics and authors and even readers/viewers are only looking to confirm what they have already decided. To put it more bluntly: they essentialize all narratives about Mormonism, filtering them through the “key” touchpoints of Krakauer and Brodie (with maybe a little Mitt Romney nice/bland thrown in).

Thus we get the utter weirdness of objections to Matt Bowman’s recent book. As if any portrayal of Mormonism that doesn’t bring in Krakauer or Brodie (popular histories that are, in the case of the former, only marginally relevant to modern members of the LDS Church and, the latter, come with major qualifiers in terms of the evidence marshaled and the overall psychobiographic approach) is somehow in-authentic. As if Matt is refusing to face the true portrait of what Mormonism is. Because, of course, the only authentic Mormon narratives are the ones that essentialize, that reinforce the conventional wisdom of the educated elite (which is why when lower-educated detractors essentialize, the elite will sometimes rush to Mormonism’s defense — it threatens their essentialization from another direction).

The essentializing, of course, also gets rather schizophrenic because on the one hand Mormons are weird, marginal, sex-crazed (because of polygamy [note whenever the word harem comes up in relation to early LDS leaders]), perhaps even insidiously violent creatures (Mountain Meadows Massacre, Danites) who follow a strange mishmash of 19th century intellectual ferment created by a venal charlatan. But on the other hand we’re also the bland, nice, Puritanical, repressed, suburban, teetoling, Republican, meritocratic-seeking shorthand for all church-going conservatives in America. Want to make a joke in a film or television show about somebody not being able to do something? Deploy the Mormon reference. But also: the dual brand serves well the purposes of all those who think that must be something seedy and/or corrupt behind the niceness and competence (c.f. a hundred columns about Mitt Romney).

More work needs to be done on how this all operates, although some of it seems much too slight to be worth the effort.

I also wish we had more examples LDS authors who had written Mormon-themed nationally published novels so that I could compare their reception to the authors featured in The Romance of Authenticity. For now, though, I’d suggest the works of Orson Scott Card (especially the Alvin books), The Backslider, the works of the Lost Generation writers, Brady Udall’s two novels, and the Twilight series as particularly ripe candidates for Mormon lit-crit forays into reception studies. Angels in America and The Book of Mormon Musical also could benefit from this approach. Does anyone know if any work has alread been done in this area? I’d love to read it if there has been.

Finally, it occurs to me that I dipped my toes in these waters with one of my first posts here at AMV on the critical reception of Napolean Dynamite.

10 thoughts on “Essentialism disguised as authenticity”

  1. I actually just read Sylvester Lamin’s “The Coconut Bond.” The author is Mormon and polygamy is a major part of the setting–in his native Sierra Leone.

    But I don’t think the book sold terribly well, Th., so don’t get your hopes up yet…

  2. Argh! So many thoughts…

    For now, I’ll simply say that I think Card’s most successful mainstream work that depicts Mormons is probably Lost Boys, simply because the Mormonism of the Alvin Maker book is largely concealed. And there was that critical anthology coedited by Mike Austin — Peculiar Portrayals, it was — which I was going to review but never finished before I had to return it on ILL. Ah, well. Such are the split priorities of a part-time amateur Mormon literary critic…

  3. Such are the split priorities of a part-time amateur Mormon literary critic”¦

    I want you to order business cards that say “part-time amateur Mormon literary critic.”

  4. I should be fine with this book, but I’m racing ILL on John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation as well. I shouldn’t have ordered both books at the same time, but I often go for long stretches of time where I forget that I can use ILL (actually MNLink).

  5. Re: essentialism and authenticity.

    I agree that it’s way annoying when depictions of Mormons are expected to fit certain sensationalized tropes to count as legit or authentic.

    I think we can err the other way, though: earlier this year, one of my younger sister’s high school teachers gave her an article from some NYC newspaper about how some young New York Mormons are super-hip. Which would be fine, except that the articles emphasized ways that they’d assimilated–like cohabiting with a significant other–that were pretty far from what most of us would consider an authentically Mormon way of making meaning in life.

    So yeah, people aren’t likely to get me any better by seeing my Mormonism through the lens of Krakauer. But they’re probably also not likely to get me if their sense of Mormon is so anti-essentialist that it misses core Mormon values and practices.

    In a way, it’s kind of nice when people see us as deeply foreign/peculiar. I mean, at least they know that way that our assimilation is not really complete–even if we listen to NPR. 😉

  6. There’s an interesting analog in the book to what you’re describing James. It’s on much different scale, of course, but Ernest Gaines’ work wasn’t well-received during the heyday of Black Pride movement because it wasn’t gritty and urban and political and communitarian. So it was seen as inauthentic because it was pastoral and Southern and individualist.

    That’s the problem with the whole notion of authenticity.

    Of course, what’s it more about is NY Times style and the overall issues with trend reporting, but that’s a different discussion.

  7. I think we can err the other way, though: earlier this year, one of my younger sister’s high school teachers gave her an article from some NYC newspaper about how some young New York Mormons are super-hip. Which would be fine, except that the articles emphasized ways that they’d assimilated”“like cohabiting with a significant other”“that were pretty far from what most of us would consider an authentically Mormon way of making meaning in life.

    I have a theory about the progression of media portrayals of stereotyped groups. First you start with portrayals that stick to the (generally negative) stereotype. Then you occasionally invert the stereotype, such as your super-hip New York Mormons (or super-hip New York librarians). After that, you move on to portraying people who fall in between the stereotype and its inverse (which is where most real people who belong to the group actually fall).

    However, it’s easy to get stuck on step 2, because you can mistake it for step 3. (E.g., when members of a group complain that they’re stereotyped in the media, the media can just point to a handful of stories they’ve done on atypical members of the group, without realizing that portraying just the extremes of the spectrum is not the same thing as portraying the entire range of the spectrum.)

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