Serious Mormon literary criticism began sometime in the twentieth century, possibly with Dale L. Morgan’s article “Mormon Storytellers” from the Fall 1942 issue of Rocky Mountain Review. Essentially, the article is a status update on the progress of Mormon literature, listing titles of dozens of novels that had been published by Mormon authors or written on Mormon subjects since 1881. It also acts as an extended review of several novels now lumped together as examples of “Mormondom’s Lost Generation.”
Morgan, of course, never applied the term “Lost Generation” to these novels. It wasn’t coined until 1977, when BYU professor Edward A. Geary applied it to the Mormon writers who grew up during “a transitional time in Mormon country” and wrote about the Church with varying degrees of disillusionment. At the time, Geary was one of a handful of Mormon academics who were willing to take Mormon literature seriously enough to write about it. Spurred along by the newly formed Association for Mormon Letters and its annual conference—not to mention the publishing venues of Dialogue, Sunstone, BYU Studies, and even the Ensign—these critics tirelessly established a framework and vocabulary for future Mormon literary studies.
Lately, I’ve taken to thinking about these critics as the “Nine Old Men of Mormon Literary Criticism,” probably due to my on-again/off-again reading of Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney. The moniker, however, is imprecise and problematic since one of them is female. Still, I hold to the name since I think it speaks to how so much of early Mormon literary criticism is written from the point-of-view of male readers who had been trained in the academy before feminism became an influential force.
The “Nine” are as follows: Lavina Fielding Anderson, Richard H. Cracroft, Eugene England, Edward A. Geary, Bruce W. Jorgensen, Karl Keller, Neal E. Lambert, William Mulder, and Levi S. Peterson.
Over the last five or six years, I have run into each of these critics in my research into Mormon literature. At times, I have been grateful for their insight; occasionally, I have disagreed vehemently with them or complained about their cynicism or tendency to generalize. In writing my own Mormon literary criticism, I have even felt a small degree of Oedipal rage against Cracroft, England, Geary, and Keller when their ideas have seemed so contradictory to mine. Many have been the times I’ve tried to kill Cracroft with a pen.
Yet, like a true critic with an Oedipus complex, I love the “Nine” as much as I hate them. Such ambivalence is healthy and absolutely necessary to keep a critical tradition going. While I have not always agreed with their classifications, terminologies, and conclusions, I have always benefited from the foundation they laid during a time when Mormon literary studies seemed like a busted pipe dream. Now that the “Nine” are mostly retired (or dead), my hope is that their legacy will continue, that a new critical generation—numbering far more than nine—will pick up the slack and continue their work.