Five Questions for Terryl L. Givens

ViperOne of the perks of being review editor for Irreantum is receiving unexpected review copies in the mail. Some weeks ago, I opened the mailbox to find the new edition of Terryl L. Givens The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (Oxford University Press, 2013) waiting for me. If you’ve never had a chance to study this book, I highly recommend that you check it out. No student of Mormon literature should overlook it.

Earlier this week, Dr. Givens graciously agreed to answer five questions I had about the new edition of Viper and other matters related to Mormon studies. Here are his replies: 

What motivated the new edition of Viper on the Hearth? Was it simply the recent “Mormon Moment” or has more happened in the sixteen years since the book’s initial publication that necessitated a new edition?

Two factors led to the update. First, Viper was my first book and had a limited release. It was only available in a print-on-demand format that approached one hundred dollars. Obviously it wasn’t going to get any circulation at that price, so Oxford agreed to do a paperback. Second, it wasn’t just a matter of an additional 16 years of Mormon representations that needed filling in. A shift in the cultural winds had occurred, and Mormonism became interesting–or of interest–in new ways. One way to think about this is in terms of what I refer to as the 1893 devil’s compromise. At the Chicago World’s Fair, the Tabernacle Choir was given the silver medal, even as B. H. Roberts was denied a real forum and equal billing with other religions to present a discourse on Mormonism. The message was, you can sing and dance for us, but don’t ask us to take your theology seriously.  And in many ways, Mormonism signed on to that deal. For over a century, Mormons became to a large extent acceptable and increasingly respected–but not for their beliefs. The public face of Mormonism was more likely to be an Osmond, a Steve Young, or a David Archuleta, than a B. H. Roberts or Neal Maxwell. And Americans and Mormons alike were fine with that. But as Mormonism assumed a more prominent place American political life in the last two election cycles, the compromise frayed. When a Mormon threatened to win the highest political office in the land, bringing his Mormon beliefs with him, the old nineteenth-century canards returned with a vengeance. One sign of the breakdown of coherent discussion about Mormonism was evident in the frequent insistence that, like Kennedy in his Houston Ministerial Association speech, Romney should address his religious beliefs to reassure an anxious public. Sadly, few journalists or pundits seem to have actually read the Kennedy speech. For in it, he said emphatically that he would not address those concerns: He would not “state once again what kind of church I believe in–for that should be important only to me.” His message didn’t penetrate very lastingly.  In the Viper re-issue, I bring the story up to date by including those developments.

Along with Megan Sanborn Jones’ Performing American Identity in Anti-Mormon Melodrama, Viper in the Hearth is the most in-depth academic study of nineteenth-century anti-Mormon literary texts. What further work needs to be done with anti-Mormon texts from this era? What possibilities to they offer interested scholars?

One challenge in doing any kind of history is the usual paucity of oral records. Consider how much we know about Nauvoo theology, given the extensive record-keeping of that period, as evident in Andrew Ehat and Lyndon Cook’s wonderful collection of Joseph Smith’s Words.  No comparable records exist for Mormonism’s early years. So we have the church newspapers and other writings, but know relatively little about what missionaries were preaching or what Joseph and others were saying in their sermons, let alone private conversations with close associates. So the best sources of information are often the indirect ones. We have some idea of what Mormons were saying, and of how they were being perceived, based on written responses to Mormonism. Those responses take the form of anti-Mormon pamphlets, journalism, and anti-Mormon fiction. I don’t think those kinds of sources have been significantly incorporated into the history of Mormonism’s, and Mormon theology’s, unfolding.

Much of my work lately has focused on Mormon writers from the same era, particularly the writers who essentially created the genre of Mormon fiction at the turn of the century (Nephi Anderson, Susa Young Gates, Josephine Spencer, etc.). In your opinion, how could your work in Viper in the Hearth dovetail with studies of these Mormon authors and their works?

