Thursday, August 2, 2012

Marcus, King of Ordeals: A Review of Nephi Anderson's "Marcus King, Mormon"


Nephi Anderson’s first novel, Added Upon (1898), may not be the best Mormon novel, but it has an important place in Mormon literary and cultural history. As one of the first Mormon novels, it was groundbreaking in its exciting—even epic—fusion of theology and popular culture. Through it, Mormon literary critic Michael Austin points out, Nephi Anderson “[opened] a door to imaginative literature within the Mormon community” and helped Mormons “[learn], in a very real sense, not to be afraid of fiction” (13). 

Marcus King, Mormon (1900), Anderson’s second novel, enjoys a less exalted place in Mormon memory. Unlike its predecessor, it is a historical novel that limits its narrative scope to the drama of a few American characters in their second estates. Marcus, the novel’s namesake, is a Presbyterian minister who renounces the pulpit, converts to Mormonism, and travels west with the pioneers. Young, intelligent, and morally courageous, he is a typical Andersonian protagonist. With truth as his polar star, he endures with unshakable faith the rejection of his congregation, the hardships of a handcart crossing, and the trials of love. Like a character in a Greek romance, his locations change frequently while his character stays the same. The challenges Marcus faces, therefore, constitute and ordeal that “shatters nothing and forges nothing” in the character, as Bahktin would argue, but “merely tries the durability of an already finished product” (104-107).

This unwavering commitment to his conversion, admittedly, lessens Marcus’ appeal for readers who demand characters with complex interiorities and regular crises of faith. Like Added Upon, Marcus King, Mormon is proxy fiction that asks readers to place themselves in the narrative and experience various ordeals as if they themselves were the protagonist. Anderson, therefore, keeps Marcus as uncomplicated and universal as possible. While he is not a blank slate, without body, parts, or passions, Marcus is generic enough—and his life experiences broad enough—to stand in for any turn-of-the-century Mormon (or potentially Mormon) boy. In this respect, Marcus is somewhat Algeresque, although his ordeal, unlike Ragged Dick’s, carries him from the riches of priestcraft to the rags of a consecrated life.  

Quaint though it may seem today, Marcus King, Mormon is not a bad novel compared to other popular works of its time. Writing in a sentimental fashion, Anderson fills the novel with stock characters, unlikely coincidences, melodramatic love triangles, and fainting. Though predictable, it reflects a sincere attempt to mainstream Mormonism for a Mormon community that was becoming increasingly assimilated to American ways. More importantly, it serves as a nice example of how early Mormon writers appropriated the novel—a literary form that was, in Anderson’s day, commonly used to promote an anti-Mormon agenda—and shaped it to respond artistically to their critics. Indeed, like other Andersonian protagonists, Marcus is the antithesis of the oversexed brutes founds in the salacious anti-Mormon novels of the late nineteenth century. Rather than lording over women and murdering apostates, Marcus pursues women only reluctantly and treats apostates with sympathy and forbearance.

Among the more puzzling aspects of the novel is its historical setting. Known best for his stories about post-Manifesto Mormons, Anderson nevertheless dabbled in historical fiction on occasion. Marcus King, Mormon takes place in the late 1850s, yet readers would not know this were it not for handcarts, a paragraph about the Utah War, and a cameo by Brigham Young. Indeed, history seemingly plays such a peripheral role in the novel that readers are bound to question why Anderson even bothered to situate Marcus’ story in time. Possibly, the historical setting is meant to accentuates the gravity of Marcus’ trials, which happen against the backdrop of one of the most tumultuous decades in nineteenth-century Mormon and American history. Aside from the Utah War, both Bleeding Kansas and John Brown’s Raid are alluded to in the novel, suggesting a possible parallel between Marcus’ ordeal and those of Mormonism and the United States respectively. Also, the historical setting allows Anderson to further mythologize the Mormon past and instill a sense of collective heritage and identity in his readers, many of whom were likely born after the Mormon pioneer era had ended.

Of course, with the historical setting comes the problem of polygamy. As a post-Manifesto novel that borrows heavily from the strictly monogamous conventions of sentimental fiction, Marcus King, Mormon deals with the realities of 1850s Mormon sexuality in a circumspect way.  Images of Mormon polygamy are absent, for example, and Marcus remains celibate almost to the very end of the novel, although Brigham Young does counsel him midway through “to get a wife, or two […] as soon as possible” (114). Marcus, to be sure, flirts with the possibility of a polygamous marriage; however, when he finally “[gets] two wives in one day,” he does so in a way that in no way subverts the turn-of-the-century Mormon reader’s new commitment to monogamy (203).

