Peculiarity, Assimilation, and the Purposes of Mormon Literature

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.

10 Thoughts on “Peculiarity, Assimilation, and the Purposes of Mormon Literature

  1. Cool thoughts.

    A lot of writing from immigrant communities deals with questions of tradition vs. assimilation. In what ways might conversations about peculiarity vs. assimilation be similar or different?

    • One of the interesting, complex things about Mormonism is that there are several different vectors at play — so there’s peculiarity vs. assimilation, but also, esp. for converts and Mormons who grew up outside the Intermountain West, the questions of assimilation and peculiarity in relation to Mormon culture itself. This gets even trickier when the convert comes from a strong ethnic tradition already. I think there’s the potential for a lot of fascinating work tracing out all of the various vectors.

    • Scott Hales on May 26, 2015 at 2:10 pm said:

      One thing that you see in some of Nephi Anderson’s novels, which you might not see in fiction from non-white immigrant communities, are white characters who are anxious about their unperceived Otherness when they encounter characters who assume they are like every other white person.

      Some of Anderson’s characters, that is, feel anxious about their Mormonness being found out–which would set them apart from the others and place them on the defensive–but also equally equally compelled to announce and proclaim what about them is peculiar–so as not to appear ashamed of what they believe.

  2. Thanks, Scott. It’s always scary and interesting to see how others view your work. I now wonder if this topic is my life’s work or if other preoccupations will come to the fore now that I’ve (perhaps) gotten it out of my system.

  3. Jonathan Langford on May 26, 2015 at 4:03 pm said:

    My favorite line in this thoughtful review: “I believe Mormon literature has many purposes and we limit its potential when we privilege one purpose over another.”

    And dang it, William! I need to figure out a way of getting an actual print copy to read! (Maybe I should just get it on PDF and print it out myself…)

    • I already emailed you a PDF. 😉

      As I’ve mentioned, I may do a print version at some point, but it likely won’t be for many months (or even a year).

      • Jonathan Langford on May 27, 2015 at 11:23 am said:

        Well, that’s incompetent of me not to have remembered that I already got a PDF… (I plead that it must happened during a work deadline–or maybe during my recent root canal emergency…)

      • Dennis Clark on May 29, 2015 at 5:49 am said:

        Yeah, but what about the rest of us who don’t have a Kindle? And what about browsers in bookstores? I was bummed to find out that both this book and _Let Me Drown With Moses_ are only available in Kindle editions (at least as far as Amazon will reveal).

  4. Dennis:

    Dark Watch etc. is available in ebook form for Nook, Kobo, Kindle and (in likely less than 24 hours) iBooks. Each of those platforms has software that will allow you to read it on a laptop, desktop or smartphone so an actual Kindle device isn’t needed. Links to all of those stores are available here:

    I’m also pretty sure that if you buy through Kobo, it allows you to download a DRM-free .epub file that can be read in any .epub reader, including platform-agnostic ones (e.g. not Amazon or Barnes & Noble) like Calibre and Bookvisor.

    I believe that Let Me Drown With Moses is exclusive to Kindle because that allows James to get some extra exposure for the title via a program called Kindle Select but even then Kindle books can be read on any electronic screen provided you install the Kindle app/software or are willing to read it in an internet browser.

    In terms of print versions and bookstores: that requires more time and resources than I currently have available. There may be a print version at some point, but that would be a print on demand version available through Amazon and unlikely to be picked up by any bookstores.

  5. Pingback: This Month in Mormon Literature, June 13, 2015 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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