Winter 1993, Volume 10.3
"Essential Gestures": Craft and Calling in Contemporary Mormon Letters1
Henry James once said of himself that it was a "complex fate" to live as an American in Europe. Mormon writers, born in one world (closed and comfortable) and coming to literary awareness in another (open and secular) feel a similar complexity, a complexity which pervades and enriches their work as individual talents explore Mormon tradition. If they are lucky they achieve, as did James, a notable synthesis of their cultural dualism, though even James did not always resolve the tension. To effect the sea change that makes pearls of the ancestors' eyes demands of Mormon writers a maturing craft and a strong sense of calling.
In this enterprise Joseph Smith himself serves as exemplar. Gifted with a powerful combining imagination which Harold Bloom is only the latest pundit to recognize, Joseph belongs to literature (Bloom 96). From the outset his was a literary problem: "It is my meditation all the day," he said, "and more than my meat and drink to know how I can make plain to the Saints of God the visions that unroll before my eyes."2 His was the perennial despair of visionaries striving how to say the unsayable. The Bay Psalm Book of colonial New England, defending its literal translations, could assert that "God's altar needs not our polishings," but Jonathan Edwards in the next century, nearly blinded by God's waylaying light, turned to analogy and metaphor, finding in nature "images and shadows of divine things," as, still later, did Emerson and the Transcendentalists, for whom language was "fossil poetry" and every word a "hieroglyph of history." Craft and calling are inseparable for poets and prophets alike.
Sacred writ is not my province here, although the literary study of scripture can be fascinating, as I remember from my undergraduate days at the University of Utah in a course on "The English Bible as Literature." My subject is profane literature, imaginative literature, specifically contemporary Mormon imaginative literature in which, as far as life's dearest values are concerned, the sacred and the secular are not opposed but in a strong embrace. I wish to inquire how the Mormon experience, however framed by belief, finds literary expression, not in the revealed or Authorized Word but in the conscious artistry of self-ordained writers who treat their craft as their vocation and give it the respect such a calling deserves. They are Mormondom's truthsayers, not prophets, seers, and revelators in any theological sense, but storytellers, the shamans every people with a tradition sooner or later begets, and a chief article of their literary faith is that they are at once autonomous and accountableautonomous in choosing their subject and accountable to their art in developing it. They write with an eye neither on the market nor on Church approval. In short, they are not "hired hands," Wayne Carver's term for writers in the service of some cause without an authentic voice of their own (70).
The poets, playwrights, and prose writers (the novelists, short story writers, and essayists) coming out of the Mormon experience, even marginally, assume what I would call the burden of a Mormon literature, with "burden" suggesting both obligation and opportunity. Yale historian C. Vann Woodward's classic work The Burden of Southern History (1960) affords a suggestive parallel in its examination of the neuroses and nostalgia of a society in transition. Mormon history weighs heavily on the Mormon writer, but it is a "usable past," albeit foreshortened because history for the Latter-day Saints begins not at Sumer (to echo the archaeologists) but at Cumorah. Joseph Smith's restorationist theology collapsed the centuries and repaired Christianity's broken circuitry with his doctrine of dispensations, putting the primitive church on line with his own. That leapfrogging, though it attempts a return to the fountains, constitutes a great aesthetic loss, officially denying latter-day believers communion with all those saints and martyrs of the intervening generations and, again officially, depriving Mormon writers of a motherlode of Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation lore and legend and literary and historical allusion which could enrich their own work. (It does, of course, in the work of independent writers, but not in the official literature.) Joseph Smith's church, like America itself, was starting over. Repudiating Europe was a national obsession (think only of Emerson's "Self-Reliance" and "The American Scholar") and the Prophet went the political and literary patriots one betterin the Book of Mormon he gave the country its primordial migration story, an ancient history, and declared the New World to be in fact the site of the Old Eden. Consider for a moment the scale and audacity of Mormonism's initial claims and undertakings with all that these promise for the creative writer:
The beards on New York farmers' jaws
Grew too heavy for small laws
A Moses or an Abraham
Felt that nations in him swam. (Coffin 3)
We get an early inkling of the excitement Mormonism was to create from a letter an upstate New Yorker named Lucius Fenn wrote from the town of Covert on February 12, 1830 (note the date), to an old neighbor in Connecticut about a curious book being published at Palmyra, some fifty miles away. It was said to be a bible which had been concealed in a stone chest in the earth for fourteen hundred years and which an angel had now revealed to a man named Joseph who could not read at all in English but who could read the book's gold leaves. Along with Freemasonry, the temperance movement (which Fenn called "the cold sober societies"), and the considerable stir religion was making that winter in the lake country, the gold bible was the news of the day. "It is expected that it will come out soon," wrote Fenn, "so that we can see it. It speaks of the Millenniam [sic] day and tells when it is a going to take place . . . . Some people think that it is all a speculation and some think that something is a going to take place different from what has been. For my part," Fenn confided, "I do not know how it will be but it is something singular to me." He could only hope that in a time of "general solemnity upon the people in these parts" there would be "a greater outpouring of the spirit than ever" (25-29).
