The crack in the veneer

Louis Begley: “Rather, the fear was of a crack in the veneer of assimilation through which might enter … the heritage that these Jews had recently and completely cast aside.”

On Feb. 18, 1912, Franz Kafka introduced a Yiddish poetry reading at Toynbee Hall. In typical Kafka fashion he put his finger on the fear of and attraction to Yiddish that the assimilated Jews in the audience had (or he presumed they had). In analyzing that speech, Louis Begley writes in The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head:

The rub was there [in the fear of Yiddish and by extension the fear of themselves]. Kafka knew that the assimilated Jews sitting in Toynbee Hall feared close contact with their grandparents’ language, and most likely deep down he feared it as well. Of course neither Kafka nor the other Jews he was addressing were afraid of being identified as Jews: they weren’t trying to pass as Christians, if only because it would have been impossible to do so  in Prague, where everyone in the German-speaking minority knew everyone else. Rather, the fear was of a crack in the veneer of assimilation through which might enter the miasma of the shtetl or the medieval ghetto that had been left behind, the heritage that these Jews had recently and completely cast aside. For Kafka, Yiddish and the shtetl held out the attraction of the close-kint spiritual community that he imagined flourished there and, I believe, a special terror: that of further linguistic alienation. (65-66)

Kafka’s situation — and that of other assimilated Jews — is very different from that of Mormon Americans. I am not making any strong case for parallels of any sort here. However, I do want to note the phrasing “a crack in the veneer of assimilation through which might enter the miasma… the heritage… that had been recently … cast aside”.

And clearly assimilated Mormon American artists do not fear a further linguist alienation. Prague’s Jews were alienated from the majority because they spoke German instead of Czech so that to twist that alienation further via Yiddish was truly a further linguist alienation.

And yet Mormons do have sets of demarcations that show up in dress, vocabulary, socio-cultural attitudes and daily life. Some of the art produced by Mormons does show a certain crack in the veneer. Much of it, especially the lost generation stuff, is cracks in the veneer of Mormon life. Now that we are post-assimilation, I find myself interested in the cracks in the veneer of assimilation, and (I would hope) have no fear, but rather a deep interest in what comes seeping through those cracks. Bring on the Mormon miasma!

28 thoughts on “The crack in the veneer”

  1. I sometimes forget to add context. Here it is…

    From Eugene England’s essay on Mormon literary history:

    “The first flowering of an artistically excellent Mormon literature that was able to be published nationally and gain national recognition came in the 1930s and 1940s. But its authors’ very reaction against the provinciality and moralism of Mormon “home literature” tended to give it the expatriate, even patronizing, qualities and consequent rejection by many Mormons that led Edward A. Geary to dub those authors “lost.”61 The main figures were Vardis Fisher, who won the Harper Prize in 1939 for Children of God: An American Epic (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1939), which covers most of nineteenth-century Mormon history; Maurine Whipple, who won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Prize in 1938 and published The Giant Joshua (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941), based on the settling of Utah’s Dixie; and Virginia Sorensen, who also began with a novel about early Mormon history, A Little Lower Than the Angels (New York: Knopf, 1942), but then did her best work set in the time (early twentieth century) and place (Sanpete Valley) of her own youth. Among these works is what many consider the best Mormon novel, The Evening and the Morning (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949) and her collection of “stories,” Where Nothing Is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963).”

  2. .

    I think this is a big part of the reason rich Mormons will build opera houses for Utah towns, but not endow the AML.

  3. I think the AML would do well to a) not insult people when they’re begging for help and b) ask people directly to help and c) not be too particular about what qualified offers of help they do get.

    And the reason I bring that up is because Wm asked the pertinent question I’ve been wondering about since the Irreantum announcement: Does anyone ever go to anyone else to ask directly or is it always a cattle call, then griping because nobody will step up?

  4. That is an interesting question, Moriah. I don’t know the answer to it.

    I still think that the key problem is that either the AML doesn’t know what it is and/or can’t commit to what it is. I tried to provide some help with that a while back but as far as I know that analysis didn’t go anywhere. At the very least no one got back in touch with me about it.

    Edit to add: and my hints that I could provide better analysis and even a recommendation with more data didn’t go anywhere either.

  5. I now have several titles to seek out & read (when I’m done reading Whitneys). THank you… you know, do we have a booklist of literary LDS fiction? On Goodreads or something? Please show me.

  6. “Now that we are post-assimilation, I find myself interested in the cracks in the veneer of assimilation, and (I would hope) have no fear, but rather a deep interest in what comes seeping through those cracks.”


