Mormons and the Fiction (and Poetry) of E Pluribus Unum

This summer I have another chance to teach a literature class rather than my usual course in freshman composition. This time around I’ll be teaching (in four short weeks) the second half of the American literature survey, which covers everything since 1900. Initially, I planned on assigning a number of novellas rather than an anthology, but my mind changed when I decided to focus the class on how the canon has been opened up over the past one hundred years to allow writers from a variety of backgrounds to participate in this thing we call “American Literature.” I’ll be calling the class “The Fiction (and Poetry) of E Pluribus Unum“ because I intend to focus on the way the canon has and has not embraced the beautiful and elusive American paradox of a unified community comprised of many–often discordant–voices. Plus, we’re going to be reading fiction and poetry. So there’s some wordplay there.

The text I plan to use is the second volume of the shorter eighth edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. The Norton anthology, in many ways, , making it an ideal text to use with my class. I haven’t selected reading assignments yet, but I expect that I’ll include some of my undergraduate favorites–Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”–as well as others that I’m unfamiliar with, but sound interesting–Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Lullaby,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Sexy,” Junot Díaz’s “Drown.” I’m also interested in other texts, like John Steinbeck’s “The Leader of the People,” which seems (tellingly) to have taken the place of “The Chrysanthemums” in the academic canon. I imagine these texts and the others will help us have some interesting discussions about the meaning of the E Pluribus Unum ideal. I especially hope to get them thinking about how and why we construct and reconstruct (a) canon(s). I also want to them to think about the voices that are still outside the canon.

For this reason, I’m planning on assigning three Mormon short stories and a few poems. Mormons, that is, will be our case study of a community of American writers who have not yet been given a place in today’s multi-cultural canon–even though their numbers are comparable to other communities–the Jewish and LGBTQ communities, for example–that are reasonably well-represented in the Norton anthology. My hope is that the Mormon works I bring in will spur a discussion not only about the ongoing “fiction” of E Pluribus Unum–the never-ending (and ultimately impossible?) task of bringing more voices to the table and truly being one from many–but also the limitations and ethics of the canon model itself. Should we even have a canon, after all, if its overriding structure demands that we value one voice over another?

Canon debates are always fun, and I wouldn’t be opposed to having one here on AMV, but before we do so, I want to solicit your help. As I said, I’m planning on using three Mormon short stories and several poems. Which do you recommend? My only stipulation is that they much be accessible free to students via online archives like those of Dialogue and Sunstone. I don’t want to make them purchase any more books than they have to. The Norton anthology is expensive enough.

In asking this question, of course, I am also asking us to create a kind of Mormon canon of short stories and poems–which means I’m asking you to include some works at the expense of others. Feel free to justify and defend your choices.

Five Questions for Terryl L. Givens

ViperOne of the perks of being review editor for Irreantum is receiving unexpected review copies in the mail. Some weeks ago, I opened the mailbox to find the new edition of Terryl L. Givens The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (Oxford University Press, 2013) waiting for me. If you’ve never had a chance to study this book, I highly recommend that you check it out. No student of Mormon literature should overlook it.

Earlier this week, Dr. Givens graciously agreed to answer five questions I had about the new edition of Viper and other matters related to Mormon studies. Here are his replies: 

What motivated the new edition of Viper on the Hearth? Was it simply the recent “Mormon Moment” or has more happened in the sixteen years since the book’s initial publication that necessitated a new edition?

Two factors led to the update. First, Viper was my first book and had a limited release. It was only available in a print-on-demand format that approached one hundred dollars. Obviously it wasn’t going to get any circulation at that price, so Oxford agreed to do a paperback. Second, it wasn’t just a matter of an additional 16 years of Mormon representations that needed filling in. A shift in the cultural winds had occurred, and Mormonism became interesting–or of interest–in new ways. One way to think about this is in terms of what I refer to as the 1893 devil’s compromise. At the Chicago World’s Fair, the Tabernacle Choir was given the silver medal, even as B. H. Roberts was denied a real forum and equal billing with other religions to present a discourse on Mormonism. The message was, you can sing and dance for us, but don’t ask us to take your theology seriously.  And in many ways, Mormonism signed on to that deal. For over a century, Mormons became to a large extent acceptable and increasingly respected–but not for their beliefs. The public face of Mormonism was more likely to be an Osmond, a Steve Young, or a David Archuleta, than a B. H. Roberts or Neal Maxwell. And Americans and Mormons alike were fine with that. But as Mormonism assumed a more prominent place American political life in the last two election cycles, the compromise frayed. When a Mormon threatened to win the highest political office in the land, bringing his Mormon beliefs with him, the old nineteenth-century canards returned with a vengeance. One sign of the breakdown of coherent discussion about Mormonism was evident in the frequent insistence that, like Kennedy in his Houston Ministerial Association speech, Romney should address his religious beliefs to reassure an anxious public. Sadly, few journalists or pundits seem to have actually read the Kennedy speech. For in it, he said emphatically that he would not address those concerns: He would not “state once again what kind of church I believe in–for that should be important only to me.” His message didn’t penetrate very lastingly.  In the Viper re-issue, I bring the story up to date by including those developments.

