The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Radical

Previous Posts: Part I: Origins | Part II: The Middle 

So now that I’ve explored the origins of the term radical middle in relation to Mormon arts and culture, and teased out some of the issues related to the middle, it’s time to get radical. In the first post, I mentioned a radical movement in British Islam and noted the adjectives (creative, positive, revolutionary …) that were being used in describing this Radical Middle Way for Islam. What those adjectives indicate to me is that radical is meant to show that the middle is a dynamic place to be; it has energy; it’s in motion. It’s rising.

Now, radical is generally not the most welcome term among American Mormons. It smacks to much of the Left and/or of the political fringe. This is why it’s important to confine the term the radical middle to Mormon arts and culture and emphasize that there is room for artists, critics and readers with a multitude of political leanings (assuming, of course, that their politics isn’t the sole thing driving their artistic activity). Indeed, I think by pairing radical and middle and applying it to Mormon arts, England and anyone else who invokes the term is reinscribing its’ meaning, appropriating the adjective for our own use and changing it in the process. I’m a fan of such appropriation by an ethnic group/sub-culture. But what do we really mean by radical and how does it play out in Mormon arts and culture? The short answers are: nobody has really said much, and it doesn’t really. So unlike with the middle where I was able to explore it in depth in a descriptive way, I’m going to have to get speculative and prescriptive with the radical. But first…

Radical history and doctrine

Whatever our position in American society now (that is the tenuous semi-mainstreamed stability achieved through the embrace of the meritocracy and of alliance with conservative politics [allowing, of course, for the few liberals and crunchy cons and libertarians]), it must not be forgotten that we have radical roots. From the restorationist claims of Joseph Smith to the communitarian projects of Brigham Young, and, yes, the scandalousness of polygamy — whether you believe all that to be a concatenation of American (not forgetting the European streams of thought behind them) influences (with a touch of native genius) or the opening of the heavens and streaming of restored truths, the radical, as in the challenge to the status quo, roots of Mormonism run deep. And are the wellspring of latter-day Mormon art. Continue reading “The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Radical”

The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Middle

The middle is an appealing place to be albeit a difficult place to define and defend. And it brings with it its own dangers. By very definition it relies on other operative ideologies and is thus too often reactive. By inclination, as I mention in the first post, it tends to be wish-washy and self-conscious (or even anxiogenic), often producing thousands of words on what it isn’t or is, seeking to write itself a space, to carve out its outer limits and vigorously defend what falls in to that space. The following is not meant to be an exhaustive exploration of the middle, but is merely an attempt to define some important strands that are woven into the concept.

Between the poles

If we take our cues from England’s essay “Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left!,” the middle is the place between two poles of Mormon narrative art. In most specific terms, it is the works that fall between the two 1990s Mormon short story anthologies Turning Hearts: Short Stories on Family Life (Bookcraft) and In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon Fictions (Signature). It is represented by the works England selected for his own, earlier anthology Bright Angels & Familiars: Contemporary Mormon Stories (Signature). Now England does make some larger philosophical claims for what this middle is, in particular linking it to the idea of ethical fiction, but in terms of defining the middle, well, the middle is in between these two poles — between the right and the left. Continue reading “The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Middle”

The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: Origins

Several months ago Theric asked me to define the radical middle — this term that I and others at AMV have been throwing around. More recently, Association for Mormon Letters President Boyd Petersen invoked the same phrase in his inaugural post on The Dawning of a Brighter Day. I’m hesitant to write manifestos or get in to long drawn out debates over what counts or doesn’t (c.f. the what-counts-as-indie debates of the ’80s and ’90s), but if we’re going to use a label we should be willing to engage it and so I’m going to do just that in three posts over three days: origins, the middle and the radical.

It all starts with Eugene England

As far as I know, the first use of the term radical middle in relation to Mormon narrative art is in Eugene England’s Dialogue essay/review “Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left! The Ethics of Recent Mormon Fiction,” which was published in Fall 1999. Continue reading “The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: Origins”

Short Story Friday: Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left! by Eugene England

For today a departure from our normal reading — a piece of criticism rather than a short story. Read it and then go back and read one or two or three of the Short Story Friday stories you haven’t read yet.

Title: Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left! The Ethics of Recent Mormon Fiction

Author: Eugene England

Publication Info: Fall 1999 — Dialogue, Volume 32, Number 3

Submitted by: William Morris

Why?: 1. Because it’s the most significant piece of Mormon criticism published so far that focuses on short stories. 2. Because I think it gets at what I mean by the radical middle (but not entirely) 3. Because it has an hilarious title. 4. Because it’s criticism that actually dares to not only examine ethics but use specific examples! 5. Because it’s Eugene England.

