Friday, September 16, 2011

500 Words on the "Nine Old Men of Mormon Literary Criticism"

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.    


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.   

7 comments:

  1. .

    I'm ready for a new classification system if you've got a good one.

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  2. I'd suggest adding Marden Clark to the list, or at least to your personal reading. (See the essay collection, Liberating Form.) While not as polemic as some (all?) of the others, his was, I believe, an important and influential voice. While I may be misremembering, it's my understanding that he was also one of the first to teach a class on Mormon literature.

    You probably should also look at Clinton Larson, who was vastly important (as I understand it) to an earlier generation of Mormon poets--though in his case I don't know where to look in order to find his critical ideas, simply because I've read very little of his stuff. I do know he was highly influential as a teacher.

    Looking at your list, it's striking to me that the people you (and we) are still interlocuting with are the anthologizers, historicers, and authors of review essays about trends and the history of Mormon literature. No individual figures in Mormon literary history possess sufficient stature to engage our ongoing attention, either as subjects of studies or as authors of critical or artistic manifestos.

    Or perhaps the problem is that we as a critical community lack sufficient depth (and breadth): any discussion of any specific literary work immediately disqualifies so many of us (because we haven't read it) that the conversation quickly loses steam. We talk in generalities--trends, movements, and the like--because we lack the necessary common ground to get more specific.

    (Sorry if this sounds somewhat cynical. Partly, it's a product of years moderating AML-List, when despite near-universal complaints, the simple fact was that one reason why we kept coming back to arguing about R-rated movies was because it was something everyone could talk about, whereas it was nearly impossible to sustain a discussion about any specific literary work simply because few if any people had read it.)

    End of rant.

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  3. "We talk in generalities--trends, movements, and the like--because we lack the necessary common ground to get more specific."

    I think you're absolutely right on this point. I always think it's interesting that my posts that get the most comments are the ones that address Mormon literature generally. My reviews have never generated the same kind of discussion as, say, my post on the roach.

    At the same time, I'm not sure blogs have the capacity to have the kinds of discussions about specific Mormon novels that I want to see. I'm still looking for full-length journal articles.

    But blog conversations would be nice.

    Incidentally, Marden Clark was on my short list for "the Nine" as was Maureen Ursenbach Beecher. Clinton Larson crossed my mind, too, but I didn't think he had enough critical work. I might be writing about him this week, though.

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  4. I agree that blogs probably aren't the best setting for in-depth, insightful analysis. However, what blogs ought to be able to do is spark interest in reading a particular work--and act as a place where readers could share thoughts and impressions. A virtual book club, as it were.

    This is actually one of the ideas I've had for the AML blog. Select one book a month, publish the schedule in advance, then post a starter description and a set of discussion starter questions. It wouldn't have to be the same person acting as a discussion starter each time--just someone to coordinate the thing. Ideally, the range would be eclectic--not just Mormon realism but science fiction and fantasy (with arguably Mormon themes), YA, etc. But there should be a healthy sprinkling of the "classics" as well. The only thing it lacks is someone to actually make it happen... (And yes, I'm hinting.)

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    1. I really like the idea of an AML Book Club.

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  5. I think the idea is a really great one, and I'd like to take the helm on it...but school's back in session and I've just begun a few more (equally worthy) Mormon lit side projects.

    Maybe some day...

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