Mormonism proved as singular as Lucius Fenn had speculated. Its earliest years, from the miracle at Cumorah to the martyrdom at Carthage, were the lengthened shadow of Joseph Smith himself as he rose from village seer to American prophet. In his progress from Palmyra to Nauvoo he commanded attention in an age already full of the uncommon doings of common men. His unfolding theology seemed tuned to all the reform fiddles of the times, and he filled the breathless years of his brief but crowded career with expectations of the millennium, the Second Coming, and heavenly degrees of glory, with worldwide evangelism and practical programs of immigration and settlement and town planning, and with political aspirations and social nonconformities which the frontier, despite its vaunted individualism, could not abide. A powerful original mind, but untaught by the lessons of history, the Prophet came at length to regard himself, as John Greenleaf Whittier put it, "a miracle and a marvel" (158). He aroused deep loyalties and rankling hatreds. The hatreds finally destroyed him; the loyalties kept alive his movement after him.
I have dwelt on these familiar beginnings, at once so exotic and native to the American grain, to emphasize their relevance to our contemporary storytelling. The Mormon past as a continuing presence begs for imaginative treatment, particularly when the impact of the past on our present creates a conflict of cultures or a crisis of belief. The very title of the most recent collection of contemporary Mormon short fiction, Bright Angels and Familiars, edited by Eugene England, the dean of Mormon literary scholar ship, suggests the range of possibilities.3
Whatever the repudiations, alterations, accommodations, and postponements in Mormon doctrine and practice through the years, both the changes and continuities provide the contemporary writer with a horn of plenty. The urge to make credible an incredible story, especially if it is the story of one's own ancestry, can be irresistible.
"Almost I have heard The Call," Virginia Sorensen once wrote me, many years ago. She had just read my article "Through Immigrant Eyes: Utah History at the Grass Roots" in the Utah Historical Quarterly. She sounded as excited as Lucius Fenn in his day: "For years and years," she wrote, "I have believedfor what reason, I wonder, since I never really lived in the houses where the true tradition was but could only visit a while, and listen, and pause always by the gate where I could hear and see it?that I was the one to tell this story you speak of. Almost I have heard The Call!" That letter (dated January 29, 1954, within days after the Quarterly appeared, and sent from Edinboro, Pennsylvania, where husband Fred was teaching college) got her started on her Danish Mormon immigrant novel, eventually published in 1960 by Harcourt Brace as Kingdom Come.
Even Joan Sanders, having earned a reputation as a talented writer of nationally published historical novels set in Europe, eventually looks homeward to Cache Valley, where her prodigal and apprehensive (and very autobiographical) heroine in Other Lips and Other Hearts (1982) hopes for peace and reconciliation with her past. Karen Rosenbaum says of her commitment to writing: "I work slowly, squeezing out stories between the other parts of my life, and I revise continually, recycling the backsides of discarded drafts . . . . I feel writing is work and pleasure and obligation, and I feel mildly guilty most of the time because I do not write as much as I would like to" (Peterson 203). Mark Edward Koltko, summing up his "Thoughts on Mormon Writers," applies Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of values to the Mormon writer's calling: "After a society has addressed its need for safety and a respectable coexistence with other societies, it can then address its need for . . . 'self-actualization' . . . the need for aesthetic fulfillment" (118).
The term "Mormon writer," by the way, which serves well enough loosely applied, may irritate expatriates. Judith Freeman, for one, has voiced her objection: "I do not consider myself a 'Mormon' writer and have a somewhat adverse reaction to being grouped as such."4 "Mormon-born" or "Mormon-bred" may be better terms, suggesting a Mormon heritage and a continuing affectionate connection through family and community. "Mormon-born" writers may be cultural rather than doctrinal Mormons, a term I find hospitable and ecumenical, although in some quarters sure to be regarded as a soft equivalent of secular humanist. Some may be Mormons "by yearning." I am touched by Helen Cannon's confession of faith in the face of the ambiguities and paradoxes she says she wrestles with daily: "I am a Mormon. I am a woman. I question and believe. I yearn for certain things to be true" (Review 149). Some writers who consciously shake the dust of Zion from the soles of their feet nevertheless perversely continue their connection, reluctant to let such rich materials, especially for scorn and satire, go. Then we get a Bernard DeVoto or the "decapitated Mormons" (a reviewer's phrase) of Richard Scowcroft's The Ordeal of Dudley Dean (Christmas 103). Walter Kirn is more kindly. A mother in his story "My Hard Bargain" tells her son she was a Mormon once, for a year, and she doesn't want him to get any wrong ideas about them. "They're good people," she says, "and they stick together, they call each other brother and sister. It creates a nice atmosphere" (64).
