Note: this is post three of an ongoing series on the Mormon literaturstreit.
A year after Bruce Jorgensen responded to Richard Cracroft’s criticism of the poetry collection Harvest in an Association for Mormon Letters (AML) presidential address, Cracroft responded to the response in his AML presidential address. [1. Quite convenient that they were elected AML president in successive years.] In my previous post, I asked: “Can Cracroft come up with a better definition/critical approach for Mormon literature?”
Not exactly. But he is forced to explain in more details what he means, which furthers the conversation. He begins by pulling out a key line from Jorgensen’s address–“Essentialism is the problem”–and saying, essentially, “Nuh-uh! We’re the problem”. He writes:
In my review of Harvest, I assert that which is apparent to any right-thinking, red-blooded, and sanctified Latter-day Saint who reads the poems sequentially, attentively, and–big gulp here–spiritually and essentially, that a surprisingly large number of the poems written by Mormon poets and included in the “New Direction” section of Harvest selected by Dennis Clark are skillfully executed poems grounded in the “earth-bound humanism” (Cracroft 1990, 122) of our contemporary secular society, but reflecting little or no essential Mormonism. It seems to me, as I state in my review, that such poems, mislabeled Mormon, lack, ignore, repress, or replace the Mormon “essence” so essential to distinguishing a work of Mormon letters from a work that is merely Western or American or Protestant or Jewish.
These two sentences summarize the entire approach of the address/essay, which puts the responsibility for deciding what is Mormon in the hands of the (some? certain?) Mormon people and then shows how literary critics don’t really count as the Mormon people because they (we) are tainted by secular humanism. That’s a blunt way of putting it, but Cracroft lays it all out rather bluntly and, in some sections, cleverly. Note, for example, how he uses the language of social justice in his appeal to essentialism. The poems aren’t just not Mormon–they “lack, ignore, repress, or replace the Mormon “‘essence'”. But also note how the reasoning is ultimately circular: works of literature are Mormon because they have a Mormon essence, which is the same as saying that they are Mormon because they are Mormon.
Cracroft develops his argument in four parts. In part I, he describes his view of the Mormon critic; in part II, he describes the Mormon audience; and in part III, he uses Hugh Nibley’s term of the Mantic vs. the Sophic to show how the two worldviews are in opposition to each other; and in part IV he provides a list of works that are demanding criticism from “Faithful Critics”. I’ll deal with part I in this post and move on to the others in subsequent posts.
We’ve already seen Cracroft position the Mormon critic against the Mormon reader in the quote above–the Mormon reader who is “right-thinking, red-blooded, and sanctified”. The Mormon critic, however, is tainted by the world. Cracroft does acknowledge:
Most of us who devoutly study Mormon literature are Latter-day Saints of some variety–garden, hybrid, or noxious weed. More or less, we share a love for the Mormon Idea, for Mormon doctrine; we see the world Mormonly; or we love the Mormon ethos–its tradition and culture and history; or, at very least, we are curious about what happens when Things Mormon hit a fan called Things Non-Mormon, Things Worldly.
The metaphor there isn’t the most flattering (noxious weed?) but at least he suggests that those Mormon critics are still part of the garden. It’s a nod to the idea of inclusivity, which was the main thrust of Jorgensen’s speech. What he perceives, though, is that we all still have this stumbling block of skepticism, and, more importantly, a willingness to privilege that skepticism over our Mormon-ness. And where does that skepticism come from? University training, of course, and the isms that come with it:
Then, having absorbed the world and all of its attractive graces and having replaced the spiritual authority figures of our youth with new-found Sophic authorities, we sally to our separate Zions in the tops of the mountains, flourishing newly won and brightly burnished “objectivity,” a quiver-full of tyrannical and dogmatic literary ideologies, bristling with a wonderful array of arcane critical tools, and a helmet brimming with ardent appreciation for those who profess the gospels of immoralism, atheism, nihilism, negativism, perversity, rebelliousness, doubt, disbelief, and disorder. With a world view fraught with what Thomas Mann has called a “sympathy for the abyss,” we survey the field, full of troops ill-equipped with Urims and Thummims, Liahonas, and the Peepstones of Faith, we strap on the breastplate of humanism and lower our lances of Marxism, Deconstructionism, Post-Structuralism, Feminism, or Reformed New Criticism and boot-up our computers in the cause of Mormon letters–sans its so-called (shudder) essences.
This type of rhetoric, along with the bugaboos of -isms, may seem old-fashioned to the modern reader. But remember that this speech is taking place in 1992, the culture wars (in belated fashion as usual) were raging in Utah, especially at BYU. A year later the September Six excommunications would happen, and the BYU English department (which at this time the AML centered around [2. Ahem.]) would be torn apart. This essay, then, is much more reactionary than it reads today. Because to be honest, it reads a bit silly now. On the other hand, I admire the fiery, sly rhetoric. And I don’t think that he’s wholly wrong: I experienced vestiges of (non-Mormon) one-note-ism ideologues in grad school just six years later. Talk about essentializing.
What I think Cracroft misses here, though, is that Mormonism is tainted with a whole host of other -isms. This is a theme I will get back to, but to put it bluntly: we’re all hybrids, literary critics or not. Add to the list: libertarianism, consumerism, conservatism, liberalism, dogmatism, athleticism, middlebrowism, self-help-ism, scientism, anti-scientism, so on and so forth, name your poison. This doesn’t mean that some aren’t more infected than others or that some -isms aren’t more problematic than others. It does mean, though, that as, Jorgensen, noted essentializing is problematic (although so is the inability to take some stabs at defining audiences and boundaries brought on by a fear of being accused of essentialism).
It also ignores that Mormonism can be in productive dialogue with other -isms. Syncretism [3. Syncretism is the attempt to meld various beliefs and faith practices together.] may not be workable, considering Mormonism’s relationship with (or rather the continuing presence of) the LDS Church, which provides a set of (sometimes a bit fuzzy) institutional boundaries, but eclecticism [4. Eclecticism is the use of methods/ideas from various socio-cultural schools/strains of thought/critical lens without committing to the whole of the project.] certainly is. And I would argue that it’s impossible to do literary criticism without engaging in eclecticism. Cracroft isn’t identifying here what’s wrong with Mormon critics so much as what’s wrong with bad [5. Clumsy is probably a better adjective. I don’t wish to impute motive so much as execution.] literary critics.
Next: the problem of the Mormon audience