Thursday, April 26, 2012

Name That Mormon Novel: Meme Edition

Today, while I should have been diligently reading Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust and William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, I got a little sidetracked by an online meme generator. And that led to an idea for a blog post featuring Mormon novel memes. And that led to me spending an hour or so coming up with these.

Can you guess which Mormon novels these memes allude to?











Saturday, April 21, 2012

Teaching Dispensation: Darrell Spencer's "Blood Work"

Next week I'll be teaching Darrell Spencer's "Blood Work" in my American Religious Landscapes class. Since I'm in Utah right now, I thought it would be fun to snap a few pictures of places and streets mentioned in the story and show them to my students. Here are the results:

“In 1847 Orson Pratt and Henry G. Sherwood, working from a point surveyors established as the Great Salt Lake Base and Meridian, beginning at the southwest corner of what could eventually be Temple Square, laid out Salt Lake City’s grid of streets.”

“J.J’s father’s house is east of Temple Square up in the Avenues on M Street.”

“The sidewalk squares are uprooted and neglected. They look jerry-built and seem confused about the basic function.”

 “Across Capitol Boulevard is the entrance to City Creek Canyon. Signs say DO NOT ENTER, WRONG WAY. They’re for cars, and the way they’re posted they seem angry.”

“Rather than a hunt-and-peck jog down the alphabet streets and across the Avenues so that he works his way like a crossword puzzle from C Street to M Street, from Eleventh Avenue to Sixth Avenue, J.J, stays with Eleventh until he comes to M, then he lopes down it.”

As I was driving down Eleventh Avenue, I saw this guy jogging just like the main character in the story. Finding this rather serendipitous, I pulled over to the side of the street--creeper-like--and snapped this photo. 

“J.J. slows between Third Avenue and Fourth Avenue and is walking by the time he reaches the corner."

Here are some more picture of the M Street block between 3rd and 4th Avenue:

 In this shot you can also see my fly rental car...which is actually a jeep.

Overall, I was amazed by how well and accurately Spencer captured the landscape of the Avenues. A few times I got out of my rental car and jogged around, just to get a better sense of the story. J.J., the main character, has his issues, but the dude has strong lungs. Jogging the Avenues is not for the easily winded. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

My AML Conference Proposal...

The AML Conference is in a week and I'll be presenting a paper during one of the 11:30 sessions. Since I'm kind of busy revising the paper, I don't really have time to write a blog post this week. So, to meet my weekly post quota, here's the proposal I submitted to the conference organizers earlier this year:

Beyond Mission Stories: Voicing the Transnational LDS Experience
            Despite Mormonism’s impressive international presence, much of contemporary Mormon literature is situated squarely in the United States, something of which Mormon writers and literary critics have long been aware. In his 1974 essay “Digging the Foundation: Making and Reading Mormon Literature,” for instance, Mormon author and critic Bruce W. Jorgensen criticized A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints, the first published anthology of Mormon literature, for its lack of international vision. “The editors note,” Jorgensen observed, “that we are ‘a world church,’ yet their selections implicitly define Mormon literature as a subspecies of American literature.” Jorgensen then expressed “hope for an expanded, multi-ethnic edition,” which, of course, never materialized.
            Interestingly, while there has been no shortage of Mormon literature anthologies over the years, a majority of them have only anthologized American writers who write about American characters, settings, and issues. Indeed, many of these collections draw heavily upon a rural Utah aesthetic characterized by irrigation imagery, red rock, ranching, and other aspects of rural Mormon life. Only the most recent anthology of Mormon fiction, Angela Hallstrom’s Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, has shown any real interest in stories that address the transnational experience, although, to be sure, many of these stories are about American missionaries in transnational settings and do not fully engage the perspectives of non-American Mormons.
            For my presentation, therefore, I intend to look at a few contemporary Mormon stories that go beyond missionary fiction and strive to give voice to the many non-white, non-American Mormons in the world. I will look especially at Todd Robert Petersen’s Long After Dark (2007), which contains two short stories about Mormons who are neither white nor American. At the same time, however, I intend to raise ethical questions about these transnational stories, particularly “Quietly,” which takes place in Rwanda. What, for example, are the implications of a white American Mormon giving voice to African Mormon characters? Moreover, what do such acts of literary ventriloquism suggest about Mormon literature and the way it situates itself in relation to the American Church and the global Church respectively? Ultimately, through my presentation, I hope to provide insight into these questions and generate a discussion on how best to encourage efforts towards making Mormon literature more than some “subspecies of American literature.”

Friday, April 6, 2012

I Play the Fictionist: My Short Story "Album" on Everyday Mormon Writer

As a writer, I like to think of myself first and foremost as a literary critic and shameless promoter of Mormon literature. But occasionally I do write short stories and poems. Most of the time, these creative works either aren't very good or go unfinished, and I rarely take the time to fix them up or finish them.

Today, though, and I guess for as long as Everyday Mormon Writer keeps it up and archived, you can read my short short story "Album," a piece I wrote up a week or so after the Mormon Lit Blitz ended. It's about a returned missionary in Brazil who still struggles to make a place for himself four years after his mission. The story touches on and tries to work out a lot of issues I've been thinking about lately--not just about the differences between American Mormon and transnational Mormon experiences, but also about transnational Mormon literature and the ethics of American Mormon writers ventriloquizing non-American Mormon characters. That is: in our efforts to tell and promote the telling of non-American Mormon stories, do we unwittingly play the colonizer in our representations of their experiences, feelings, frustrations, etc. Can the American Mormon presume to understand and speak for the Brazilian, the Ghanaian, of the Russian Mormon? I'd like to think that the failures and lack of communication going on between Gilson, my main character, and the American missionary say something to these questions.

I'd also like to hear what other readers get out of my story--even if it has nothing to do with what I tried to do in the story.

Feel free to comment on the story here.

Announcement: Irreantum's 2012 Literary Contest

I got an e-mail reminding me about this year's Irreantum creative writing contests, so I thought I'd pass this along. Irreantum is a fantastic literary journal and one of the many undiscovered treasures of Mormon culture. If you have any work ready to submit, don't hesitate to send it in.  

Irreantum, the literary magazine of the Association for Mormon Letters, will be accepting submissions to our 2012 literary contests until May 31, 2012. Prizes range from $100-$300 and include possible publication in Irreantum. Our fiction and creative nonfiction contests are supported by a grant from the Eugene England foundation, and our poetry contest is supported by a grant from Mary Ann Taylor. Because Irreantum is a journal dedicated to exploring Mormon culture, submissions that relate to the Mormon experience will be given preference in judging. Authors need not be LDS. Please visit  for contest rules and further information.

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.