The following is a guest post by Mette Ivie Harrison. Mette is a former BYU “Benson Scholar” and high school seminary Scripture Chase champion. She now writes Mormon mysteries about Bishop’s Wife Linda Wallheim starting with The Bishop’s Wife. She is an All American triathlete and holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University. She is the ward historian and nursery teacher, has five children and lives in Layton, Utah. Her most recent published novel, The Book of Laman, was published in July by the By Common Consent Press.
In 1888, Orson F. Whitney, gave a speech entitled “Home Literature” in which he claimed “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” At the time, Mormons were struggling with the US government on many levels, including polygamy. Church leaders were imprisoned for the practice, the holy temples were being threatened with desecration or even destruction. Mormons had already faced a long history of persecution, being chased out of Kirtland, Ohio and then Nauvoo, Illinois, the prophet Joseph Smith being martyred in 1844 in Carthage Jail. The Mormon pioneers fled to the Salt Lake Valley in part because it was not part of the United States at the time. Mormons intended to create their own government of Deseret and their own identity, but it was difficult to get the legitimacy they craved for their own faith community. Put into this context, Whitney’s speech makes the goal of a Mormon Shakespeare or Milton that much more poignant and urgent.
In the years since Whitney’s speech, a lot has changed about Mormonism and its place within the culture of the United States. The church has done a lot of public relations to be seen as more than “that weird polygamous church,” and has made significant inroads. In the 1970s, there were the Mormon ads on television. Now there’s the “I’m a Mormon” campaign on social media. The church successfully rebranded the Word of Wisdom as simple healthy living, eschewing alcohol, tobacco, and coffee. And Mormons became known for their focus on “Families are Forever,” temples being places not of secrecy but of sealing ordinances.
Mitt Romney’s bid for the Presidency in 2012 made Mormonism a hot topic nationally once again. Negative views of Mormonism came out of the woodwork. People started asking about Mormon underwear, Mormon views on gender and the ERA, the black priesthood ban that ended in 1978, and the relationship between the LDS church and the offshoots of Mormonism still practicing polygamy ala Warren Jeffs. Mormons wanted to be seen as “normal” and “Christian,” though there was still plenty of pushback on both. Questions about Mormon beliefs in becoming gods rose again, as well as the Mormon view of the godhead and the relationship between Jesus Christ.
If Mormons today, in 2017, were to have a Shakespeare or a Milton, I wonder what would such a writer look like? For the sake of this essay, I’m going to argue that Shakespeare was a popular writer who continues to be read, interpreted, retold, and staged five hundred years after his death. I’m going to set aside questions about his contributions to the English language, on the grounds that his position historically during a massive language shift is part of the reason for this, as well as his proximity to the printing press. Shakespeare was a popular writer who also gained critical acclaim, a writer who wrote to many classes, who was able to transcend the ages, but who also included both eloquent and coarse language, who wrote about politics and history, but included some elements of the fantastic, who borrowed liberally and created male and female characters who still feel real today.
A Mormon Milton is, in my opinion, much easier to find. Milton, not read nearly as much today as Shakespeare is, was a religious poet. He recreated some of the legends of the Christian canon in his works and influenced the interpretation and continuation of some parts of that canon, perhaps most importantly his view of Lucifer.
I might argue to begin with that Eliza R. Snow is already one of our Mormon Miltons. From the beginning, she had a part in the history of Mormonism. She is certainly a devout poet who writes of doctrinal issues in a near-prophetic way. In her wake, we have also had other potential Mormon Miltons, including Carol Lynn Pearson, known for plays, poems, and novels, and Rachel Hunt Steenblik, who wrote about Heavenly Mother in recently published a collection of poems about the female Goddess of Mormonism called Mother’s Milk.
A Mormon Shakespeare is magnitudes more difficult to get agreement on. As a popular writer who has been able to talk about Mormon themes I might offer the following as possibilities:
Orson Scott Card (author of Ender’s Game)
Brandon Sanderson (NYT bestselling epic fantasy writer)
Glen A. Larson (creator of Battlestar Galactica)
Stephenie Meyer (author of Twilight)
James Dashner (The Maze Runner)
Shannon Hale (YA author of The Goose Girl, among many others)
Each of these Mormon authors have received both popular and some critical acclaim. They are openly and proudly Mormon. Of course, we can’t know if any of them will have the lasting power of Shakespeare. Card and Larson are older and perhaps have stood more of the test of time. The New York Publishing world has been surprised to find so many Mormons who have been so successful, and there have been essays already written about why it might be that Mormons in general have more success writing speculative fiction than realistic, contemporary. Let me put that aside for just a moment. The massive success of these authors means something. It might only mean that Mormons have only just become mainstream enough that they can garner a national audience of readers. Or it might mean that Mormonism has finally settled into an identity enough that it can be written about.
I already know the complaints I will get from readers about these authors. They’re too plot-based. They’re not literary enough. Their characters will never be as universal as Shakespeare’s. And maybe just a general raspberry from those among Mormonism who have zero interest in the fantastic (though they don’t seem to have a problem with Shakespeare fantastic, as long as it’s fantastic-light). And then there are the questions about if these creators are “Mormon enough.” This is a tiresome game in which people are asked to show temple recommends and underwear lines to prove themselves. Let’s try not to stoop to this level, shall we?