Continue reading “Five Questions for Terryl L. Givens”

Carry On: A Reminder of Black Beret Sunday

Marron bannerI’ve been a little quiet lately on AMV because of dissertation work, but I’ll be finishing Zane Grey’s surprisingly excellent (so far) anti-Mormon novel Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) sometime next week, and I expect to have a lot to say about it (and Ed Harris, for that matter).

Before tomorrow (2/3) comes, though, I want to remind everyone about Black Beret Sunday. Don’t forget to take this opportunity to raise awareness about Mormon Art and Literature by wearing a black beret, a maroon-colored item of clothing, and/or a cockroach pin. I know many people–including me–have certain reservations about the ethics and effectiveness of Sunday activism, but I am sure the following death threats I have receive will steel your nerves and lend conviction to your soul:

Continue reading “Carry On: A Reminder of Black Beret Sunday”

Theric Jepson Uncut: The Complete Byuck Interview


Yesterday Modern Mormon Men ran a shortened version of my interview with AMV’s own Theric Jepson about his new novel Byuck. The interview was too long for what I like to post on MMM, so I’m posting the interview in its entirety here.

Also, if you haven’t already done so, enter Modern Mormon Men’Byuck giveaway. They have five copies up for grabs, so your odds are good. The giveaway ends on January 25.

And now, the interview…  

Scott Hales: I think we ought to get this question out of the way first: How do you pronounce Byuck?

Theric Jepson: As for me, I rhyme it with yuck, but I don’t really feel it’s my job to tell people how to pronounce it. I’m the numbskull who gave my novel a ridiculous name. Now I must live with the consequences.

SH: What is the origin story of Byuck? If I understand correctly, you wrote Byuck a while ago, but shelved it after you were told that is was basically unpublishable? I that right?

TJ: I started Byuck as a play back in 1999. I had some problems developing it and shared what I had with one of my professors at BYU, Donlu Thayer. She liked what I had fine, but gave me some stellar advice. She told me I wasn’t ready to write this story yet, that I needed some distance. So I set it aside.

I picked it up again sometime after I graduated in 2002 (by which time I was also married). By 2004 I had a working rough draft which Fob (of The Fob Bible) helped me polish.

My original plan was to try and sell the book outside the Mormon ghetto, but I did have a weird history with Deseret Book, so I decided to try them first. Which is where the comedy started.

They liked the book but told me women won’t and since women are the only people who buy books they wouldn’t publish Byuck until I did some market research for them. (Really.) So I spent a year talking to women not related to me and who did not owe me money (Deseret’s stipulations) to read it and write responses. Those responses ranged from positive to very positive (except for the U of U alumna who accused me of writing BYU propaganda). I wrote up a massive report, sent it in, and received a form rejection letter. (Really.)

Continue reading “Theric Jepson Uncut: The Complete Byuck Interview”

Announcing “Wear a Black Beret to Church Day”

beretThe recent success of “Wear Pants to Church Day” has inspired me to take Mormon Sabbath Day activism to the next level, namely: Arts Activism!

As many of you know, Mormon art and literature  are terribly undervalued in our culture today. Too many Mormons believe that Mormon art and literature plateaued around the time of C.C.A. Christensen and Nephi Anderson and refuse to take arguments to the contrary seriously. Moreover, they actively speak out against true Mormon artistic creation, arguing that the production of a Mormon art and literature is a wastrel’s errand and an apostate’s pastime. Meanwhile, those of us engaged in said pastimes and errands are marginalized in our own communities. Rather than being called to decorating committees, or bulletin design callings, or roadshow revival directorships, we are sidelined to mundane, inartistic callings like Sunday school and Seminary teachers, Relief Society presidents, ward greeters, and secretaries in the Young Men and Young Women programs.

