Some Reflections on the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities Conference

As I mentioned in my last post, I was a presenter this year at the annual Mormon Scholars in the Humanities Conference in Provo, Utah. My talk, “The Role of the Novel in Post-Utopian Mormonism,” was scheduled first thing in the morning on the first day of the conference, but it had a decent turnout–despite the room temperature being at near-sauna levels. The other presentations on the panel, which was chaired by Bruce Jorgensen, were David Paxman’s “The Plan of Salvation: Why the Angels Rebelled” and Benjamin Crosby’s “Canonical Kairos: Demystifying the Conditions for Creation of Mormon Scripture.” Both were excellent, and we had an hour-long (or nearly hour-long) discussion following the three presentations. In many ways, I think Ben’s presentation, which drew on Covino’s distinction between generative and arresting magic-rhetoric to talk about the ways discourse works within the Church and on its member, provided a good foundation of ideas to guide the discussion.

My contributions to the discussion focused mainly on the Mormon novel as a site where possibilities within Mormonism can be experimented on and developed. I also made a pitch for Nephi Anderson’s fiction based on David Paxman’s talk about the premortal life. It had never occurred to me before, but as I was listening to David talk about the rebellion in heaven and the nature of free agency (a major thread in the discussion), I realized that Nephi Anderson’s work can be read as Anderson’s efforts to satisfy his own mind on the matter of free agency–or, more specifically, the problematic possibility of one having no agency under Satan’s plan. I think this matter can be seen in his work beginning with his depiction of the War in Heaven in Added Upon to his handling of a character like Carlia in Dorian, whose exercise of agency–and her loss of agency–form the crux of the novel’s conflict. The discussion made me want to reread Anderson’s novels to look more deeply at what they say about agency. (In some ways, I think this is the best aspect of academic conferences: the way they get you to rethink your readings of familiar texts and challenge you to see them revisit them.)

Unfortunately, what I bring up here about the panel presentations and discussion hardly scratches the surface of what was said and speculated within the two hour time-frame. And my notes, I imagine, are incoherent to all but myself.

I can say this: one of the best parts about the panel, I thought, was the presence of some frequent Motley Vision commenteers in the audience, namely Kjerste “Katya” Christensen and James Goldberg (with his entourage of students and/or disciples). Both provided insightful questions and commentary during the discussion, which should surprise no one who regularly haunts this blog.

I attended two other sessions during the conference. Topics ranged from artistic representations of Heavenly Mother, to Hemingway’s Mormon connections, to Bruce Jorgensen’s explication of James Salter’s short story “Anknilo.” While no other presenter I saw talked about Mormon literary works, as we generally define them here on AMV, they did address doctrinal and cultural issues and questions that certainly have relevance to how we write and write about Mormon literature. Really, I wish all panels–most of which were concurrent with others–had been recorded so that I could go back and listen to and glean from them. I feel I missed a lot.    

Of course, I did get to speak individually with Steven Peck and Bruce Jorgensen about the Mormon novel and the direction it and Mormon literary criticism are currently taking. Plus, there was the (first annual? second annual?) Mormon Literature Summit, held Saturday night (and technically into Sunday morning) in the Goldberg home, during which James, Nicole, Kjerste, and I talked at length about awkward temple trip romances, why James should not change his name to “Korihor,” and what can be done to keep the Mormon lit scene alive and vibrant. Like the panel discussion on Friday morning, we said more than can be recorded in a simple blog post, but what I took away from it, aside from well-drizzled cake and a copy of Melissa Leilani Larson’s Little Happy Secrets, is the fact that we need to find new ways to make Mormon literary texts physically more accessible to readers–so that those who write and study Mormon literature can know the tradition better, learn from it, and use it to enrich future texts.

I also took a way an appreciation for face-to-face conversations about Mormon literature–and about Mormon studies in general. I mean, debating as we do on blogs and social media is nice–and even highly conducive to recording and archiving the discussions–but it doesn’t compare to the spirit (lowercase) that comes when two or three (or more) enthusiasts are gathered together in formal and informal settings to talk about Mormon literature. How often does that kind of brainstorming happen in real-time?

For the time being, of course, I’m more than content with blogs and social media as the main and most convenient venue for discussions on Mormon literature. At the same time, I look forward to future conferences and future summits where these real-time conversations can happen.

11 thoughts on “Some Reflections on the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities Conference”

  1. Getting together with smart, insightful people to talk about literature while eating well-drizzled cake? This sounds like a Mormon utopia to me. I imagine it was at once both energizing and deeply soothing. Heaven.

  2. Wm–The Hemingway connection is a small one, but Ned Williams of BYU-Hawaii has been working on the connection as a side project since the late eighties. Hemingway apparently once joked with Gary Cooper about wanting to be born again as a Mormon. He also spent the final years of his life in the “Mormon Country” of central Idaho and had a few Mormon acquaintances. (Plus, his temple work has been done a few times.) It was an interesting paper.

    Luisa–It was a nice time. Wish you could have been there with us.

    Th.–We’ll have to have our own MoLit Summit when I come to Berkeley for the SASS conference in May.

    SteveP–That reminds me: I promised to send you my paper. I’ll try to do that before the sun sets…

  3. “Ain’t this Mormon country wonderful!” Cooper said. “They know how to live.”
    “I’m practically one myself,” Earnest said. “Had four wives, didn’t I?” He took a sip of wine. “To tell the truth , if I were reborn and I had a chance, I’d be a Mormon.”

    A.E. Hotchner, PAPA HEMINGWAY. Random House, NY, 1966. Chapter 11, “Ketchum 1958,” pg 202.

  4. .

    Also, although the family wasn’t Mormon at the time, Hemingway was instrumental in bringing Ric Estrada to America.

  5. Thanks for the report Scott! I wish I could have got enough time off work to have been there as well. I was only as far as Salt Lake City!

    Anyhow, fascinating stuff. I think, if nothing else (and I’m not trying to be offensive), Mormon literature should thrive on the foundation of theological/religious self-exploration for creative minds throughout our church. Let the intellects of the church find expression and space for such goodness is my mantra.

  6. . . . despite the room temperature being at near-sauna levels.

    I thought it was just me!

    Regardless, it was a pleasure to meet both of you. I’m just glad to have moved to a place where MoLit people often come to town, if they don’t already live nearby. (And I think I would still be friends with James even if he did change his name to Korihor.)

  7. I’m OK with a Korihor James as well as long as the students in his entourage are students and not disciples. A Korihor with students is vastly different from a Korihor with disciples.

    In my opinion.

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