Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Forgive My Momentary Bursts of Cultural Envy; or, Why Mormon Literature Needs Its Own Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of books by African-Americans to prepare for my qualifying exams next year. Somehow I got through high school and college without ever having to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. So I get to read them now along with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, and many others. Over the next two weeks I’ll be tackling four or five more African-American titles until I move on to something else.

So I haven’t had a whole lot of time to think about Mormon literature. Except when I get these momentary bursts of cultural envy for what scholars of African-American literature and history have been able to do with African-American literature. Not only have they promoted great twentieth-century works, like those of Hurston and Morrison, through diligent critical attention, but they have also poked around the nineteenth century and turned up some fantastic “lost” novels written by forgotten African-American writers.

Henry LouisGates, Jr. is the name that keeps popping up in my studies. Aside from tossing the phrase “SignifyingMonkey” into the stewpot of American literary criticism, and appearing often on PBS and Oprah, he is best known for his discovery of The Bondwoman’s Narrative and Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig, two of the earliest African-American novels written. 

Essentially, what Gates and others have done is uncover—and, in some instances, reconstruct—a rich tradition of African-American literature where once none existed in any clear form. Thanks to their work with nineteenth-century African-American texts, we can now see the literary DNA that contributed to the genetic make-up of the last sixty years of African-American literature.

In the world of Mormon literature, we’ve got a similar endeavor going on in Ben Crowder’sMormon Texts Project, which seeks to resurrect previously published Mormon writing from before 1923. So far, the project has only released one work of fiction—B. H. Roberts’ Corianton—but its website shows that more are on the way. Already in the queue are Orson F. Whitney’s long poem Elias: An Epic of the Ages and Emmeline B. Wells’ historical novel Hephzibah.

Of these two, Hephzibah interests me the most. It takes place in Nauvoo and features one of the earliest representations of Joseph Smith in fiction, so it’s a forerunner of novels like Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower than the Angels and Orson Scott Card’s Saints. I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to the day its made available on the Mormon Texts Project website, where all title are free.

Crowder and the Mormon Texts Project volunteers are providing a valuable service for future Mormon literary studies. If you are looking for some way to promote Mormon literature, and don't want to write a guest post for this blog, volunteering for the Mormon Texts Project is one way to do it. It may not be as eternally rewarding as, say, FamilySearch Indexing, but it’s important work all the same.

Of course, the Mormon Texts Project is only doing half of what Gates has done for African-American literature. For while it’s great that we are gaining easy access to all of these lost texts, their value is only so much unless we read, talk, and write about them in a way that makes them relevant to today’s Latter-day Saints and their literature. Such efforts, I'm sure, would uncover the hidden double helices of literary DNA binding contemporary Mormon literature with its largely forgotten roots.

Some are already underway, in fact. Next year, Peculiar Pages will publish an edition of Nephi Anderson’s Dorian that contains several recent critical essays about the novel. These essays, written by a new generation of Mormon literary scholars, promise to invigorate a dialogue about the novel that’s been all but silent since the early 1920s. With any luck, the dialogue won’t stop there.

Other important work is being done. Ardis E. Parshall’s blog Keepapitchinin’ routinely publishes lost Mormon fiction and poems from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and provides readers an opportunity to comment on them. The texts aren’t always the brightest spots in Mormonism’s literary past, but they have value and charm.

Mormon literary scholarship is decades—possibly centuries—away from where African-American literary scholarship now comfortably sits. What we need to do is step up the efforts, work on projects that matter, and keep moving forward. If you are a budding scholar, and you think it would be cool to study Mormon lit, go ahead and take the plunge. Even if your worried about the relative newness of the field. 

Mormon lit needs you and your brain.

True, you would probably have an easier time finding a job as a Poe or Sylvia Plath scholar. True, there aren’t that many people today who read or care about Mormon literature. True, no Mormon lit scholar will ever be as famous as Henry Louis Gates. Or chat it up with Oprah on a routine basis. Or have a beer with Obama on the White House lawn

But the world doesn’t need another Poe or Plath scholar. It has plenty of those. And Obama has enough people to drink with. And you probably don’t drink beer anyway.

So take the plunge. The world needs more Mormon lit scholars.  

3 comments:

  1. .

    We need to talk more about this.

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  2. I'm with you, Scott. I haven't had as much time as I'd like to think or write in depth about Mormon Lit lately, but I get periodic bouts of cultural envy as I read for my own exams. I've been dipping my toes in the water, though, and am trying to broaden the exposure of Mormon poetries and poetics in my own very small way. I always feel like I could be doing more, though, with the copious amounts of free-time I have...

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