Reading William Morris’ short story collection Dark Watch and Other Mormon-American Stories reminds me why I—and everyone else—should bother with Mormon literature. The excellent, relatively short collection explores Mormonism’s place as a subculture in a broader cultural context, taking a giant step back from Mormon Faithful Realism’s efforts to explore how individual Mormons find space within Mormonism and the Intermountain Mormon West. Like no other recent work of Mormon literature, that is, Dark Watch foregrounds and engages questions about Mormon assimilation to force readers to reflect on the consequences—both positive and negative—of Mormonism’s slow retreat from peculiarity.
For many readers of this blog, I think, the purpose of Mormon literature is to provide a sense of tribal belonging—sort of like the way a professional sports team unites a city. In Mormon literary texts, we see reflections of ourselves and our ward members in characters and situations, and that experience helps us understand, make sense of, and take pride in the faith and culture around which we order our lives. These texts also teach us how—or encourage us, at least—to be better Mormons within the Mormon world by providing useful models: idealized depictions of Mormons using agency well and/or stinging portraits of Mormons behaving badly.
This kind of cultural work is an important function of Mormon literature, but others have suggested other purposes. At the recent AML Conference, for example, Stephen Carter argued that Mormon literature can—or should—function as a kind of moral conscience for the Mormon community or offer critiques of it. James Goldberg, however, also indicated that Mormon literature can be a space for enriching the Mormon imagination and finding depth, rather than opportunities for satire, in Mormon characters.
William’s collection, however, reminds us that Mormon literature can also serve as a catalyst for reflecting on assimilation and peculiarity—and the consequences of both choices. Dark Watch and Other Mormon-American Stories, after all, begins with stories about finding and understanding “peculiar” Mormon identities, then shifts to stories that explore how these found identities—these peculiarities—complicate lives lived in pluralistic societies. For instance, in “Conference,” one of my favorite stories in the collection, the main character, a young Mormon PhD candidate, attends an academic conference in San Francisco. The heady atmosphere of the conference appeals to her, but as the panels conclude and a nightlife of drinking and partying begins, she retreats—for the night—back to the comforts of her Mormon world as she reflects on where exactly she belongs.
A story like “Conference” provides most Mormon readers with an opportunity to reflect on a situation they can relate to: We’ve all had to figure out how to be Mormons in a non-Mormon world—and we’ve all, at one time or another, chosen to make similar retreats back to our cultural and spiritual home base. Subsequent stories in the collection, however, offer us less familiar worlds. Set in a future where Mormon peculiarity is a liability, these stories depict Mormons who have taken their faith underground in order to preserve as much of it as they can. Like “Conference,” these stories ask us to consider our place in Zion and Babylon—and how our occupancy in one affects and even relies upon our occupancy in the other. They also force us to consider the long-term effects of the compromises and adaptations we make today in our quest for greater mainstream assimilation and acceptance tomorrow.
I believe Mormon literature has many purposes and we limit its potential when we privilege one purpose over another. However, I think in our own creative writing, theory, and criticism we should not hesitate to explore, as William has, Mormon efforts toward peculiarity and assimilation and the interesting tensions they create. In the past, some works of Mormon literature have attempted something like this, although their approach frequently sought to open the Mormon mind to the outside world by characterizing the Mormon mind as generally small, provincial, and limiting. Such efforts, in my opinion, were and remain misguided, misleading, and ultimately unhelpful. The way to expose the Mormon mind to the outside world is not to belittle it, but to reveal its place in it, no matter how complex that revelation may be. The stories in Dark Watch, in my opinion, seek to do just that.
Of course, one thing William’s collection does not overtly do—although it may do it more subtly in the details—is reflect on how the tension between peculiarity and assimilation is often very slippery. For example, we sometimes resist Babylonian assimilation not by adopting a peculiar response to it, but by simply embracing another Babylon that we erroneously take to be peculiar. This tendency, rich with complex tensions, can result in identity crises that provide, if nothing else, rich resources for Mormon literature, which I think we need to mine as much as we can.