William A. Wilson: Folklore in The Giant Joshua

Folklore in The Giant Joshua

A paper presented at the Third Annual Symposium of
The Association for Mormon Letters,
Marriott Library, University of Utah, October 7, 1978

William A. Wilson

[01]   According to Ms. Whipple's own account, she grew up in Utah's Dixie surrounded by folklore. She loved to talk to the old people and listened eagerly to their tales of pioneer times. Later, when she began work on The Giant Joshua, some of these old people were still alive and she turned to them once again for inspiration and for stories of Dixie's past. Incorporating what she had learned into her novel, she created in the process one of the best collections of early Mormon and Western lore yet published, a work surpassed only by Austin and Alta Fife's Saints of Sage and Saddle. The book contains scores of proverbs, superstitions, remarkable providences, folksongs, legends, and humorous anecdotes. It is equally rich in descriptions of material culture and particularly of folk practices--of games, of dances, of holiday celebrations, and of arts and crafts. It contains, for instance, over sixty references to foodways alone, thus providing us with a fairly clear picture of the daily fare of the impoverished Dixieites.

[02]   But The Giant Joshua excells as a work of folklore not because Ms. Whipple scatters a substantial number of folklore items through its pages, but because she uses these items in what folklorists call context--that is in the social milieu in which they exist and in which they function in the lives of those who possess them. All too many collections of folklore have provided pages of folklore texts but have left untouched the human beings who lie behind the texts. Thus when we have looked through, let us say, a list of folk beliefs and superstitions, we have found it easy to smile at whimsical-sounding cures like mare's milk for whooping cough, at bacon fat wrapped around the neck for a sore throat, or at gargles of rough elm bark for the black canker. But when we are forced to look beyond such a list to actual mothers in The Giant Joshua and when we see them struggling to keep their children alive and turning desperately to these traditional remedies as their only hope, our smiles soon turn to tears.

[03]   The great strength of The Giant Joshua as a work of folklore is that throughout the novel Ms. Whipple sets practically every folklore item in it--from medicinal remedies like these to songs of the evil Deps and to games played at Clory's birthday party--in cultural context that helps us understand more about the force of folklore in the lives of people than do many of the scholarly works in the field. As Mary Ellen Lewis has argued recently, the novelist, with intuitive insight, can frequently create context for us that the scholar can only approximate. The Giant Joshua succeeds as a work of folklore, then, because Ms. Whipple, as a novelist, had to surround that folklore with life. On the other hand, the life in the novel frequently rings true because it is based on folklore.

[04]   In the past, students of folklore in literature have produced a pretty sterile body of scholarship. They have scoured through literary works to find folklore-sounding items, have searched for analogues outside the works to prove that the items are indeed folklore, and then have published articles under such titles as "Proverbs in the Fiction of So and So." In the process they have expended great amounts of energy but have produced little light. Their long lists of folklore have taught us next to nothing about the works of literature themselves.

[05]   Recently, a growing number of folklorists, having tired of these literary detective games, have begun to look at last at the ways authors have actually used folklore to achieve their artistic ends. So far they have developed no comprehensive model for studying folklore in a work of literature. I shall not attempt one today. Instead, like my colleagues, I shall look at different forms of folklore in one specific work, in this case in The Giant Joshua, and shall try to explain how some of these forms function in the novel. Because my time is limited, my illustrations must be also.

[06]   According to President Harold B. Lee, the purpose of the gospel is to make bad men good and good men better. If this is true, then there are few characters in The Giant Joshua who reach this ideal. Erastus Snow, David Wight, and Wilhelmina MacIntyre are all good people, but they are already good as the novel begins and they do not change much as the plot develops. They are frequently sustained by their faith as they face hardships and persecution, but they are not much improved by it. In the main they are moved, as Edward Geary suggests, by their humanistic devotion to an Idea rather than to church doctrine and by their equally humanistic resolve never to give up the fight, no matter what the cost.

