William Mulder: Mormonism and Literature"

"Mormonism and Literature"

William Mulder

This essay first appeared in Western Humanities Review 9 (Winter): 1954-55.

[1]   Mormonism began with a book, and the Latter-day Saints, like the English reformers in the time of King James with their brand new translation of the Bible, became pre-eminently the people of a book. Whether it be regarded as an authentic ancient record or as a highly contemporary document, the Book of Mormon is nevertheless a fact and a force. Mark Twain may have called it chloroform in print, but from the beginning it has fed the imagination and, aside from being an original contribution to American literature, it has been the source of countless other contributions, at all levels: from amateur Book of Mormon pageants produced by local congregations to such sophisticated products as Leroy J. Robertson's Book of Mormon Oratorio and Cyrus Dallin's heroic figure of Moroni atop the Salt Lake Temple. The Book of Mormon has added words to the language, dotted the map from New York to Utah with unique place names, and given believers a gallery of heroes rivaling the Old Testament. Not least, it has added to native literature a distinct literary type, the Nephite legend, by now an approved subject for Ph.D. dissertations. The use of the book for theological purposes seems often synthetic; it goes unread in countless Mormon homes; but its story, its symbolism, have persisted now for over a century to become the unconscious, uncritical inheritance of several generations, and no writer treating the Mormon theme can overlook it.

[2]   It is not without significance that Mormonism, beginning with a book, had to make its appeal to a literate following. The proselyte had to be able to read. The Saints, be it remembered, equipped their ideal community not only with a temple and a bishop's storehouse, but with a printing press, and they appointed not only elders and bishops and teachers as their ministering officers, but an official printer to the Church. Even Winter Quarters had a press where was struck off what is believed to be the first printing west of the Mississippi, an epistle from the Twelve to the scattered Saints. And a people uprooted, on the move across Iowa and the great plains, carried Webster's blue-backed speller with them and heard their youngsters diligently recite their lessons in the dust of rolling wagons. Once established in Salt Lake Valley, they made an urgent request for a federal appropriation of $5,000 for a territorial library; and within short years they were promoting lyceums, a Polysophical Society, a Deseret Dramatic Association, a Universal Scientific Society, a Library Association, and an Academy of Art.

[3]   It is not without significance that Joseph Smith himself, whether viewed as the divinely inspired translator or as a transcendental genius, was the product of a literate background, both in terms of an average New England schooling with its available village culture and of his own family, particularly the maternal side: his grandfather Solomon Mack had published in chapbook form a highly readable spiritual autobiography. It is not surprising that around the Prophet's millennial standard gathered school teachers and college graduates, men as gifted as Oliver Cowdery and Willard Richards, the Pratt brothersParley and Orson, Orson Spencer, John Taylor, William Phelps, Lorenzo Snow, and his talented sister Eliza, persuasive orators and fluent writers who founded and edited capable periodicals like the Millennial Star in England, the Messenger and Advocate in Kirtland, the Evening and Morning Star in Independence, the Mormon in New York, the Seer in Washington, the Luminary in St. Louis, the Nauvoo Neighbor and the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo, and the Frontier Guardian in Kanesville--some of them brilliant, all of them fearless and eloquent. Their tradition, militant and aspiring, persisted in the columns of the early Deseret News and in the pages of the Contributor and the Young Woman's Journal, to give way at last to genteel moralizing, a tone and manner characteristic of today, with persecution subsided and the dream collapsed.

[4]   Clearly, Mormonism had literate beginnings which developed early into a distinctive literature, a rich legacy forgotten in the mediocrity of present-day Mormon expression. That legacy, to be sure, must be sought in more than belles lettres; it must be sought and recognized in the beginnings of literature, the raw materials out of which pure letters rise: in an oral tradition of salty anecdote and imaginative legend, in colorful and vigorous sermons that make the Journal of Discourses such fascinating reading, in personal diaries and letters which reveal the soul-searching triumphs and defeats of the convert, immigrant, and settler, in hymns breathing aspiration and desire together, intensely moving expressions of a faith fed by millennial dreams and nourished by irrigation. These, a subliterature if you will, come closer to exhibiting the genius of Mormonism as a force and movement than the more formal literary types thrice removed from their original inspiration. It is in these themes and modes, these beginnings of literature, we should attempt to find what is, or has been, characteristic of Mormon literature and what may hold promise for the future.