The sense of calling in the Mormon writer can be as strong and as clearly defined as, say, the late Wallace Stegner's commitment to "living and writing in the West" (he uses the phrase as the subtitle of his last collection of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, 1992). Like Stegner, who was persistently exercised about what it means to live and write in a particular milieu, the serious Mormon writer seeks to know his or her place in "a true community, an authentic landscape, a defining literature" (Little 34). Not every Mormon writer has given us the particulars of that search with the honesty and daring we get in Phyllis Barber's How I Got Cultured (1992), her sensuous memoir which with alternating anxiety and amusement recounts the conflict of cultures, the debates of body and soul, the pains and hazards of self-discovery as a Mormon girl growing up, shedding old skin for new, in Boulder City and Las Vegas. Her Dialogue essay "The Mormon Woman as Writer," a Mormon counterpart of Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing," describes what propels her to utterance, in her case not ancestral memory but the immediacy of self-awareness: "Once while I was wandering through my life, I had a need to say something. I'm not sure where this something came from, but opinions and observations grew on the interior walls of my mind like lichen, growing into some kind of personal vision that wanted out." Phyllis wanted to find her own voice, she tells us, not "an imitation or an echo," and to expound, "not the capital T Truth but rather my capital P Point of View about the range of truth I think I see" (109).
What Phyllis demands and Virginia in her long career enjoyed is a writer's freedom, a freedom that brings responsibility. It took Virginia six years, years of writing, rewriting, and research, including field trips to Denmark, to finish Kingdom Come, with much worrying meanwhile how to shape it and how to achieve what Stegner called that "middle ground" between history and imagination. A writer's work, his or her "enterprise as writer," to echo Nadine Gordimer echoing Roland Barthes, is his or her "essential gesture as a social being" (286). No Mormon writer, to be sure, no matter how stifling the air he or she may breathe, suffers Gordimer's South African repressions. But in both situations, the Mormon and the South African, the writer's word is the writer's deed wielding potential power and influence and becomes a test of character and courage. No freedom, of course, is absolute, but the multiplied possibilities of choice increase the sense of freedom, a sense precious to any writer who wishes to speak with his or her own voice and not as the mouthpiece of some political or religious ventriloquist. In short, writing has consequences great or smallit may lead to a Divine Comedy or to a Sunday School lesson.
What are the consequences, great or small, of recent Mormon imaginative writing? What features and figures in the contemporary literary landscape? No towering peaks, perhaps, but rising hills and hidden valleys, more beckoning byways than well-traveled highways, and some venturing, like an off-the-road vehicle, into dangerous terrain. And as a constant, the high benchmark of the 1940s, the work of those writers Edward Geary calls "Mormondom's lost generation" (89). Whether we consider them the last of the provincials or our first moderns, they are literary ancestors worth rediscovering. How many come to mind? I didn't think they were quite as forgotten as Geary maintains until I asked Judith Freeman recently whether she had ever read Virginia Sorensen. "Who?" she wanted to know. So much for the Jessamyn West of Mormon writers whose fictional worlds of Cache and Sanpete valleys are as fully realized as Friendly Persuasion and who pointed the way to the "moral realism" (Bruce Jorgensen's term) now a commonplace among her literary heirs.
I see two, possibly three, palpable developments in contemporary Mormon writing:5 first, bold treatment of a broadened, more ecumenical subject matter, going well beyond, in time, the warmed over servings of the pioneer past and, in space, beyond the confines of the Wasatch, the newer interest centering as much on the contemporary urban and suburban as on the traditional rural scene, whether in Zion or among the Saints of the diaspora and embracing the cultures encountered in mission fields or on government or military service abroad.6
A second development is the writer's realization that in treating Mormon themes "technique is discovery," Mark Schorer's term for that reconcili ation of form and content that makes the way a thing is said ultimately what is said (189). It is that "coition of words and things" which has its roots, says Roland Barthes, "in the depths of the author's personal and secret mythology" (32).
A third development is a growing body of literary criticism as a necessary accompaniment to the thematic and artistic advance in contemporary Mormon letters with, as corollary, a possible key to a Mormon aesthetic in Karl Keller's dictum that "not art filling a religious purpose, but religion succeeding in an aesthetic way" should be the aim (17). Forty years ago at a Utah Academy "Symposium on Mormon Culture" I ventured that Mormonism was "perfectly capable of its own Christian Century and Commentary" (211). Today, in 1993 A.D., which is to say "After Dialogue," our intellectual hungers are being fed and critical standards set by Dialogue and its fellow travelers, Sunstone, Exponent II, BYU Studies, and regional academic journals like Weber Studies, Western American Literature, Western Humanities Review, and Quarterly West, none of which can very well ignore Mormon creative and critical expression. Through such nurturing, Mormon literature, like any other literature, can become, in Pound's phrase, "the news that stays news" (29).
