Parsing the “Mormon” in Mormon Literature

Ever since Scott Hales announced his plans to edit a new anthology of Mormon literary criticism, I’ve been thinking off and on about my own past grapplings with Mormon literature and where I’d want to take them — had I world enough, time, money, and the requisite academic chops. What follows isn’t that essay, but comes about as close as I can manage at present. Consider this my submission!

Why do or should we — as readers, writers, and/or literary critics — care about whether a text is Mormon? Potential reasons are legion, as varied as readers themselves. Among the most typical and (it seems to me) important are the following:

  • To understand Mormonism better — as a culture, religion, historical movement, or what have you
  • To investigate specific elements of Mormon experience, thought, and culture through literary works
  • To explore the purpose(s) and role(s) of literature in Mormon experience and worldview
  • To articulate ways that literature has influenced Mormonism
  • As a test case to investigate the interrelationships of literature and religion, literature and identity, literature and culture, and a host of other potential intersections
  • To understand better particular literary works that incorporate manifestly Mormon elements
  • To assert our own membership (or non-membership) in the Mormon community
  • To explore what it means to be Mormon and a reader, Mormon and a writer, or Mormon and a critic
  • To seek out and encourage literature we think is worthwhile, in whatever particular relationship to Mormonism we endorse: celebratory, investigatory, critical, or other[1. The purposes listed here include many I have seen explicitly or (mostly) implicitly pursued via published essays, blog posts, discussions on the email discussion list once sponsored by the Association for Mormon Letters, and a variety of other venues — plus a few I’ve not seen much of (such as the influence of literature on Mormonism) but that seem like logical and potentially interesting possibilities.]

Continue reading “Parsing the “Mormon” in Mormon Literature”

A brief look at Heaven Knows Why!

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When Taylor’s novel was first serialized in 1948 as The Mysterious Way in Collier’s (see the layout of parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), it passed before the eyes of millions of Americans. This was the first nonpioneer Mormon-charactered (contemporary) novel published for a national audience. The action takes place a long-day’s drive from Salt Lake City and when it first came out, its geography became a matter of some debate among the Saints as to who was whom and where was where. Taylor, of course, rolled his eyes and happily defined the word fiction for any who asked.

Anyway. Millions of readers did not translate into bestseller status when it was rereleased under the “improved” title in book form (though it did fine and got good reviews). It would be republished a couple times over the decades. My copy (pictured) is a 1994 Aspen Books rerelease which Taylor says he was talked into by Richard Cracroft (though I suspect his intro was originally penned for a c. 1980 publication). Cracroft called it “the best Mormon comic novel to date” and he says that it’s still the only humorous Mormon novel. (This claim is why I think the intro is older than the publication date. By this time Curtis Taylor‘s The Invisible Saint was out not to mention Joni Hilton’s Relief Society novels and Orson Scott Card’s Hatrack River was publishing stuff like Paradise Vue. So 1994 would be a crazy time to make that claim. But whatever.)

The important question though is this one: Does the novel hold up, almost seventy years later?

The story has a brilliant bit of innovation by starting with a deus ex machina, then having the characters work through the mess that engenders. Old Moroni Skinner is up in heaven (heaven, incidentally, is a satire of midcentury American capitalism and has not aged as well as the rest of the novel) concerned with his grandson who’s grown up to be the valley trash. He files the paperwork to make a visitation and so he does, making it up as he goes, dropping in on the town apostate and telling his grandson to marry the bishop’s daughter (who is engaged to be married the very next day, unbeknownst to Moroni). And this descends chaos in the form of crazy and coincidence, capturing the very best elements of the comedies of Dickens and Shakespeare. It is exquisitely engineered. The characters are sharp and tear off the page in into the imagination. The hurdles to our protagonist’s success just got greater and greater. And somehow—comedy!—it all works out in the end. (Unless you include the final chapter which returns us to heaven and adds on a painfully heavy dose of predestination to the mix.)

In short, this is a terrific look at midcentury Mormon-corridor Mormonism with its uncertain relationship with the Word of Wisdom and heldover pioneer-era Church hierarchies and living breathing human beings.

Sp does it hold up? Yes. Most certainly yet. I may not have laughed on every page like Cracroft, but it was a fun, fun ride.