[07]   In the lives of Bathsheba, Abijah, and Clorinda MacIntyre the gospel is important, but its influence is mostly negative. It makes the termagant Sheba even meaner by forcing her into polygamy; it turns the basically tender and loving Abijah into an arrogant, narrow-minded zealot; and it strikes the gaiety of Clory's eyes and silences the bells in her laughter as she struggles unsuccessfully to accommodate her hunger for freedom with the authoritarian demands of the church. In the delineation of these three characters--and particularly of Sheba and Abijah--superstitions and proverbs play a key role.

[08]   In my judgment, Sheba is the most fully drawn character in the novel--a magnificent and terrible shrew, a woman designed to fit the Dixie landscape, a landscape both savage and brutal. This savagery is exemplified in Sheba's superstitious practices. The novel is full of folk beliefs, but with the exceptions of Keturah Snow's worrying about a cat sucking breath from a baby and of unmarried girls' trying to divine their future mates at Clory's birthday party, the community superstitions all have to do with folk medicine, particularly with herbal cures. Sheba, too, knows many of these, but a number of her practices depart from these more common superstitions and, like her own nature, seem to come from the dark side of the world. To cure her corns, for example, she spits on her fingers and makes a cross over them; she claims that a baby who sees itself in the mirror will die; she warns Willie, who is in labor, to be sure she hasn't any double-bitted axes around, so she won't have twins; she attempts to hold back Willie's labor by wrapping a leather strap around her wrist; she claims that Clory's baby will be marked because Clory, while pregnant, is frightened by a rattlesnake; and she uses freshly killed rabbit brains for the gums of a child cutting teeth. Like the Indian Tutsegabbet she realizes that she has to propitiate all her gods to protect herself from harm, so she wears her temple garments as armor against bullets and arrows and at the same time keeps a snake's rattle over the lintel to charm away the Deps. Unlike old Tutsegabbett, however, Sheba lacks charity and concern for others and thus remains in many ways the true savage in the novel. Ms. Whipple's description of Sheba's soap making serves as a good metaphor for her nature in general. "She looked like a high priestess of some sinister cult serving up black magic."

[09]   In spite of these negative images, we at times see Sheba in a somewhat sympathetic light, particularly on those occasions when she thinks back on happier times when she did not have to share her husband with a younger, more attractive woman like Clory. But we needn't read far to discover that even without polygamy, Sheba would probably be a mean, petty woman. Above all else she enjoys meddling in other people's lives. At a relief Society quilting bee, for instance, she ruthlessly cuts apart one community member after another, each time making herself appear morally superior to the person maligned. In a similar vein, but even more malevolently, Sheba constantly belittles Clory, whom she has come to hate. She does so by bearing tales to Abijah of the misdeeds of Clory and her children and particularly by haranguing Clory with an endless flow of didactic proverbs. Proverbs which can be applied to appropriate situations in the present. Thus Sheba, by using these traditional phrases, is able to give the appearance of expressing not only her own disapproval of Clory but also the disapproval of wise men and women everywhere.

[10]   Practically each day of her life, Clory must stand before the imperious Sheba, watch the hair on her chin mole quiver with virtue, and listen to statements like these: "The girl who pokes fun at her elders comes to no good end"; "whisper in church, your soul's in the lurch'; "it isn't enough to be good, you have to be good for something"; "never leave today's work for tomorrow; tomorrow will have enough of its own"; "make tracks, the Lord hates a dawdler"; "a thing well done is twice done"; "an idle tongue's the Devil's workshop"; "a place for everything and everything in its place." there is nothing inherently wrong with these proverbs, of course, and in another context they might serve a positive function. In The Giant Joshua, however, they serve primarily to reaffirm Sheba's smug faith in her own moral uprightness and to make Clory feel bad, bad enough that she longs to be free from Sheba, from polygamy, and from the suffocating life in the Dixie mission.

