This week I finished Susa Young Gates’ John Stevens’ Courtship: A Story of the Echo Canyon War (1909), one of the first Mormon novels. Below are some notes I drew up to gather my thoughts on the book, which I think is fairly typical of the kinds of fiction Mormons were producing at the time. A few things set it apart, though, and I try to highlight those aspects in my observations.
- As best as I can tell, John Stevens’ Courtship is the first novel published in book form by Susa Young Gates, one of Brigham Young’s many daughters. It might also be the first novel published in book form by a Mormon woman, but I could be wrong. Earlier novels by Mormon women had been published before 1909, in serial form, including Emmeline B. Wells’ Hephizibah (1889) in The Woman’s Exponent and Gates’ The Little Missionary (1899) in the Juvenile Instructor.
- It is probably the best example we have of early Mormon historical fiction. It certainly uses Mormon history in a way that compliments the narrative better than either Nephi Anderson’s Marcus King, Mormon (which is superficially historical) or John St. John (which is textbook historical). I imagine Gates’ models are the works of Walter Scott, E.D.E.N. Southworth, and their imitators. Here, the action of her characters play out against the pageantry and crises of the Utah War in a way that does not sacrifice character and plot development to the facts of history. In other words, I feel Gates allows the events, atmosphere, and attitudes of the Utah War to unfold through her characters’ stories rather than through pedantic narration.
- Aside from one veiled allusion, polygamy is entirely absent from this novel. This is significant not because the novel itself takes place at a time when the Saints practiced polygamy, but because so much of the conflict in the novel unfolds as a result of the characters’ unbending devotion to the strict parameters of traditional monogamy. What is interesting to me, and suggestive of the changing attitudes in Mormonism at the turn of the century, is that John Stevens’ Courtship relies so heavily on the these conventions–what we could call the popular nineteenth-century marriage plot–which makes some sense from a generic and even marketing standpoint, yet creates an anachronistic dilemma for its characters. John Stevens, the novel’s hero, falls in love with two women–yet it never crosses his mind to marry both. Likewise, the women involved–Diantha and Ellen–never consider the possibility of love outside of a monogamous framework–which [SPOILER] ultimately leads to tragedy for one of them when she enters into a dangerous relationship on the rebound after she comes to believe that John is in love with her rival. (This, by the way, is not the case in Nephi Anderson’s historical fiction. He resolves the conflict of a few love triangles with polygamy.)
- Unlike works like Anderson’s Piney Ridge Cottage (1912) and especially A Daughter of the North (1915), John Stevens’ Courtship is not what I would call a strictly proto-feminist Mormon novel. (In fact, I think you could make the argument that it moves in the opposite direction in that its depictions of Mormon women seem to go along with the conservative restructuring of the sphere of Mormon womanhood that was beginning to take shape within the Church at the time.) This surprised me somewhat because Gates, like many prominent Mormon women in the latter end of the nineteenth century, had been a player in the women’s rights and suffrage movements. Traditional gender roles go unchallenged in this novel, however, and much of it seems designed to curb the desires of young women to move beyond their designated stations. Moreover, John Stevens, despite being a rather uninteresting character, is worshiped by every female character in the novel, and whenever he shows up in the narrative their lives and desires become secondary to his. Beyond that, the heroism of pioneer women in the novel is mostly reduced to silly romantic intrigues and jealousies, which gets annoying. I don’t see the same strength in Gates’ female characters that I see in many of the female characters in Anderson’s fiction (although, to be fair, Anderson has his share of weak female characters). Personally, I don’t think this novel would pass the Mahonri Standard of Mormon Feminist Fiction, but I’d like to get Mahonri’s reaction to the novel all the same.
- The novel is essentially a morality tale designed to promote the moral standards of the Church and support young women in their efforts to live chaste lives and marry in the covenant. What I find problematic in the novel, however, is the way that one of the young women characters [SPOILER] is punished for breaking the law of chastity and pursuing a clandestine relationship with a gentile soldier from Johnston’s army. The way it plays out in the novel smacks, I think, of the nineteenth-century doctrine of blood atonement–the idea that certain grave sins, like sexual immorality and murder, can only be atoned through the shedding of the sinner’s blood. This is more or less what happens to one character in John Stevens’ Courtship, and I think it is a shameless scare tactic. Personally, I think it would be worthwhile to contrast this novel with Nephi Anderson’s Dorian (1921), which presents a very similar dynamic, yet rejects the grim pioneer justice we see in this earlier novel. Whereas this novel sees execution as the only way for a young woman to atone for sexual sin, Dorian sees repentance and grace as her solution. It makes me wonder if Dorian was a deliberate response to John Stevens. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is enough evidence in the historical record to prove one way or the other.
- Speaking of the historical record, I wonder if John Stevens’ is a kind of veiled tribute to Joseph F. Smith, who was prophet at the time. Much of John Stevens’ life–at least early in the novel–parallels that of Joseph F. Smith, and the long-bearded Stevens even looks like the long-bearded JFS. Some of these parallels are quite overt–John has a “true blue” experience with a drunk in Johnston’s army–while others are more subtle–John’s role in the Utah War is roughly the same as that of JFS. One blogger over at the Juvenile Instructor recently turned up evidence that suggests that Gates had a thing for Smith when they were younger, and I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that this novel betrays some underlying affection/devotion/attraction to and for the man. This may be nothing, of course, but late in the novel we discover that Stevens carries around a letter from Diantha, the young woman whom he ends up marrying, which she wrote to him when she was fourteen–the age Gates was when she apparently first stifled her feelings for Smith. Plus John Stevens/Joseph F. Smith–the proof is in the initials, right?. But maybe I’m grasping. (JFS, incidentally, makes a cameo in the novel as the “handsome young Joseph F. Smith ).
- I think it is also interesting that John believes that he and Diantha covenanted to marry each other in the pre-mortal life. We usually credit this folk-belief to Added Upon, but I think it was fairly common among Mormons at the turn-of-the-century. My guess is that Added Upon and John Stevens’ only helped to popularize it in the Mormon imagination.
- Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about the novel is the character Louisiana Liz, an “octoroon” prostitute at Camp Floyd, who serves as one of the novel’s villains and its executioner. One reason she is so fascinating is that she is the first black character that I have come across in early Mormon fiction, and she may be the first ever in Mormon fiction. (For the most part, the only characters of color in early Mormon fiction are Native Americans.) Also, she’s a villain, which seems fairly consistent with the way white authors used black characters at the time: that is, if their black characters weren’t tragic mulattos, they were villains or clowns. This may be evidence of the influence of writers like Thomas Dixon, of The Clansman (1905) fame, on Gates, but I need to do more research on the subject. (Interestingly, Thomas Dixon’s The Southerner  was later a part of the M.I.A.’s annual reading course.)
In my opinion, John Stevens’ Courtship is not the best Mormon novel of the era, but I think it has value as a revealing cultural product of early twentieth-century Mormonism. From it we can learn much about how Mormons understood themselves and the legacy of their past. We can also gain some insight into the way they understood gender and gender roles, marriage, sexual morality, repentance, and cultural identity, Like the works of Nephi Anderson, it shows us how turn-of-the-century Mormons conceptualized ideal Mormon masculinity and femininity. For us in the twenty-first century, it also shows us how much attitudes in Mormonism have and have not changed over the course of one hundred years.