Together these developments are producing, in every genrefiction, poetry, drama, and the personal essaya literature not of exhortation and doctrinal correctness but of Emily Dickinson's "freckled human nature." The sweet and sentimental, with its unearned increment of feeling, continues to co-exist, of course, even to flourish, clogging emotional arteries, and stereotypes persist in the less competent work. Helen Cannon, reviewing one such novel, finds that no Mormon character moves beyond a stereotype: "The women carry casseroles and attend to mothering; rigid and patriarchal, the men attend to their meetings" (Review 159). In "Book of Mormon Stories That My Teachers Kept from Me" Neal Chandler, tired of having read First Nephi "too many times" to the neglect of other "story truths" in a work long on exhortation with arid stretches of verbal desert, as in Second Nephi, wants "the whole recalcitrant, embarrassing variety of life that so weighs down our plain and precious precepts of the gospel . . . . It is not because I don't appreciate gospel principles," he says; "it is only because those principles unleavened, unamended, and uncomplicated by life itself or by stories of real living seem to me about as compelling as would grammar in a world without language" ("Book" 15, 30).
Levi Peterson's critical introduction to Greening Wheat: Fifteen Mormon Stories, which appeared in 1983, is both an assessment of the achievement of recent fiction and an analysis of its thematic and formal possibilities. He says Mormon writers are paying attention to style and structure as they explore themes of "compelling significance." "The Mormon ethos," he says, "invites opposition and creates conflict, which inevitably attracts the makers of fiction." He finds that major tensions in Mormon fiction arise "in the possibility of wrong behavior," in "the question of believing or not believing," and from "the failure of the promises," a failure because "Mormons typically cannot accept tragedy as part of the authentic life" and tend to deny and repress "disorderly impulses and emotions." They use the gospel, he says, "as a defense against the traumas of mortality, as a tightly woven fence encircling the fearsome thickets of the unconscious mind" (vii-x).
The Mormon past, of course, continues to receive more celebration than troubled examination in popular historical narratives which trumpet Mormon manifest destiny, as in Gerald N. Lund's on-going sequence The Work and the Glory, which follows the fortunes of the Steed family from the founding years onward. And, in what we may still identify as Mormon Country7 despite a growing international LDS profile, backward glances have produced a distinctive regional literature, on the whole realistic yet genteel and reminiscent of the local colorists of the late 19th centuryexcept for the powerful symbolic naturalism of Douglas Thayer's fully imagined characters and events in stories like "The Red-Tailed Hawk" and Levi Peterson's Night Soil, which cultivates his Mormon version of God's Little Acre in the manner of the southern naturalists, complete with local grotesques.
In his essays "The Poetics of Provincialism" and "Imagining Mormon Country" Ed Geary examines this literature and exemplifies it himself in his classic Goodbye to Poplarhaven: Recollections of a Utah Boyhood, which shares a kinship with other notable regional remembrances: Wayne Carver's "A Child's Christmas in Utah" and Plain City: Portrait of a Mormon Village, Don Marshall's Rummage Sale and Frost in the Orchard, Sam Taylor's Family Kingdom, Rodello Hunter's A House of Many Rooms, Virginia Sorensen's Where Nothing Is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood, David L. Wright's River Saints (in verse), and Douglas Thayer's Under the Cottonwoods. Such stories resemble Willa Cather's celebration of her girlhood's Nebraska: "I knew every farm, every tree, every field in the region around my home and they all called out to me" (Sergeant 219). All are moved by affection and nostalgia, often by gentle irony and wry humor, written "back before the world turned nasty," to echo the title of Pauline Mortensen's recent collection.