In his analysis of Marcus King, Mormon, Richard H. Cracroft rightly argues that it is “an interesting attempt to examine personal sacrifice on an individual and collective level” (7). I also think the novel is a continuation of the project Anderson began with Added Upon. Indeed, if Added Upon is “an effort to give in brief an outline of the ‘scheme of things’ […] as taught by the Gospel of Christ and believed in by the Latter-day Saints,” as Anderson suggests it is in the preface to the third edition of the novel, then Marcus King, Mormon is a case study of how a knowledge of the ‘scheme of things’ affects everyday lives. Marcus, after all, is not so much concerned with becoming a god in heaven as he is with being a saint on earth. “The highest type of personal holiness,” he tells a non-Mormon friend,

is not attained in the cloister, but out in the thick of the world’s temptations, battling with sin and error, gaining experience by what we suffer, overcoming, conquering. There is opportunity enough for self-denial, self-renunciation in our daily lives. A man can be a man and a saint at the same time. Manhood, womanhood, and sainthood are synonyms. (158)

Such words of wisdom ground Marcus King, Mormon in the realities of its protagonist’s mortal probation. Certainly, what the novel lacks in popularity and cultural significance, it makes up for in its earnest commitment to the power of true conversion and moral courage.

Works Cited

Anderson, Nephi. “Preface to the Third Edition.” Added Upon. 1898. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1939. Print.  
---. Marcus King, Mormon. Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons Company, 1900. Print.
Austin, Michael. “Mormon Home Literature.” Sunstone 21.4 (Dec. 1998): 12-13. Print.
Bahktin, M. M. “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. 84-258. Print.
Cracroft, Richard H. “Nephi, Seer of Modern Times: The Home Literature Novels of Nephi Anderson.” BYU Studies 25.2 (1985): 1-13. Print.

11 comments:

  1. .

    I have not read this one yet, but you make it sound like one I should read. How to deal, in fiction, with a monogamous ideal in a polygamous culture is a question I've been asking myself often lately.

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  2. It seems to me that the options are to ignore polygamy (the way a lot of Church-produced materials seem to do), embrace it (the way Card and some other writers have done), or find a way to work around it (as Nephi Anderson seems to have done). I'm intrigued that we were grappling with this as early as 1900, though. (Perhaps the reality of the Principle was too recent to ignore.) There must be a paper in tracing the history of Mormon polygamy in literature.

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  3. What surprised me about "Marcus King" was that it included polygamy when it really didn't need to. Before reading the novel, I was under the impression that Anderson always sidestepped the issue because it was no longer a vibrant part of Mormonism and therefore didn't fit his agendas as a didactic writer. I thought the way he adapted the historical reality to his time and his personal interests was typical of his other works and, in a sense, fairly ingenious.

    You're right, Katya, that someone ought to write a paper tracing the history of Mormon polygamy in literature, but I don't think anyone has--or, if someone has, he or she has not published it in any publication that is digitally accessible. I think a study like that would turn up a lot of fascinating stuff.

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  4. .

    I would love to read that. Not so interested in writing it . . . .

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  5. Maybe I'll write it, then. (It might not be a bad project from a professional perspective, either.)

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    1. .

      I can't wait to see it, Katya. I can harass you as often as you like.

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    2. OK. Well then, the first thing I need is a list of sources to consult. Or maybe the very first thing I need is the parameters for making such a list.

      In my mind, there's a big split between polygamy as practiced before the Manifesto and that practiced afterwards (i.e., by Mormon fundamentalists) in that believing Latter-day Saints have to somehow reconcile themselves with the former, while the latter can be more easily dismissed as an apostate practice. So, do I examine just the first group, looking at the tension between justifying the practice while living "with a monogamous ideal" as Theric put it? Or do I look at both groups? (Or do I cast a wide net to see how many sources I find, and narrow the topic down as needed?)

      There are also a couple of other categories to consider, actually. Third is post-mortal polygamy (which isn't quite as common, being necessarily speculative, but I can think of a handful of stories that at least touch on it, including Theric's "The Widower"). Fourth is Old Testament-era polygamy, which isn't strictly Mormon, but it is part of our scriptural canon, and any modern Mormon who writes about it can't help but write it with an eye towards our own more recent past, I'm thinking.

      Thoughts?

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    3. If I were going to write the paper, I would keep things limited. This is where definitions come in handy. For example, I would maybe write a paper on Mormon polygamy as depicted by Mormon writers in Utah at the turn of the last century or by novelists of the 1930s and 1940s. There are also a lot of possibilities in looking at post-Big Love/Sister Wives polygamy novels by non-Mormon writers. Also potentially interesting would be depictions of polygmay in novels published in the last twenty years or so by the more conservative/traditional LDS publishing houses, like Deseret Book and Covenant.

      Casting a wide net initially is not a bad idea, though, because that can give some indication of where the most work has already been done.

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    4. Are there a lot of descriptions of polygamy in DB/Covenant books? I guess I would have assumed otherwise.

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  6. I assume there is some--especially in earlier works. I know "The Work and the Glory" touches on it briefly.

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