Thursday, October 18, 2012

Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest: Theric Jepson's "Maurine Whipple, Age 16, Takes a Train North" Discussion


Welcome to The Low-Tech World: Exploring Mormon Literature! Today we’re hosting the discussion of Theric Jepson’s “Maurine Whipple, Age 16, Takes a Train North” for the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest on Everyday Mormon Writer. Please feel free to leave your thoughts, comments, and insights on the story here. Also, feel free to look around the site and read some of the other posts.

(A schedule for the contest and discussion host sites can be found here.)

Jepson’s story is about three writers—Maurine Whipple, author of The Giant Joshua; Nephi Anderson, author of Added Upon; and Mark Twain, author of some of the best American novels of the 19th century. In a sense, the story is also about a fourth writer, the Mormon writer, and his or her role. Strictly speaking, it’s a work of historical fiction, but Jepson plays fast and loose with the details. Some may find this unfair to the “real” Anderson and Whipple, who never actually shared this moment. I think it’s a stroke of genius.

Today’s discussion can take any direction you wish it to. Here are a few of my readerly observations about the story:

1) Nephi Anderson and Maurine Whipple represent two of the paths Mormon literature took in the twentieth century. Nephi Anderson’s fiction, as the story hints at, was often meant to be “artistic preaching.” It was meant to uplift and encourage righteous and virtuous living. Maurine Whipple’s fiction, on the other hand, presented Mormons realistically and endeavored to critique the Mormon past and assess its value for 20th century Mormon and non-Mormon audiences. Jepson’s story suggests, perhaps, that Anderson’s approach was about giving answers while Whipple’s approach was about raising questions.

2) I sense a kind of “passing of the baton” in this story as Anderson gives Maurine his copy of The Mysterious Stranger. What I like about this is that it suggests there is some continuity between his work and hers. Since Whipple is part of the so-called “Lost Generation” of Mormon writers, whom we tend to think of as heretics writing deliberately against the faithful tradition of Anderson and his contemporaries, it’s easy to overlook this continuity. I like how Jepson rejects that notion and shows that both traditions seek to ask and answer questions. I also like how Anderson is cast as someone who feels somewhat limited in his ability to express himself. And I like how Anderson is a bit subversive in this story, too.

3) What makes this story poignant to me is the innocence of Maurine Whipple, who would go on to lead a very sad, lonely, and often frustrating life—despite her talent and success with The Giant Joshua. I also appreciate the tenderness of Nephi Anderson, someone who was no stranger to tragedy himself (his first wife and four of his children died during his lifetime).

4) I like that Jepson uses Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc, and The Mysterious Stranger in this story for a number of reasons. First, I like how Maurine is a kind of Joan of Arc figure—in her youth, her idealism, her human flaws. Second, I like how The Mysterious Stranger could work as an alternate title of this story—as Nephi Anderson is, for Maurine, a mysterious stranger. I also like how these two works also seek to give answers and raise questions for readers. They’re nice parallels to the kinds of fictions Anderson and Whipple wrote.

5) I think Mark Twain is a good choice on Jepson’s part since in 1919 Nephi Anderson was in the process of preparing his homage to Mark Twain and boyhood, The Boys of Springtown, for publication. In respect to writing this novel, Anderson wrote on May 20, 1918, about a year before Jepson's story takes place:

This morning I wrote out the first few paragraphs of my first efforts to write a boy story that is one of some lenghth [sic]. I have wanted to for some time, but I wonder if I am not to [sic] old to live over again the thoughts, feelings and doings of a boy. I’m going to try as time and opportunity affords.

Anderson finished his first draft of the book on October 22, 1918. The book was published in 1920. I like how Jepson’s story captures the reflective quality of Anderson in his “old” age.

6) Finally, I appreciate the way Jepson himself pays homage to Anderson in incorporating a kind of religious discussion between the characters, which is a hallmark of Anderson's work and style. Also, in Maurine, I see traces of Anderson's many sharp, thoughtful, and intelligent female characters. 

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Again, feel free to take the discussion of this story in any direction. I’d love to read your initial thoughts and responses to it. I’d also love to read your thoughts on what it possibly says about the Mormon writer, the purpose of Mormon fiction, and the role of Mormon literature in the Mormon community. I'd also like to hear your thoughts on Jepson's free use of historical details.

