Last week on the NPR radio program On The Media, in a segment titled “Vanishing Reviews,” I heard a great story from Steve Wasserman, a past editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. It seems that Wasserman had been told by Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes that his ignorance of an early Mexican writer and Saint, Sor Juana de la Cruz, would be, in the Spanish-speaking world, “as if you said the word Shakespeare and got a blank stare.”
So, when Penguin Classics came out with an English translation of the works of Sor Juana de la Cruz, Wasserman decided to feature the author on the front page of the Book Review. But his American-educated superiors at the Times objected saying “Sor Juana who?” Wasserman then carried the mockup of the issue into the executive lunchroom and sat it on the table while he ordered lunch. There, a Mexican-born waiter noticed it, and exclaimed: “Sor Juana!” Wasserman asked, “You know who this is?” “Yes,” the waiter replied, “every school child in Mexico knows Sor Juana de la Cruz.”
Wasserman won the day and the issue was published and gained a flood of reader response. It seems one third of the Times’ audience speaks Spanish as their native language. The responses acclaimed the Times for finally recognizing their culture.
Now, I have a couple of questions about this:
- First, could you substitute a Mormon writer who is as important to Mormons culturally as Sor Juana de la Cruz is to Mexicans? Is there a writer that fits this bill? Or is it just that you don’t know enough about Mormon literature to know if there is one? *(see my note on this at the end of this post)
- Second, If there were such a writer featured in a major book-related publication, would most Mormons even know who the writer is?
The point is not who these Mormon writers are — I’m sure I have a good list already. The point is that most Mormons, unlike Mexicans, don’t know their own subculture. They have no idea who the best writers are, or the best musicians or visual artists, or any other aspect of culture, and instead look to the most popular culture from their own lifetimes, because that is the only examples of culture that they do know.
In contrast, almost anyone who has finished High School in the US can recognize (or at least we expect them to be able to name or recognize) at least the ten or more most important or most influential writers of American Literature — writers like Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, etc., etc., etc.
But lets be honest about this. Americans haven’t read enough literature to know that these are the best, or studied American Literary History enough to know that these authors are the most influential. They know because they took the English classes required of everyone who graduates from High School in the U.S. They know because they were told that these are the important writers.
We don’t have this advantage as Mormons. There isn’t any class we are required to take. Except for LDS Doctrine, taught at Church and in Seminary, and LDS History, often taught in the same places, Mormon culture is only taught by example and by word of mouth. Mormons don’t know their greatest writers or musicians or even orators (if nothing else, you would think Mormons would know oration!), because they haven’t been taught!!
I don’t bring this subejct up because its an academic exercise — a game to decide what is important in Mormon culture (although I think reaching a consensus about what is important is useful). Nor am I trying to condemn popular Mormon culture. Nor am I even suggesting that the Church teach Mormon literature or culture in Church or in Seminary.
I am pointing out that cultural awareness doesn’t happen by neglect. The schools in the U.S. and in most countries in the world decide on a minimum level of cultural knowledge, and they teach it to everyone (and sometimes it is actually absorbed <GRIN>). For a Mormon culture to become a significant part of the lives of Mormons, a basic level of knowledge needs to be agreed on, and some mechanism for transmitting that knowledge to other Mormons must exist.
Come to think of it, I think I addressed this issue before, at least in part, in my post on The Canon of Mormon Literature. But I’m going farther here. I don’t necessarily want to know specific works, nor do I want to restrict this question to literature.
What I want to know is, what should be the basic knowledge that every Mormon should know about Mormon culture?
Or, to put it another way, if you could teach a year long course on Mormon culture in Seminary to every Mormon student, what would be in the course? What are the basics that we all need to know?
I realize that this question might be a bit unfair. It might be presumptuous to assume that we know enough about Mormon culture to know what should be taught. (In fact, I know that I don’t know enough about many areas of Mormon culture to make suggestions in those areas). But many readers of A Motley Vision do have a good grounding in some area of Mormon culture. And I think by starting with what we know, we might figure out how to find information in the areas where we don’t have the knowledge we need. And, we are talking about information assuming a High School education. The depth of knowledge doesn’t need to be high.
So, what should we include?
* I actually think there are some candidates who might fit this bill, depending on how you see it. Even if you exclude scriptural writings (i.e., Joseph Smith) and doctrinal works, there are candidates like Eliza R. Snow, Nephi Anderson and Virginia Sorenson who have had some cultural impact — to say nothing of several current writers (Orson Scott Card, Gerald Lund, etc.) who have had significant impact within Mormon culture). And then there are a host of good writers who have had little impact until now, but who might have significant impact if their works were taught as part of Mormon culture.