One of the great ironies I discuss in Viper, is that fact that the distinct, artificial ethnicity constructed for Mormonism by critics for their own ends, was essentially co-opted by Mormons for their own ends. What this means is that, to some extent, writers like Zane Grey and John Russell and James Oliver Curwood were engaged in the same project as Anderson, Gates, and Spencer.  Both were using literature to forge a distinct identity for Mormons, and by so doing, they reveal a great deal about how they saw themselves and others, what values they most aspired to emulate and shun, and so forth.

What advice would you give an undergraduate–or graduate–student who is thinking about pursuing Mormon literary and/or cultural studies? What are your hopes for those fields in the future?

I am the wrong person to give advice. My path was full of much more serendipity than foresight and intention. But I might suggest a few things that I think one should have in mind.  Learn to speak the language of scholarship, but ask questions informed by your discipleship. That doesn’t mean questions that are safe, or to which you know the answer. It means the opposite. Real questions come with risk, but they are questions that we know in our heart are worth asking. My hope for the future of that amorphous thing some call “Mormon Studies,” is that it can unfold without the cynicism so common in contemporary scholarship, without smugness and without “provincial anti-provincialism.” The expression is Gene England’s–but I fear it is still a peculiarly Mormon affliction. It can manifest itself as a prompt readiness to play on an uneven playing field so that we don’t look like whiners. It can manifest itself as a refusal to ask questions that are meaningful to us. It can manifest itself as forgetfulness that we inherit disciplines, but we also have the power to shape them; It can manifest as the feeling that we need to bracket our heritage or inherited wisdom or core beliefs, instead of letting them be the prejudices that shape the starting point of our investigations and researches. Do we need to proceed with respect for disciplinary methodologies and language and rules of evidence? Of course we do. But cynicism is not a sign of moral earnestness or intellectual maturity. Celebrating what is praiseworthy as well as indicting what is not is incumbent upon the true intellectual, whether you are writing a biography of Shakespeare, an analysis of Napoleon’s tactics, or a study of Mormon culture

Last question: Do you have a favorite anti-Mormon novel? I mean, I’m in the middle of reading Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, and I have to admit that it’s a pretty good novel–even if the hero is out to kill all Mormon men.

My favorite anti-Mormon novel is the first one- John Russell’s 1853  The Mormoness, or The Trials of Mary Maverick. I didn’t know at the time I wrote Viper, but it turns out Russell harbored Mormon refugees from the Missouri expulsions. So when he comes to write his novel, he is torn between sympathy for the Mormons and respect for “American institutions” and traditions of religious freedom on the one hand,” and an absolute terror of the seductive appeal of the Mormon abomination on the other. The result is a weirdly conflicted narrative that never can find its moral center. It’s a perfect representation of the dilemma that probably most Americans found themselves in, wanting to shun both extremes in the Mormon conflicts, but finding no tenable middle ground when the stakes were so high.

Terryl L. Givens is Professor of Literature and Religion and James A. Bostwick Chair of English, University of Richmond. Some of his other books on Mormonism and American religious culture are By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (with Matthew Grow), and The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (with Fiona Givens).   

8 thoughts on “Five Questions for Terryl L. Givens”

  1. “One of the great ironies I discuss in Viper, is that fact that the distinct, artificial ethnicity constructed for Mormonism by critics for their own ends, was essentially co-opted by Mormons for their own ends. ”

    It is ironic, but also not at all un-precedent when it comes to both national and ethnic identities.

    Excellent interview, Scott. These are questions I haven’t seen Dr. Givens answer before.

  2. I loved _People of Paradox_ and I’m in the middle of _The God Who Weeps_. I’ll be adding _Vipers_ to my library soon, too. Thanks for this, Scott. Excellent interview.

  3. VIPERS is one of my favorite books. I already own the $100 POD hardcover Oxford version, but I will quite happily purchase this new updated edition! Thanks for posting this!

  4. Terryl Givens is so fabulous, and so is this interview. My favorite bit:

    “Learn to speak the language of scholarship, but ask questions informed by your discipleship. That doesn’t mean questions that are safe, or to which you know the answer. It means the opposite. Real questions come with risk, but they are questions that we know in our heart are worth asking.”

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