I think the time has come to raise more awareness of Mormon art and literature in our local congregations. Our fellow ward- and stake-members need to realize that we have read many, many books, written several short stories and novels, composed achingly beautiful poems, sculpted crushingly abstract sculptures, and mixed paint with blood and tears for the cause of Zion. Our contributions can no longer go unnoticed. We need to take a stand and let our artistic souls be heard.

The first Sunday in February–February 3, 2013–is Scout Sunday. I propose that we coopt Scout Sunday for “Wear a Black Beret to Church Day” to raise awareness about the marginalization of Mormon art and literature. As Mormon artists and literati, we owe it to future Saints–our children and grandchildren–to direct attention away from the paramilitary decadence of Scout Sunday and celebrate that which is creative and pure in all of us, i.e. Art.

Here’s what I propose:

1) If you are a Mormon artist (defined loosely), wear a black beret to Church. As we all know, the black beret is a universal symbol of the artist.

2) If you are not a Mormon artist, but sympathize with our cause, wear a maroon shirt, tie, skirt, scrunchie, or pair of socks. Again, as we all know, maroon is the color most closely associated with A Motley Vision and therefore (historically speaking) most closely associated with Mormon Art and Literature.

3) If you are not a Mormon artist, and do not own any maroon clothing, pin a plastic cockroach to your shirt front or dress. The cockroach, after all, symbolizes the analogies most Mormon philistines use to oppress Mormon artists and compromise our artistic output.

I encourage all of you to spread the word about this special day. Do not let our detractors stop you from speaking out in favor of Mormon Art. They may level death threats against us. They may call us modern-day Korihors or Radical Middlists. They may say all sorts of mean things about our loyalties in the premortal life. We cannot let them keep us down!

Remember, this is about the future. OUR FUTURE.

I hope to see everyone in their berets, maroon clothes, or cockroach pins on Scout”¦er”¦”Black Beret Sunday”!

Notes on Susa Young Gates’ John Stevens’ Courtship

Susa Young Gates

This week I finished Susa Young Gates’ John Stevens’ Courtship: A Story of the Echo Canyon War (1909), one of the first Mormon novels. Below are some notes I drew up to gather my thoughts on the book, which I think is fairly typical of the kinds of fiction Mormons were producing at the time. A few things set it apart, though, and I try to highlight those aspects in my observations.

  • As best as I can tell, John Stevens’ Courtship is the first novel published in book form by Susa Young Gates, one of Brigham Young’s many daughters. It might also be the first novel published in book form by a Mormon woman, but I could be wrong. Earlier novels by Mormon women had been published before 1909, in serial form, including Emmeline B. Wells’ Hephizibah (1889) in The Woman’s Exponent and Gates’ The Little Missionary (1899) in the Juvenile Instructor.
  • It is probably the best example we have of early Mormon historical fiction. It certainly uses Mormon history in a way that compliments the narrative better than either Nephi Anderson’s Marcus King, Mormon (which is superficially historical) or John St. John (which is textbook historical). I imagine Gates’ models are the works of Walter Scott, E.D.E.N. Southworth, and their imitators. Here, the action of her characters play out against the pageantry and crises of the Utah War in a way that does not sacrifice character and plot development to the facts of history. In other words, I feel Gates allows the events, atmosphere, and attitudes of the Utah War to unfold through her characters’ stories rather than through pedantic narration. Continue reading “Notes on Susa Young Gates’ John Stevens’ Courtship”

Thoughts on The Lonely Polygamist as Hysterical Realism

No discussion of the contemporary Mormon novel could happen today without some comment on Bady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, a nationally-published novel that looks at modern polygamy in Southern Utah. In many ways, The Lonely Polygamist is unlike other contemporary Mormon novels because it does not address contemporary mainstream Mormonism, but rather a fringe group that has no official ties to the Mormon Church. In fact, throughout the novel, the mainstream church is church is characterized as a monolithic sell-out denomination that lacks the authority and blessing of God. At the same time, however, Udall–who comes out of a mainstream tradition–does much to draw parallels between his polygamist sect and mainstream Mormons; in fact, I would argue that the novel itself uses polygamy as a way to exaggerate many of the cultural dilemmas within contemporary mainstream Mormon life: large families, the continuing legitimacy of patriarchy, interaction with non-Mormons, and the construction and definition of cultural boundaries and limitations.

