Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Welcoming the Scapegoat Back Into the Fold; or, Why We Should Stop Being Embarrassed by "Added Upon"

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a levitical group of Mormon literary scholars took a survey of contemporary Mormon letters, carefully tallied its many sins and deficiencies, and blamed the lot of them on the one book that seemed most enduring and, therefore, most guilty: Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon.

And so it became the undisputed scapegoat of Mormon literature.

Karl Keller was chief among its persecutors. In his essay “The Example of Flannery O’Connor,” he has this to say about the novel:

Nephi Anderson's Added Upon […] is a tract-like novel promoting hope in family life in the hereafter. But 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 [….] Such didactic Mormon fiction is escape fiction. 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)

Keller wrote this in 1974, a time when most critics—especially the older ones—still thought of literary works as self-contained, well-wrought urns. So for him, a text like Added Upon, with its obvious religious agenda, was old-fashioned, hardly worthy of the name “literature.” Worse, it was an embarrassment, an affront not only to aesthetics, but to the Gospel itself.

What could the Mormon literary critic do but disavow it? The future of Mormon letters depended upon it.

I recently read Added Upon for the first time. I had tried many times before to read it, but one thing or another had always kept me from finishing it. It was never because of Anderson’s style, though, or the way he drew heavily on the sentimental conventions of the most popular fiction of his times. I mean, in today’s lit-crit landscape, which often seems indifferent to aesthetics, those aren’t good enough reasons to shelve an unread copy of Added Upon. Not when you can historicize and politicize a literary text—and get away with it. (Screw the Intentional Fallacy!)

Mostly, my avoidance of Added Upon was a matter of having other books to read—books that seemed far more important to read. Sure, I wanted to read it to stick it to Karl Keller—who Ireadily admit is often (unfairly?) my scholarly scapegoat—but I couldn’t justify it. Not with my qualifying exams coming up.

Then Jonathan Langford posted about Added Upon on A Motley Visionin February, and I learned something I didn’t know: Added Upon is a Mormon contribution—possible the first one—to the Utopian novel genre that was blossoming at the end of the nineteenth century. Having just finished Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland--both for my exams--I immediately became interested in learning what Added Upon had to add to the genre.

What I found was that Added Upon had a lot to add to the genre. In fact, not only do I think Anderson's City of Zion chapters are directly influenced and in conversation with Bellamy’s novel—which was the third best-selling novel of nineteenth-century America—but I also think it's worth investigating to what extent Anderson was writing against Mormon culture’s post-Brighamian abandonment of Utopian communal economics in favor of the more acceptable and all-American capitalism. If such were actually the case, after all, it would mark an exciting instance where Anderson was not employing the aesthetics of accommodation that are such a hallmark of his fiction.  

But Added Upon is more than just a unique example of early Mormon Utopian fiction. For example, I think it’s notable for the way it divides its narrative between the United States and Norway, presenting readers with the beginnings of a truly transnational view of Mormonism—long before Mormonism became an undeniably global religion. Moreover, I find the way it places Utah on the periphery of its characters’ lives interesting and refreshing. (The name “Utah,” surprisingly, never appears in the novel, although readers "in-the-know" can easily spot the few places where it serves as a setting.) To me, this seems to foreshadow remarkably the direction Mormon literature will likely take in the twenty-first century.

So, in this respect, Added upon may end up being a more influential text than its persecutors ever imagined.

Yes. Yes. I know. The novel has its problems. Anderson was not even a shadow of Henry James. And sexism and false doctrine run rampant through its pages. (Feminist critics could--and should--have the proverbial field day with it.) But Added Upon still deserves respect. It says a lot about who Mormons are as a people, who they have been, and—in its most Utopian moments—who they could be. I also think it’s a critical goldmine—and not just because of what goes on in the narrative, but also because of its long history as a Mormon cultural artifact.

I could keep going, but I’ll save it for a longer, more formal essay.

Put simply: I think there’s no reason why Mormons should continue to be embarrassed by Added Upon. It’s time to stop scapegoating the novel and welcome it back into the fold.  


3 comments:

  1. Scott, you might consider PPPratt's "One Hundred Years Hence" and "Angel of the Prairies" as possible utopian entries -- although as short stories they don't necessarily negate "Added Upon's" position as first Mormon utopian novel.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the tip, Kent. I'll check both of them out.

    ReplyDelete