Too sacred for public consumption -or- Disgusting the prophet’s wife

7.9.09 | | 26 comments

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One of the great heroes in my family’s history is Mary Lee. She was a famed Southern Utah midwife, saved my father’s life, had none less than Harold B. Lee wish he was half as sure of his own salvation as he was of hers, etcetcetc. There is no question she was a great woman. I look forward to meeting her someday.

In 1955, Gene L. Gardner published 100 copies of an 85-page biography of Aunt Mary called “An Inspired Principle and a Remarkable Lady.” My father owns one of these 100 copies and I hope to have it pass into my hands someday and read it with the care and honor it deserves.

All of which is merely a pious introduction to my real topic today.One of those 100 copies was sent to the then prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, David O. McKay. President McKay’s wife wrote back, offering thanks for the book and making a few comments. A copy of that letter has been tucked inside my father’s copy.

I am going to reproduce the letter here in full. The title of this post makes clear which part of the letter I find relevant for discussion on AMV, but I want to place it in context, both within the letter it comes from and within the life of the decidedly not antiart Emma Ray McKay, who was honored earlier this decade by the University of Utah for being “an accomplished musician and lifetime supporter of musical endeavors at the U” by having their music library named after her.

With that introduction then, the letter:

Salt Lake City
Jan. 10th, 1956

Dear Sister Gardner:

Thank you for sending me the written life of Mary Elizabeth Cox Lee.

I am late in acknowledging the gift because the President and I left for California a day or two after Christmas before I’d had an opportunity of reading the life’s story.

The narration of the many little things that made up life in those old days is very interesting and too sacred to be printed for the public which I hope you will never think of doing. I am so disgusted with the author of “The Giant Joshua” that I can scarcely contain myself. The outside people or rather nonmembers of our church do not understand our life during polygamous days and personal experiences of this kind should never be given to them. The publishers must always have something disgusting to tell even if they have to add something themselves.

The photograph of Sister Lee at the beginning of the story is more like my mother than any other person I have ever seen. I was really startled when I first saw it.

The sweet thing had a most strenuous life but she is a most remarkably strong character partly as a result of all those trials and tribulations brought on mainly by her great service to others. I don’t see how she lived through it all.

Thank you again.

Sincerely,
Emma Ray McKay

26 comments: “Too sacred for public consumption -or- Disgusting the prophet’s wife

  1. Wm Morris

    Thanks for sharing this find. I can’t say that I’m surprised.

    On the other hand, Sister McKay is not entirely wrong about the treatments of life during the polygamous days by non-Mormons.

  2. Tyler

    Yes, thanks, Th.

    I find it interesting how her tone switches so quickly from genial to bitter back to genial. Seems to illustrate how many members react to depictions of difficult Mormon themes in art, even when those themes are treated with respect and aesthetic acuity. I haven’t read The Giant Joshua, however, so I’m just shooting in the dark that such is the case with Whipple. I have read her short story “They Did Go Forth,” though (which has nothing to do with polygamy), and I thought it was well done and, for all intents and purposes, faithful and not disgusting. So Whipple couldn’t have been as bad as Sister McKay lets on…

  3. Hunter

    I’m not sure I can get on board with Sister McKay on this one. I do appreciate her worry about how non-Mormons may not be sympathetic to the details of our polygamous past. But, I wonder if that is truly at the base of her concern? Is it that McKay herself admires and appreciates all those details of life in the old days, or, is it that she’s really just a little shocked or ill at ease with all these details? For example, in discussing Lee’s “trials and tribulations,” McKay has an incredulous tone when she says that she doesn’t see “how [Lee] lived through it all.”

    So, I wonder if perhaps the core of McKay’s worry about the book getting distributed to a non-Mormon audience is that she, herself, wasn’t comfortable with it? I ask the question because it just seems a logical disconnect to call someone “sweet” and a “remarkably strong character” and then in the same breath discourage someone from sharing that remarkable life with others.

    In the end, not having read Lee’s biography, though, I can only guess at all this.

  4. Hunter

    Sorry to be so lengthy in my previous comment. I suppose my comment could have simply said, “Too sacred for public consumption? Probably not. A disgusted prophet’s wife? Probably.”

  5. Ardis Parshall

    I can see what Sister McKay means and sympathize with the principle, whether or not the specific case is one I would worry about.

    As candid as I am on my blog both with my own beliefs and the contents of documents/opinions of events, there are still very often things I would like to say but do not. I wouldn’t hesitate to share those ideas with any of Keepa’s regular commenters, but I am always aware there are hundreds of daily readers who don’t comment. There are so many mockers and scoffers and jeerers and scorners around, and some things are just too tender or too important to waste on them. The scoffers in the great and spacious building don’t make me ashamed of who I am, but neither are they worthy to be offered the very best.

    I think that’s what Emma Ray was saying.

  6. Jonathan Langford

    I’m not sure that any of us at this remove can properly appreciate the sensitivity of Mormons on the subject of polygamy who had lived through the persecutions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries related to this topic.

