Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought turns 50 this year. This is important for a lot of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with Mormon literature. But some of the reasons have a lot to do with Mormon literature, perhaps the most important being that the advent of Dialogue fifty years ago fundamentally altered the possibility space in which Mormon literature could occur.
This happened in two ways. In the first place, Dialogue was the first venue that regularly discussed Mormon literature as an academic discipline. During its first twelve years, Dialogue published four special issues devoted to Mormon literature (here, here, here, and here), the last one being the proceedings of the inaugural meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters—an organization that was created largely by Dialogue’s earliest contributors.
To understand the significance of this, we have to imagine a world without blogs, e-mail, comment sections, Amazon, or Wikipedia. In 1966, you had to call people on the phone to talk to them from a distance, and you had to publish something in a book or periodical for anybody to be able to read it. Before Dialogue, the discussion of Mormonism and literature occupied a tiny sub-sub field of history. It was in the pages of Dialogue that Mormon literature became a thing.
But Dialogue did more than just create a scholarly discourse around Mormon literature. It created a very important channel for its production and distribution. Before Dialogue, there was really only one outlet for Mormon-themed poetry, short fiction, and reflective essays. The Improvement Era, the Church’s official magazine, published such things regularly. And though its poems and stories did not have to be overtly religious, they could not ask anything that approached a difficult question.
And whatever the devotional value of stories and poems that don’t ask uncomfortable questions or deal with unpleasant conflicts, they are rarely going to rise much above the lower levels of literary mediocrity. Great literature has to make us uncomfortable, and even pretty good literature has to try. Greatness is ultimately a statistical function that requires a lot of pretty goodness and high-level mediocrity. There was no way to produce any of this within the Mormon community in 1965, and the national appetite for Mormon-themed literature, while not insignificant, was limited and driven to novels and book-length memoirs.
In its first issue, Dialogue began publishing a kind of poetry that could not have appeared anywhere else in 1966. The next year it began publishing short fiction. And in 1971, it added the “Personal Voices” section, which featured reflective, spiritually themed personal essays from writers like Mary Lythgoe Bradford and Eugene England, who ended up creating a significant, and significantly Mormon genre in these very pages.
The first editors of Dialogue were well aware that they were playing with fire. In their various prefaces and prologues to the first edition, they explained how they planned to walk the torturously fine line between independence and antagonism, and many potential readers were skeptical from the start. But nothing captures the promise and possibilities of Dialogue—or of the kind of Mormon literature that it helped to create–better than the first poem that it ever published: Eugene England’s masterful “The Firegiver”:
God, forgive my pen its trespass,
And I forgive thee the sweet burning
That drives it on through thy dominion.
God, if what it might encompass,
If shapes of love, thy face, or being
Itself are challenged in its question,
Indulge the hand that ventures into flame,
Suffer my searching, for you share the blame.
This is a difficult poem for anyone used to the tepid verse of official publications. It begins with a title that alludes to Prometheus, who invaded the realm of the Gods, and it ends with the shocking suggestion that God Himself is to blame if we invade His realm, since he created us to be questioners of things and searchers for truth. And between these two points, he lets God know that the relentless search for truth and meaning will necessary take the honest questioner down spiritually dangerous paths—including a consideration of the possibility that God himself does not exist. In “The Firegiver,” the first editor of Dialogue both shows us and tells us what an independent Mormon literature can and should do.
I believe, fundamentally, that great literature can build faith. But it cannot build a simple faith that provides us with easy answers to profound questions. Literature builds faith by raising the hard questions and requiring us to confront them. This can lead to a deeper belief on the other side of the questions, it can leave us with very different beliefs than we started with, and it can even leave us with no belief in God at all. Reading is always a risk. But until we are willing to take the risk and question “shapes of love, [God’s] face, or being itself,” we run the even greater risk of never developing a faith capable of sustaining us when we need it the most. Literature can help us frame these vital questions. And great literature (however one chooses to define it) will never leave us unchanged. This is what Dialogue has been teaching us, showing us, and providing us with examples of for the last 50 years.
Happy Birthday, Dialogue! Thanks for always being there when my Mormon self and my academic self were bumping into each other in unpredictable ways. And here’s to another 50 years.
Nota Bene: If you are interested in celebrating with Dialogue on September 30th, you can visit the web site to order tickets to the anniversary gala, or make plans to attend the 50th Anniversary Spirit of Dialogue Symposium at Utah Valley University, or participate in the online auction of art, books, and memorabilia celebrating 50 years of Dialogue.