This month, The New Yorker has published two articles that take Mormonism seriously. The first was a “Critic at Large” (wherein the critic takes a look at several related works). Sadly, among the works considered was not Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon, which means that critic Adam Gopnick is unable to rise above the standard of Book-of-Mormon-as-lit criticism set by Edmund Wilson’s constantly quoted phrase, “farrago of balderdash.” But he does seem to have actually attempted reading it, even if he didn’t seek out a more experience guide. Which is more than I feel comfortable saying about John Lahr who probably takes Wilson’s word on everything. And let’s face it: Wilson was not always right. History’s on my side here, folks.
Anyway. Back to Gopnick.
He starts with a brief look at Joanna Brooks’s The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (the newly repubbed-by-national-publisher version that got her on The Daily Show). He decides it’s muchly “standard minority-faith stuff” which may well be true. I’m not well read enough in the genre to reach any decisive conclusion. It would not surprise me.
From there he moves to a look at four new works of history, The Mormon People (Matthew Bowman), The Book of Mormon: A Biography (Paul C. Gutjahr), A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth Century America (J. Spencer Fluhman), and Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (John G. Turner)—all from reputable authors and publishers. This takes up the bulk of the article and I have no serious complaints with his treatment. Nor would it be fair for me to. I have not read them.
From those books’ historical arguments, Gopnick talks about Mormonism’s 1950s-born need “for more general admission, not as cardboard stage-ethnic types good at one or two things but as people available to do everything, just like the ruling Wasps.” Which is, apparently, a natural segue to the nice fact that “Mormon art produced one camp genius, the mid-twentieth-century painter Arnold Friberg.” Since his Nephi looks like Mitt Romney, that lets him close by speculating what Romney gets from his Mormonism—though that attempt devolves into what Romney can tell us about Mormonism. It’s a little confused and hardly flattering.
So it goes.
The Mittesque Nephi is the subject of Neima Jahromi’s “Adventures in Mormon Art History.” Jahromi suggests that Nephi’s pose may be descended from a similar pose held by Aristotle in Raphael’s “School of Athens.” He then goes on to produce a post-length’s bit of serious analysis, drawing in Mormon history with a greater sense of taking-it-seriously than even Gopnick managed. He admits that we can’t know if Friberg had Raphael in mind (though he was certainly educated enough to make it a real possibility), then turns back to Mitt (because you cannot talk about Mormons in 2012 without talking about Mitt; I think it’s, like, a law) which mostly just provides somewhere to stop rather than any useful new insight, but I think that’s okay because, for the first time, The New Yorker said something about Mormons—and specifically a work of Mormon art!*—that gave me a new perspective and new information.
Which was terrific.
More of that, please.