Since Kent’s post on a free online Mormon literature course, I’ve begun thinking about what Mormon texts I could use in a survey class on nineteenth-century American literature[1. Is a class solely on nineteenth-century Mormon literature too much to hope for?] and how I could justify their place on the syllabus.[2. The fact that I feel I need to justify their place is part of what this post is about.] In some cases, like the millenarian poetry of Parley P. Pratt and W. W. Phelps, I think I could easily place them with early American Protestant poems and hymns that express similar millennial longings. I could also find a place for poems by Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells among American women poets of the West, as critic Nina Baym has done in a recent work.
Nephi Anderson and other early Mormon fiction writers could also be worked into a syllabus. In some ways, after all, their fiction is not unlike the works of late nineteenth-century African American writers like Charles Chesnutt and Frances Harper, who also used the short story and novel forms to explore the problems and potentials of assimilation, social passing, and identity. At the same time, however, the works of Chesnutt and Harper have the advantage of belonging to a minority group whose basic narrative has already been well-incorporated into the broader American narrative. When teachers go to teach Iola LeRoy, that is, they don’t have to teach students from the ground up about racism, slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, racial stereotypes, and Jim Crow–the issues these text are responding to. They usually have high school and college history classes–not to mention the tireless efforts of social activists–to thank for at least some basic student knowledge about these issues.
Not so with the Mormons, whose story in the history textbooks usually boils down to a paragraph (or two) on the exodus and polygamy. This leaves teachers who wish to teach non-Mormon students about early Mormon fiction little to work with since so much of this early fiction was written in response to the intense anti-Mormonism of the 1870s, 80s, and 90s–something most people, including Mormons, know little about.[3. Mormons have social activists in the form of missionaries. These activists, however, generally do not lobby for greater Mormon representation in the history textbooks or literary canon(s).]
Admittedly, the problem is not insurmountable. Teachers who want to teach a novel like Piney Ridge Cottage simply need to give, say, a fifteen minute presentation on the relevant history and maybe assign some excerpted readings from the anti-Mormon novels Anderson was responding to and succeed well enough. Students may not grasp much of what Anderson is doing in the work, but they can at least get a sense of why it’s important.
This will likely be the order of things (the ongoing challenge) as long as the Mormon story continues to merit no more than two paragraphs in the textbook.
Whenever I think about teaching Mormon literature to non-Mormon students, I wonder if the day will come when our basic narrative will be a familiar enough part of the broader American (or world) narrative that we’ll no longer have to spend so much time reminding people of who we are and how we’re different before we teach them why what we write is important.
Unfortunately, I worry that we have become too willing to sweep our uniqueness–and troubled history with America–under the rug. Even today, when pluralism defines the national narrative, many of those who speak out as national voices of Mormonism focus less on what makes us potentially radical and more on what makes us (or can make us) like everyone else. This is not a bad strategy, to be sure, especially if our goal is to fit in and play nicely with others. But it gives those who are not Mormons very little reason to care about our story. What happens, after all, if after we’ve convinced everyone about how normal we are, they pat us on the back and ask us why we’re still talking?
What we need to do is find a way to show how our story informs the broader tapestry without getting lost in the pattern. In a sense, we need to assert ours as a unique and memorable story–one that debunks the melting pot, yet affirms our place in the broader narrative. Otherwise, I fear no one will bother to explore why or how we fit in–they’ll just assume that our story is the same as theirs.