Recently, I had the privilege of publishing a review of Steven Peck’s The Scholar of Moab and A Short Stay in Hell in the second issue of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s Mormon Studies Review. In the same issue, Michael Austin, a veteran of Mormon literary studies, published a piece entitled Among Mormon literary scholars, Austin is best known for his essay “The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time,” which he published as a doctoral student in the mid-1990s. At the time, Austin was writing in response to the Cracroft-Jorgensen debate of the early-1990s, and his essay sought to give critics a much-needed new way to think about and order the study of Mormon fiction. It was an important essay in the development of Mormon literary theory, and it remains a touchstone of our evolving understanding of the definition of Mormon literature.
Austin’s latest essay seems deliberately less-ambitious, representing an effort to update scholars outside the field on the state of Mormon literature and Mormon literary studies. While much of the first third of the essay reiterates information Eugene England established in his landmark 1995 essay “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects,” Austin also includes valuable information about the study of Mormonism in American literary history and literary studies of Mormon sacred texts, particularly the Book of Mormon. His analysis of these latter two fields is where this essay excels most. Having recently published Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem (Greg Kofford Books, 2014) and the essay collection Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on the Page, Stage, and Screen (Utah State UP, 2010), which he co-edited with Mark Decker, Austin writes from a deeply informed position and offers great insight for those who wish to begin work in these branches of Mormon literary studies.
Unfortunately, Austin’s reliance on England’s essay from almost twenty years ago, particularly its characterization of the four eras of Mormon literary development, makes the first part of the essay seem dated in its treatment and assessment of contemporary studies of Mormon literary arts and the field of Mormon literature itself. Like England, Austin dismisses the Home Literature era as not “very good,” overlooking recent studies done on blogs and in print on early Mormon poetry, Mormon women writers, and Nephi Anderson, including the forthcoming (this month?) critical edition of Anderson’s 1921 novel Dorian. Moreover, he caps the progress of Mormon literature off at “Faithful Realism,” suggesting that little has happened in Mormon literature since the 1990s. This causes him to characterize a writer like Steven Peck as a Faithful Realist, when Peck’s works, in my opinion, have very little in common with most writing in that category. It also has very little to say about new Mormon literary anthologies other than Angela Hallstrom’s anthology Dispensation, leaving out Tyler Chadwick’s poetry anthology Fire in the Pasture (2011), William Morris and Theric Jepson’s speculative fiction anthology Monsters and Mormons (2011), Mahonri Stewart’s drama anthology Saints on Stage (2013), and Jerry Argentsinger, Jeff Laver, and Johnny Townsend’s gay Mormon fiction anthology Latter-Gay Saints (2013), all of which have been published in the last five years and demonstrate the richness and variety of contemporary Mormon literature.
Austin, of course, rightly asserts that “the publication of scholarly work on Mormonism has declined since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s,” yet in saying as much he diminishes the importance of the critical work being done informally and semi-formally on Mormon literature blogs like A Motley Vision and Dawning of a Brighter Day, which have made it such that more is being written now about Mormon literature than was ever written about it in the 70s and 80s. Moreover, he overlooks the important critical essays and interviews that have been published in Dialogue, Sunstone, and Irreantum about Mormon literary texts. Notable among these have been the essays of Jack Harrell, which constitute some of the most important recent Mormon literary theory to be published in the last decade. Likewise, his omission of anything about Tyler Chadwick’s work on Mormon poetry–both online and in print–marks another unfortunate oversight in the essay, as was his omission of anything else happening in the world of Mormon poetry, where Mormon literature is perhaps most successful.
Perhaps my biggest issue with the essay, however, is Austin’s conclusion, which characterizes the field of Mormon literature as still dawning, still anticipating the brighter day that England and Orson F. Whitney imagined. (This idea is evident in the title as well.) Such a characterization, I think, focuses attention too much on what Mormon literature and literary studies are not–and not enough on what they are now. Austin writes:
Judged by other standards, however, the brightness [of Mormon literary successes] fades. Mormonism still has not produced any Miltons or Shakespeares, but this should not surprise us at all. Very few cultures, and very few times, produce world-shaking writers like these. And even Milton and Shakespeare were not “Milton and Shakespeare” until long after their own deaths. But Mormons have not even been very good about producing, or recognizing, their own Flannery O’Connors and Cynthia Ozicks–challenging but deeply spiritual writers who draw on the power of their religious traditions (Catholic and Jewish, respectively) to produce works of significant literary merit. (73, emphasis added)
Austin is right to cast Orson F. Whitney’s “Milton and Shakespeare” statement as impossible standards, but I think he is wrong to say that Mormonism has not produced any Flannery O’Connors or Cynthia Ozicks in its nearly two-hundred-year history. True, no Mormon fiction writers has achieved the fame of either of these writers, but that does not mean there are no “deeply spiritual [Mormon] writers” who have been able to “draw upon the power of their religious traditions” in any comparable way. Deeply spiritual Mormon writers, from Nephi Anderson and his contemporaries to the present, have been doing interesting and powerful things with Mormonism, and suggesting otherwise only feeds the notion that Mormons are still waiting on a literary messiah. Great things are happening right now in Mormon literature, and characterizing the field as ever-dawning gives an inaccurate picture of the field and slows the progress of Mormon literary studies, leading critics to believe that there is little still to study when already there is more than enough for generation of scholars to study, publish on, and teach.
Mormon literary studies, to be sure, have not yet been able to achieve the same kind of crossover success that Mormon history has had by publishing studies through Oxford University Press and other nationally-respected publishers. Austin makes this clear in his conclusion, and he is right. Yet, I know some Mormon literary critics, have published essays on Mormon literature in non-Mormon journals and my experience submitting to these journals is that they are always welcoming high quality work on Mormon literature. To date, no national press has published a work specifically focused on Mormon literary studies, but I don’t think that day is too far into the future. What we need now are scholars who want to work and write and publish in the field. Mormon literature has dawned and it’s begging for more scholars to play in its sunlight.