Participate:

Submit to Short Story Friday

Possible online sources of stories and link to spreadsheet with current submissions

All Short Story Friday posts so far

“God, Forgive My Pen”; or, I’m Sorry I Missed You, Gene

Although I was born and raised a Wasatch Front Latter-day Saint and was baptized early on in the sea of Mormon culture, I didn’t begin to test these deeply ethnic waters until Eugene England’s intellectual specter called me from the comfort of my newly christened craft to join him in the waves. It happened something like this: A number of years ago, shortly after submitting to a growing passion for words, I was surfing our new internet connection, searching for an entrance into Mormon literature when I serendipitously crashed into the Association for Mormon Letter’s website and found myself, moments later, somehow caught in Dialogue‘s current of back issues (an interesting feat since Dialogue isn’t officially connected with the AML).

Impressed that the best place to start something is usually (though not always) the beginning, I linked to “Volume 01, Number 1, Spring 1966,” then to “Contents.” Having embraced Eugene and his piercing insights and rhetoric after finding “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects“ on the Mormon Literature Database a few months earlier, I was especially drawn to his short essay, “The Possibility of Dialogue,” and to his poem, “The Firegiver.” Deciding it best to begin at the end this time, I’d linked to the poem, read it, and laughed, first off, at the interplay it illustrates between a curious and gifted child and the all-knowing, merciful, and just Parent, Muse, and Mentor he seeks to please; then at how perfectly his language captured (and still captures) the subtle tugs and pulls of my own nascent intellectual discipleship. Continue reading ““God, Forgive My Pen”; or, I’m Sorry I Missed You, Gene”

The Hero’s Journey of the Mormon Arts

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As Motley Vision‘s newest Official Contributor, I feel an obligation to have my first post explain something of my experience within and attitude towards the Mormon arts.

Several months ago, I plotted out a post called “Hero’s Journey of the Mormon Artist” which I had intended to submit to William. I’m glad I never finished it however as further reflection has suggested to me that I was implying that that my proposed version of the hero’s journey was a necessary part of being a good Mormon artist. As if being an Orson Scott Card or a Dean Hughes is more admirable than being a Heather Moore or an Anita Stansfield (no sexism intended). And so I continued refining the idea and now I feel that it is not Mormon artists who are on a hero’s journey, but the Mormon arts entire. I will not be going into all seventeen stages of the monomyth, but I will deal with the three major groupings and hit on the secondary levels when they seem helpful.

* Continue reading “The Hero’s Journey of the Mormon Arts”

On the History of LDS Literature

In November 2005, I discovered, in a review of the Wikipedia article on Mormon Fiction, that the authors of the article thought Mormon Fiction essentially didn’t exist before 1979. Since I knew this wasn’t true, I corrected the article, and many others have added their own corrections and improvements. (I drew my information principally from Eugene England‘s Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects, lest someone thinks I’m some kind of expert on the field.)

But last week I finished reading William’s graduate school paper (available in his July 31st post, Slowly Flowering: My grad school paper on Mormon literature), and I realized that I’m uncomfortable with the way that England has presented this history. I’m not sure it tells the whole story. And I’m not even completely sure that most literary histories tell the whole story.

Continue reading “On the History of LDS Literature”

Slowly Flowering: My grad school paper on Mormon literature

I have decided to post a Mormon literature-related paper I wrote for a graduate school class titled “Memory, Nation and Diaspora.”. The class was actually my final comp lit seminar at SF State and was taught by Martha Klironomos, the Nikos Kazantzakis Chair and director of Modern Greek Studies. She was very supportive of my desire to write about Mormon literature. I think she even gave me an A on the paper. Most of the non-Mormon-related criticism cited in the paper is pulled from some of the works we read for the course so the theoretical framework might not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it interesting. In fact, it’s the university course that has influenced my thinking about Mormon literature the most.

Anyway, here it is. No modifications have been made to the original text except for correcting one spelling error that I caught in a very quick re-reading:

Slowly Flowering: Mormon Literary Criticism on Mormon Literary History and Future

And here is an excerpt:

“But more fundamentally, through its recovering and criticism of Mormon literary history, Mormon literary theory invokes a set of texts and way of viewing them that helps preserve a Mormon ethnies, an ethnies which includes individuals beyond active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And more importantly, by exposing the deficiencies of the current Mormon literary canon, Mormon literary theory sustains the dream of a great literature produced by a chosen people, a dream that combines memory and desire, a prophecy that drives the very literary production that ensures the survival of the ethnies.”

It was also an interesting exercise in trying to figure out how to give decent context for Mormonism without getting long-winded about it. Upon re-reading, I cringed a bit at some of my notes, but on the whole I think the paper stands up fairly well. Or at least I’m not so embarrassed by it that I wasn’t willing to post it. My thanks to AMV commenter Laura Craner who reminded me of this paper in Anneke’s Twilight post.