Mormon Fiction

A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints

Section Introduction: Fiction

Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert, editors

I think our own people are producing some of the purest and best literature. It may not be polished with the smoothness and elegance of rhetorical mastery, but it contains nothing that will injure, and very much that will elevate and refine. --Susa Young Gates

Mormon fiction, now progressing nicely, was slow aborning.

In the early years of the Church there was little fiction. Parley P. Pratt, as we show in this section, indulged his rich imagination with the writing of some delightful dialogues which echo frontier speech and vitality. But these atypical dialogues were religious treatises in thin disguise.

Early Mormon periodicals preached of the evils of reading fiction, not an uncommon attitude in America but a short remove from Puritanism and a natural attitude in a people who had given so much to escape the compromising influences of a world whose values they rejected. Yet as the Mormons settled firmly into the West, and as the Church magazines, called "home literature," took hold, the attitude toward fiction shifted to one of qualified acceptance. Home literature, comprised of books and journals and articles written by Latter-day Saints for the edification of their fellow believers, alternated with the increased reprinting of morally acceptable stories by popular nonMormon writers to awaken the literary appetites of many young Latter-day Saints.

The result was a flood of moralistic stories from the pens of such writers as Augusta Joyce Crocheron, Josephine Spencer, Susa Young Gates, and Nephi Anderson. These stories, long on plot and short on artistry and character development, appeared in virtually every issue of the Contributor, the Woman's Exponent, the Young Woman's Journal, and the Improvement Era. Modern Mormons, more sophisticated in their tastes, reject the stories while continuing to applaud the morality of tales wherein the love of young Mormons, strained by a temporary straying from the faith by one of the pair, is rewarded with happiness when the erring one realizes that he or she had been misled by a wicked world. Other variations included the apostasy and resultant misery of a once-stalwart Saint. or the suitor who finally saw (or, alas, failed to see) the truth of Mormonism and married the girl from the mountains (or rode sadly off, full of bittersweet admiration for a girl who could stick by her faith). These stories, similar to the popular stories being read by all of America during the last half of the nineteenth century, are amusing to the few modern readers who indulge, but they often afford interesting cultural insights into life in the Mormon West, where life under polygamy and words such as "mission," "ward," "stake," "bishop," and "temple work" were part of the idiom which linked the Mormons in a solid front against the inroads of "outsiders."

The first several decades of the twentieth century afforded little excellence in shorter fiction, the heyday of Mormon short story writers passing with Nephi Anderson and Josephine Spencer, who are represented in this section. Church magazines did little to foster anything more than the short. underdeveloped, and strongly didactic tale. In recent years. however. more and more artists have turned with increasing success to their Mormon backgrounds for subject matter. Their explorations of the Mormon world, with an eye to examining universal human experience as it is filtered through the prism of Mormonism, have yielded some rich discoveries. We present some of these stories here, stories revealing the craftsmanship of authors such as Virginia Sorensen, Eileen G. Kump, Douglas H. Thayer, and Donald R. Marshall, all of whom grew up in Mormon towns and villages and experienced at first hand the confrontation in their lives of the idealism of the Latter-day Saints with the realities of the world beyond the mountains.

The stories by these writers and others demonstrate clearly that while Mormon fiction was slow in developing, it has reached a very virile puberty' and continuing life signs are strong.

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