Report on the Nephi Anderson 2013 SASS Panel

Muscular Anderson
Anderson studies gaining strength and vigor.

In July 1915–nearly one hundred years ago–Nephi Anderson traveled to San Francisco to attend meetings at the International Congress of Genealogy held in connection with the Pan-American and Pacific International Exposition. While there, he also attended the exposition’s Utah Day celebration and spent three days seeing the sights.  Overall, he writes in his journal, he “had a splendid time.”

He was back in San Francisco five years later, vacationing and conducting some Church business. He stayed at mission headquarters on Hayes Street, where he had Thanksgiving dinner, and attended meetings in Berkeley and Oakland.

The house where Anderson stayed during this second visit (1649 Hayes Street) still stands, although it is now the Emmanuel Church of God in Christ rather than an LDS mission headquarters. I had the opportunity to drive past it last weekend when I was in San Francisco to talk about Anderson at the annual meeting for the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies. It’s in a busy neighborhood just north of Golden Gate Park, so I couldn’t find a place to park nearby. I was able to snap two pictures of it, though, before San Francisco’s traffic nudged me along.

Nephi Anderson slept here.

In many ways, Anderson’s history with San Francisco is unremarkable. He was never more than a temporary resident of the city–a vacationer, a passer-through–and what he saw and thought of the city is mostly a matter of conjecture. (As a journal and letter writer, Anderson was an ardent minimalist!) Still, when Sarah Reed, Eric Jepson, and I met last Saturday at the SASS meeting to present papers on his life and work, the fact that he had been to the city and left a brief record of his visit seemed to add to the occasion. As Theric pointed out in his presentation, Anderson’s visits to the city remind us that he was not a provincial writer, holed up behind the mountains of Utah and indifferent to the world beyond Mormonism, but a man who traveled throughout the United States and Europe and became well-acquainted with the important issues and ideas of his day. In fact, it was from this perspective–Anderson as a man of his times–that each of us seemed to approach his work.


Sarah Reed

As I mentioned in a recent post on Dawning of a Brighter Day, our experience at SASS was the culmination of almost a year’s worth of online discussions (via blogs and email), preparation, and study about Anderson. Last August, I came in contact with Sarah, a German studies scholar at the University of Wisconsin, after she commented on a post I wrote about Anderson’s novel The Castle Builder. Before that, Theric and I had also been exchanging emails about Anderson, mostly in connection with his efforts to publish a new edition of Anderson’s Dorian. When Sarah mentioned the possibility of proposing an Anderson panel for the upcoming SASS conference in San Francisco–practically in Theric’s backyard–it seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring us all together.

The conference itself was massive, devoting three days to panels covering a full range of topics within the field of Scandinavian studies. Our panel landed on the last day of the conference, right after lunch, when several other panels–including a popular authors’ roundtable discussion–were in session. All of us, I think, tried to keep our attendance expectations small. I was hoping for maybe seven or eight attendees. Low-balling it, of course.

Scott Hales

In the end, we had two–one of whom was my wife. (Thanks, dear!)

Even so: I think the panel was a success. As the attendee-who-wasn’t-my-wife noted, the panel marked the first time in SASS history when a session was devoted specifically to a Mormon subject. Furthermore, I think it was the first time anywhere that a panel was organized specifically around Anderson and his work. When we finished, I think we all had the sense that something important had happened–despite the low attendance.

Our conference proposals are already posted elsewhere (here and here), so I won’t go into too much detail about the content of our individual talks. (I also regret that in my excitement for the occasion, I took lousy notes!) Sarah spoke first on Anderson’s Scandinavian heritage and its influence on his works. She spoke specifically about the Norway novels–Added Upon, The Castle Builder, and A Daughter of the North–and the way they tie together the various threads of Anderson’s Americanism, Mormonism, and Scandinavianism. (Among other things, Sarah’s presentation reminded me of how broadly Anderson understood Mormonism. For him, it had the potential to encompass–and redeem–all truths, all nations, and all tongues.) I spoke next on masculinity in Anderson’s novels The Castle Builder, Romance of a Missionary, John St. John, and Dorian. My basic premise was that Anderson’s masculinity was largely a response to anti-Mormon novels, but was also heavily influenced by contemporary church teachings and a broader national crisis of masculinity. Theric then closed the session with a presentation on Anderson and assimilation, noting that Anderson’s home literature helped to ease Mormonism’s assimilation into the “mainstream”–thus setting the stage, ironically, for its later obscurity among Mormon readers today, whose assimilation makes them more likely to read something published in New York rather than Salt Lake City.

Eric W. Jepson

Afterwards, during the question and answer portion of the session, we had the chance to revisit a few themes. Most of the questions focused on Anderson’s Norwegian identity and politics and how that comes through in his work. We also talked about the enormous influence of Added Upon on several generations of Latter-day Saints and its success as “artistic preaching.” If anything came out of that discussion, though, it was the realization that Anderson offers a wealth of possibilities for scholars. Our hour-and-a-half panel only scratched the surface of what can be said about the man and his work.

