Tending the Garden--Reviewed by Eric Eliason

Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature

Reviewed by Eric Eliason

A modified version of this review appeared in Weber Studies 14.2 (Spring/Summer, 1997):121-123.
This is the place! Your one-stop-shop for almost all you need to know about the action swirling around the nexus of the Mormon experience and literary criticism. In this slim tome two of Mormondom's most accomplished editors and essayists, Eugene England and Lavina Fielding Anderson, bring together six essays on "historical and theoretical perspectives" and nine essays on "criticism of major genres and works." From a wide range of perspectives and opinions, these essays inspire, challenge, cajole, inform, warm, reiterate, and enlighten.

England's introduction guides the reader on a tour through the history of Mormon writings of possible literary interpretation and/or aspiration. As way of conceptualizing from whence we have come, he proposes four periods of Mormon literature:

1) "Foundations" (1830-1880)--whose characteristic works include the emergent Latter-day scriptural canon as well as the testimonies and tracts of early apostles-notably Joseph Smith the Pratt brothers.

2) "Home literature" (1880-1930)--was set in motion in part by the advocacy of LDS leader Orson F. Whitney. Church leaders' evaporating suspicion of novels led to, for the first time, fiction being widely regarded as an appropriate medium for Gospel instruction. Excellence in craft and depth of insight were not ends but handy tools necessary only insofar as they contributed toward the end of encouraging the right behaviors and doctrines for subjects of God's Kingdom on Earth. England identifies Nephi Anderson's Added Upon as the best work of this period. It's influence continues not only because it is the only work from this era still in print, but because its plot structure of following intertwined individual life-stories of moral development and self-discovery through the Pre-Earth Life to Mortal Probation to glorious after-life is recapitulated in the musicals Saturday's Warrior and My Turn on Earth--seminal pop culture landmarks for the North American Mormon generation now in early adulthood.

3) "The Lost Generation" (1930-1970)--whose national award-winning authors, such as Maurine Whipple and Vardis Fisher wrote with varying degrees of condescending Eastern sensibility toward what they saw as the quaint, past-its-prime, sometimes sinister, regional/religious culture of their youth before the optimistic days of the late 20th century's dramatic growth in Utah's economy and worldwide LDS Church membership.

4) "Faithful realism" (1960-present)--describes a trend (perhaps more hopeful than actual) in merging the lost generation's high literary aspirations with home literature's respect and even advocacy of Mormon religiosity. England acknowledges, however, that many argue little unity of purpose has yet materialized. Home literature is alive and well in Gerald Lund and Jack Weyland; authors such as Levi Peterson and Neal Chandler perhaps differ in sensibility from the lost generation only in so far as it is late rather than early-mid twentieth century "mainstream" Mormon culture against which they chafe. Douglas Thayer, Margaret Blair Young, and Orson Scott Card best personify the successful merger England sees.

Interestingly, both England's introduction and Anderson's preface identify this very AML discussion list as evidence of the "dawning of a brighter day" for Mormon letters and place upon us some of the responsibility for ensuring the growing greatness of LDS literature.

Most of this book's essays are jargon free and should be accessible with a little disciplined reading to the "Intro to Mormon Lit" college student readership that will doubtlessly form a major segment of this book's market. The book should also not be overlooked by anyone interested in thinking long and hard about the issues involved in developing a distinctively Mormon and gospel-centered broader artistic tradition. Those looking for simple answers and consensus will be disappointed. Some essays fall at the jeremiad/diatribe end of the rhetorical spectrum others are speculative, introspective, and sentimental.

Many of this book's essayists participate in a pantheon building exercise of listing influences. Much of the collection's redundancy can be accounted for in several authors' thanking or acknowledging the same set of luminaries in the short history of the small field of Mormon literary studies. At first this bothered me (because I have done it in my own essays) until I realized that this was a very Mormon thing to do. It is a kind of secular textual ordinance of linking the hearts of the children with the hearts of the fathers in a complex familial inter-connectedness reminiscent of past and present LDS practices such as plural marriage, "adoption" into spiritual kinship, and vicarious ordinances for ancestors.

Three articles in this collection struck me as particularly informative and insightful--Edward Geary's "Mormondom's Lost Generation: The Novelists of the 1940s," Levi Peterson's "Jaunita Brooks: The Mormon Historian as Tragedian," and Neal Lambert and Richard Cracroft's "Literary Form and Historical Understanding: Joseph Smith's First Vision."