Mormon literaturstreit: the response to the response, I

Wm discusses the first section in Richard Cracroft’s AML presidential address responding to Bruce Jorgensen’s critique of Cracroft’s criticism of the poetry anthology Harvest.

Note: this is post three of an ongoing series on the Mormon literaturstreit.

Part I: opening salvo
Part II: the response

A year after Bruce Jorgensen responded to Richard Cracroft’s criticism of the poetry collection Harvest in an Association for Mormon Letters (AML) presidential address, Cracroft responded to the response in his AML presidential address. [1. Quite convenient that they were elected AML president in successive years.]  In my previous post, I asked: “Can Cracroft come up with a better definition/critical approach for Mormon literature?”

Not exactly. But he is forced to explain in more details what he means, which furthers the conversation. He begins by pulling out a key line from Jorgensen’s address–“Essentialism is the problem”–and saying, essentially, “Nuh-uh! We’re the problem”. He writes:

In my review of Harvest, I assert that which is apparent to any right-thinking, red-blooded, and sanctified Latter-day Saint who reads the poems sequentially, attentively, and–big gulp here–spiritually and essentially, that a surprisingly large number of the poems written by Mormon poets and included in the “New Direction” section of Harvest selected by Dennis Clark are skillfully executed poems grounded in the “earth-bound humanism” (Cracroft 1990, 122) of our contemporary secular society, but reflecting little or no essential Mormonism. It seems to me, as I state in my review, that such poems, mislabeled Mormon, lack, ignore, repress, or replace the Mormon “essence” so essential to distinguishing a work of Mormon letters from a work that is merely Western or American or Protestant or Jewish.

These two sentences summarize the entire approach of the address/essay, which puts the responsibility for deciding what is Mormon in the hands of the (some? certain?) Mormon people and then shows how literary critics don’t really count as the Mormon people because they (we) are tainted by secular humanism. That’s a blunt way of putting it, but Cracroft lays it all out rather bluntly and, in some sections, cleverly. Note, for example, how he uses the language of social justice in his appeal to essentialism. The poems aren’t just not Mormon–they “lack, ignore, repress, or replace the Mormon “‘essence'”. But also note how the reasoning is ultimately circular: works of literature are Mormon because they have a Mormon essence, which is the same as saying that they are Mormon because they are Mormon. Continue reading “Mormon literaturstreit: the response to the response, I”

Cracroft in the Ensign on Mormon lit

Wm runs across a Richard Cracroft article on Mormon literature published in the LDS Church’s magazine The Ensign and cherry-picks a quote form it. Something about good fiction needing good readers.

While searching the archives of The Ensign, I ran across something I had never read before: a two part series by Richard Cracroft on Mormon literature published back in 1981.

Here are the links: Part 1 | Part 2

And here’s an excerpt from part 2:

In fact, the future of LDS fiction will probably be closely linked with Home Literature, for the LDS writer and the LDS reader share an abiding faith and hope in eternal principle, in the possibility of billions of happy endings. Thus we will have more faith-promoting fiction. And we probably will have still more fiction dealing with LDS history and with characters in the Book of Mormon and the Bible. But, above all, we will have more fiction about Latter-day Saints endowed with real, human problems, problems which can be overcome as well as problems which can defeat and destroy. The effect of the gospel in the lives of such characters afford great fictional possibilities.

But the message of Mormon fiction, while inevitably moral, as is most fiction, need not be painfully blatant. Many of the sweetest messages of life are subtle, and the important messages of truth which LDS fiction will be charged to carry can be aimed at readers schooled in reading well-crafted fiction, at readers who rejoice in the elevating message as subtly suggested through skillful character development, dialogue, setting, symbolism, metaphor, and language. Well-written literature challenges the reader to read to understand–not simply to dismiss–to prove the message, dark or light, and to ponder the implications of his or her new insights. Good fiction thus calls for good readers.

At the heart of such literature will lie the examination, in fiction, of the quest for faith, of the tension inherent in being in the world yet not of the world. It is not a new dilemma, of course. But, daily, the dilemma is renewed in the lives of all faithful men and women, and thus the old tensions continue to provide a springboard to significant new moral fiction. As a creative religion, the restored gospel will teach writers–and readers–to find new and fresh and inspiring yet technically sophisticated ways to create a fiction which will measure up to the great dilemmas of human experience and to the grand message of the Restoration.