This formal discussion, of course, carried over into a more informal discussion. At the end of the session, Sarah, Theric, my wife, and I crossed the street to Portsmouth Square in Chinatown to talk about Mormon literature, blogging, books, and Anderson. As the spot–the very spot?–where Samuel Brannan’s Brooklyn Saints first held their Sunday meetings in 1846, the setting seemed appropriate enough–despite the ratty-looking pigeons that were everywhere. Again, we kept coming back to the theme that Anderson is one of the great unappreciated minds of the Church. If anyone’s reputation deserves to be revitalized, it is his.

We also kept returning to the theme of Mormon literary studies and our frustrations for how it is often overlooked in discussions about Mormon studies, and also deserve–in our humble opinions–a revitalized reputation.

This, of course, will not happen on its own. If we want to raise awareness about Mormon literature and the viability of Mormon literary studies, we need to keep the conversation going and bring it to prominent venues–conferences, scholarly journals, big-name blogs–where others can take notice and join in. This is the only way Mormon literary scholarship will have a prominent place in the Mormon studies family. We must make it too big and too important to ignore or dismiss as simply an “AML thing.”

That means we have a lot of work and a lot of recruiting to do. Mormon literary studies is a small field right now, but it is slowly growing and possibly even building some momentum. On our trip home, I told my wife that I hope to see an entire conference dedicated to Anderson by the time I’m sixty. That will be in the year 2040, twenty-seven years from now. 

Plenty of time to get the ball rolling, right?

Eric W. Jepson, Sarah Reed, and Scott Hales at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies

Also, I didn’t get to use my Prezi at the conference, so I’m including it here. Enjoy!


19 thoughts on “Report on the Nephi Anderson 2013 SASS Panel”

  1. .

    I think that’s an excellent goal. In fact, with a few well placed in academia, I think it could be done in half the time.

  2. Any chance we can read the text of the presentations? I assume I can get the gist of most of Scott’s from the prezi file. What about the others?

  3. I was impressed that as far as I could tell, everyone there had read something by him. I think that helped the success of the panel, since everyone in the room had a knowledge of and interest in Anderson. Even Sjavik (who could have taken serious issue with my thesis, from what I can tell of his cv) was so enthusiastic about everything I felt bad that I/we didn’t have a ready answer for him about Norwegian/Norwegian-American/Mormon politics. We’ll just have to invite him to the future Anderson conference!

  4. .

    I can throw mine up somewhere as well, though it’s not properly cited . . . .

    And, James, I had the same thought when I saw the photo a littler bigger on Facebook. Either something terrifying is about to swoop down on us, or I’m nearly fully mad.

  5. Hey! I found this link through the pingback from Unusual Excitement. First, I’m glad you found Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association’s blog! Second, I’m glad you brought up the question of Mormon literature in Mormon Studies. You might be pleased to note that Patrick Mason has his Intro to Mormonism class here (for non-Mormons, of course) reading Ryan McIlvain’s “Elders” as a part of the course. I myself think that fiction is incredibly important, and contrasted Nephi Anderson’s depiction of Satan’s Plan with the one found in US Representative Chris Stewart (R-UT)’s novel “The Brothers” in one of my papers. If you’d have any suggestions on how to incorporate Mormon letters into Mormons Studies, we’d love to hear it! And you might be able to get a guest post at Unusual Excitement about it, too, if you’d like!

  6. Hi Scott, Sarah, Eric,

    Kudos to you all for putting in the effort to make this happen! You’re right, this is the sort of thing we need to have more of — and the only way it will happen is through the effort of individual Mormon scholars, both affiliated and independent.

    I’m beginning to think that what we need is a grand database of Mormon literary scholars: everyone who’s every written or presented on a Mormon literary topic, any Mormon who’s ever completed an advanced degree in a literature-related field, and anyone else who expresses an interest. Certainly contacts with all the places where Mormon studies are pursued. It would be an immense undertaking, but anything that could be done would be a step ahead of where we are at present.

  7. I also think that that would be awesome.

    Personally, though, I would really just like to see more people who work with Mormon literature showing up on AMV and the AML blog. I don’t think there are many people, like me and others already, whose primary focus is Mormon literature. However, I think there are a healthy number of Mormon studies scholars, like Michael, who bring Mormon lit into their studies. I’d like to hear more from them here–either as commenters or guest posters. I’d also like to see more undergraduates here who may be thinking of making Mormon literature a primary focus of their future independent or academic scholarship.

  8. Agreed (with Scott’s most recent comment). However, I also think that conversations generate interest. The people I’m most interested in reeling in are those who, with the encouragement of an active community, might be lured into writing and thinking more about Mormon literature than they do presently.

  9. As one of Nephi Anderson’s grandchildren, I am fascinated by your study of his literature. Just happened upon this blog as I was searching for an image of Nephi (from the Book of Mormon) – and a bit surprised to see my father’s father flexing his muscles. I never knew my grandfather, but it is satisfying to know there are those who still study his writings. Sadly, the links to your conference theme are not active. I’d love to have any notes you still have, and would be happy to answer any questions I can regarding the man and author.
    Thank you for your thoughtful study.

  10. .

    At the very least, the link in the comment just above yours works, and the best new scholarship is available here:

    Be sure it the Peculiar Pages edition. Amazon can get mixed up.

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