[11]   Unlike his wife Sheba, Abijah MacIntyre subscribes to few superstitions. but like her, he is full of proverbs. However, whereas Sheba draws her aphorisms from a large body of traditional lore, Abijah takes his mostly from the scriptures and from statements of church authorities, statements he memorizes and makes his own. And whereas Sheba uses proverbs to express her feelings, Abijah uses them to cloak his.

[12]   In spite of his frequent cruelty, his self-righteousness, and his extreme male chauvinism, Clory stays with Abijah because she understands that behind the mask he generally shows to both the world and to herself stands a man capable of much love and tenderness. Unfortunately, just as Abijah's whiskers hide the sensitive dimple in his chin so too does his religion mask and suppress these natural affections. On only one occasion in the novel- -when he blesses his injured daughter Kissy--is he fully able to forget himself and use his religion to serve others. At other times he is far too aware of his own importance as a spokesman for God to be genuinely and unselfishly concerned with the affairs of his fellow Dixieites. Thus only now and then, when he momentarily forgets his high calling as one of God's elect, does he allow himself to drop the mask, to make love to Clory without shame and to embrace his children without embarrassment. On other occasions, when he feels the need to express his natural sentiments but lacks the courage to do so, he hides behind his mask of religious proverbs. For example, when he begins to have trouble with his son Freeborn, the advice he gives him sounds as though it had come from Shakespeare's old fool Polonius givning advice to his son Laertes: "Remember, my son, the Prophet's advice: 'Grain for man, corn for the ox, oats for the horse, rye for fowls and swine, barley for mild drinks--always keep the Word of Wisdom; strong drinks are not for the belly.'" The tragedy is that Abijah is not Polonius. He loves hsi wild towhead Free with all his heart. Yet when Free leaves for the Indian battle from which Abijah senses he will not return and when he tries desperately to tell him how he feels, he retreats once again from his true feelings to his proverbs: "Well, my son, I want ye to be humble and follow the leaders o' this Church and ye will never go astray. . . . I have learned that if we do our duty the Lord will provide. . . . I hae not used coffee, tobacco, and strong drink, nor have I profaned the name of Deity."

[13]   Superstitions and proverbs are less important in Ms. Whipple's characterization of Clory, but still they play a part. The only superstitions Clory really knows are a few remedies to improve the looks, something one would expect from a beauty-conscious young woman, and her proverbs are nothing remarkable at all. Most of them are directed at herself: "I'd forget my head if it weren't fastened on"; "I'm as full as a tick." But the lack of these items in Clory's life is as important as their presence in the lives of Sheba and Abijah. Because she rejects Sheba's occult practices and because she does not use proverbs to hurt others or to hide her natural feelings, she stands in sharp contrast to the dark and tyrannical Sheba and the self-righteous and unfeeling Abijah. As a result, we see her, from the outset, as a sympathetic character.

[14]   Proverbs and superstitions play, perhaps, the most obvious parts in The Giant Joshua, but other forms of folklore fill equally important roles. For me, two of the most moving passages in the novel are the two occasions when Erastus Snow--first after the arrival of the saints in Dixie and second after the plague has carried off many of the colony's youngsters--rebuilds the courage of his people by gathering them together and engaging them in story-telling sessions in whihc they find courage to face present trials by telling stories of past hardships--stories of Clay County, of Nauvoo, of Haun's Mill, of the great plains. In these passages, Ms. Whipple has her characters consciously recount legends that have come down to us from events in the past.