Today we get regionalism with a difference. The events and situations in what we may call the new Mormon fiction often border on the sensational but are in fact no more extreme than the news reported in the local papersholy murders, the obsessions of fundamentalists, the excesses of fanatics acting out compulsions rooted in their perverted reading of scripture. In his short story "Jenny, Captured by the Mormons," the very title echoing 19th-century melodrama, John Bennion gives us a returned missionary gone berserk ready to jump off the Church Office Building to prove he is an archangel (115-157). In a single work, Linda Sillitoe's novel Sideways to the Sun, we getwithin the framework of the seemingly normal life of a Mormon warda father's inexplicable desertion, a flight to Navajo country where the errant husband has taken up with a tribal woman, the abandoned wife's angry disaffection symbolized by her shedding her temple garments, adolescents skirting sexual precipices, and a polygamist fundamentalist's near seduction of a confused teenager. That's at the level of plot. The novel's meaningful action shows us a resourceful woman learning how to cope with doubt and adversity and achieving some measure of self-knowledge. An apt metaphor concludes the work:
Sunlight flooded the room. Everywhere in this house, Megan understood, were her own prints, like a potter's hands on clay. Even if her touch was forgotten, it became imprinted. Everyone's did. Now distracted, now intent, they all went on shaping by sun and dusk what never seemed quite ready for the kiln. (255)
There can be nothing more profoundly disturbing than Michael Fillerup's "The Renovation of Marsha Fletcher." Marsha finds no solace for a philandering husband in her desperate attempts at the cosmetic reconstruction of her decaying body until our last glimpse of her shows her driving towardand we may assume intothe sea (39-53). And nothing more chilling than John Bennion's "Dust," fittingly set in Skull Valley, in which the disintegration of a marriage finds its metaphor writ large in the impending doom of the chemical experiments being carried out at the testing grounds in the desert. Equally doomladen, but in the quiet way in which hearts can break, is Bennion's "The Interview," about a returned missionary about to be married wrestling with the knowledge of his homosexuality and confessing to a sorrowing priesthood counselor, who is as helpless as he is sympathetic (1-14, 27-41).
Levi Peterson's The Canyons of Grace gives us troubled episodes in the lives of otherwise ordinary people with stunning effect. The titles of the six stories in the collection, all metaphors of religious experience, suggest profound transformations: "The Confessions of Augustine," "Trinity," "Road to Damascus," "The Shriveprice," "The Christianizing of Coburn Heights,"
"The Canyons of Grace." Together they form more than a verbal design. They achieve a thematic unitythrough suffering and penance, remembrance and recognition, resignation and resolve. Hurt and healing prevail in equal measure. Through Peterson's poetic imagination latter-day tribulations become part of a wider world and a Christian tradition as old as St. Paul and St. Augustine and as contemporary as Graham Greene and Flannery O'Connor. Mormon anguish at last connects with its aboriginal source in the doctrine of salvation through grace, an amazing grace which wears no label.
Such stories validate Lavina Fielding Anderson's contention in "Making 'the Good' Good for Something: A Direction for Mormon Literature" that the new Mormon fiction has moved "beyond the fields of home literature and regional realism to make Mormon spiritual experience accessible to fiction." Writers can take advantage of what she calls "the cultural shorthand about spiritual experience that exists in Mormonism" (108). This would include that moral realism Bruce Jorgensen finds characterizes Virginia Sorensen's The Evening and the Morning ("Herself" 50).
Mormon moderns are clearly stretching the old limits of theme and technique, displaying a mastery of style and structure, of voice and tone and point of view, all working together, all the words "combed the same way," as Robert Frost once said the words of a poem should be. There are as many modes and manners as there are writers, exemplifying the whole range of American prose traditions from "paleface" to "redskin": from the minimalism of Darrell Spencer's Woman Packing a Pistol to the tropical fecundity of Margaret Blair Young's Salvador; from the beguiling simplicity of Eileen Kump's Bread and Milk to the lapidary prose of Franklin Fisher's Bones, a "portrait of the artist as a young missionary"; from the puckish laughter of Elouise Bell's Only When I Laugh to the mordant humor of Pauline Mortensen's Back Before the World Turned Nasty; from the deft word play and urban interiors of Neal Chandler's Benediction to the natural imagery and rugged outdoors of Douglas Thayer's Mr. Wahlquist in Yellowstone and Other Stories. Language is often pleasurable for its own sake: Chandler's stories about Mormons of the diaspora who are very much in the world and increasingly of it, and show the strain, give us urban middle-class Mormons hardly to be distinguished from middle America until their speech betrays them, their congregational language rich in collective memory and allusion. Thus we get "doctrinal punch" at Mormon socials, a smug Sunday School teacher sounding "like Dan Rather in the last days," a student "pure and unspotted from math," and a pyramid scheme with a strong resemblance to Amway as "God's own plan . . . the only divinely authorized plan for financial success in this life or the next" (Benediction passim).
Structure can be as sophisticated as style: Fillerup's story of a young teacher's determination to finish painting the rundown chapel on the Navajo reservation before he returns to less demanding academic life is perfectly paced. As he moves his shaky ladder from beam to beam and wearily mounts it to paint the almost unreachable ceiling, he recalls, stage by stage, his experiences, as precarious as his perch, serving The People (Visions 115-58). In Margaret Young's House without Walls (1991) a single image controls the structure: multiple meanings of walls as separation pervade the novelthe Berlin Wall as physical barrier separating families, ideologies, and freedom and repression; figurative walls of prejudice, misunderstanding, hatred and sin; St. Paul's "middle wall of partition" (in Ephesians 2:14) between saints and strangers brought down by the blood of Christ; and the wall between mortality and eternal life razed in the resurrection.
