Friday, November 25, 2011

The New Home Literature: Art for the Committed Mormon Masses

Our literature must live and breathe for itself. Our mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be.”
--Orson F. Whitney, "Home Literature"

When Orson F. Whitney delivered his landmark 1888 speech “Home Literature,” he had one thing in mind: Missionary Work. That’s the impression you get, at least, from a passage like this one:

"Wake up! ye sons and daughters of God! Trim your lamps and go forth to meet your destiny. A world awaits you: rich and poor, high and low, learned and unlearned. All must be preached to; all must be sought after; all must be left without excuse. And whither we cannot go, we must send; where we cannot speak we must write; and in order to win men with our writings we must know how and what to write [….] For over fifty years the gospel has been preached to the poor and lowly. It will yet go to the high and mighty, even to kings and nobles, and penetrate and climb to places hitherto deemed inaccessible. Our literature will help to take it there; for this, like all else with which we have to do, must be made subservient to the building up of Zion."

And it’s a pretty accurate impression. Throughout the speech, which is one of the earliest pieces of Mormon literary theory out there, Whitney kept coming back to missionary work. When he famously prophesied that “[we] will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own,” it was with the hope that such would be able to bring into the fold the kind of people who read Milton and Shakespeare.

Even though he was extremely popular in his day, Orson F. Whitney is now largely forgotten--except, maybe, as a name that occasionally pops up in Sunday School manuals. “Home Literature,” too, is almost lost to time. Unless you’re really into Mormon literary studies, it’s unlikely that you’ve ever heard of it.

Still, the speech’s influence lives on. Turn-of-the-Century Mormon writers, took Whitney’s challenge seriously. In publications like The Contributor, The Juvenile Instructor, The Young Women’s Journal, The Woman’s Exponent, and The Improvement Era, they published stories, poems, and essays that put a new, more evangelically useful face on Mormonism. For today’s readers, these works seem a little trite, hardly Milton or Shakespeare; back in the day, though, they were a powerful force in shaping the way the Church and its member saw themselves.

Of course, this approach to literature-making had its drawbacks. For one, it led many to associate Mormon literature with missionary work and PR efforts, even though this certainly wasn’t the aim of every work being publish. It also gave rise to the stereotype that all Mormon literature was preachy, cheesy, and (at worst) deceptive in its no-warts depictions of Mormon life. Today, when a Mormon book gets called “Home Literature,” it’s not meant as a compliment. It’s basically another way of saying the book is little more than sermonizing fluff, the print equivalent of diet Sprite.

And—to be honest—some of it is. Unlike its turn-of-the-century predecessor, this so-called “Home Literature” does nothing more for its Mormon readers than lull them away with promises of “clean” entertainment and hardly any pressure to change in a meaningful way. True, such novels offer uplifting messages and wholesome homilies, but they often do little but assure the reader that all is well in Zion.

In my opinion, this literature is not Home Literature. Superficially it may sound like home literature, but it doesn’t act like it. It is a true impostor. Try to shake its hand and all you’ll get is air.

So, what is the new Home Literature?

First, let’s go back to Orson F. Whitney. True, his ideal Home Literature was missionary minded, but it was also meant to be a reflection of the writer’s commitment to the Gospel of Christ, the Kingdom of God, and the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost. “[A] pure and powerful literature can only proceed from a pure and powerful people,” he argued, and a people could only be pure and powerful under the refining influence of Christ and the Spirit. For Whitney, in fact, the Holy Ghost was the muse, “the genius of ‘Mormon’ literature.” Without it, there was no Home Literature.

This brings me to our next dilemma. If Home Literature is meant to be a reflection of the writer’s commitment to the Gospel, doesn’t that automatically preclude the writer from trying to tackle tough issues in realistic ways? I mean, can a writer really, really be committed to the Gospel and write something that doesn’t put a nice sheen the Mormon experience?

Or, similarly: How can a writer show his or her commitment to the Gospel and not write something that is trite and cheesy? Isn’t that generally the problem with Mormon literature in the first place? Too many people trying to bear testimony with characters, setting, and plot?

Here we have the First Great Fallacy, the belief that the faithful voice and the artistic voice can’t tie the knot without producing a houseful of corn and cheese. This is closely associated with the Second Great Fallacy, the belief that a faithful audience will never give ear to an artistic writer’s work. And the Third Great Fallacy, the belief that an artistic audience has no time for a faithful voice. And, for that matter, the Fourth Great Fallacy, the belief that the faithful Mormon life isn't complex enough for good art.

I could go on.

The basic truth is this: Orson F. Whitney was on to something. Literature is a force to be reckoned with, capable of enacting great change and gathering diverse people into a unified whole. It can only be so, however, if we make it so.

A false tradition has been handed to us that says Mormon literature will only appeal to the Mormon masses if it’s faithful fluff—or, conversely, faithful literature will only appeal to more “sophisticated” readers if it’s riddled with subversive content (i.e. profanity, castrations, coffee) and an undercurrent of doubt. Proponents of such falsehoods like to point out that there’s little evidence to the contrary. To borrow loosely from Whitney’s own imagery, which he borrowed from the Savior himself, such individuals are content with pouring new wine into the old bottles of yesteryear, forcing potentially fresh Mormon literature to fit within the tired stereotypes, and ruining it in the process.

To be clear, I am not saying Mormon literature needs to purge itself of the subversive and doubtful. That would needlessly limit its scope. What I am saying is that Mormon literature needs to toss aside the idea that subversion and such represent the only way to merge art with faith. As I see it, there is room for all kinds of Mormon literatures. If we close the door on one approach, say it can’t be done, we are casting our lot against all of Mormon literature. It is only in the intense rivalry of these various approaches that Mormon literature can ever hope for a richer, more diverse future.

So, here’s the challenge of the New Home Literature: finding a way to merge art and faith in a way that appeals not only to the “serious” Mormon reader, but also to the masses of committed Mormons. Only then, I believe, will it be able to skirt the impostor’s fate and truly matter. Only then will it be like its predecessor: a powerful and influential cultural force.

5 comments:

  1. Terrific article. This is why I don't read LDS literature. It doesn't interest me. I find it (usually) boring, with lack of content. I'm speaking of novels...I could probably find and read biographies all day long. However, my love of reading is based on reading for leasure.

    ReplyDelete
  2. There's another fallacy out there Scott, that gets repeated as a truism: that the first great Mormon writer (or rather the writer of the first great Mormon novel) will inevitably be excommunicated because of his/her work.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Funny story: I was presenting at a conference once, and one of the panelists in my session opined--in all seriousness--that the only reason Stephenie Meyer hadn't been excommunicated yet was because the Church wanted her tithing check.

    ReplyDelete
  4. It's not true that all great literature challenges values and attacks prevailing assumptions. But it is true that plenty of good literature does.

    I think we forget too often, though, that faithful Mormon life is a major challenge to our larger societies' assumptions. If your goal as a writer is to challenge assumptions, the gospel is probably a better tool than target.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think you're absolutely right, James. I'm not sure your average American iconoclast would agree with you, but you're still absolutely right. I'm hoping the Lit Blitz will provide ample evidence.

    It's interesting to think about, but faithful Mormons occupy an interesting place in American society. For the most part, they blend in with the larger society, but inside they often feel a very real and deep disconnect with the non-Mormons around them. Sometimes the disconnect borders on discomfort. It can be a strange in/not-in place to be.

    ReplyDelete