[5]   Aside from the Book of Mormon itself, Mormonism has not yet produced what may be called a religious classic, at once as original and representative, for example, as Dante's Divine Comedy of medieval Catholicism or Foxe's Book of Martyrs of the Protestant Reformation. Mormonism has no Little Flowers of St. Francis, no Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, no Milton's Paradise Lost, no Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, no Augustine's Confessions. Mormonism is still very young. But there are approximations. Wilford Woodruff's journal may approach John Woolman, the Quaker saint. Mormon personal journals, incidentally, are a primary literary type: William Clayton, Hosea Stout, Charles L. Walker, George A. Smith, John D. Lee, and a host of unknowns; their native simplicity and strength and human warmth make rewritings of them by later, more consciously literary editors seem thin and derivative, prosaic paraphrasings of what in the original is really rich narrative. Too often these days unimaginative hacks are converting literature and life into dogma.

[6]   The private journal was the Mormon's confessional. His conversion and all the works that followed after, he saw as part of God's appointment. History was an unfolding of God's will in which, humbly rejoicing, he played a part, and he recorded God's wonder-working providences with the soul-searching of the Puritan diarists. He saw the hand of the Lord in everything. His journal was a kind of spiritual bookkeeping, a tidy accounting against the day of judgment. Often pious and didactic, it was frequently thrilling narrative and vivid characterization. Despite the introspection, the dominant impression of Mormon journals is that the wounds of grief and doubt healed quickly: the flesh was healthy, the faith triumphant. It is as if the strong-faced portraits that used to hang on parlor walls should speak. The originals come to life: the portraiture is warmly human.

[7]   If, as Stephen Vincent Benet tells us in Western Star, history is falsified by generalizations and we can understand it only when we become aware of the "daily living and dying beneath the sun," then in this unpretentious subliterature of Mormon journals we come close to understanding history. In them we find something of the daily living and dying of men and women both weak and valiant. Their story is not epic except as life and many days together give it sweepit is the sweep of daily existence, the great movement that is the result of countless little movements, each life a tiny capillary, a vein, an artery contributing to the strong heartbeat of their collective existence. And it is as a collective expression that Mormon literature makes its greatest impact rather than in any single work so far by any single artist.

[8]   In Mormon homes today, the journal tradition has degenerated into the sentimental "Book of Remembrance," family genealogies, and personal keepsakes that too often turn out to be museums of dead mementos rather than treasures of living experience; yet in its way the "Book of Remembrance" widely kept by Church members is a type and, along with missionary experiences and the oral witness to the faith borne at monthly "testimony meetings," should be respected as a literary source. These are part of a rare oral tradition, as is the rich vein of Mormon storytelling, a floating literature waiting to be collected and immortalized in print, a motherlode of humor and folk wisdom ready to be mined. It is a temptation to dwell on this tradition and on Mormon hymns as a literary type, and on the sermons, and on some of the great tracts in defense of the faith and the Saints; it is a temptation to take a look at Mormon biographical writing, Mormon historical writing, Mormon scholarly writing to see in how many ways the culture has been articulate. The mere recital may suggest how vital the beginnings of literature can be when in form and content they reflect what is significant in the Mormon experience itself. How vital and characteristic does this experience remain when it is transformed by a particular artistic vision, the vision, for example, of the novelist'?

