Saturday, October 27, 2012

If this applies to you...make yourself known...

For the past month, I’ve been working on the first chapter of my dissertation on the Mormon novel. Since I like research and writing, yet value perfection, the experience has been equal parts euphoria and frustration. I feel as if I’m making my argument well enough, but something always nags me to make it better: Find better sources. Write better sentences. Provide better analysis. It wears on me.

But things are proceeding—if not on schedule, which I estimate to be off of by half a month. As of this morning, I am on page 29 (9,149 words) and I have about a third of the chapter left to write. I have a pretty solid outline in my head, a kind of vague outline on paper, and a lot of research notes in a dozen or so files on my laptop. I learn new things every day, but encounter few surprises. Except when I do encounter surprises, which seems to happen about twice a week or so.

Lately, I’ve found myself wishing I had more contact with people who are working on similar projects. My dissertation relies heavily on reading Mormon novels as cultural products of certain historical situations and attitudinal trends. As my recent posts on Nephi Anderson have shown, I’m interested in finding ways in which these novels participate in certain cultural projects or reveal certain cultural attitudes. I'm also interested in how they respond directly or indirectly not only to the Mormonism of their day, but also to other –isms (like progressivism or feminism) that that may or may not have had an overt or obvious influence on their production. 

Often, as I'm trying to do all of this, I write something or I have an idea that seems right...but could use a thorough gauntleting from critics who know the field. Hence: my wish for contact. 

In one sense, I already have some contact—through my posts on Dawning of a Brighter Day and guest posts on A Motley Vision—with people who are working on similar projects—as well as from those who comment on this blog. But I have the suspicion that there are even more people out there—people like me—who are working on essays, theses, or dissertations on Mormon literature—who have valuable things to say. I imagine them as a silent majority—people like I was a few years ago—who are hard at work on Mormon literary criticism, but not letting anyone know.

I suspect this for a number of reasons:

1) I keep finding these people at professional conferences. They seem equally surprised by my existence. (Is it me or are PhDs in lit underrepresented on the so-called Bloggernacle?)

2) Last month, while I was in Utah, I had the chance to visit John Bennion’s LDS Literature class at BYU, which had about fifteen to twenty students, each of whom—I imagine—are currently preparing end of term essays. As an advocate of Mormon lit-crit, I would sacrifice my collection of Eugene England bobble-heads to get a look at these essays. Just imagine what they could become if nudged in the right direction!

3) Irreantum and other Mormon journals keep publishing essays on Mormon literature by people I’ve never heard of. I would like to have more contact with these people.

4) YouTube has convinced me that no one is special or doing anything wholly original. If I am doing something or working on a project, chances are someone else is working on something very similar. (I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets panic attacks when I come across someone’s work who is eerily similar to my own. Wouldn’t it be nice—so to speak—to be in contact with these people and sort out the differences?)

5) Google Analytics assures me that more people read this blog than comment on it. My hope is that some of these lurkers read this blog because they are interested in the work I do and already do or want to do similar work themselves.

My invitation is for these scholars to make themselves known. Ideally, I’d like a place where critics who are working on problems related to Mormon literature (defined as broadly as you like) can come together to think through these problems, share ideas and insight, offer helpful critiques, and give the kind of feedback professors who are unfamiliar with Mormonism are not able to offer.

I also imagine a place where aspiring critics—think of Bennion’s brood of BYU critics—can go to cut their teeth on Mormon lit-crit and mingle with the experts.

Does this sort of thing interest anyone?

If so, I am extending the hand of fellowship. Speak! Comment! Make yourself known!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Modern Mormon Men/Zarahemla Books Giveaway

Modern Mormon Men is currently doing a giveaway of four Zarahemla Books titles: Millstone City, Wasatch, Angel Falling Softly, and Kindred Spirits. 

I've reviewed many of Zarahemla's titles, including Millstone and Wasatch, and I agree that they are some of the best, most exciting things coming out of Mormon literature these days.

I recommend you head on over to MMM and enter to win!

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. 


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...

