Saturday, February 19, 2011

Endlessly Lost: Some Thoughts on Mormon Literary Classification

"Thus all mankind were lost; and behold, they would have been endlessly lost were it not that God redeemed his people from their lost and fallen state."--Mosiah 16:4

In 1939, Idaho writer Vardis Fisher published Children of God: An American Epic, a massive novel that traced Mormon history from Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1820 to the Woodruff Manifesto in 1890, which signaled the beginning of the end of polygamy in the mainstream LDS Church. The novel, as far as I can determine, was a moderate critical and financial success, and it later served as the basis for the Hollywood film Brigham Young, Frontiersman.

In the decade that followed, other Mormon-themed novels were released favorably by national publishers. Today, however, all of them have fallen into near-obscurity, including Children of God. Few, if any, remain in print, although a handful of them—that is, at the most, four of them—are still read and studied by Mormon literary scholars and the occasional curious library patron. They are Children of God ( Harper & Brothers, 1939), Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua (Houghton Mifflin, 1941), and Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower than the Angels (Knopf, 1942) and The Evening and the Morning (Harcourt Brace, 1949).

Collectively, these four novels and their more obscure cousins are the work of a group of writers that Mormon literary studies clumps together under the title “Mormondom’s Lost Generation,” a term coined in the 1970s by Edward A. Geary, a literary critic and English professor at Brigham Young University. Of course, despite Geary's insistence, Mormondom’s Lost Generation has very little in common with its more famous namesake, the Lost Generation of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, aside from what the critic calls its “voice of expatriation”--which is tenuous, I think, at best--and “ambivalence towards a tradition which seems to have failed.”

These writers, that is, having rejected the rural provincialism of early twentieth-century Utah and Idaho, not to mention the authority of the Mormon Church, set out on their own—sometimes physically, often spiritually—in a solitary search for something else.

And their work reflects it. According to Geary, central to the fiction of this "Lost Generation" is the “conflict […] between individualism and authority,” which plays out frequently against the backdrop of Mormon history. Children of God, for example, ends when Nephi McBride, one of the novel’s main fictional characters, angrily confronts an enfeebled Wilford Woodruff about the Manifesto and other accommodations to the “Gentiles.” In the course of their argument, Nephi monologues:

The time is coming, President Woodruff—the first signs of it are already here—when the saints and gentiles will mix and marry, dance and love together, trade votes, perjure themselves, and worship the same god—and that god will be money. This church that was to establish a new gospel of brotherhood on earth will have bigger banks and factories, its millionaires and its beggars. Some will own factories—and some will own nothing but their self-respect. There will be the same wealth and poverty, luxury and starvation, snobbery and humility that are found all over the world. And our church, the one that began in a cabin in Palmyra and was driven across a continent will be no different from churches anywhere. (764)

Of course, Nephi’s bleak vision of Mormonism’s future— which echoes, somewhat anachronistically, the leftist rhetoric of the 1930s—is not enough to sway the authorities. Heart-broken and disillusioned, therefore, the McBride family packs up and head south, alone, to remain true to the Mormonism of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young—to polygamy and the economic equality of the United Order.

If Nephi McBride and his family typify these novels' penchant for individualistic heroes, then their disillusionment with the Church's accommodationism gestures towards the other main theme that Geary identifies in Mormondom's Lost Generation: the stagnation of early twentieth-century Mormonism. Indeed, while these writers and their works generally valorize the deeds of the Mormon pioneers, they nevertheless adhere to what Geary calls “a dead-end interpretation of Mormon history,” which suggests that the creativity and dynamism that energized Mormonism’s move west eventually petered out as “the heroes [of the early years] disappeared” and were “replaced by men of smaller souls and narrower vision.” In these novels, consequently, the Church is never an unproblematic entity. If it isn’t bureaucratic or authoritarian, it is weak and inefficient. Mostly, it does little more than get in the main characters’ way--like a dead horse or an irritating fly.

No place else is this characterization of the Church stronger than in Virginia Sorensen’s The Evening and the Morning, which is possibly the best "Lost Generation" novel in Mormon literature. In it, main character Kate Alexander returns to Manti, Utah after having been gone for roughly fifteen years. A lapsed Mormon and self-taught intellectual now, Kate, who had never been strong in the faith even when she lived in Manti, stands out in the pious (and often hypocritical) community, which welcomes her back cooly, with some suspicion, as a kind of curiosity.

As a rule, the Church’s presence in this novel is strong atmospherically, if not physically. One important exception to this, however, is the 24th of July parade that occurs midway through The Evening and the Morning, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley. During the parade, Kate and Dessie, her grown-up daughter, watch as floats depicting important events from Mormon history are carted past them. As each scene passes, its artificiality betrays the grand intent of its designers, and the gulf between the appearance of the awkwardly constructed scenes and what the history they are supposed to represent is unsettling. For Kate, especially, this gaudy reduction of Mormonism’s heroic past to “pretty” parade floats and hollow pageantry awakens her to the ironies of her surroundings:

Kate felt small suddenly, thrown against history, against the universe, like a pebble thrown against the sky and lost. All the exalted people were thinking about anything bit the magnificence of history; they steamed in the July sun, reeked at the armpits, wiped their noses and ate ice cream encased in chocolate squares. Why not? This was a play arranged for their benefit along with the ice cream concessions on the corners. (213)

Of course, this image of the steaming, reeking descendants of Mormon pioneers, which is so typical of "Lost Generation" novels, ultimately calls into question the adequacy—or accuracy—of Geary’s “Lost Generation” moniker. “Lost,” after all, carries with it decidedly negative religious connotations—such as "lost sheep" or "lost souls"—especially when applied to a religiously-themed literature. In a sense, then, the name implies a kind of Judgment Day pronouncement on these writers and their headstrong protagonists--a subtle, self-righteous dismissal of what they have to offer Mormon readers. Ironically, such a name even enacts the same kind of provincial attitude against which these authors wrote. As the resolute characters of Nephi McBride and Kate Alexander suggest, though, it is the Church and its members, not the apostates, who are lost in these novels.

Likely, until Mormon literary criticism becomes more established and conceptualized, names like the "Lost Generation"--and the equally problematic "faithful realism"--will continue to divide unnecessarily the sheep from the goats. What Mormon literature needs, if only for critical or pedagogical purposes, are literary classifications that accurately represent stylistic or thematic similarities, yet refrain from casting anything out because of its "lost and fallen state."

2 comments:

  1. In a paper I wrote for grad school called Slowly Flowering: Mormon Literary Criticism on Mormon Literary History and Future, I argue that casting this group as the lost generation sets up the stage for a restoration or a blossoming for those early champions (including Eugene England) of the "faithful realism" school of Mormon literature.

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  2. I think you make a valid argument about how the two "movements" were constructed. I think it's interesting, though, that while "faithful realism" seems to be the general trend right now, a new "lost generation" or a "jack fiction" is remains a part of Mormon literature. Voices similar to those of Sorensen and Fisher have never gone away.

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