[9]   Novels continue to be written about the Mormon experience, far better ones today than the old lurid treatments like A Study in Scarlet, Female Life Among the Mormons, or Danites of the Sierras. Today's titles suggest appreciation, aspiration, poetic sympathy: Children of God, A Little Lower Than the Angels, The Peaceable Kingdom, The Harvest Waits, The Giant Joshua, to name a few. Most readers are still expectant, looking for the great Mormon novel, an expectancy which puts an added burden on the writer of the Mormon story, for he is plagued by an epic. Bernard DeVoto says his Mormon novel is by far the best book he is never going to write: God, the best storyteller, made a better story out of Joseph and the Mormon wandering than fiction will ever equal.

[10]   Certainly Mormon fiction faces special difficulties, one of them of belief, the other of technique. Says Don D. Walker, "To write with integrity for readers who understand that integrity, writers need a tradition, a system of moral values in which they can make meaningful judgments--they need a frame of belief. Writers within the Church accept the frame and are not troubled by any searching for convictions: they bring firmness, optimism, but also oversimplification, naivete, sometimes hypocrisy. Writers outside the Church see the frame, the predominant tradition, as merely historical and find it useless for their own terms of response. (There is a certain condescension in ex-Utahns--they believe they can be creatively free only after they escape the country.) The in-group writers treat the pioneers, for example, uncritically as a race of giants; the out-group, as deluded, at best pathetic, men. Both pictures are false. Neither folk worship nor debunking, but human understanding, human values, are what both writers and readers must bring to the Mormon story." Maurine Whipple has observed that the people she wrote about were human beings by birth and saints only by adoption. Amid the deceiving simplicities of the pioneer story, with its genuinely complex elements of polygamy and the united order, the writer is challenged to create both understandable people and understandable Mormons. What is needed, perhaps, is a smaller canvas, a surer perspective, stories that provide not so much the movement of history as the feeling of living experience, the experience of living things, of very particular situations. Too many writers about polygamy, for example, have never got beyond a preliminary social orientation, or, getting further, have found little more than the old truth that women are jealous creatures.

[11]   The burden of creating a Mormon literature in the future rests as heavily on the reader as on the writer. If a look at the Church counter in local bookstores fills us with dismay and we accuse Mormon writers of having thrown away their pens in favor of pastepot and scissors, we may well inquire whether a supine readership is after all not to blame. One of the major threats to Mormon literary growth is what may be called the uneducated literacy of the Church membership, a greater danger perhaps than downright illiteracy because adult minds, capable of growth, have been arrested, in the official literature, at the level of the Sunday School lesson and never treated to the stimulation of the mature writing the whole Mormon tradition should have ripened by our time. Mormonism is perfectly capable of its own Christian Century and Commentary. Scores of Church members are writing with distinction in their special fields, but the official literature does not recognize them because of another major threat to Mormon literary growth: the attempt to endow certain writings, however mediocre in style and spirit, with an authority extraneous to the work itself. The official preface is fatal to Mormon literary production because it invests unworthy works with false prestige while on the other hand better work not so recognized goes unread. Literature should establish its own authority. The best of Joseph Smith's revelations, linguistically speaking, have the authority of good literature; they are literature converted into authority when they speak truth unforgettably. Not "Was it inspired?" but "Is it inspiring?" is the better touchstone of authenticity.

[12]   Professor P. A. Christensen of Brigham Young University in that characteristic collection of his essays, All in a Teacher's Day, notes how "Through the easy acquisition of proverbs and verbal epitomes, even superficial people may seem to possess and carry with them the wisdom of the ages," and how "The very ease with which they establish themselves in memory is not conducive to the study and meditation necessary to grasp the wisdom implicit in them." When Latter-day Saints move beyond the lip service they are at present content to pay such slogans as "The glory of God is intelligence" and "We believe in eternal progress," Mormon literature will move toward the promise of its highly articulate beginnings, for Mormon readers will demand of Mormon writers authentic voices, whether in fiction, in history, in biography, or in missionary tract--the authority of good writing, of truths made memorable.

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