Good fiction calls for good readers. Mormon fiction…need not be painfully blatant. The dilemma is daily renewed.

David M. Clark remembers Richard Cracroft

David M. Clark, author of The Death of a Disco Dancer remembers Richard Cracroft and recommends a couples of Cracroft’s essays.

Wm writes: David M. Clark, who you may know as the author of The Death of a Disco Dancer, emailed me the following tribute to Richard Cracroft. I’m pleased to be able to bring it to you.

With great sadness, I learned of the passing of Richard Cracroft, the great BYU English professor and the beating heart and soul of Mormon literary criticism.

Dr. Cracroft was intelligent, jovial, irrepressibly optimistic and exceedingly generous. Not all great scholars are great teachers, but he was known and beloved as both. He was, in my mind, the consummate BYU professor – scholarly, accomplished, unpretentious, open-minded yet fully committed, fully believing, an unapologetic disciple.

I was one of the lucky students that got to know him reasonably well. Not only was I fortunate to take a few of his classes but I was also fortunate enough to be an American Studies major when he was running our fledgling little program. His love of literature, particularly literature of the American West (Twain, Cather, Stegner et al.) was infectious. He loved the humanism of Stegner and Cather and the humor of Mark Twain (summed up he said by the incongruity inherent by the collision of Eastern values with the hard realities of the Frontier — akin to a “belch in the parlor”). He always (always) accentuated the positive. I learned from him that the Mormon experience, even the experience of a middle-class, suburban, know-nothing Mormon punk like me was relevant and maybe even compelling. Continue reading “David M. Clark remembers Richard Cracroft”

Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Richard H. Cracroft on what makes a poem ‘Mormon’

Richard H. CracroftIt took me a little bit to find my head this week. It was only after Church today that it occurred to me that today’s “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon” should be from Richard Cracroft. While I had been searching my sources for an appropriate item, the answer was in the most recent news posted here on A Motley Vision. And in this excerpt, Cracroft doesn’t disappoint; diving into one of the most difficult issues in Mormon letters: What makes a work ‘Mormon’?

Continue reading “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Richard H. Cracroft on what makes a poem ‘Mormon’”

In Memoriam: Richard H. Cracroft

Earlier today Margaret Young shared on her Facebook page that Richard H. Cracroft , Emeritus Professor of English at Brigham Young University, died yesterday evening. He was 76*.

For a brief biography and fairly comprehensive bibliography, I recommend his Mormon Literature Database entry.

There will be remembrances posted in the coming days from those who knew Prof. Cracroft. I never met him. But I know his work well and would like to pay tribute to him by talking about that relationship.

The landmark anthology A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints, which he put together along with Neal Lambert was one of my first introductions to Mormon literature. The two pieces of criticism of his posted on the Mormon literature website (which Gideon Burton created right before I became aware of Mormon literature as a field and which, along with the AML-List, became my introduction it) along with the other responses to it (something which I call the Mormon literaturstreit) is the key conversation that drew me into my ongoing process of engagement with what is, what should be and what we should say about Mormon literature.

Prof. Cracroft introduced several generations of young, talented BYU students to Mormon literature, especially Mormon fiction, quite a few of whom are now our best writers of fiction, poetry, criticism, personal essay and reviews. Through his long-running BYU Magazine column, he popularized Mormon-themed fiction and non-Mormon-themed work by LDS writers to the LDS audience.

We as a field owe him an immense debt.

I, personally, am most grateful for his often prickly, yet always well-articulated call for fiction that speaks to believing, practicing, modern, culturally orthodox Latter-day Saints. Fiction that expresses, as he states in his landmark AML presidential address, the Mantic  Mormon worldview. I have been grappling with that speech for almost 15 years now. It informs much of my own championing of the radical middle. I don’t agree with everything Prof. Cracroft has said on the topic. But I find myself unwilling and unable to dismiss his opinions. He was and will continue to be  a crucial, major voice in the field of Mormon literature. He is and will be greatly missed.

Fare thee well, Brother Cracroft. I’d love to listen in on the conversations you will soon be having with Brother Whitney and Sister Wells (and Brother England and Sister Snow).

*Or possibly 77. I have only been able to find his birth year.