    And I think there is some truth being spoken here about the current AML situation. I, of course, have my own opinions on the matter, and I’d hate to see it go under.

  7. I would also hate to see it go under. I’m not sure what to do about it, though.

    The major issue as I see it is that for years the AML counted on BYU English professors (and occasionally their colleagues at other campuses) to lead the organization and even more importantly the Mormon lit classes they taught to recruit new members. Virtually everyone in the early days of the AML-List had had some exposure to the concept of Mormon lit through an experience at BYU (if not taking the Mo-lit course, then a spouse or friends who did –or– a relationship with a faculty member who had an interest in it).

    That support has waned. I had some hope that UVU might be able to step in, but based on their handling of the Marilyn Brown Novel Award, I’d say they don’t quite have the wherewithal to do so.

    The other option would be to pull in another generation using other means. I made some attempts to outline what those could be, but, again, nothing much came of it.

  8. Here are two restructuring proposals that I put together in 2009 (note that the Board never formally asked me to do this, but rather one person in the AML did):

    AML Restructuring Proposal

    AML: Scaled back Version

    Obviously, some of what I suggest might no longer be viable or would require modification. If I can find the competitive analysis that I put together, I will email that to you.

    This was the most recent thing I did and the most complete, but I also provided advice at least two times before this on various issues related to marketing, membership, etc. Each time because someone associated with the AML asked.

    I believe, but don’t for sure that the biggest barrier towards adopting my proposals was that the majority of those with leadership positions in the AML did not want to abandon the print version of Irreantum.

  9. One thing to note on the large scale restructuring proposal is that one key reason for approaching it that way was so that board members had specific activities/areas that they were responsible for. In my experience, boards function best when they see themselves as leading specific efforts (and are held accountable by their fellow board members for those efforts) rather than sitting around debating what the staff should do to make things better.

  10. The major issue as I see it is that for years the AML counted on BYU English professors…That support has waned.”

    Exactly, Wm. Without that explicit support I really see no way of keeping it going. At its core, AML is an academic organization. It needs to be helmed by academe.

    People like me, who have attended and supported AML for years, presented papers even, written essays for Irreantum, but who are working genre writers and at best dilettante amateur lit-critters–we can really only do so much without irrevocably warping AML from what it has been to something it is not. Even if my heath was better, even if I could step up for editorial or organizational positions, it still wouldn’t really be what AML needed.

    Doug Thayer recently issued a clarion call for “serious Mormon Fiction,” the kind that is the cornerstone and capstone celebrated and examined by AML. The trumpet should have also sounded for “serious Mormon faculty” to step up to head the one organization that could midwife such fiction into being.

  11. What is this “serious Mormon fiction” stuff? Can someone define that?

    On another note: Lee, could you email me, please? esb10 at b10mediaworx dot com Thanks!

  12. Let’s just say that Doug Thayer appears to be a big fan of literary realism.

    I was afraid you were going to say that.

    Could it get more exclusionary?

  13. Email sent, Moriah.

    Re Doug Thayer: Actually, I’m in the middle of writing an AML (hopefully) paper on Doug’s essay now, sort of a reply to it. Genre writers like me have gotten gun shy about essays like that and we always fear the worst. I respect Doug Thayer immensely, though, so I’m glad I read it first. I see a problem in the essay, but being exclusionary wasn’t it.

    Doug was, if anything, very non-exclusionary in his essay; instead, he was calling for a new generation of serious Mormon fiction writers to step forth and replace the generation we have now, writers like Doug and John Bennion and others. And point by point I agree with almost everything he wrote. Except for one critical flaw…

  14. Moriah, I can only speak for myself as far as Irreantum and asking for help in concerned, but I’ll do my best to respond to the issues you outlined. You said:

    “I think the AML would do well to a) not insult people when they’re begging for help and b) ask people directly to help and c) not be too particular about what qualified offers of help they do get.”

    As far as issue “A” goes, I totally agree with you. I think I know what you’re referring to–I could be wrong–but it IS true that in a volunteer organization there are all sorts of ways to step on people’s toes. I’m sure I inadvertently offended people while I was involved with Irreantum. That said, most of the time everyone I know in the AML, myself included, were always very happy and grateful to have people offer help. What actually gets DONE with that help is another matter entirely. For example, I loved Wm’s ideas and remember when he floated them past the AML board. But having good ideas and actually finding people to implement them are two very different things, and often things don’t move from the conceptual to the actual very well, even in organizations where people are paid money. This is no excuse; just an observation.

