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 →
“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.” Continue Reading →
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)
Our 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 →
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.
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 →
In their 1979 book, The Mormon Experience, Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton identify Vardis Fisher as “perhaps the most important writer of Mormon background” in the history of American letters. “The next generation,” they suggest, “will be in a better position to evaluate him.”[i] Continue Reading →
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. Continue Reading →
Back to Mormonism. Why shouldn’t somebody be able to shoot somebody else because their freedom of religion says that God has spoken to them and that they can shoot somebody dead.”
—Libertarian Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson
Gary Johnson raised more than a few eyebrows two weeks ago when he used Mormonism as an example of the limits of religious freedom—seeming to suggest that Mormons wanted to shoot people because God said it was OK. In a follow-up published in the Deseret News, Johnson walked his comment pack partially, and not entirely convincingly, by stating that he “cited the experience of Mormons as a case-in-point where religious persecution resulted in violent episodes right here in America.”
Whether Johnson was really saying that Mormons shoot people in the name of God, or that other people shoot Mormons in the name of God (or even that God shoots people in the name of Mormons), is really anyone’s guess. Either way, though, it is telling that a presidential candidate in 2016 who wants to make a point about violence committed in the name of religion immediately thinks about Mormons. This is, I would like to argue, is a fundamentally a literary problem. Continue Reading →
An Interview with Jennifer Quist, Author of Sistering, Winner of the 2015 AML Novel Award
Jennifer Quist is a journalist and novelist from Edmonton, Alberta. Her first novel, Love Letters from the Angel of Death (2013), was a finalist for the Whitney Award and the basis of her Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award in 2014. Her second novel, Sistering, won the 2015 Association for Mormon Letters Award for the Novel, was long-listed for the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award, and was named a “Must-Read” of the 2015 fall season by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The interview was conducted by Michael Austin.
Let’s start with the biographical details. Could you briefly describe your life so far? Start from the beginning and go up to the point that you decided to become a rich and famous writer.
I was born in a remote pulp-mill town in the northern boreal forest. My father was ambitious and restless and moved our family all over the immense country of Canada. By the time I graduated from high school, I had gone to eleven different schools. It would have been lonely if it weren’t for my close sibling group of seven, our ward families, and the grace of God that unfailingly sent me the few good friends I prayed for everywhere we went. Continue Reading →
In order to have Mormon literary criticism, Mormon literary critics need something to criticize. That is how the process works, and it is why constructing (and deconstructing) literary canons is one of the most important jobs that literary critics do. Canon-building, of course, is messy, controversial, and inexact, but that’s OK. These things are supposed to be fluid and controversial; indeed, the controversy itself gives us something to write about. Without a manageable body of texts to study, though, Mormon literary criticism generally descends into self-referential arguments about whether or not Mormon literature exists. Continue Reading →
By my own rough count, the question in my title has been asked and answered about six thousand and three times in the past 50 years or so. Almost always, the answer has been “yes.” This makes sense. It is not the sort of question that anybody would bother asking if they thought the answer was “no.”
I have not exactly spent my academic career trying to answer the question, but I have made two fairly public attempts at an answer at two very different points in my academic career. As a new Ph.D. student, I gave a paper with the audacious title, “How to Be a Mormo-American” at an AML-sponsored session of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association conference in 1994. Here I argued for a very expansive view of “Mormon Literature” and called on critics to use that view as the basis for more and better literary criticism. When Dialogue published it later that year (my first ever publication in an academic journal), they changed the title to the much more respectable “The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time.” Continue Reading →