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.

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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.

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My Final Verdict on “A Roof Overhead”

aroEarlier this year, Mahonri Stewart’s play A Roof Overhead received mixed reviews (see here and here)  shortly after its April debut at Springville, Utah’s Little Brown Theater. While several people, including me, wrote favorably about the play, others found less to like about it. James Goldberg, for example, sharply criticized the play in a post for Dawning of a Brighter Day, citing its unsympathetic depiction of atheism and the way a certain scene “stretche[d] credulity past the breaking point.” According to James, Mahonri did “a poor job sketching the world” in the play and so “lost his informed audience in the process.”

Shortly after James’ post, Mahonri contacted me about helping him revise the play. After re-reading the script, I sent Mahonri some suggestions, which he reviewed and, in some instances, incorporated into his new draft. In the end, I think Mahonri turned out a better play than the original. The new version was performed by Arizona State University’s Binary Theatre Company in October. After the final performance, Mahonri sent me a link to a YouTube video of the new production. Here are my thoughts on it.

First, I think A Roof Overhead is a solid first attempt at contemporary Mormon drama. Mahonri’s other work is largely based in the nineteenth century or in some sort of mythical alternate reality, so his incursion into the sordid milieu of modernity is new ground for him. Overall, I think the play captures accurately the situation of some Mormons and some atheists. As I have argued since April, A Roof Overhead works best when you think of its characters as representative types rather than flesh-and-blood individuals. What they stand for is what matters. Who they are is what makes the cultural exchanges at the heart of the play work.

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Twilight and the CleanFlicks Aesthetic

NOTE: This is a paper I presented at a conference to a largely non-Mormon audience a few years ago (April 2010 to be precise). Since the final Twilight movie hit theaters this morning at midnight, I thought it might be worthwhile to dust off this paper and present it for your review. Overall, I like the basic idea of the paper, although I think certain ideas and distinctions need to be further developed and drawn.

Vampire stories, argues William Patrick Day, are supposed to “viscerally [excite] us with primal, forbidden, terrifying images and scenes of flesh and blood, fangs and stakes, violence and death” (5). Yet, if this is true, why is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga so devoid of such “terrifying images and scenes”? Already, much has been written about the “erotics of abstinence” in the Twilight novels, or their lack of explicit sex–premarital or otherwise (Grossman). Less has been said, however, about how these vampire stories flout the conventions of the vampire genre by avoiding bloody, violent spectacles.

Indeed, one of the earliest reviews of Twilight–a brief write-up in Publishers Weekly–points out that the “novel’s only weakness” is a “rushed denouement” that mostly “takes place offstage” (207). In the climactic scene, Bella is in danger. James, a bad vampire who has become fixated on her blood, lures her to a dance studio where he plans to slake his thirst. The suspense builds as James, true to his nemesis role, monologues about his skills as a tracker, his desire for Bella’s blood, and his disdain for the Cullens, Bella’s good, “vegetarian” vampire friends. Using his super vampire strength, James throws Bella against a wall of mirrors, breaks her legs, and cuts a gash along her forehead. The situation looks bad for Bella:

His eyes, merely intent before, now burned with an uncontrollable need. The blood–spreading crimson across my white shirt, pooling rapidly on the floor–was driving him mad with thirst. (450)

James strikes at her, bites her on the hand, and Bella–our first-person narrator–passes out.

And that’s all we get.

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19th Century Mormon Utopian Literature

aBlakeJacob's Ladder 1799-07Since reading Added Upon and writing about it in my dissertation, I’ve wanted to compile a list of works of nineteenth-century Mormon utopian literature, or works that describe or yearn for an ideal society or which advocate for action that would lead to such. I realize, though, that compiling such a list is almost a fool’s errand since so much of early Mormon literature–and I consider hymns literature–has to do with building Zion and the Millennium, the ultimate utopian dreams.

Even so, a few months ago, I spent an afternoon and came up with this list. It is incomplete, of course, and will likely remain so until I get serious about it. What I’d like to do in the meantime, though, is open it up to you who know nineteenth-century Mormon literature better than I do (my interest in it is about two years old) and ask if I’m missing anything crucial. Specifically, I’m looking for works of fiction or “proto-fiction” (allegories, fables, parables, etc.) that could be reasonably labeled “utopian” or even “millennialist.” I’m interested in poetry too if its utopian expression is out of the ordinary.

My thought, however, is that what I have below is fairly representative of what’s out there. Am I right?

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Nephi Anderson, WWI, and the Curse of Sexual Sin

If you read Nephi Anderson’s fiction for its aesthetic value, as the Mormon critics of the 1960s and 70s did, you’ll likely be disappointed–unless your aesthetic standards allow for “preachiness,” that catch-all term commonly used when describing Mormon fiction’s apparent tendency to use art as a vehicle for gospel teaching.

If you read his fiction as products of turn-of-the-century Mormon and American culture, however, you’ll likely have a more satisfying experience. Anderson, after all, was very much a man of his day–and keenly aware of the world around him. Rather than being an aesthetic failure, his work is a rich repository of responses to the cultural changes happening in Utah and the rest of the nation.

In fact, looking at Anderson’s work from this perspective helps us better understand some of his more problematic works, like his 1918 short story “Forfeits,” a second place winner in one of the monthly fiction contests the Improvement Era sponsored for a time. (If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can check it out here.)

In the story, a young man, Gale Thompson, returns to his Utah hometown nearly five years after “seek[ing] adventure and perchance fortune in the world” (519). By chance, Gale meets up with Dick Stevens, a friend who once accompanied him in his wanderings, who has since returned home and married Gale’s sister, Laura. During this reunion, it comes out that Dick and Laura’s child–an ambiguously sexed child that both men refer to only as “it”–was born blind because of a sexually transmitted disease Dick had contracted while he and Gale lived in Chicago and “dabble[d] in forbidden things” (521). The news sobers Gale, who fears that he may still carry the disease–even though a quack city doctor once pronounced him cured. His joyful return is over in an instant:

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