We get wonderful extensions of the Mormon imagination in the legends of the Three Nephites which are alive not only in folklore but in creative retellings as in Peterson's "The Third Nephite" (Night 19-39) and Chandler's "The Last Nephite" (Benediction 166-194). William A. (Bert) Wilson, our foremost Nephite watcher among folklorists, tells us where they operate nowadays in his essay "Freeways, Parking Lots, and Ice Cream Stands: The Three Nephites in Contemporary Society" (13-26).
Mormonism, given its cosmogony and theogony, its occult origins and supernaturalism, is fertile ground for fantasy fiction. With Orson Scott Card's The Memory of Earth the Book of Mormon has gone interplanetary in an ambitious project, Michael Collings tells us, "to reproduce the overt narrative structure and underlying ethical, moral, and theological conflicts of the Book of Mormon" (178). Who could fail to recognize Nafai, a central character in Homecoming, the first volume in a promised trilogy. It is inevitable that Mormon theology, with a plan of salvation that extends from a timeless pre-existence to a timeless hereafter, should inspire futuristic, utopian fiction. Nephi Anderson's Added Upon, still in print, is both descendant and ancestor in this literary tradition.
To move on to poetry, also full of the Mormon writer's essential gestures. A richly rewarding sampler to put beside Greening Wheat is Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems, edited by (who else?) Eugene England and Dennis Clark, which appeared in 1989 from Signature and opens with poems by Helen Candland Stark, a poet not without honor in her own country, who was Sunstone Symposium's banquet speaker in 1992. Harvest's twin editors have appended a pair of complementary essays to their text"New Tradition," by England, and "New Directions," by Clark, the one a mini-history of poetry among the Latter-day Saints, giving an account of contemporary poets born before 1940, the other a mini-poetics, emphasizing the auditory and linguistic pleasures of poetry. In the last thirty years, says England, Mormon poetry has moved away from "the heavily didactic mode" of "Home Literature"the hymns, narratives, and faith-promoting verse which continues in the official literature. The "new tradition" marks a shift from the institutional to the deeply personal. The new poets achieve "an unusually healthy integration of skillful form with significant content . . . . They tend," he says, "to be ironic, intellectually playful, skeptical, self-reflexive . . . . They care deeply about ideas and values" (285-88). England calls Clinton F. Larson's "To a Dying Girl" his finest, a poem I consider a sophisticated illustration of what Marden Clark means by "liberating form" (1-15):
How quickly must she go?
She calls dark swans from mirrors everywhere:
From halls and porticos, from pools of air.
How quickly must she know?
They wander through the fathoms of her eye,
Waning southerly until their cry
Is gone where she must go.
How quickly does the cloudfire streak the sky,
Tremble on the peaks, then cool and die?
She moves like evening into night,
Forgetful as the swans forget their flight
Or spring the fragile snow,
So quickly she must go. (Harvest 30)
Emma Lou Thayne, who has made the transition into the new tradition, has gone far "past the gate" in her travels and her themes. "How Much for the Earth?" she wants to know. In "Woman of Another World, I Am with You" she strikes an ecumenical note:
You, woman of different tongue,
Speak in the language of light
that flutters between us.
Open my heart to your dailiness;
give voice to your fears and celebrations
as you wonder at mine.
Your family becomes me,
the substance of what you believe
colors my view.
You take me on.
Here, here is my hand.
Filled with yours
it pulses with new hope
and a fierce longing
to let the light that guides us both
tell me where to be. (Harvest 42)
Here indeed is "the writer's essential gesture as a social being."
Of the later group of poets (which is to say the generation younger than mine) Kathy Evans, of Mills Valley, California, has brought out a collection of her own called Imagination Comes to Breakfast in which "the suburbs are as full of unexpected wonder as a foreign countryside." Her lines speak of "the audible and the inaudible religion of moments." When Jehovah's Witnesses are at the door talking of Armageddon, "I have my own Apocalypse./The soup bones in the broth are bubbling./I hear spiders in the cupboards/and the angels shaking tambourines." In "Staying Home from Work" she says "Milosz was right./Even unremembered, the essential if attended to,/will surely stun, surely last" (passim).
Melanie Shumway's imagination comes to breakfast too: in a startling juxtaposition in "Over Coffee, 600 B.C." a contemporaneous citizen of Jerusalem narrates the slaying of Laban and poses a moral question plaguing believers to this day:
A friend of mine told me
so I know it's true
she saw someone in the road
behind her house
last night. . . .
. . . this morning
when she looked around
she found the man
lying in the alley
without his head. . . .
Then she noticed he'd been robbed.
But I told her
what my mother always says,
two wrongs don't make a right,
and she agreed.
but now the problem is
a madman roams the streets.
There's no way to know
what he'll do next.
I hope he's caught and put to death
before he kills again and disturbs
us decent people of Jerusalem. (181-82)
Once again the Book of Mormon, ur - source of Mormonism's created past, has fertilized contemporary imagination. Clearly, the best of our poets are giving us what Marianne Moore said poetry should: "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" (1296).