[15]   But her use of legends is really far more subtle than this. Ms. Whipple not only puts legends into the mouths of her characters; the actions these characters perform are themselves frequently based on legends. For example, Abijah's administering to an ox, Clory's deciding to stay in Dixie because of the beauty of the sego lilies, the Indian battles, Clory's hiding an Indian youngster in her skirts, Tutsegabett's putting his fat wife into the Virgin River to stop the flow of water, the Nephite's appearing to Abijah, Abijah's missionary stories, the Devil's appearing at the dedication of the St. George temple, the first wife's breaking a window pane over the head of her husband in bed with his second wife, the Cohab and Dep experiences--these and numerous other events in the novel all have counterparts in oral tradition. To this list we can add the large number of remarkable providences which though perhaps not based on actual legends, have grown out of legend producing beliefs. These would include such events as the dam's washing out because the brethren had raised corn instead of the cotton they had been commanded to raise, Zadoc Hunt's sandstone house weathering because he had defied counsel and quarried the stones without permission, Sister Hansen's remaining barren because she had been a prostitute, and Clory's children dying because she had not been a dutiful polygamous wife.

[16]   These legends serve numerous functions in the novel. I can mention only two of them here. First and most obviously, the legends give life to Ms. Whipple's narrative. It is axiomatic that people tell and keep alive stories about those events which interest them most or are most important to them. By collecting these stories and working them into the novel's narrative fabric, Me. Whipple has enlivened a plot that could have degenerated, as it actually does in some places, into a sentimental story or a philosophical tract.

[17]   Second, and perhaps most importantly, the legends echo one of the main conflicts in the narrative. Throughout the novel miraculous, faith-promoting stories, told in high seriousness, are followed again and again by other stories which discredit them. For example, Abijah administers to the sick ox pulling the wagon in which the pregnant Betsy Tuckett is located. The ox recovers, but the baby is born before the train reaches its intended destination. Following a severe drought, Erastus Snow prays for rain; the rain comes, but in such abundance that it floods out most of the crops. When Abijah, in spite of contrary counsel, decides to bring out ore from a mine he has discovered, a Nephite appears to him and causes him to forget where the mine is located. But a few days later his own son Free and Gottlieb Uttley devise a Nephite hoax which tends to make fun of the entire Nephite tradition. When Millenium Tuckett is the first child stricken by the plague, Erastus Snow promises he will recover; he does, but then Snow's own child is the first to die. Abijah, full of testimony, blesses Clory before she delivers her son James, and the delivery goes well. A short time later, full of the same testimony, he blesses Willie before she delivers her daughter Temple. But Willie dies.

[18]   This conflict between faith and doubt in the legends is the same one Clory struggles with all her life as she is pulled one day toward faith and a desire to conform and the next toward disbelief and an urge to be free. The conflict is never resolved and we are left wondering whether God is really in His heaven or whether we are subject only to the bludgeonings of chance. Resolved or not, the conflict adds dramatic tension to the novel--and the legends heighten that tension by providing a resonant background for the conflict.

[19]   Shortly after the saints arrive in Dixie, Erastus Snow, accompanied by mountainman Shadrach Guant, looks out over the valley and is overcome by the glorious work that lies ahead. "Here," he exults, "everyman will love his neighbor." To which Guant happily replies, "Or else, by gadder, we'll shoot him" For me, one of the principal saving graces of The Giant Joshua is its delightful frontier humor.

[20]   I have heard that in Logan, where I have just moved, it gets so cold in the winter the railroad tracks huddle together to keep warm. The Loganites who tell this joke are following a pattern found throughout frontier America, where men and women, faced with almost unbearable living conditioins, have managed to endure by telling self-deprecating jokes and exaggerated tales about their environment. This is the humor of The Giant Joshua. For example, when the storm mentioned above washes out the crops, Lon tuckett quips: "I vum, Brother Snow, when you was askin' the Lord for rain, why didn't you tell him how much.'" When solemn Abijah asks the same Lon Tuckett if he can drive a particular team of horses without swearing, Tuckett replies: "By Gorry, I don't know. This nigh horse is such a God damn balky fool I expect I shall swear some." When Gottlieb Uttley's father rises in testimony to express appreciation for his family, he says of the errant Gottlieb: "Of course, Gottlieb is not a goot poy; he smokes and he trinks and svears. . . but t'ank God he's a goot Later-Tay Saint!" And when Brigham Young gives the aged Zebedee Trupp permission to marry a young girl, he adds: "Just let me warn you, she's a-going to need a lot more than the laying on of hands!"