    As far as B goes, I asked people for help directly ALL.THE.TIME. That’s how I staffed the editorial board. That’s how I got a half a dozen people to read for the literary contests every year. That’s how I got Jack Harrell to succeed me. But I also think it’s important to issue overall “calls” for help too. That’s how I got involved with the AML in the first place: Laraine Wilkins issued a call over the AML-list and I responded, even though she didn’t know me from Adam. (Hardly anyone in the AML knew me from Adam back then.) I know Jack and Josh have had people respond to the latest call who we had no idea would be interested in serving or willing to serve, so it’s been a positive thing to go public with the plea.

    And C? We aren’t too particular. Almost anyone who’s ever offered to help I’ve taken them up on it, in whatever capacity they’d like to do so. That said, every once in a very blue moon I’d have someone I never heard of who wanted a paid internship and I’d have to gently let them know that, in the AML, there’s no such thing.

    Again, I’m only speaking for my experience with Irreantum. Those who’ve been intimately involved with running the AML itself might have other things to say. I do know, however, that I’ve been at plenty of board meeting in the good old days, and I tend to think that the experience of running the AML has been very similar to my experience when I ran Irreantum.

    And I agree with Lee: Without the institutional support of academics, it’s a lot harder to keep this little train chugging.

    Now back to discussing Kafka!

  15. Back to Kafka, indeed. 🙂

    I think there are some striking NON-parallels (or even ANTI-parallels) with Begley’s quoted Kafka observation.

    1) The shtetl and ghetto were, at best, no further removed than living memory to those the assimilated Prague Jews in attaendance that night, and in fact existed in other parts of Europe.

    Mormons are generations removed from Haun’s Mill, Liberty Jail the forced abandonment of Nauvoo, and the tramping feet of Johnston’s Army. Barring another Prop. Eight backlash, one cubed and squared and injected with steroids, I don’t see a return to those days anytime soon.

    2) Much of that assimilation of those in the audience that night was measured in the extent of their abandoning the traditions and strictures of their religion, in many cases Jewish in geneologic backgroun only, to better blend in with the mainstream.

    There has been some assimliation (or rather, accomodation made with the outer world) by Mormons over the years, but the zenith of what might be thought of assimilation is typically thought to have occured in the 1950s, when it was the mainstream culture than moved closer to our traditions and strictures. Our “post-assimilation” status has much to do with the two cultures (Mormon and Gentile) again moving apart.

    3) The assimiliaton of the endogeneous Prague Jews was that of members of an almost entirely seperate group–ethinically, geneologically, culturally, linguistically–merging into an alien larger group.

    While there is a significant block of Mormons whose DUP family charts date back to Kirtland and Jackson County and Nauvoo, Mormonism tends to the exogenous thanks to conversion. Since we draw our converted _from_ the outer culture, some form of assimiliation is bound to result. (And if this contradicts my point #2, I shrug and point out that we are a Peculiar People 🙂 .)

    4) I take issue with use of Begley’s metaphor: a) our “assimilation” may indeed be a veneer, but rather than cracking like a coat of cheap plaster I see it being a insulative rubber coating stretched too thin by the increasing distance between Gentile and Mormon; b) rather than our miasma seeping through the cracks, it’s the outside miasma seeping in; and c) I, for one, would welcome a little bit of linguistic alienation (my ears could use a vacation from the now inescapable f-bomb).

  16. .

    The Thayers and Jorgensens and Bennions are awesome, but they don’t engage with new writing or the new generation. Whether they are cracks or not, new light must shine through. We can’t coast on old light. And new light may be in new colors. So it goes.

    (First draft of my new essay on MoLit Red Shift.)

  17. Thanks for adding some perspective, Angela. I know that there is often frustration on the part of those who spend a lot of time volunteering for the AML because there seem to be a lot of voices who have ideas but don’t want to step up and help out. As I have tried to explain over the years, such frustration is warranted, but also symptomatic of failures in organizational communication and vision and flexibility in how help is provided. Many organizations are struggling to adapt to the changes that the internet have brought about; many are also thriving because of how they are able to harness those changes.

    Lee: excellent points. The one thing I would add is that the consonance with 1950s America also included major changes in the Mormon way of life (dropping polygamy, embracing secular higher education, outmigration). The 1950s heterosexual, nuclear family, middle-class, single family home-focused ideal took movement on both the part of American and Mormon society.

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