At the same time, however, Udall situates these issues within the broader culture of post-war America. In fact, while Udall’s polygamists are mostly separate from their Southern Utah mainstream community–which itself is largely separate from the rest of America–they nevertheless cannot avoid the intrusion of something like American popular culture. Romance novels, for example, run rampant through the novel, primarily for the way they privilege and romanticize monogamous heterosexuality, but also how they construct and affirm traditional gender roles–which contrasts significantly to the way Udall’s polygamists live, providing even a form of escape for one wife, beset by depression, who consistently fails to find the promised meaning and blessing in her non-traditional marriage.

Continue reading “Thoughts on The Lonely Polygamist as Hysterical Realism”

The Anti-Mormon DNA of “Hinges”

A few Sundays ago, I was listening to some instrumental American folk music while my wife was in the room. The tune was “Sweet Betsy from Pike”–a song I had stumbled upon a few weeks earlier and taken a liking to. Since I’m not a music person, and feel pretty inadequate when it comes to talking about music, I’m not going to try describing it. If you’d like to hear it, take a listen.

At any rate, as I was listening to the song, my wife asked me why I was listening to “Hinges,” the classic Primary song about how we’re all made of”¦well”¦hinges.

“I’m not,” I said. “This is “˜Sweet Betsy from Pike.'”

Continue reading “The Anti-Mormon DNA of “Hinges””

Messiah Complex or Deacons Quorum President Power-Trip: A Review of Bradford Tice’s “Missionaries”

Earlier this week I gladly inherited a copy of The Best American Short Stories: 2008 from some some friends. As I scanned the table of contents, I noticed that Salman Rushdie, the year’s editor, had included a story called “Missionaries” by Bradford Tice. I wasn’t familiar with Tice, but the story sounded potentially Mormon, or at least religious, so I skipped ahead to investigate. Sure enough, the story was about two Mormon missionaries, Elder Case and Elder Joseph. Case and Joseph, by the way, are their first names. For some reason, they don’t use last names in this story.[1. But that’s a minor detail. Surely we can’t expect writers who are largely unfamiliar with Mormonism to catch a detail like that. Especially when they do us they favor of writing Mormon stories.]

The story is your average missionary story based on assumption and Wikipedia research. Case and Joseph are missionaries in Knoxville, and, as with so many missionary stories, one of them is disobedient (Case) while the other is not (Joseph). So, you can kind of guess where the story goes. They teach three people in the story–an old stoner (Claude), a senile black woman (Ida), and a young goth woman (Margo)–and during each visit Case uses his charm and salesmanship skill to rack up his baptism tally. Meanwhile, Joseph sits back and watches disapprovingly as Case smokes (first weed, then tobacco), lies, and has sex with the goth.

Continue reading “Messiah Complex or Deacons Quorum President Power-Trip: A Review of Bradford Tice’s “Missionaries””

Thoughts on Teaching and Mormon Assimilation

Since Kent’s post on a free online Mormon literature course, I’ve begun thinking about what Mormon texts I could use in a survey class on nineteenth-century American literature[1. Is a class solely on nineteenth-century Mormon literature too much to hope for?] and how I could justify their place on the syllabus.[2. The fact that I feel I need to justify their place is part of what this post is about.] In some cases, like the millenarian poetry of Parley P. Pratt and W. W. Phelps, I think I could easily place them with early American Protestant poems and hymns that express similar millennial longings. I could also find a place for poems by Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells among American women poets of the West, as critic Nina Baym has done in a recent work.

Nephi Anderson and other early Mormon fiction writers could also be worked into a syllabus. In some ways, after all, their fiction is not unlike the works of late nineteenth-century African American writers like Charles Chesnutt and Frances Harper, who also used the short story and novel forms to explore the problems and potentials of assimilation, social passing, and identity. At the same time, however, the works of Chesnutt and Harper have the advantage of belonging to a minority group whose basic narrative has already been well-incorporated into the broader American narrative. When teachers go to teach Iola LeRoy, that is, they don’t have to teach students from the ground up about racism, slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, racial stereotypes, and Jim Crow–the issues these text are responding to. They usually have high school and college history classes–not to mention the tireless efforts of social activists–to thank for at least some basic student knowledge about these issues.

Continue reading “Thoughts on Teaching and Mormon Assimilation”