Fiction, poetry, and the personal essay8 dominate contemporary Mormon letters. The dramatists are few, the productions infrequent. Happily, Sunstone's symposia have lately included several readings on their programs. I must confess my own ignorance. I have heard Wanda Clayton Thomas read her delightful dialect play Celestial Bliss, or Heavenly Marriage and been moved by Carol Lynn Pearson's remarkable impersonations in Mother Wove the Morning. I know Thomas F. Roger's Huebener only as text; I missed last year's performances in Provo, which I understand theatre-goers stood in line to see, a reprise of the scene at its opening at BYU in 1976 when, with Ivan Crosland directing, it became an event, a "happening." It's my loss, because on the page Huebener is powerful. The play centers on a young Mormon convert in Germany who dared to oppose Nazi anti-Semitism and, like Antigone, finds himself caught on the horns of an ethical dilemma, "caught between the obedience he was taught he owed authority, both civil and ecclesiastical, and the dictates of his conscience" (Rogers v). Performances left their mark not only on audiences but on the performers themselves, as Margaret Blair Young tells us in "Doing Huebener," which looks behind the scenes and asks some searching questions about the rewards and hazards of undertaking something so controversial that ten years ago the Brethren prevented it from being performed elsewhere (127-32).
Rogers, who favors Euripides over Sophocles in his probing of character, studies the fate of John D. Lee, "a more ambiguous martyr," in Fire in the Bones, first produced in 1978, (which I was lucky enough to catch in a strong reading performance at the May meeting of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters in Cedar City, the geography not lost on those who know the history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre). Both plays, explains Rogers, "suggest to what extent the rest of us are, in a collective setting, prone to mob psychology and a far from ethical or spiritually sublime response to the 'other.'" The protagonists are designedly heroic, the followers neurotic, "hence more modern, more like we recognize ourselves to be" (vi).
Rogers's durable plays demonstrate that Mormon drama, like other genres, is capable of developing in new directions. Lael Woodbury's survey "A New Mormon Theatre" goes back to 1969 but remains a necessary point of departure for any assessment since then, together with Orson Scott Card's 1976 Sunstone essay "Mormon Shakespears [sic]: A Study of Contemporary Mormon Theatre," which he wrote tongue-in-cheek under the pseudonym Frederick Bliss and Ms. P. Q. Gump. He describes several categoriesmiracle plays like Promised Valley, hero plays like The Tragedy of Korihor, scriptural plays, Mormon history plays, contemporary Mormon plays, and secular plays by Mormon authorsand names five "watershed" plays: Martin Kelly's And They Shall Be Gathered, about the conversion of an Armenian couple; Carol Lynn Pearson's musical The Order Is Love, about Orderville; Card's Stone Tables, a musical about Moses and Aaron, a study in character stress and change which Card himself calls flawed; Douglas Stewart's Saturday's Warrior, another musical and hero play about, as I suppose everyone knows (especially since Salt Lake Acting Company's parody Saturday's Voyeur), the issue of premortal spirits thwarted by earthly birth control; and Robert Elliott's Fires of the Mind, about a central character desperately looking for a testimony, considered best for its realistic language and characterization. Clinton Larson's plays are considered "unproducable" but notable for their poetry.
All of this was in the 1970s. "Bliss and Gump's" parting shot is that the Mormon theatre audience needs educating: "There is no dearth of the undiscerning who will flock to inferior plays . . . . Elizabethan theatre," we are reminded, "did not begin with Shakespear [sic]: audiences had to grow up on Box and Cox, Gammer Gurton's Needle and other such pablum before they were ready for Hamlet and King Lear . . . . And if a giant should arise among Mormon dramatists," Card concludes, "it will be because the audience is ready. And not until" (55-66), a conclusion that underscores all the more Rogers's achievement, to the disappointment, no doubt, of Wayne Booth's bewildered Smoother, that invisible messenger from The Chief (Old Nick himself) despatched to Earth to try to "reverse the revolting improvement in the arts we have been witnessing on every hand." Smoother was to "stamp out every vestige of serious artistic effort by Mormons, and to make sure that nobody noticed what had happened. On the one hand, silence or drive out the genuine artist; on the other, make sure that everybody feels good about the substitute art that is left behind," because "Once people take seriously [President Kimball's] suggestion that there is a close tie between the virtue of craftsmanship and the virtue of religious devotion, our goose is cooked" (11, 14).
