Slowly Flowering: My grad school paper on Mormon literature

7.31.08 | | 8 comments

I have decided to post a Mormon literature-related paper I wrote for a graduate school class titled “Memory, Nation and Diaspora.”. The class was actually my final comp lit seminar at SF State and was taught by Martha Klironomos, the Nikos Kazantzakis Chair and director of Modern Greek Studies. She was very supportive of my desire to write about Mormon literature. I think she even gave me an A on the paper. Most of the non-Mormon-related criticism cited in the paper is pulled from some of the works we read for the course so the theoretical framework might not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it interesting. In fact, it’s the university course that has influenced my thinking about Mormon literature the most.

Anyway, here it is. No modifications have been made to the original text except for correcting one spelling error that I caught in a very quick re-reading:

Slowly Flowering: Mormon Literary Criticism on Mormon Literary History and Future

And here is an excerpt:

“But more fundamentally, through its recovering and criticism of Mormon literary history, Mormon literary theory invokes a set of texts and way of viewing them that helps preserve a Mormon ethnies, an ethnies which includes individuals beyond active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And more importantly, by exposing the deficiencies of the current Mormon literary canon, Mormon literary theory sustains the dream of a great literature produced by a chosen people, a dream that combines memory and desire, a prophecy that drives the very literary production that ensures the survival of the ethnies.”

It was also an interesting exercise in trying to figure out how to give decent context for Mormonism without getting long-winded about it. Upon re-reading, I cringed a bit at some of my notes, but on the whole I think the paper stands up fairly well. Or at least I’m not so embarrassed by it that I wasn’t willing to post it. My thanks to AMV commenter Laura Craner who reminded me of this paper in Anneke’s Twilight post.

8 comments: “Slowly Flowering: My grad school paper on Mormon literature

  1. William Morris Post author

    I neglected to add that Slowly flowering would not have been even remotely possible without the excellent resources available on Gideon Burton’s Mormon Literature Web site. Many thanks to him for that.

  2. Th.

    .

    Spoiler alert, folks: I’m about to quote from the last paragraph (in reference to Whitney’s Miltons and Shakespeares).

    Is this not the power of prophecy? To project a future, a vacuum that must be filled with words and deeds; the prophecy itself moving forward along with the flow of history, existing as a memory of the past and yet also as a memory still to be made.

    This is a fascinating idea and suggests that maybe the purpose of the prophecy is not to assure us things will happen but to drive us to make them happen. I know that line has been driving me since I first heard it as a kid. It still rattles around me head.

    I think we’re making progress.

  3. William Morris

    Theric was also kind enough to let me know that there’s a 1988 that should be an 1888 in the paper. That’s embarrassing. Weird thing is that I remember correcting that mistake at some point. But I guess I didn’t.

    I’m afraid that one of the things that made me unfit for further academic work was my aversion to proofreading. The irony, of course, is that now I work in PR and end up doing a lot of it. Even took an editing course from Cal extension (great course, btw — I highly recommend it).

  4. Tyler

    William:

    I think this is a good assimilation of the history of Mormon literary criticism mingled with a bit of Mormon literary theory and it seems to be a good place to begin discussing the subject with an unversed audience. As one who has read and more recently been poring over the founding documents (and beyond) framing your essay, I had to keep reminding myself as I read that I wasn’t your intended audience and that the foundation you create here is necessary to an understanding of the basis for Mormon literature and of more current movements in Mormon letters. Hence, I realize that my desire for greater synthesis must move beyond what you’ve captured, into my own thoughts, my own writing, into further discussions of the promise of Mormon literature and criticism. In other words, in the moments where your reading of the texts moves beyond recapitulation (a necessary step here, especially since you’re dealing with so much and such dense material in such a short amount of space), I see the seeds of more fruitful dialogue poking through your textual ground.

    I especially like your thoughts about the ethnicity of Mormonness, of the mythological/ideological thread that weaves Mormonism into dispensational Christianity and challenges us to invite those beyond our religio-cultural borders into the “always open” “body of the chosen people”. As I read I wondered what implications this idea of an open and inclusive body of saints carries for Mormon literature. Beyond reminding me of Jorgensen’s thoughts about using the history of Christian hospitality as a paradigm for Mormon letters and criticism, I connected this thought to Michael Austin’s paper, “How to be Mormo-American; Or, The Function of Mormon Criticism at the Present Time” (which I’ve been rereading in the past few days), and what implications this train of reasoning has on the Mormon literary and critical canon.