    In literary theory, we talk about the role of the audience in literary communication. It seems to me that a logical implication of this is that a truly hostile audience – of the sort that Mormons had experienced during the early parts of the 20th century – can, in fact, unilaterally make impossible acts of true communication.

    We like to hold up an ideal that writers should attempt, under all circumstances, to communicate experiences – and that if they’re sufficiently good at it, sympathy will result in the minds of the readers. However, I think this expectation is unrealistic. Some things really are too sacred to be shared publicly, and some audiences really are too hostile to be worth sharing with.

    Whether that was the case with polygamy in 1950s American can be debated, but I think it’s important to agree that there *are* cases where it is true. I suspect, in this regard, that the example of Jesus not speaking before his accusers is the one that Sister McKay and others with similar opinions would consider appropriate.

    I suspect that if we look even as late as the mid-1950s (when Sis. McKay was writing), we’d find little evidence of any disposition to treat polygamy with anything other than ridicule and/or disgust within American readership. Even if that’s not the case, though, I think there’s plenty of evidence from earlier in the century that would make Sister McKay’s defensiveness understandable, and not necessarily a result of the kind of embarrassment that Hunter mentions.

  7. Katya

    All I can think to say about this is that if we don’t tell our stories, someone else with their own agenda and bias will tell them for us.

  8. Wm Morris

    And for all it’s strengths and Mormon-ness The Giant Joshua takes one specific approach towards polygamy.

    As William A. Wilson notes in his excellent essay Folklore in The Giant Joshua: “In the lives of Bathsheba, Abijah, and Clorinda MacIntyre the gospel is important, but its influence is mostly negative.”

  9. David J. West

    It could be the Lortab I’m on but Katya’s statement above strikes me as one of the most important things about OUR LIT I have ever read, so I express my appreciation.

    Likewise for Jonathon’s comments, in so many ways we are not out of the woods yet by a longshot, nor are we innocent of keeping others shunned as well.

  10. chanson

    Funny coincidence: I’m currently staying with my parents, and there’s a copy of The Giant Joshua in the bedroom where I’m staying (right next to my mom’s old German textbook which I was paging through).

    I was kind of planning not to read any of my mom’s books during this visit (unlike my usual, see here for example) since I have tons of work to do — but now I’m tempted… ;)

  11. Hunter

    Without being able to read Mary Lee’s account, of course, my speculation above is, well, just speculation.

    To be clear, all I’m positing is that we can’t presume that all of Sister McKay’s motivation for discouraging public dissemination of the biography is because she held all of the details to be sacred only. Rather, I think there is the possibility that Sister McKay might have been squeamish about some of the details herself, and, hence, her discomfort with sharing it with an unappreciative audience. But this is only based on reading between the lines of this one, solitary letter. An admitted dangerous practice.

    There’s a third possible explanation for Sister McKay’s admonition against sharing the biography. It’s entirely possible that Sister McKay was not at all squeamish about the details of a polygamous life, but that the biography itself is written without that necessary context for a non-believing/non-native audience to understand those details. In that sense, I would add to Katya’s comment, that while it’s true that if we don’t tell our stories, others will and without proper context. But that it behooves us to write our stories with enough context to understand and appreciate those sometimes difficult details.

    I have more to say but will stop for now.

  12. Thom Duncan

    Polygamy, or our treatment of blacks prior to 1976, or, indeed, any embarassing fact from the past will never be fully understandable to those outside our faith unless we write about it. Sister McKay’s attitude in this letter is similar to what people did if someone in those days had a family member with a mental disease — they hid them from view of everyone else. Today, we know (or at least it has become our custom to do so) it is better to deal publically with such things. Polygamy IS disgusting if we try to understand it with our modern minds. It can at least become understandable if we write about it. Knowledge is always the way to go. Hiding the truth will always come back to bite our collective behinds.

  13. Katya

    I would add to Katya’s comment, that while it’s true that if we don’t tell our stories, others will and without proper context. But that it behooves us to write our stories with enough context to understand and appreciate those sometimes difficult details.

    I agree with this to a point, and am reminded of a friend’s friend who was absolutely convinced that Mormons did not eat peanut butter. (My guess is that she knew a Mormon kid with a severe peanut allergy and didn’t have the context to realize that it wasn’t part of the WoW.)

    That said, if we worry more about context than about good storytelling, we’ll end up writing scenes like the one in Half Faked where a character falls over himself to explain that Mormons no longer practice polygamy in a way that doesn’t ring true with the premise of the scene. So, if nothing else, you’ll have to be very clever about how you introduce the context you want your audience to have, or you’ll have to be brave enough to let some things slide without fully explaining them.

    I’m convinced, though, that the more we tell our stories, the less we’ll have to worry about this, anyway.

  14. Jonathan Langford

    I certainly agree with what Katya says about telling our own stories. By disposition and training, I’m very much someone who tends to think we ought to be actively involved in telling our stories.

