Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Darkly Sentimental Alley: Rethinking Nephi Anderson and the Home Literature Endeavor

Mormon literature scholars have not been kind to Nephi Anderson’s work. In his 1974 essay “The Example of Flannery O’Connor,” for example, Karl Keller suggests that Anderson’s most enduring novel, Added Upon, is “a tract-like novel” that is woefully beset by “obscurant sentimentality and folklorish inaccuracy.” Moreover, he argues that “its lack of love of the worldly concrete and its sentimentalized guesswork make it vague and maudlin—and ultimately insulting to the mystery of the Resurrection.” In short: Anderson’s fiction, and other “didactic Mormon fiction” like it, “is escape fiction”—an affront to Mormonism itself:

It has no faith in the real and so will be incapable of stirring faith in the minds of real people. It does not begin where human perception begins, in the senses, and so its message cannot be believed. That is, it fails to be sufficiently in the world and of the world. It is concerned, to its own artistic disadvantage, with unfleshed ideas and emotions. It tries to make that which is good without giving enough consideration to the good of that which is made. (63)

These are hard words, and they beg the question of whether or not Keller is right about Anderson. Interestingly, most of Mormonism’s first wave of serious literary scholars—such pioneers as Geary, England, and Jorgenson—seem to agree that he is. Only one—Cracroft—is willing to grant Anderson something of an honored place in Mormon letters. For most of these critics, though, Anderson’s literary offenses are many--and his primary sin is sentimentality.

That, and the fact that he isn’t a Modernist. Or a post-Modernist. Or Flannery O’Connor’s Mormon equivalent.

Poor Nephi.

Sadly, these scholars often level the same criticism against other works of late 19thand early 20th century “Home Literature,” the home-grown, faith-affirming literature Elder Orson F. Whitney famously described in an 1888 speech. Their darling, after all, is “Faithful Realism,” a contemporary trend in Mormon fiction that weds craft and faith without—ostensibly—the loathsome sentimentality of previous ages. As Keller’s criticism shows, their privileging of the one over the other is essentially based on a Mormon cousin to New Critical aesthetics.

In his 1985 essay “Nephi, Seer of Modern Times: The Home Literature Novels of Nephi Anderson,” however, Richard H. Cracroft suggests that we miss the boat entirely if we try to approach Anderson on such ground. And he’s right: Anderson’s writing—along with other examples of early “Home Literature”—draws upon a completely different aesthetic than its successors. Indeed, when the reigning aesthetic is based on “individual vision, subversive irony, and an alienated perspective”—which is how another Mormon blogger has recently defined the contemporary standard of “literary fiction”—Anderson’s sentimentalism doesn’t really stand a chance.

The good news for Nephi Anderson is that aesthetics don’t have as much clout in the field of literary criticism as they used to. Once upon a time in the 20th century, a critic couldn’t historicize a text without receiving at least a few derisive sneers from his or her bow-tied colleagues, most of whom were pass-out drunk on the pleasures of “close reading” a “closed text.” Since the 1980s, though, historicizing (or “contextualizing”) a work has become pretty normal. In fact, it’s now the “closed text” people who get the sneers.

What this means for Nephi Anderson is that a book like Added Upon, even if it has ceased to be relevant doctrinally and aesthetically to contemporary Mormonism, can still tell Mormons something about who they have been as a people. Indeed, all of Anderson’s writings can now be read as culturally significant if not aesthetically satisfying texts—which is, in a sense, what Cracroft suggests when he argues that Anderson “should be of interest to Mormons” because his works—particularly the novels he published after Added Upon—“reflect fin de si├Ęcle LDS and American values and concerns.” Of course, the downside of this kind of approach to Anderson is that it demotes him from Artist to Cultural Producer. He becomes, in a sense, something a little less special.

That said, next time you read an Anderson novel, notice how it reflects its own moment in Mormon history. During his day, Anderson witnessed significant cultural and institutional changes within Mormonism that transitioned the church into a new era. Indeed, his generation—the first, really, to enter adulthood after the Woodruff Manifesto—had to become not only the new face of Mormonism, the ambassadors of new Mormon mainstream, but also its engineers. In a sense, they had to figure out how to “fit in” in American society, which was something no other generation of Mormons had ever really had to do.

So, when you read a work like Dorian, Anderson’s last novel, you get a sense that it was written not only to give non-Mormon readers a better idea of what a real Mormon was like, but also to give Mormon readers a better sense of how the new Mormon should be. In this sense, Nephi Anderson and his fellow writers of Home Literature were oddly subversive in creating their new conservative image of Mormonism. With every sentimental stroke of the pen, they battled both stereotyping and pioneer-era isolationism.