    I also like what you say about Mormon literary theory recovering and criticizing our literary history, speckled as it is with literary failures. I especially found these ideas interesting in light of Gene England’s thoughts (which I’ve reread most recently in “Great Books or True Religion? Defining the Mormon Scholar”) about viewing these literary failures as correlatives to our forebears’ religious success and about the ways in which this success is truthfully and movingly captured in texts only recently recovered as literary: journals and diaries, letters, sermons, lyric poetry, autobiography, autobiographical fiction, and (of course) the personal essay; and also in light of Karl Keller’s ideas (articulated in “On Words and the Word of God: The Delusions of a Mormon Literature”, found in Tending the Garden) that Mormon literature has long been seen as “a joke” not because we’ve been to busy frontier-building or that we’re too involved taking care of others or that we “get our aesthetic kicks in more spiritual ways” or that we’re “literate but uneducated” or that we “lack a press and a public” or that we “have no critical experience and therefore no critical standards.” The real reason, he says, is because we’ve “consistently denied to ourselves a literature” because of our Puritanism, our paranoia, and our apocalypticism (ideas he elucidates in his essay and that are ripe for discussion elsewhere).

    And I also agree with the idea presented in footnote 3, in your final paragraph, and in Theric’s comment that perhaps prophecies are given, to a degree, to be self-fulfilling.

    All of these things seem to me ripe avenues for discussion about the history and future of Mormon letters.

    Now if only I had enough time to flesh out all the essay ideas (both critical and personal) that have surfaced in my reading lately.

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Bradly Baird

    When I read this paper – and I have read through it a couple of times – I am left with the sense that something is missing. Not in an academic sense nor in the immediate purposes for which the paper was written. Rather, in the sense that somehow it is a springboard towards something larger, a fuller description of an LDS literature ecology (a complex interconnected environment).

    It is so early in our own history that we seem to be missing pieces of our own puzzle, pieces that will come with time, particularly as our ecology becomes more widespread and certainly more complex (like species counterpoint before the age of romantic common practice was fully realized in music).

    I have been a reading an anthology of Jewish-American literature, the history of that literature begins in 1654 when the Jews first came to America. There are some comparitive similarities in their early literature as in early LDS literature (didactism and an attempt to define themselves as a new culture).

    What is most intriguing is that their age of real achievement really takes flight between years 250-300, when they began to produce literary giants (Gertrude Stein, Arthur Miller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Chaim Potok, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Elie Wiesel, Philip Roth, Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Harold Bloom, Robert Pinsky) whose work has burst beyond cultural boundaries and become embraced by the world, and become highly influential.

    We are only about 75 years away from that timeframe. Will our own “flowering” take another 75 years, or will we be ahead of that curve because of the compressed timeline of our restoration history and the inspired nature of our faith?

  6. William Morris

    Or has the production and dissemination of culture changed so much that we’re too late to the game?

    I don’t really know, Bradley. But you raise some great points. And I like your comparative approach — although my thinking lately has been that the better comparisons would be a mix of Evangelical culture and some of the later hyphenated-Americans [Armenian-American, Indian-American, Greek-American, Chinese-American, etc.] in the sense that I think that in some ways Mormon-Americans have sort of followed the same pattern as some of the later generations of American immigrants in the way they have embraced/not embraced American culture. Of course, Mormons are a bit more unique in that there weren’t language barriers and we also have a strong, defining institutional presence.

    But still. It seems to me that in some ways, the WWII generation were similar to first-generation immigrants (hard working, close to their roots, entrepreneurial). The boomers were similar to second-generation (full players in the meritocracy, less interested in their home culture, very willing to adopt ideas and living patterns from the dominant culture, rich), and Gen X&Y are in some ways similar to third-generation (ambivalent towards the meritocracy, very interested in getting back to their roots, yearning for an expression of their culture that critiques the dominant culture).

    That’s a pretty simplistic sketch of things, but I certainly think that it might be a line of inquiry worth exploring.

  7. Laura H. Craner

    William–i finally had time to read your paper. Excellent work! I wish I had gone to your school so I could have had the undergrad education that produced that paper. *jealously sighs*

    I’ve done a lot of thinking about the Jewish-Mormon lit comparison. (I love Jewish literature and culture . . .my parents let me watch _Fiddler_ way too often when I was little!) I think the comparison is a valid one, but I think there is a major difference between the two movements. In Judaism there is room for and somtimes even encourgament of dissent. Our church and our culture doesn’t have that. The biggest Jewish writers are ones who are dissenters from their faith. Many of them retain some sort of nuanced relationship with Judaism but very few are orthodox believers. Like you outlined in your paper, because of the home literature ideas there isn’t a lot of room for dissent or even questioning. For so many Mormons the answers are already in place; the conclusion to the story has already been written. A lot of Jewish lit is about finding there is no answer. . . anyway, I think I’m babbling now, but I’m glad you put up your paper and it was fun to read it.

    Oh, and yes, the production and dissemination of culture have changed that much. New cultural models are still being produced. I’m afraid that artists have got to learn to work faster to keep up! But art in a hurry doesn’t usually feel like art.

  8. Wm

    Wow. I really have been just repeating and spinning off this essay for the past 10 years. You’d think I’d come up with some new ideas.

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