Geary explains in graceful prose the literary sensibility of the 1940s Mormon novelists who enjoyed more Gentile acclaim than any LDS writers of any other period except the present. Geary is almost single-handedly responsible for making us aware of the "lost generation" as an important distinctive phase in Mormon literary history. The inclusion of this essay was no doubt a "no-brainer" for the editors.

Peterson's essay is likewise powerful evidence in behalf of arguments for considering criticism itself as a literary genre. Many Mormons have wrestled with how to make sense of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the way information about it has been managed since its occurrence. In my opinion, Peterson's short, painfully beautiful analysis of Juanita Brook's treatment of the subject contributes more toward historical understanding, personal peace, and cultural catharsis than any other work.

Lambert and Cracroft remind us that the very origin of our religion is in a narrative with literary implications trailing its magnificent theological juggernaut--the story of a young boy who went to the woods to pray and of an angel with a golden book. Our Mormon lives are lived out as literature as we all must recapitulate Joseph Smith's search for and discovery of truth.

While I wholeheartedly recommend this collection, and praise its editorial selections, I occassionally wished the essays collectively displayed a little more contagious exuberance about, and confident celebration of, Mormon literature's achievements to date alongside their hand-wringing over the "faithlessness," "self-righteousness," "provinciality," "yet-to-be-reached grand potential," or whatever of Mormon literary attempts. Although I am not particularly a fan of contemporary home literature, it is a cultural product of considerable influence in more dire need of empathetic critical attention than yet another treatment of obscure novels for Mormon intellectuals. Except for a fine essay on Mormon oral folklore by the always delightful William A Wilson and a provocative look at Parley P. Pratt's ever-popular biography by R.A. Christmas, readers of a New Historicism bent (those democratically-minded folks who think literature need not be "great" but only "significant" and "influential" to warrant serious treatment) will wonder why Jack Weyland, pioneer journals, general conference sermons, the Yorgenson brothers, Gerald Lund, contemporary General Authority motivational books, and LDS science fiction get such short shrift in topics selected for essay inclusion.

The major reason for these omissions may simply be that criticism in this vein has yet to appear. Someone needs to do for popular Mormon literature what Janice Radaway did for Romance novels in Reading the Romance and Jane Tompkins tried to do for westerns West of Everything. The LDS/SF interface is certainly a big enough deal to merit one essay in a reader on Mormon literature. It is arguably the biggest deal in all of Mormon literature from a popular as well as a literary standpoint right now. With the publication of the short fiction collection Washed by a Wave of Wind one can no longer argue that this is the lone work of the mighty Orson Scott Card.

Also conspicuously absent from Tending the Garden is anything by Gideon Burton or Mike Austin-the zealous greenies on the AP track to Mormon literary criticism greatness. Granted, the editors lament that price considerations kept out many good essays, but most unfortunate is the omission of anything by William Mulder, something by Maurine Ursenbach Beecher on Eliza R. Snow, and Richard Cracroft's controversial landmark--"Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature," Sunstone 16 (October 1992).

Raising these concerns should not detract from the fact that this is an unqualified favorable review. Perhaps my personal quibbles only show what most of you on this list already suspect--Mormon literature is a white field ready for critical harvest. Being a first, this book has the potential to be a major step in moving Mormon lit out of obscurity. How this might all shake out is unclear. Will our literature really be the next "trendy ethnic literature" on the national scene? Certainly this would be exciting, but can we do it with out selling out our (in the eye's of the world rather obnoxious and old fashioned) claim to being the lead characters in God's unfolding drama on earth? Must our literary efforts affirm an orthodox center of the Mormon experience? Or should they serve as safety valves for releasing doubtful and heretical musings? Are these two roles incompatible? Can any truly great literature emerge from genuine religious impulses other than sermons and scripture? If not, maybe Mormon literature should be about Mormon peoples' culture(s) rather than LDS religion? Can/should religion be separated from people for this purpose? Should we "heed not what the world may say" and busy ourselves in developing a literary tradition organic to the goal of eternal progress, faith in Christ, and exacting loyalty to his Church that fulfills in positive and constructive manners all of our spiritual, emotional, and intellectual literary needs--freeing us from literary dependency on Gentile productions? These questions and more are raised and bandied about in Tending the Garden-- which, as it aspires to be, will no doubt not be the last word.

Eric A. Eliason
English Dept.
Brigham Young University

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