“I once received a list of LDS books that a man was selling from his personal library. Among some 300 titles from his personal library. Among some 300 titles were two of my own books . . . listed under FUNDAMENTALIST AND ANTI-MORMON MATERIALS. . . . I was in pretty good company. Under this heading were Joseph Smith’s 1832-34 Diary, Joseph Smith’s History by his Mother, and The Seer by Orson Pratt. Now there’s anti-Mormon and fundamentalist stuff for you.”
—Samuel W. Taylor, “Aunty -Mormon I Ain’t, Nor Ante-Mormon Either”
Samuel W. Taylor was one of the bright lights of Mormon literature during the 20th century. His comic novel Heaven Knows Why—perhaps the funniest Mormon novel in the history of ever—was first serialized in Collier’s, a literary magazine with subscriptions of over 5 million copies. And, as a Hollywood screenwriter, he wrote the story that became The Absent Minded Professor. That’s right, a Mormon invented Flubber.
But Taylor was also the grandson of a Prophet and the son of an apostle who was excommunicated for practicing polygamy after the Manifesto. And he spent much of his story trying to set the record straight about polygamy in books like Family Kingdom (1951), Nightfall at Nauvoo (1971), and The Kingdom or Nothing (1976). He frequently talked about historical facts that made the Saints of his day uncomfortable. And for this, he often found himself grouped in the category “anti-Mormon.”
He was nothing of the sort. He was a writer and a truth teller whose family history—which he insisted on talking and writing about every change he got—was not entirely consistent with the whitewashed version of polygamy that served as the official story for much of the 20th century. Yet the label persisted.
And it keeps on persisting. If I had to pick a single reason that Latter-day Saint critics have failed to make an impact on the way that Mormonism and literature have interacted with each other in American literary history it would be that we throw around the world “anti-Mormon” way, way too much. It makes us sound defensive. It makes us appear to be victim-status seekers. And it is often just wrong.
The tremendous Golden Age of Mormon Literature in the 1930s and 1940s—when Taylor, Vardis Fisher, Virginia Sorensen, Maurine Whipple, Richard Scowcroft, and a dozen other serious writers—never really caught on in the Mormon world because just about every one of these writers got branded an “anti-Mormon” in official and pseudo-official Church publications. And some of the most important American writers to treat Mormonism—from Mark Twain to Norman Mailer—have been all but ignored by the Saints for the same reason.
And I am ashamed to admit that I am guilty of this myself. About five years ago, I was asked to write an article on Mormons in American Literature for an ABC-CLIO volume on Mormonism and popular culture. In my research for this article, I ran across several descriptions of the first American novel about Mormonism—John Russell’s The Mormoness; or the Trials of Mary Maverick (1853)—describing it as an “anti-Mormon novel.” Since it was virtually unavailable at the time, I accepted this description and perpetuated the myth.
A few years later, I managed to get my hands on a transcript of the actual novel, which Ardis Parshall and I republished in a critical edition. In it, I found a generous depiction of a Mormon character and a fierce defense of the Mormon’s freedom to practice their religion without interference. It was anti-Mormon in one sense only: the author expressed his disbelief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. This, apparently, was enough to get a passionate plea for understanding classified as an “anti-Mormon book.”
The end result of this logic is frightening. If any book that does not accept all of the fact-claims of the LDS Church must be categorized as “anti-Mormon,” then the world of literature by and about Mormons has to be divided into a) books that propagandize for the Church without any hesitation or qualification; and b) anti-Mormon literature. The paradigm admits no middle ground.
This way of thinking does real damage. It’s two biggest casualties are Mormon literature, the best of which will always challenge some version of the Official Story; and Mormon literary criticism, which cannot exist if the only questions that it can ask all boil down to, “who is with us, and who is against us?”