Friday, July 27, 2012

Beyond the Definition of Mormon Literature

Note: This post is also part of a work in progress.

Twenty years ago, defining Mormon literature was a weightier matter, but I sense that it is no longer a major point of susceptibility in Mormon literature studies. Granted, Mormon critics cannot allow the definition debate to atrophy—doing so would be debilitating—but they also cannot let it impose upon the current weightier matters of Mormon literature studies, particularly the development of critical reading strategies and focused analyses of individual Mormon literary texts. In these two areas, I see Mormon literature studies’ greatest shortage; while they are certainly not the only weightier matters in the field, they are the two that I encounter most whenever I begin research on a Mormon novel or short story. In fact, I often find it frustrating that Mormons have such a rich body of imaginative works, extending back nearly two hundred years, but very few critical works that take the analysis of Mormon literature beyond the scope of the average book review. It is not as if Mormon literature studies lack the necessary infrastructure. The first generation of Mormon literature critics has already laid adequate groundwork to support more in-depth analyses of Mormon creative work. Moreover, journals like Sunstone, Dialogue, Irreantum, Exponent II, and BYU Studies, not to mention many non-Mormon journals focused on religion and literature, offer themselves as potential venues for Mormon literary criticism. Websites like A Motley Vision and Dawning of a Brighter Day, likewise, give Mormon literature critics space to exchange ideas and debate, and professional conferences, like the annual meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters, exist to encourage the production, discussion, and analysis of Mormon texts. Even the texts themselves, though hampered by popular misconceptions about the quality and sophistication of Mormon literature, exhibit an artistry and complexity that practically beg for more extended explication and engaging analysis. Clearly, the origin of this problem, this shortage, lies elsewhere. It is itself a weightier matter. 

I do not presume to have a definitive explanation for why longer, more focused analyses of individual Mormon literary texts are not happening. It could be lack of interest in Mormon literature, but that seems a partial explanation at best. Nor do I think the blame falls upon the editors of the journals where these critical works are most likely to find a home. In fact, an editor of a Mormon journal recently told me that works of Mormon literary criticism are rare only because so few are submitted. Could it be, then, that the problem is a lack of committed critics? This seems more likely. Literary criticism that seeks to engage texts beyond the scope of a book review can be a difficult, time consuming task, especially when the existing body of Mormon literary criticism about individual texts is so small. Critics who want to write about Levi Peterson’s The Backslider or an Orson Scott Card novel, to be sure, have a fair amount of existing criticism to build upon and engage, but such is not the case, say, for critics who want to explore David Clark’s The Death of a Disco Dancer, Jack Harrell’s Vernal Promises, or a poem from Fire in the Pasture. These critics, in a sense, must work from scratch as they take upon themselves the daunting responsibility of getting the critical conversation going. Aiding them in this process, of course, are the conventional tools of literary analysis they learns in school, like close reading and critical theory, but reading strategies specifically honed for Mormon literary texts are comparatively few and not always readily accessible. Mormon literature studies can be a frustrating endeavor, especially for beginners and non-Mormon scholars looking for a way into the critical conversation.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Read My Latest Book Review on Modern Mormon Men

My review of Paul C. Gutjahr's The Book of Mormon: A Biography is up today on Modern Mormon Men. It may be my first review of a non-fiction book about Mormonism. But maybe not. I can't remember.

You can read the review here.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Thoughts on the Definition of Mormon Literature

Note: This is part of a work in progress. I welcome your thoughts on it.

“As with most critical projects,” writes Michael Austin, “the success of Mormon literary criticism rises or falls with our definitions—and, in particular, our definition of “Mormon Literature” (136). Yet, Mormon literary criticism proceeds—in a manner of speaking—without a clear notion of what makes certain texts “Mormon.” Austin, to be sure, has suggested that we keep the definition as open as possible; indeed, in his foundational essay “The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time,” he orders “Mormon” texts into five categories that range from the narrow—“Books by Mormons Written to Primarily Mormon Audiences”—to the ecumenical—“Books by Mainstream Authors (not about Mormons)” (137, 142). The implication, of course, is that all text are potentially Mormon depending on what the critic does with them—a gesture that takes the responsibility for producing Mormon literature off the shoulders of the artist and places it squarely on those of his or her interpreter. As a critic myself, I find this line of thinking attractive because it elevates me to the status of creator. At the same time, however, I worry that it is too broad, too generous, and even too presumptuous. Not only does it take some of the shine off of texts deliberately written as Mormon literature by writers who deliberately identify themselves as authors of Mormon literature, but it also seems to authorize a kind of project of textual colonization. Hawthorne, true enough, mentions the Mormon prophet in The Blithedale Romance, but would he want his book labeled “Mormon” even if such labeling were accompanied by persuasive justification?

To some extent, of course, all literary criticism smacks of colonialism; yet, I don’t think much is gained when we seize any text that comes our way and call it “Mormon literature”—even if we feel we have “good” reasons for doing so. In an age when “I’m a Mormon” has become a not only a statement of personal identity, but also a rally cry of cultural affiliation, I would like “Mormon” to mean something, to be more than an arbitrary label. Of course, I am not willing to argue, as Richard H. Cracroft does in his 1992 essay “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature,” that “real” Mormon literature exudes a kind of Mormon essence—some “ethereal but real, ineffable but inevitable spiritual analogues and correspondences that convey Mormon realities.” But I am willing to grant that Mormon literature has something unique about it, something that separates it from other literatures, even though that “something” might prove endlessly slippery. One might follow Candadai Seshachari in thinking of the “something” not as a “Mormon essence,” but as “Mormon experience.” Indeed, in his 1978 essay “Insight from the Outside: From a Commentator’s Note Pad,” Seshachari argues that it is precisely through their “unique experience” as Mormons that Mormon writers “probe and define the complexities of the human condition.” “This experience,” he suggests,

defines [their] being. If one takes away from [them] the memory of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the tragedy and the heroism of the exodus of [their] ancestors, as well as the everyday details that made Zion happen, it is like blotting out the story of Christ from a Christian's consciousness, or like rooting out the fact of slavery from the racial memory of the American black. (90-91)

“Mormonness,” therefore, is not something one is born with, but rather something one inherits and somehow uses to understand the world. In a sense, then, Mormon literature is a product of this inheritance, an expression of its effect on the artists who choose not to bury it in the sand. Such a perspective, I think, reins in the definition without doing away with the slipperiness that may turn out to be the lifeblood of future Mormon literature studies. After all, while it may exclude works like The Blithedale Romance from the Mormon literary canon, it greets with open arms texts like Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist and Therese Doucet’s A Lost Argument, two novels that draw upon the broad Mormon experience while rejecting, in a sense, its more mainstream manifestations.

Admittedly, what I have presented above is nothing too original. Debates over the definition of Mormon literature have been going on since the days of Orson F. Whitney, if not longer, and will likely continue—unfortunately—until the millennium arrives to set all of us straight on the matter. I say “unfortunately” because I think Mormon literature scholars like Austin, Cracroft, and Seshachari have given the rest of us enough light and knowledge on the subject to allow us to proceed comfortably with the weightier matters of Mormon literature studies, which cannot happen as long as we allow ourselves to get caught up in repetitious debates over definitions. Indeed, if the existing scholarship on Mormon literature has taught us anything, it is that the boundaries between Mormon and non-Mormon literature are not distinct, but hazy, ambiguous, and contestable. They are, in other words, like most of the boundaries we encounter in life, and their failure to formulate neatly is something Mormon literature scholars will have to learn to live with, if not warmly embrace, if they want the field to go anywhere

Works Cited
Austin, Michael. “The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 28.4(1995): 131-145. Print.
Cracroft, Richard H. “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature.” Sunstone (July 1993): 51-57. Print.
Seshachari, Candadai. “Insight from the Outside: From a Commentator’s Note Pad.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 11.2 (1978): 90-92. Print.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Truth and Madness: A Review of Mahonri Stewart's "The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun"

For many Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith’s history ends on the day he was martyred in 1844. After that, the story of Mormonism is the story of Brigham Young and the pioneers: wagons, handcarts, crickets, seagulls. If Joseph Smith ever has part in this story, it’s as a spirit in a dream.

Mahonri Stewart’s The Fading Flowerrecently published, along with Stewart’s Swallow the Sun, by Zarahemla Books—seeks to change this. Focusing on Smith’s widow, Emma, and their five children, the play provides a counterpoint to the rote myths and legends of the pioneer era, examining, among other things, how those who knew Smith best sought to shape his legacy for the next generation. At the center of this struggle is David Hyrum Smith, the prophet’s youngest son, who never knew his father and spent twenty-seven years of his life in an insane asylum. His descent into madness, spurred by his mother’s fierce refusal to acknowledge the truth about her husband’s involvement with polygamy, gives the play its emotion and tragedy. More familiar historical figures, like Brigham Young and Joseph F. Smith, help give context to the play’s action for readers less familiar with this side of Mormon history.

The Fading Flower begins sometime in the 1860s. Joseph Smith III, David’s oldest brother, is assuming leadership over the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In Utah, Brigham Young is preaching against them and their mother. Latter-day Saint missionaries like cousins Joseph F. Smith and Samuel Harrison Bailey Smith pay regular visits to the Smith family. Tensions between the two faith groups are high, and as the play progresses, David becomes caught between them. Along with his brothers, he serves missions to Utah, where he comes under the influence of Amasa Lyman, a backsliding apostle, and learns the truth about his father’s polygamous marriages from the former wives themselves.

A sensitive soul with a strong desire for truth, David seeks to reconstruct his father’s past, but finds troubling his mother’s and older brother’s efforts to keep that past a secret. Like Hamlet, his quest for knowledge is not without its consequences. In fact, one of David’s strengths as a character is his determination to discover the truth no matter the cost. It is one of many attributes that set him apart from Joseph Smith III, who is a far more complex and conflicted character, but one who is much less endearing. If David is this play’s Hamlet, then Joseph Smith III is its Claudius.

But, really, a comparison between this play and Hamlet works only so far. The Fading Flower is ultimately about love and not revenge. The Smith family is bound together by the marked absence of a loved one, Joseph Smith, whose life—now in shadows—has significant bearing on how each character conducts his or her life. This also is the case for the play's Utah characters, reminding readers that the martyrdom not only deprived a people of its prophet, but also fractured a family of believers. In Brigham Young and Emma Smith, we see a pair of feuding siblings; in Joseph Smith III and Joseph F. Smith we see—quite literally—rival cousins; in David and Eliza R. Snow, one of his father’s former plural wife, we see what could have been a wonderful mother-son relationship. Indeed, one of the most poignant moments in the play comes when Eliza, recalling days before the animosity between the groups, reads David a poem she wrote for him when he was born.  Afterwards, a rare moment of kindness and honesty unfolds:

Eliza: I . . . I know people think I’m severe, sometimes even cold. But my heart is tender, David, and it has a very warm place for you.
David: If this principle is wrong, may God cleanse you, for you truly are beautiful women.
Eliza: And if it’s right?
David: Then may God not let it destroy us. (68)

Perhaps the tragedy of The Fading Flower, then, is not so much what happens to David, but rather what happens to the followers of Joseph Smith after they are no longer able to rely on the anchor of his faith and leadership. In this play, Joseph Smith III and Brigham Young are competent prophets, but neither is the Prophet. Both depend upon their memory of Joseph Smith, as well as their interpretation of his legacy, for legitimacy and authority, and that mantle weighs heavily upon them. “Don’t you see?” Joseph Smith III says at one point. “[…] Father’s Church and his name are now both literally mine. Whatever tarnishes Father’s Church tarnishes my Church, and whatever tarnishes Father’s name tarnishes my name!” (98).

Clearly, Joseph Smith haunts this play, and he in fact makes appearances as a kind of ghostly figure who returns as an unseen reminder of who he really was. In my opinion, it is one of the weaknesses of an otherwise excellent play. I’ve never seen The Faded Flower performed, so I readily acknowledge that Stewart’s use of Smith might work better on stage than on paper, but I found the ghostly presence distracting. I wonder, that is, how the play might work if Joseph Smith were physically absent from it. Would that help to enhance its themes of absence, doubt, and dislocation? Would it situate the play more ambiguously in respect to truth and error? Or, does his presence bring in a necessary element of love and compassion?

As I mentioned earlier, The Fading Flower has been published together with Stewart’s Swallow the Sun, a play about C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. Lacking Mormon characters, this second work is somewhat lighter in toneStewart seems to have a knack for subtle comedyand has great potential to reach a broader audience, although I personally found it less interesting than The Fading Flower. Not because it is a bad play—in fact, it might be the better written of the two—but because I’m drawn to work like The Fading Flower that uncover previously untold stories from Mormon history. I think Mormon literature need works that probe these unseen corners of the Mormon past, works that try, like David, to get at the truth behind the mysteries and obscurities—or go mad in the attempt.  

For more about The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun read my recent interview with Mahonri Stewart.

NOTE: I received a complimentary review copy of The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun from the publisher.

Joseph Smith's four sons with their step-father, Louis Bidamon