Which brings us, in closing, to a few words about the third development in contemporary Mormon lettersthe growing body of discerning literary criticism, criticism crucial to the continuing health of the literature itself. Years ago, in 1969 to be exact, the late Karl Keller startled us with his Dialogue essay on "The Delusions of a Mormon Literature" (my emphasis), arguing that we had become "reactionaries against literature rather than lovers of it" and that "we live[d] in constant fear of literature." He looked for the day when we would no longer confuse literature with apologetics but see that "working the way faith does, the esthetic experience of writing is itself a spiritual exercise" and "reading literature . . . is an exercise in renewing our grounds of belief" (17). Keller's esthetics were sound but, officially, his cause hopeless, for the kind of writing and reading he advocated was the kind Wayne Carver predicted would "scare The Powers That Be." "What scares the Powers That Be," Carver wrote, in the same issue of Dialogue, "is . . . the possibility, terrible and blasphemous, that when emotion is both concentrated and released in images of high intensity, the resulting sense of life may overflow the social forms consecrated to domesticating it." Yet, Carver hoped for "a Mormon literature of enduring sensitivity and vigor, one that will not be stopped by a few phone calls" (71).
James Russell Lowell in his day cautioned overzealous literary nationalists that a national literature needed more than patriotismit required critical standards. Just so, Mormon literature needs more than piety. It needs, Pauline Mortensen would say, to be "rendered": "To render: to make, to do, to perform, to furnish, to provide, to pay back. The list goes on" (104), suggesting infinite possibilities for the writer disciplined by craft.
Mormon writers are no more privy to God's purposes than scientists, theologians, or philosophers, though, like them, they are free to speculate about the mysteries, but they find God's observable creatures more available than His inscrutable purposes and, fortunately for us their readers, make the mysteries of human nature and the spiritual struggles of the characters who inhabit their stories, plays, and poetry their proper business. Paul Swenson sums up the continuing literary situation in Mormondom succinctly: when in 1831 Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-29 declared men and women to be "agents unto themselves," "the genius of Mormon creativity and a source of future tension were born" (D8).
That, it seems to me, is the burden of contemporary Mormon letters. In their work, their enterprise as writers, in their craft and calling, Mormon writers are making essential gestures as accountable members of their society. "I make my way in the world telling tales," says Taleswapper in Orson Card's Seventh Son (234). May our storytellers help us continue to be a literate people, a people who began with a book and who, heaven help us, will resist becoming, as Helen Cannon fears we may, a people of the video ("of the Book" 117).
1 This essay, written expressly for Weber Studies, had an airing in abbreviated form at the Sunstone Symposium held on 8 August 1992 in Salt Lake City. A companion piece of sorts, "Telling It Slant: Aiming for Truth in Contemporary Mormon Literature," originally read at one of AML's literary cottage meetings in September 1991, appears in Dialogue, Summer 1993.
2 I quote from memory.
3 The anthology (Signature books 1992) embraces the full sweep of modern Mormon fiction, from Virginia Sorensen and Maurine Whipple of the "lost generation" of Mormon writers, through Douglas Thayer and Donald Marshall, second generation authors who were "first to probe contemporary Mormon culture," to such recent writers as Orson Scott Card, Judith Freeman, Neal Chandler, Phyllis Barber, Walter Kirn, Levi Peterson, and Margaret Young, twenty-two writers in all.
4 In a letter of 29 July 1992 to Neila Seshachari, editor of Weber Studies.
5 Here I reiterate points made in "Telling It Slant," Dialogue, Summer 1993.
6For example, Central America in Margaret Blair Young's Salvador and Germany in her House without Walls and in Thomas F. Rogers's Huebener, Brazil in David Gagon's Honorable Release, Israel in Emma Lou Thayne's Once in Israel, California and Mexico in Judith Freeman's The Chinchilla Farm, France in stories by Levi Peterson and Don Marshall, Ohio in Neal Chandler's Benediction, a scattering of states in Walter Kirn's My Hard Bargain, India in the poetry of Loretta Randall Sharp, West Africa in Kathryn Lindquist's "Seeing Ourselves in the Bambara Mirror."
7 Signature Books' marketing demographics "for books with a Mormon target audience" confirm it in a table of percentages of Mormon population by states: Utah 77.2, Idaho 29.2, Nevada 10.1, Wyoming 10.6, Arizona 6.8. Hawaii with a 4.5 percentage that history can explain outstrips remaining states in percentages. In terms of numbers rather than percentages, California (716,000) is second only to Utah (1,305,000), with Idaho (293,000), Arizona (236,000), Washington (184,000), Texas (148,000), Oregon (111,000), Nevada (106,000), Colorado (87,000), Wyoming (51,000), New Mexico (49,000), Hawaii (49,000), Montana (34,000), and Arkansas (21,000) following in descending order. (Source: Signature Books Catalog 1992-1993, p. 25)
8 For a commentary on the personal essay, a form congenial to Mormon experience and by nature an "essential gesture" in its soul-searching testimonials to the struggle between faith and doubt, see my Dialogue essay "Telling It Slant," Summer 1993, which appraises Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's "Lusterware."
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