Monday, October 8, 2012

Brace Yourselves: Mormon Literature and the Drop in Missionary Age

Much has been said already about what effects the drop in missionary age for men and women may have on the Church and its culture. I don't have much to add that hasn't been said in three or four other places. I'm excited about the change and the ways it will likely affect how LDS youth prepare for missions, college, and the rest of life. In twenty-five years, I'm sure we'll all look back and talk about how Saturday's announcement brought about this or that new Mormon cultural practice.

One thing I haven't heard anyone say anything about yet is the effect the age drop will have on Mormon literature. Missionary work has been a major part of Mormon letters since the earliest missionaries wrote down their experiences and even published them. Someone more schooled in early Mormon letters (Kent Larsen perhaps?) can probably cite our earliest example of missionary literature--maybe something by Parley P. Pratt--but I can say with some certainty (and feel free to correct my errors) that Susa Young Gates' The Little Missionary (1899) is probably the first Mormon novel about missionary service followed by Nephi Anderson's Romance of a Missionary (serialized 1907, novel 1919).  Since then, countless others have appeared, including recently Alan Rex Mitchell's Angel of the Danube, Coke Newell's On the Road to Heaven, Douglas Thayer's The Tree House, and S.P. Bailey's Millstone City. Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction also has some missionary stories, including Laura McCune-Poplin's "Salvation," a rare story about sister missionaries. 

I don't presume to be a great predictor of the future (Lost knocked that presumption out of me), but here are a few of my thoughts on how the age drop could affect Mormon literature. Since my preference is for fiction, my thoughts will mainly focus there. Poetry folks: feel free to add your thoughts on how the drop will alter Mormon poetry.

  •  Obviously, we're going to have more mission stories. I'm not a big fan of mission stories, and I count myself lucky any time I get through a Sunday meeting without hearing or sharing one. Still, I recognize that they are one of the largest sub-genres of Mormon lit and will only become more abundant as more missionaries enter the field and gain experience. My hope is that with more missionaries comes higher-quality mission storytelling. Quantity does not always result in quality, of course, but I expect that there's a greater chance that good mission writing will happen when there are more missionaries in the field. You have a better chance of having an Elder Milton and a Sister Shakespeare if you have a group of 100 rather than a group of 10.
  • Speaking of Sister Shakespeare, we're going to have more literature about the sister missionary experience. With more women leaving for missions at a younger age, we're bound to see an end to the male dominated storylines that have long had a chokehold on the sub-genre. I think this may redeem missionary fiction for me. It needs something to change it up a bit. More fiction by returned sister missionaries about sister missionaries might do the trick. Fiction about non-American missionaries, I'd add, would also help the sub-genre out. (So I argue, at least, in the latest issue of Dialogue). 
  • We'll have new conflicts and tensions. So much of Mormon YSA culture centers around missionary work. You have preemies, RMs, waiting girlfriends, women waiting to serve, etc. If you stop and think about how much the old system affected the way Mormon young adults go about life, it's amazing. The age drop with bring about new cultural practices, expectations, relationship dynamics, and conflicts--and Mormon literature will likely reflect and comment on these changes. The old Saturday's Warrior or The Other Side of Heaven paradigm is over. (I don't think Mormon "chick-lit" will take a hit in numbers or popularity, though, although the conventional storylines might be reworked to accommodate the age drop.)
  • Finally, we'll see more Mormon literature. Maybe this is a big assumption, but I think there is something about the mission experience that causes people to write. (Think about how many Mormon writers talk about how they started getting serious about writing on their missions.) Maybe it's writing letters to home. Maybe it's keeping a regular journal. Maybe it's all of the new experiences and relationships. Missions compel us to write. Again: as more missionaries serve, more missionary writing will happen. But not just stories about missions. If we're lucky--and I think we will be--these missionaries who catch the writing bug will come home and pursue that bug. They'll take a look at the world around them and start sharing thoughts and telling stories. True, some of these will be mission stories, but I expect more will be about the world beyond the mission. 
No doubt the drop in missionary age will have a noticeable effect on the next twenty-five years of Mormon literature. Maybe it's worth comparing it to the flowing of American literature that came out of the World War I and World War II experiences. Maybe it's too early to make that comparison. Whatever the case may be, it's worth keeping an eye out for the exciting changes about to happen in Mormon lit.

Have I missed anything? What other effects might the missionary age drop have on Mormon literature?