In this respect, I see the aims of Anderson’s work as not too dissimilar from the work of today’s faithful realists, who are writing, interestingly enough, a century after Anderson. Like Anderson, today’s Mormon writers seem to be writing in a time of transition, although what exactly that transition is going to be is hard to say. In other posts, I have suggested that the transition is a transnational one—that Mormonism today is trying to figure out how to “fit in” globally. So far, the Church’s commitment to new media—blogs, web videos, etc.—seems to be aiding the transition in a way Mormon fiction seems incapable of doing (though not for lack of effort). In some ways, though, it makes me wonder if a free-access online Mormon literary journal (E-rreantum?) might help Mormon fiction play its part in the transition.

It’s hard to say.

I will say this (getting back on topic): as we wonder about the future of Mormon fiction, we should not forget about its past. Nephi Anderson and his contemporaries--the Home Literature crowd--gave Mormon literature its feet and showed that Mormonism could provide an adequate framework for fiction. True, they weren't the stylists the Modernists were, nor were they proto-O'Connors. They were a group of writers, loosely bound together by talent and a common faith, who tried to do something new. It's a shame we often feel a need to apologize for them.

So, with that, I end with a scene from Dorian--altered slightly to imagine what would happen if Dorian Trent met his creator's detractor in a darkly sentimental alley of "unfleshed ideas and emotions."

I hope Brother Anderson approves:

The accusing mouth closed there, closed by the mighty impact of Dorian's fist. The blood spurted from a gashed lip, and Mr. [Keller] tried to defend himself. Again Dorian's stinging blow fell upon the other's face. [Keller] was lighter than Dorian, but he had some skill as a boxer which he tried to bring into service; but Dorian, mad in his desire to punish, with unskilled strength fought off all attacks. They grappled, struggled, and fell, to arise again and give blow for blow. It was all done so suddenly, and the fighting was so fierce, that Dorian's fellow travelers did not get to the scene before [Karl Keller] lay prone on the ground from Dorian's finishing knockout blow.

"Damn him!" said Dorian, as he shook himself back into a somewhat normal condition and spat red on the ground. "He's got just a little of what's been coming to him for a long time. Let him alone. He's not seriously hurt. Let's go."

8 comments:

  1. Part of the difference, I think, is that Nephi Anderson et al. were writing in genres that were by design "popular fiction." Faithful realism, in contrast, is not a tradition that I think has much potential to speak meaningfully to most mainstream Mormons, simply because it's not the sort of stuff they like to read.

    Inherently, fiction that wants to have an impact on a community need to be stuff that the community is interested in reading. That being the case, a more meaningful contrast to Nephi Anderson's work might be to the popular authors publishing with Deseret Book, Covenant, etc.

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  2. Maybe.

    I'm not sure, though, that Nephi Anderson would have drawn a distinction between popular and literary fiction like we do today. As I understand it, that way of thinking about literature was just coming into being during his day, so he may not have given it much thought. More likely he drew inspiration from the works that were available in Utah, namely the classics and the popular sentimental stuff.

    That, of course, makes him seem much more like the authors at Deseret today than, say, the authors at Zarahemla or Signature Books. Still, I'm not sure Anderson and his readers would have thought of his books in that way.

    The tendency is to compare him to someone like Jack Weyland, but I'm not entirely convinced that his direct descendant isn't someone like Doug Thayer.

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  3. .

    Briiilliant close.

    This is slightly off topic, but if I may:

    I teach AP Lit at a high school and we are very closed-text. I like it because it's not a skill they come into the class with and I think it's useful to be able to think that way. But now you're making me wonder if I'm doing them a disservice.

    Back to the comments, I would place late Anderson more in the Thayer camp, myself. But even Added Upon, while not that great, isn't so terrible as all that.

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  4. I don't think the "closed text" approach in high school is bad thing at all--in fact, learning how to read a text closely is one of those skills every budding literary critic needs to learn and master as soon as possible. Problems occur, I think, when students get the impression that that's all there is to do with a text.

    I remember when I was in high school, our teachers always told us not to do historical, author-based, or cultural readings of texts. When I got to college, especially graduate school, my professors always encouraged me to look for ways to open up a text: through critical theory, politics, history, etc.

    Some scholars these days do a kind of criticism that really isn't about the primary text anymore, but rather the theory or ideology that they are bringing in, ostensibly, to open up the text. I find that kind of criticism boring and not very helpful. I much prefer an approach that works closely with the primary text and brings in secondary texts (like a historical document or theoretical essay or ideology) in a really creative way.

    Here's the thing, though. I was recently talking to one of my professors, and she mentioned that there seems to be emerging a new formalism, a return to close readings of closed texts.

    So, I think it's probably best to keep doing what you're doing. I've never taught high school English before, but I've taught plenty of students who never learned how to do a close reading, which makes teaching other approaches more difficult. I think it's definitely an approach that needs to be taught early on as long as it's also taught that the primary text has no monopoly on its own meaning.

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  5. .

    I agree entirely re: those who use the text as a tool to reexamine their philosophy. To the point that as soon as Marx of Freud is brought up in an analysis, I'm pretty much done reading.

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  6. Lacan usually does it for me. Name drop him and I check out.

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  7. .

    See, I've been out of the university long enough that I've forgotten how to ignore people nonacademics never hear of.

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