[21]   This last joke, of course, is told also about J. Golden Kimball and Apostle Reed Smoot. It and most of the jokes in the novel are not Ms. Whipple's inventions but rather floating anecdotes taken from oral tradition and worked skillfully into the narrative, where they serve to break tension when it builds too high and to increase our admiration of the gutsy Dixieites.

[22]   If the superstitions and proverbs function in the novel to help develop character and set the scene for the Clory's struggles with Abijah and Sheba, if the legends energize the narrative and reinforce the novel's basic conflict, and if the humorous anecdotes provide a sort of comic relief while at the same time helping characterize the tough, resilient pioneers, then the numerous descriptions of material culture and of customary practices make the actions of the novel seem realistic and believable.

[23]   Time will not permit my giving examples of these descriptions. Suffice it to say that Ms. Whipple's detailed, almost ethnographic, accounts of games, of parties, of dances, of quilting bees, of soap making, of spinning, of yarn dyeing, and of houses, clothing and food--all these accounts, worked carefully into the narrative, give the novel a sense of immediacy and enhance the verisimilitude of the plot.

[24]   The literary critic Constance Rourke has argued that a truly American literatrue could not develop until a body of native American lore had first come into being, a lore that later underpinned and gave vitality to the literature. Perhaps the same thing can be said for Mormon literatrue. By the twentieth century the Mormons had, as Thomas O'Dea has remarked, experienced enough together that they had developed into a separate ethnic group, almost a separate nation. Out of this common experience developed a body of Mormon and Western lore, and from this lore, Maurine Whipple drew inspiration for The Giant Joshua.

[25]   I do not believe that the success of the novel rests entirely on its base in folklore. Its characters are highly complex, its plot many-faceted. to achieve her artistic ends, Ms. Whipple had to employ many devices, some of which have little to do with folklore. I do believe, however, that had she not relied on folklore she would not have succeeded as well. Bruce Jorgensen has argued that when Ms. Whipple "imagines 'those old people' [in the novel] through the folk speech she inherited from them, they come grittily alive and true; when her abstractions and popular cliches try to waft them up to the heroic 'Idea,' they lose dimension and substance." I agree with this statement, but would like to change Jorgensen's phrase "folk speech" to "folklore." It is not just the speech the characters use but rather the entire folklore milieu in which they move that gives them dimension and substance.

[26]   Eugene England has argued that while the first part of The Giant Joshua is successfully worked out, the last two-hundred pages fail. Again, I would agree, and I would point out that most of the folklore in the novel is in the first part of the book; in the last pages it thins out. Whether or not one agrees with my interpretations of folklore in the novel, one would have to agree, I believe, that the further Ms. Whipple moves from her folklore base the less concrete and the less successful the novel becomes.

[27]   According to Ms. Whipple her intention in writing The Giant Joshua was to trace the evolution of the Mormon Idea. Throughout the novel, and particularly in the last part, Clory moves toward some sort of ultimate union with what Ms. Whipple calls the Great Smile. When the union is finally achieved, Clory realizes that the testimony she has sought all her life has been in her heart all along. If this is the Mormon Idea, it is one I have never heard before. In my judgement, it has far more to do with the pantheism of Bryant or the transcendentalism of Emerson than it has with anything I have ever known in the Mormon church. As a philosophical treatment of Mormon doctrine, then, as a presentation of the Mormon Idea, the novel fails. But as a rendition of the Mormon experience, or at least part of it, it succeeds. Those of us who have read the novel have probably learned very little of Mormon philosophy. But we have had the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with real people, struggling with real problems, in a real world. And because of this our lives are richer.