Mormon literaturstreit: the response to the response, I

Wm discusses the first section in Richard Cracroft’s AML presidential address responding to Bruce Jorgensen’s critique of Cracroft’s criticism of the poetry anthology Harvest.

Note: this is post three of an ongoing series on the Mormon literaturstreit.

Part I: opening salvo
Part II: the response

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

10 thoughts on “Mormon literaturstreit: the response to the response, I”

  1. .

    The early 90s at BYU are such a mysterious and confusing era. I’m glad I wasn’t there, but I keep seeing echoes of that period which make me wonder if I shouldn’t engage in some deeper research.

    In the meantime, I think even official Church organs are getting better at recognizing our essentially hybrid nature. The I’m-a-Mormon campaign isn’t just for outsiders—it also serves to remind insiders that MY brand of hybridism is not superior (or more correlated) than YOUR version of hybridism.

  2. I had an interesting conversation with Jorgensen at the MSH conference about Cracroft’s notion of essences. A point he raised, which I had never considered before, was that this approach to defining Mormon literature as a reflection of a single, definable Mormon essence, precluded the possibility of a Mormon novel–insofar as the novel is a genre that is dialogic by nature. For a Mormon novel to be a Mormon novel, it would have to engage and reflect a variety of -isms.

    Admittedly, I really liked Cracroft’s notion of “essences” when I first read it as an undergraduate at BYU, because it speaks, I think, to my desire to find and champion something unique about the Mormon voice. But the more I read Mormon literature, and especially the more I write about it, the more difficult it is for me to pin down what is “essential” or “mantic” and what is “sophic.” I no longer have a desire to so. I prefer a cacophony of voices in literary texts, and I think Mormon literature–particularly Mormon novels–ought to cultivate more cacophony.

  3. This is a really interesting series, William.

    As some one who didn’t even go to BYU, I find the kind of politics and battles that go on there to be equally fascinating and frustrating to read about.

  4. .


    Can you explain what you mean by “mantic” here? I think it’s a usage I’m unfamiliar with.

  5. From Cracroft’s Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature.

    “Positing the reality of other worlds, the Mantic world view, based in the Greek word for inspired, prophetic, or oracular, is simply “vertical supernaturalism” (Wright, 55). Manticism is not mysticism, but “the belief in the real and present operation of divine gifts by which one receives constant guidance from the other world” (Nibley, 316). The “sophic world view of horizontal naturalism,” on the other hand, confines all realities to the natural order (Wright, 51), is “necessarily antireligious,” critical, objective, naturalistic, scientific, and horizontal in attitude. And though the Sophic has as its purpose “the elimination of the supernatural or superhuman” (Nibley, 383), it can only be understood in relationship to the Mantic, believing tradition against which it is reacting.”

    LEE NOTE: both the Cracroft and the Jorgensen addresses are available online, as well as Gideon Burton’s take on the two sides (links given at the top of the url posted above). See also Hugh Nibley’s “Three Shrines: Mantic, Sophic, and Sophistic” in THE ANCIENT STATE: RULERS AND RULED (COLLECTED WORKS OF HUGH NIBLEY VOL. 10) which was the origin point of Cracroft’s “Mantic” theory of Mormon Letters.

  6. We’ll get there. That excerpt Lee posted is from section III of Cracroft’s address (which is linked to in my original post, although I didn’t mention the full title of it, which I probably should have).

  7. What Lee said…

    I looked at my comment and realized that the way I wrote it seems to suggest that essential and mantic are interchangeable. That was bad writing on my part. I meant to say “essential” or “mantic” or “sophic.”

    My bad.

  8. I’m sympathetic to Cracroft. I initially disagreed with him, and not just because my hackles get up whenever someone starts talking about sophic and mantic visions. I thought through why I disagreed with him and I realized its because in my gut I don’t think Mormon literature matters much. So defining it coherently or trying to get at its essence also doesn’t matter much. It would be like splitting your scrapbooking club because some people weren’t doing “real” scrapbooking.

    But Mormon literature ought to matter. Art, like liquor, should be 100 proof.

  9. And yet 100 proof is actually half-and-half — half alcohol, half something else.

    As someone who graduated from the BYU English Department in 1990 (and still had friends there in immediately subsequent years), it was both amazing and frustrating to me the degree to which people on both sides of the culture wars within the English department tended to align modernist approaches with gospel orthodoxy, and postmodern approaches to heresy or (at the least) unorthodoxy — and the degree to which they were blunt about stating it. They actually wound up diving the department because certain people absolutely could not work with others anymore.

    All of which seemed both silly and (again) frustrating to me. From my perspective, both approaches have areas of potential synchronicity with the gospel, as well as areas of dissonance.

    Which is not to say that such conflicts existed between Cracroft and Jorgensen. Indeed, it’s my impression that the two were friendly with each other. Still, it’s part of the backdrop for this exchange.

    I have some more thoughts here, but it seems to me that they may relate more to Part III. So I’ll hold onto them for now…

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