One other argument about the Mormon Shakespeare might be literary descendants. I am Shakespeare skeptical in the sense that I believe Shakespeare continues to be “relevant” today in part because so many other authors from his own time to the present have quoted him and written in a kind of literary conversation with him, so that it’s impossible to understand any other great writer without understanding Shakespeare. If this is the measure of a Mormon Shakespeare, Card has the most literary grandchildren. Brandon Sanderson, Stephenie Meyer, Dave Wolverton/David Farland, James Dashner, Brandon Mull, Shannon Hale, Ally Condie, and dozens of others have been influenced by Card, including me.
When I was a young teen, dreaming of being a “real writer,” I studied Card and wondered if I could be like him, if I could be both Mormon and a writer. In my first nationally published novel, a contemporary realistic YA (The Monster In Me), there is only a tip of the hat to my fantastic literary ancestors and I was scrupulous never to mention Mormonism though the book is set in Heber, Utah. I was fearful of “outing” myself as a Mormon and I didn’t know how to talk about Mormonism in a way that wasn’t insular. So I avoided it and started writing fantasy, which is perhaps the only way to talk about the spiritual and the divine without making it about specific sects. But I reached a point in 2012 when I wanted to be more authentic in my writing, more direct about my experience and my literary ancestors. I wrote The Bishop’s Wife, a book that is directly about my Mormonism, but was never allowed into local Mormon owned bookstores by Deseret Book or Seagull.
This essay is not about my book or my experience, but it was instructive to me nonetheless to see that a book that was not available in church-owned bookstores (as my previous YA fantasies had been) marked me as “out” rather than “in.” Despite the fact that critics were surprised at how kind my book was, that it was in no sense an expose, but faithful and often loving towards my culture and heritage, the most devout Mormons will not read it. It’s not simply that they read and dislike it. They often have never heard of it unless they are already on the fringes of Mormonism.
Modern Mormons often stay away from any reading that challenges their worldview. More than that, there is a segment of these Mormons who will not read any word that has a “language” in it, and doubly reject “content.” Shakespeare himself can sometimes fall afoul of this. I’ve been part of several Mormon book clubs where I was asked to suggest books on the same level as Shakespeare, but when I did so, was reprimanded for choosing books that have language or situations similar to those in Shakespeare plays. Yet when I pointed this out, the response was often that I was misunderstanding Shakespeare, though the reality was in fact the reverse. Shakespeare’s just-antiquated enough English means that many who praise him do not understand the bawdiest of jokes or simply take them out of stagings because they are “inappropriate” for the audience.
This kind of stripping of Shakespeare to make him palatable to Mormon standards feels ridiculous to me, but it is also very telling. The publishing companies owned by and run by the church, Deseret Book and Covenant Communications, are often so busy getting committee approval for any books published that they strip away the meat of these stories. They are so busy making sure that Mormons act in properly Mormon ways that they miss the more human side of the story. If characters are never faced with truly difficult decisions, how heroic can they truly be? If there is always a “correct” answer to a question, then what depths for the imagination to fill? If there are always clear heroes and villains, what kind of Shakespeare would this kind of Mormonism create—or hold up as its favorite? I would argue that a Mormon Shakespeare who is only ever read by, understood by, and praised by other Mormons is not a Mormon Shakespeare at all.
I also wonder if Mormon writers and intellectuals (like Brian Evenson, Richard Dutcher, Neil LaBute, William Shunn, Martha Beck, among others) continue to be disciplined and excommunicated by church leaders who are suspicious of those who “color outside the lines” by questioning dogma and the church culture itself, will we ever have a Mormon Shakespeare? How many great writers have we already lost to Mormonism because they have been rejected by the church and will never have any literary grandchildren who are also Mormons?
Finally, this leads me to the conclusion that perhaps the only Mormon Shakespeares we will ever have are those who write speculative fiction, not because that is the only way to get non-Mormons to read Mormon fiction, but because it’s the only way for Mormons to cloak their questions about religion and faith in terms that can be misread by devout Mormons and Mormon leaders. When I was writing fantasy, I felt extremely uncomfortable with my books being lauded as “clean reads” by certain segments of Mormonism/Evangelicalism. On the one hand, it’s great to get more publicity for your books. On the other hand, seeing my books as having no “content” was misreading them. I wrote about transgender characters in a fantasy world with cloaked language (The Rose Throne) and about environmentalism through animal magic (The Princess and the Hound). But fantasy means that there are many interpretations, which means that many readers will miss the point entirely because they are busy thinking that talking to animals means literally talking to animals.
In the end, I’m afraid that I have to go back to the truth that Mormons do not have a Shakespeare. We may never have a Shakespeare, not because we don’t have talented enough writers among us, but because there is something within Mormonism that does not allow a Shakespeare. Our insularity, our judgmentalism, and our boundary maintenance mean that we cannot even value the real Shakespeare, let alone our own. And I, as a writer and a reader, think this is sad.