But please don’t feel limited to these issues. Mostly, we want discussion...

17 comments:

  1. Well, I suppose I should get around to reading that copy of Added Upon that's on my Kindle Fire. (I remember a copy's kicking around my home after my parents joined the church when I was a child, but never read anything, including that, when I was young.)

    And I suppose I should also read Whipple's Giant Joshua, too.

    Apart from the historical value of the story and its commentary on Mormon fiction, I found the arc to be quite satisfying -- old vs. young, passing of the baton, Twain vs. Twain, answers vs. questions. There are plenty of interesting tensions that Jepson opens and explores along the way in this short story. The fact that those tensions provide interest even without a historical knowledge of Whipple and Anderson is a key reason this story stands up so well.

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    1. You could read Added Upon, but Anderson's best works are his later books: Piney Ridge Cottage, A Daughter of the North, and especially Dorian. The Castle Builder, Romance of a Missionary, and The Story of Chester Lawrence are also good. His worst novel, hands down, is John St. John.

      Added Upon is ambitious and in some ways very experimental and even innovative--but most people agree that it's a deeply flawed novel from the perspective of the early twenty-first century. It's cultural history and legacy interest me more than anything else.

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    2. I had a similar reaction - very lovely scene, and I really understood the characters quickly, though I have never read any of either authors' work. For me, though, it did kind of teeter on the edge when I realized these were real people that I was supposed to be familiar with. I wonder how this story would read to an average church member with no knowledge whatsoever of who these characters were supposed to be.

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  2. I love this line: “Say that they do. But you’ve read him anyway, of course.”

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  3. "Ah. You are an Eve then." Love the idea in that small snippet there. Love this piece. You know, I hadn't really thought about "revisionist history" short stories until the idea of them were suggested for this contest. Frankly, I love it. And this is a great story about the power of words. However, I love that it makes me want to learn more about Nephi Anderson and Maurine Whipple. My Mormon literature roots just sunk a little deeper with this possible look at these two authors as people posing the same questions that I do.

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  4. I'm just relieved that this doesn't end with a death or a kidnapping.

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    1. With a little tweaking it could. So many opportunities...

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    2. Train crash->alternate history of Mormon literature--and Jepson's little blurb becomes just a wierd story about an old guy messing up a little girl's mind. How's that for creepy?

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  5. I loved this story. An imagined meeting by real authors was brilliant. I too liked the juxtaposition of question approaches vis-a-vis answer ones. Nicely, nicely done. Anderson here was so creepy, though, that I thought he was a Mephistopheles figure (Of course, that might be how I view the 'answers' approach.) That really made 'The Mysterious Stranger' a perfect choice for me.

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    1. Creepy seems a little harsh...but lately, Anderson has practically been my roommate, so I have a huge bias. But there is a bit of Mephistopheles in him...

      I see it.

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  6. Oh, yeah! I love this Jepson dude. He keeps writing stories I wish I'd written.

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  7. .

    Now that my day is over, I'm here to say thank you to the commenters without putting pressure on later commenters to appease me. I appreciated the compliments and especially the bits of analysis. Analysis makes me feel Important, and that's a pretty good feeling for the humble writer.

    If you want to read more from Anderson and Whipple, but don't feel up to starting a novel just yet, how about a short story?

    Whipple (discussion)

    Anderson

    And I do recommend both writers. Dorian is my favorite Anderson novel, but Scott's read more than I have.

    We have a great artistic heritage that is waiting to be rediscovered and appreciated. Let's go get it!

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  8. I liked best the description of Anderson's face growing out of his spectacles and moustache. It gave me this really cool anime-steampunk visualization.

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    1. .

      Thanks, Annie. I appreciate your taste in that realm.

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  9. What a cool imagined meeting. I, too, like the discussion about where fiction should place itself on the spectrum between posing questions and positing answers. That's a great topic of discussion in any venue, but to put that within a short story with those characters (and Twain) was a nice little morsal to feast upon.

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  10. .

    Because the text is currently unavailable on EMW, for anyone who happens by and cares: http://thmazing.com/MW_16.

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