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: