Today's classic Mormon short story is about an aging Mormon mother waiting for a letter from her prized missionary son. It's an uplifting tale--sort of--with a darker cautionary twist at the end. Also, if you get a chance, check out my latest post on Dawning of a Brighter Day: "Novelist Nephi; or Why We Still Need the 'Author of Added Upon'"
How the Lord Was Good
to Aunt Johanna.
By Nephi Anderson,
Author of "Added Upon," "The Castle Builder," Etc.
Improvement Era 13.2 (December 1909)
The house stood well back from the road, allowing the apple
orchard nearly to surround it. A broad driveway led from the road up through
the trees to the front door. There was no lawn, but a bed of chrysanthemums and
dahlias bordered the walk and extended half way around the house. Ivy clung to
the adobe walls. The gray house, broad path, the gay flowers, and the trees
laden with red and yellow fruit,-all lay peacefully reposing in the pearly haze
of an autumn afternoon.
An elderly woman sat on the front porch knitting. Her white
hair and deeply furrowed face glowed in the light of the western sun, which
crept under the limbs of an apple tree standing so near to the house that it
leaned caressingly over the porch. Every few moments the woman looked up from
her knitting and down the road; and when she saw the dust of an approaching
horseman, a half mile away, she slowly arose from her chair and limped down the
The rural mail carrier soon rode up and handed her a parcel
saying, "Only a paper today."
"No letter this time, Aunt Johanna. We'll hope for
better luck tomorrow."
Speaking of professional wrestling, my August post for Modern Mormon Men is also up. It is called "The Skinny Kid" and it is not about Mormon literature. Still, it might be the best two minutes you spend today. Unless you get on YouTube.
Also, don't forget to read my review of S. P. Bailey's novel Millstone City. And don't forget to "like"The Low-Tech World on its new Facebook page. And while you're at it don't forget to "follow" me on Twitter.
Last April I presented a paper at the AML annual meeting
that criticized missionary fiction for its tendency to depict non-American
settings as hostile and dangerous. The paper (which will be published—slightly revised—in
the next issue of Dialogue)
especially took aim at the way American characters monopolize the
points-of-view of these works—often at the expense of non-American characters,
who frequently come off as flat or underdeveloped. Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven was my chief
whipping boy. It was one of the first Mormon novels I reviewed on this blog,
but not a work I particularly cared for. Basically, its shallow handling of Colombian
characters bothered me, and my opinion of it hasn’t changed in a year and a
S. P. Bailey’s Millstone City, another work of missionary fiction,was published a few months after the annual meeting by Zarahemla Books, the same publisher as On the Road
to Heaven. Set in Recife, Brazil, the novel would have fit perfectly within
my discussion of the transnational Mormon experience in Mormon literature
except that, unlike On the Road to Heave,
Millstone City incorporates the perspectives
of several non-American characters, most of whom are not even Mormon. The result
is a patchwork narrative that widens the typically myopic scope of the mission
story by ambitiously taking on subplots about Brazilian police officers, crime
lords, and a fading beauty-turned-cat-lady named Luz de Sá. If Millstone City were a Mormon film, it would
be Richard Dutcher’s States of Graceset
to Samba music.
I make this comparison to Dutcher’s film deliberately. Both Millstone City and States of Grace are about imperiled missionaries, their even more
imperiled converts, and the grace that ultimately redeems them before God and
the reader. Both works also take risks in their grittier visions of the world,
yet they shortchange these risks with denouements that ultimately fail to
deliver. States of Grace, for example,
ends with a forced sequence where grace is spooned out in the form of a baby
Jesus who gets passed around a circle of characters. The ending of Millstone City is less contrived—in fact,
it could have been quite good if the narrative had made more of an effort to
reinforce it thematically.
I’d say more, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers.
In its current form, though, Millstone City reads like an early draft in need of a rewrite. Which
is unfortunate since this novel about two missionaries on the run from Brazilian
gangstershas a lot going for it. Smart-aleck
characters, a fast-paced narrative, and an interesting, unfamiliar setting make
it an entertaining read. As a thriller with roots in pulp fiction and film noir,
it also has a pleasant retro-classic vibe to it that contributes to its charm. But
Bailey is no Mormon Raymond Chandler. (Not yet, at least.) His characters usually
hit the right notes—that mix of cynicism and street-wise smarm that makes you
unsure whether to like or loathe them—but the overall package is too rough
around the edges even for the rough-and-tumble genre it’s trying to emulate.
Lacking, perhaps, are the novel’s two missionaries, Elder
Carson and Elder Nordgren. Like many companionships in mission fiction, they
are supposed to be a pairing of the obedient (Carson) with the disobedient
(Nordgren). But you would never know it unless they told you since they seem to
have sprung from the same mold—which is neither hot nor cold, but rather
lukewarm. As the narrator of most of the novel, Elder Carson is slightly more
fleshed out as an individual than the forgettable Elder Norgren, but not enough
to make him stand among the more memorable missionary characters of Mormon
fiction. Yes, he’s funny, occasionally edgy, and even worthy of the reader’s
sympathy, but not in any way we haven’t seen in God’s Army or The Best Two
Another problem is the novel’s title, which alludes to the notion expressed in Matthew 18:6 that it
is better for someone to hang a millstone around his neck and be “drowned in
the depth of the sea” than to offend the “little ones” who believe in Christ. Bailey
works this scripture into his story directly when the Elbow, a crime boss who
deals in the harvesting and selling the children’s organs on the black market,
cites it glibly as grounds for his own condemnation. He also ironizes it with a
message of grace and forgiveness at the ending of the novel, yet he does so
without returning to the millstone motif and acknowledging the irony. For me,
this failure to return to the motif that receives so much emphasis in the title
smothers the ironic tension at play in the novel’s final two chapters and makes
them less impactful. Put simply, Millstone
City needed more millstones.
To be fair to Bailey, I ought to mention that I think Millstone City is a step up from the
missionary stories I criticized in my April AML presentation. While it is still
essentially a novel about a pair of white kids who have to endure the perils of
a foreign land before they can safely return with honor to the States, it takes
steps to portray the foreign land as a real place where real people live out
their days. The character of Luz de Sá,
the Brazilian cat-lady, is perhaps the novel’s salvation. Not a cop,
gangster, or missionary, Luz is the story’s true outsider, the only character
whose actions in the novel are wholly motivated by personal choice rather than
duty to authority (or money). For me, this makes her more sympathetic, more
tragic, and more heroic than the other characters. Mormon missionary stories
need more characters like Luz.
And while I’m being fair, I should say that I enjoyed Millstone City--including its cover--even as I
regretted its many problems. Fortunately, S. P. Bailey is still a young writer,
and Millstone City is evidence enough
that he has the potential to be a leader in the genre of Mormon pulp thrillers.
Maybe next time he’ll deliver a gritty tour-de-force
of back-alley Mormonism that really leaves us dead in our tracks.
Note: I received a
complimentary review copy of Millstone City from its publisher.
I came across this in
my research today. Poetry from missionaries in England during the early 1850s.
The source is the Autobiography and Diary of Appleton Milo Harmon. The
occasion, it seems, is what we might today call a transfer or possibly even a homecoming.
You can also learn more about Harmon on his wikipedia page. He is best known for helping William Clayton and Orson Pratt invent the odometer.
December 25, 1852
Sa 25 this being Christmas and a holaday with the people the
Saints had prepared a feast in the Temperance hall. whare we all met
at 4.P.M.—we had a variety of entertainments by way of speaches. songs recitations
and the like. thare was several original peiced performed. amonchest which
was the following.
Fare well to Elder A.M. Harmon
By Mark Fletcher.-
Fare well thou servant of the Lord
Our blessings go with the
Thy labours n'er will be forgot
Oh No! it cannot bee
It was for greater things thou left
Thy native Land and home
Than Earthly honours can produce.
Thy Pearl is yet to Come
Through toils and hard ships thou hast past
To teach mankind the truth.
Which by the Lord has been revealed
Yes! Treasures of Great worth
O may the Lord safe guard the home
To Zion's secure
Whare from Brigham thou shalt hear
The True and liveing word.
Thy Pastoral care o're us has been
A time of lasting worth
For truths through thee has been revealed
Which fills our Souls with love,
Farewell then for the presant time
We hope again to meet
On Zions Shore, with
Yes! Him we'll gladly greet
And Hyrum too we'll gladly hail
In Patriarchal Power
With Brigham , Heber and Willard too
Enthroned in Kindly power
And o're the Nations they shall rule
All men shall own their sway
Then Saints be still and things fullfill
Farewell until that Day
Also, this poem by
A Paroday on the mistletoebough. Composed by my
self. was then sung which reads as follows:-
We we met for a feast in the temperance hall
The olive branch hangs at the side of the wall
The Saints all around me are blyth and gay
In keeping the Christmas holaday
We now behold with Joy and prid
The Saints so gay on every side
The Sisters with their bright eys seem to be
The joy of this goodly company
O. to Zion we'll
O to Zion we ll go
I'm wearry of England I long for a ride
Across the wide main to the other side
And my friends will be sure the first to trace
A clue to Zion our
They've saught her by night they've saught her by day
They've saught her in vain and times past away
In the highest the lowest the loneliest spot
The world has saught Zion but
found her not
Little has been said about Norway’s influence on Nephi Anderson
and his literary works even though the country figures prominently in Added Upon and other works. Anderson
himself was born in what is now Oslo in 1865 and lived there until his family
immigrated to Utah in 1871. He also returned in 1891 to serve a mission, and
his letters and journals from this time period are open to researchers at the
Church History Library in Salt Lake City. I haven’t yet looked at them, but I
imagine they have much to say about why Anderson carried his readers time and
again to Norway. Was it nationalism? Love for the Norwegian Saints? A
missionary’s zeal for his field of labor?
The Castle Builder,
Anderson’s third novel, suggests it may have been a combination of all three.
Set entirely in Norway, the novel follows the rags-to-riches life of Harald Einersen,
a Norwegian sheep-herder whose ambition draws him away from his alcoholic
father into a world of ideas. Thoughtful by nature, Harald nevertheless faces challenges in his education because of the economic advantages of others,
his own economic disadvantages, and his penchant for free-thinking in matters
of religion. These upsets, combined with his disillusionment in existing
religious doctrines, lead him to a life of radical political activity that
serves mainly to fill a spiritual void until something better comes along.
That “something better” turns out to be Mormonism, which Harald
embraces midway through the novel after a soul-searching climb to the top of a
mountain. Like Marcus King, the protagonist of Anderson’s second novel, Harald
becomes something of a town pariah after his conversion. For
Harald, however, the blessings and rewards of his new faith are enough to bring
him through to the end of the novel.
In many ways, The
Castle Builder is like Marcus King,
Mormon in that it is a conversion novel about a young man who forsakes the earthly esteem of his community for the eternal esteem of Christ. Both Marcus and Harald share
the trademarks of the Andersonian hero: sensitivity, intellect, ambition, and
moral courage. Like Anderson, they also make school teaching their profession,
although Harald ultimately leaves teaching for politics and the business
world. Even this deviation, however, does little to separate Harald from
Marcus. What differences the two characters share are suggested subtly through The Castle Builder’s theme of class
inequality and its Norwegian setting. Unlike Marcus, in other words, Harald is one
who works from the bottom up, a perspective that makes him sympathetic to
democracy and the injustices of a religious system that damns those who never had
a fair chance at hearing the gospel of Christ. For him, Mormonism becomes the
solution to the disadvantages of his birth, a veritable renaissance of being:
Harald Einersen was now a
"Mormon," and did not care how soon the world, his world at least,
knew of it. The struggle had been long and hard, but it was now over, and he
was satisfied. He knew now that if the political movement which he had helped to
forward was to be carried on, some one else would have to do it. His leadership
was at an end. He had gone into a new world, and this change was as complete as
if he had died and had arisen in another sphere. (182)
Significantly, Norway serves meaningfully as the backdrop of
this change. In the past, I’ve criticized Mormon literature for being too Utah-and Americentric, but The Castle Builder shows—along
with Added Upon and Anderson’s A Daughter of the North—that Mormon
literature has an old undercurrent of stories about international Mormonism.
Indeed, The Castle Builder is
particularly noteworthy because it features only one American character—the
Norwegian-American missionary Elder Olsen—and its main characters choose to
stay in Norway rather than immigrate to “Zion” in Utah. While this choice is
based on practical necessity rather than religious convictions—Harald and
Thora, his love interest, remain in Norway to care for their aging parents—it nevertheless
anticipates and even reflects changing attitudes about international converts
and the merits and practicality of gathering all Saints to a central location.
Other Norwegian elements abound in The
Castle Builder. Anderson’s familiarity with the country is seen in the novel’s
detailed descriptions of rural life, fishing, and folklore. Likely, a study of
his mission record and reminiscences of Norway would turn up possible sources
for these scenes, which are among the best in the book. In fact, readers will
find the first half of this novel much more interesting than the second mainly
because so much of its early chapters are devoted to capturing the beauty of
the Norwegian countryside and the charms of its people. Anderson clearly loves
Norway and The Castle Builder seems
to be his affectionate tribute to his native land and the gospel he shared with
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I decided to make a Facebook page for the blog for a number of reasons. First, I wanted to create another way to get word out about the blog and share its contents. Second, I wanted to create another platform for sharing non-low-tech links about Mormon literature. Third, I've been wanting to make new Mormon literature pass-a-long cards. Fourth, I've been wanting to get a better sense of my audience. Fifth, everybody's doing it. Sixth, vanity. Seventh, I don't think Twitter should have all the fun. Eighth, I believe in the power of social media and the longevity of Facebook (at least until the end of 2014). Ninth, I wanted to give readers another way to discuss my posts and possible guest posts from others (any guest posters out there?). Tenth, I wanted to be able to reach out to other who are not my Facebook friends and share my bloggermony of Mormon literature.
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This is not meant to be a full-fledged post, but I came across something during my research today that I thought was interesting.
Here it is:
“In the arts Mormons
seem more accomplished in ensemble than individual expression: bands, choirs,
the theater, and dance, over painting, sculpture, or creative writing.
Employers complain at times that Mormons are good followers but poor
innovators. Visitors to Brigham Young University campus are impressed by its
tidiness but wonder if such order and apparent unity are conducive to creative
thought. To the degree that these widely held impressions reflect reality, they
may indicate trade-offs communal societies make for the mutual support,
efficiency, and strength their common endeavor affords. And though many in
today’s liberal society would not be willing to make that trade, it may be that
such communalists possess the means to mitigate the great fear Alexis de
Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, had for America, that ‘each man is forever
thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the
solitude of his own heart.’”
--Dean L. May, “One
Heart and Mind: Communal Life and Values among the Mormons.”
"Communalism" isn't a word Mormons use very often in church, but they have a long history with the concept. Can it be that Mormon excellence in communal or cooperative art is, as May suggests, a result of this history? It is a connection that I have never made before, but it makes a lot of sense now that I think about it.
What do you think? Do Mormons lag in individual creative expression because of some cultural unease about individualism? Is the literary anthology, which has had much critical acclaim lately, another successful product of a Mormon communal consciousness? Should an awareness of this communal consciousness inform the way Mormons write literature? Could the Mormon novel, like a play or film, become a group effort? Is the Romantic notion of the individual artist detrimental to the future of Mormon literature?
May, Dean L. “One
Heart and Mind: Communal Life and Values among the Mormons.” America’s Communal Utopias. Ed. Donald
E. Pitzer. Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina P, 1997. 135-158.
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”
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.
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.