The Aborted Legacy of Mormon Art, or Why there will be no Mormon Shakespeare

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. Continue Reading →

Melissa Leilani Larson: The Theatre of the Uncomfortable

Shakespeare is great and all, but, on the list of best playwrights in the history of ever, I only consider him #3. In second place is the Greek master Euripides, author of some 92 plays, only 19 of which have survived. Two of them—Medea, the story of a woman who murders her own children in revenge for her husband’s decision to abandon her; and The Trojan Women, a conversation among the noble women of Troy who have been condemned to death or concubinage at the end of the Trojan War—flay me to the core every time I watch or read them.

And in first place is the Norwegian genius Henrik Ibsen, who has been responsible for some of the most uncomfortable evenings of my life. A stage version of Ghosts that I saw in Salt Lake City was two hours of sheer physical discomfort causedby the plot. The Glenda Jackson film version of Hedda Gabler that I used to show students in my World Literature courses was like sitting on the edge of a cliff from start to finish. Continue Reading →

Seven Times Mormon Women’s Memoirs Changed the Conversation (#6 Will Blow Your Mind)

Last week, Tracy McKay published a remarkable memoir entitled The Burning Point: A Memoir of Addiction, Destruction, Love, Parenting, Survival, and Hope.  I think it is a game changer. Full disclosure: I was one of the main editors of By Common Consent Press on this project. Even fuller disclosure: I became one of the main editors for this book because, the second I heard about it, I knew that it would be a game changer. Here’s why.

In the first place, The Burning Point is a beautifully written memoir. Those who have followed Tracy on her own blog, Dandelion Mama  or as a regular contributor to BCC, know that she is a graceful, lyrical writer with a profound moral depth and a varied body of experience. It is a good book.

But it is also an important book. For one thing, it deals head on with the problem of opioid addiction, which was at the root of the family crisis that Tracy narrates. As this becomes a major epidemic in the United States–and make no mistake about it, it is becoming a major epidemic in the United States–books like Tracy’s will become a more and more important part of the solution. Continue Reading →

“Stephenie Meyer Is Thinking of President Monson”: Mormon Literature and the Desire for Ideological Clarity

There is a scene in the wonderful Chinese film, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, that has stayed with me for years (click here and start at 4:32). In this scene, the hero—a young Chinese violinist who has been sent to a rural mountain village for “re-education” during the early days of the Cultural Revolution—is about to lose his violin unless he plays something that the village party boss finds acceptable. His friend (also being re-educated) suggests that he play a favorite Mozart sonata, and the boss demands to know the name of the song.  Continue Reading →

Encountering Islam through Literature

 

As a student of Mormon literature, I have a keen interest in Mormon literature-y things—comparable religious (and other) subcultural literatures whose study in the academy can help me to frame the study of literature as it relates to my own culture. In graduate school, for example, I took several courses on Jewish literature and developed a minor sub-specialty in the work of Saul Bellow. When I was an English professor in West Virginia, I worked every year with an Appalachian writers program that we sponsored. There are a lot of good comparable out there.

Over the last few months, though, I have become convinced that the closest parallel that we have to Mormon literature today is the burgeoning field of Muslim literature written in English and coming from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. There are several reasons for this. Continue Reading →

Who Are You Calling Anti-Mormon?

“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”

 

heavenSamuel 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.” Continue Reading →

The Mother’s Heart

I live in a Motherless house.
I lie awake and listen always for the word that never comes, but might.
I bury my face
In something soft as a breast.
I am a child
Crying for my mother in the night.
—Carol Lynn Pearson, “Motherless House” (1980)

tefitiOur family saw Moana a few weeks ago and loved it. I can’t call it a historically or culturally correct portrayal of the sea-going peoples of the Pacific. I have read compelling arguments that it is not, and I have no reason to disagree. Disney pretty much never gets those things right. But it is mythically correct, and in ways that deserve attention.

And the myth runs deep in this one. For one thing, the narrative uses a female hero as the basis for a pitch-perfect Campbellian hero journey. This alone is a major step in making the supposedly universal monomyth actually universal. It is also fairly competent entry into the Fisher King category of myths in which a land becomes sterile because a king is wounded, and the knight must restore the land by healing the king. (Both Oedipus and King Arthur come from this mythic grouping). By making both the knight and the king female, Moana strikes a blow for equality. Continue Reading →

On Stereotypes and, well, Stereotypes

Let’s talk about stereotypes for a minute. Not the metaphorical stereotypes—characteristics that we assign to different groups of people because we are too lazy to get to know individuals within those groups and prefer to use one-size-fits-all judgments. I want to talk about actual stereotypes—a printing technology that transformed the way that books were made in ways that had profound consequences for the way that ideas were communicated.fotothek_df_roe-neg_0006484_033_herstellen_einer_mater_stereotypie

Stereotype printing involved making a plaster mold of a typeset page that could be used to make a metal plate for future printings. Before stereotypes came along, reprinting a book required the enormous time and expense of setting the type all over again. A stereotype was like an early disk drive—it allowed the work of typesetting to be saved so that books could be reprinted quickly and inexpensively. Continue Reading →

Dialogue and the Dangerous, Beautiful Possibilities of Mormon Literature

dialogue-oneDialogue: 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. Continue Reading →

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