    In saying that sometime, stories perhaps *shouldn’t* be told – or at least, not told in a public setting – I’m reminding myself (as much as anyone) of something that goes against the grain for me. However, I think that as storytellers, we need to be aware of and acknowledge potential limits to our own craft and calling.

  15. Th.

    .

    That said, if we worry more about context than about good storytelling, we’ll end up writing scenes like the one in Half Faked where a character falls over himself to explain that Mormons no longer practice polygamy in a way that doesn’t ring true with the premise of the scene. So, if nothing else, you’ll have to be very clever about how you introduce the context you want your audience to have, or you’ll have to be brave enough to let some things slide without fully explaining them.

    I don’t think the world is all that wicked and I feel it’s better to tell excellent stories while trusting the audience than to give lessons cramming story into the cracks. One of my favorite people of all time is Moroni and I’m reminded of what the Lord told him:

    Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness . . . .

    What’s the worst that can happen? As He once asked someone else,

    . . . if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to chedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee eexperience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?

    (Not to be overly dramatic or anything.)

  16. Laura Craner

    When it comes to _The Giant Joshua_ I’m on Sister McKay’s side. Blech. I did not enjoy that book. I don’t even think I finished it. . .

    Anyway, I think we do have to tell our own stories–but I think it’s interesting how we define what our own stories are. Most of us choose to tell our own stories through fiction so we can massage some of the feeling and details for various purposes. Fiction, in many ways, makes it easier to get our own points across. BUT if it’s context we’re looking for, fiction falls short. Perhaps we should start telling our own stories by actually telling OUR stories–as in the non-fiction versions.

    Modern non-fiction leaves a lot of room for creative expression and also allows for plenty of contextualizing detail. After all, what is a memoir but an explanation of a person?

    I couldn’t wrap my head around polygamy until I read my own ancestors’ accounts. Their journals made all the difference.

    Perhaps that’s some of Sister McKay’s frustration.

  17. Th.

    .

    Laura and I have bickered over the fiction/nonfiction thing before but ultimately I think we’re both right. What we really need here is a complete literature.

  18. nosurfgirl

    Wow.

    I’m really glad that many people have learned the value of examining our church’s history more thoroughly and thinking through the implications as opposed to burying them.

    I’ve had several moments of worry as I have begun to rewrite a story. The feeback I got was to put more of the controversial elements of Church history into it. I want to, but I also don’t want to put off Mormon readers. It’s a fine balance… and no matter what there will always be the Sister Lees who will be offended no matter how delicately the subject is treated.

  19. chosha

    “Polygamy IS disgusting if we try to understand it with our modern minds.”

    “where a character falls over himself to explain that Mormons no longer practice polygamy…”

    A friend of mine got a civil divorce, but not a temple divorce because he didn’t want to break the seal to his kids. He later remarried in the temple. He is therefore currently married (in the eyes of the Church) to two women who are both living. Lots of men are sealed to more than one woman, where one has passed away.

    I’m not advocating polygamy, but I think Church members have to be careful not to think that because polygamous civil marriages are not longer sanctioned by the Church that it is no longer part of the doctrines or temple-related practices of the Church. If you think it’s ‘disgusting’ you might want to consider the LDS teachings on the celestial kingdom a little more closely. Plural marriage is an eternal concept. It hasn’t magically gone away.

  20. Wm Morris

    I have the suspicion that there much about our modern minds that we’re going to have to strip away in order to enter the kingdom of heaven — and the same is true for our ancestors and there minds. This is not a statement on whether plural marriage is an eternal concept or not (I don’t really know for sure — that is I’m aware of the way that statement has been framed by LDS with a variety of opinions, but I don’t feel that I know enough or have felt enough to take a strong stance on any of those opinions), but rather a musing on how for all I love culture — modern, ancient, Victorian or otherwise — I have the suspicion that we are all going to have a bit of culture shock when we (or perhaps as the final part of journey to get to) reach our final destination.

  21. TStevens

    My local library system has a copy of Giant Joshua – I just ordered it!

    Well, maybe only I am excited ;-)

  22. William Morris

    I’m excited. The Giant Joshua, Vardis Fisher’s _Children of God_ and usually one or two of Virginia Sorensen’s novels can often be found in older library systems.

  23. TStevens

    I just finished the 19th Wife by Ebershoff – I am fairly confident that Sister McKay would not be well pleased.

  24. William H. Gardner

    I am the third son of Gene L. Gardner and I have the origional manuscript and am willing to print computer copies. I live in Delta, Utah and could be contacted there. Mother wondered about about the recomend not to print the story for open consumption. At the time it as written plural marriage was not an item for open discussion. Over the Past years it seems to be open for discussion more and more. Shortly before mother’s death in 1965 she gave me her material and suggested that sometime it might be printed. The story is beautiful and if anyone were to become distressed by it I would be very sorry but not very sympathetic. Mother printed 100 copies and I have just learned that someone had 1200 copies printed. I do not know who it was and am not concerned but would like to discuss the story as I understood it has over a hundred pages. The book I have has approximately 78 pages.

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