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.

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Thoughts on Judith Freeman’s Red Water

For the past two weeks I have been immersing myself in recent novels about the Mountain Meadows Massacre (including AMV contributor Sarah Dunster’s novel Lightning Tree) with a plan to turn my studies into a dissertation chapter on the Mormon historical novel. Last week I revisited Judith Freeman’s 2002 novel Red Water, which treats the aftermath and legacy of Mountain Meadows through the eyes of three of John D. Lee‘s wives. When I’d first read the book five years ago, I came away with a poor opinion of it. Having now reread it, though, I find that my opinion of it has changed.

Here are a few of my thoughts on the book:

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Questions for Margaret Blair Young

Salvador-202x300Recently, I sent Association for Mormon Letters President Margaret Blair Young a list of questions about her current projects with Darius Gray–a revision of their Standing on the Promises novel series and the feature film The Heart of Africaas well as her own work as a creative writer and AML president. Kindly, Margaret took time away from her busy schedule to answer them for me. 

I’ve split the Q&A into two parts. Answers to the questions relating to Standing on the Promises and The Heart of Africa will be featured on Modern Mormon Men sometime soon. Below are her answers to my questions about her earlier work, AML, and future projects.

NOTE: I plan to post the Q&A in its entirety on The Low-Tech World as soon as Modern Mormon Men runs the remainder of it.

Throughout your career as a writer, you’ve seemed to gravitate towards stories about marginalization within Mormon communities. For example, in your novel Salvador, your protagonist is a divorced Mormon woman who visits relatives who operate a fringe Mormon commune in Central America. Heresies of Nature centers around a character who has been severely debilitated by multiple sclerosis. What draws you to these stories? Why do Mormons need them?

What drew me to write Salvador?  My life.  You’d be surprised at how much of that is autobiographical.  Heresies of Nature?  My sister-in-law died of M.S.  I turned that novel into a play, and my sister passed away on opening night.  It was a remarkable experience for all of us.  My husband had already written a tribute to his sister on the playbill, so every audience member received that.  Cast members attended Nancy’s funeral, and Nancy’s nurses attended the play.  But obviously, I believe in dealing with hard issues.  If we don’t learn to deal with them, we will almost certainly lack empathy when others are hitting them.  We need to train our minds and magnify our faith as our children grow in this internet age.  They will come to us with questions to bridge what they learn in Sunday school and what they read online.  Our answers will need to reflect our knowledge and the example of who we are in this age and place of Mormonism; what we cling to as our essential and inviolate morality.  This is a dynamic religion.  We may still stand in holy places, even while acknowledging that many in the past became detached from their “better angels.”

Can you trace the DNA of your work as a fiction writer? Who has informed your work the most intellectually, stylistically?

My first influences were the classics, Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov being my first teachers.  And they were teachers.  I took Melville’s book with me to Guatemala and read it three times without anyone guiding me.The Brothers Karamazov was the first book I fell in love with.  It transformed me into a reader.  Before reading that, I cheated.  I read Cliff Notes.  Stylistically?  I read a lot of James Joyce, Alice Munro, Faulkner.  When I turned to Black history fifteen years ago, I read history books.  Seems like hundreds.  I find I’m actually more at home with historians now than I am with fiction writers.  A really good short story feels like dessert to me.

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Some Reflections on the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities Conference

As I mentioned in my last post, I was a presenter this year at the annual Mormon Scholars in the Humanities Conference in Provo, Utah. My talk, “The Role of the Novel in Post-Utopian Mormonism,” was scheduled first thing in the morning on the first day of the conference, but it had a decent turnout–despite the room temperature being at near-sauna levels. The other presentations on the panel, which was chaired by Bruce Jorgensen, were David Paxman’s “The Plan of Salvation: Why the Angels Rebelled” and Benjamin Crosby’s “Canonical Kairos: Demystifying the Conditions for Creation of Mormon Scripture.” Both were excellent, and we had an hour-long (or nearly hour-long) discussion following the three presentations. In many ways, I think Ben’s presentation, which drew on Covino’s distinction between generative and arresting magic-rhetoric to talk about the ways discourse works within the Church and on its member, provided a good foundation of ideas to guide the discussion.

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2013 Mormon Scholars in the Humanities Conference

Not to shamelessly self-promote, but…

This week I will be traveling to Provo to present at the annual Mormon Scholars in the Humanities Conference? at Brigham Young University. My presentation is entitled “The Role of the Novel in Post-Utopian Mormonism,” and it’s a very abridged version of some of the foundational claims of my doctoral dissertation. You can call it a theory of the Mormon novel, if you want to. Certainly, it is not the theory of the Mormon novel.

If you’re in Provo on March 15th (the Ides of March), swing by and hear me out. My presentation time is 9:30 in the morning, which–I admit–is kind of early and maybe inconvenient. We’ll be in WSC 3215. (That’s in “The Wilk,” right? My BYU codenames are a bit rusty.)

If you can’t make it, I’ve pasted my introduction and a link to my slideshow below. It should give you a sense of the course I plot…

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Dorian, Sectarians, and Nephi Anderson’s Careful Critique

There’s much to admire about Nephi Anderson and his work, but I have always been troubled by his (mis)treatment of other religious faiths–“sectarians” as he called them–in his novels. On the one hand, I understand that his unflattering representations of Protestants and Catholics in Marcus King, Mormon (1900), The Story of Chester Lawrence (1913), and The Romance of a Missionary (1919) were responses not only to the opposition he encountered during his three missions for the Church, but also to the anti-Mormonism that was rampant in the presses of his day. On the other hand, though, I find myself wishing that he extended more charity to those who disagreed with him theologically. So much of his work, after all, seeks to redeem and ennoble characters who have been either marginalized by cultural maladies–sexism, poverty, class prejudice–or oppressed by sin and guilt. Why couldn’t he do the same for the “sectarians”?

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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.