If you read Nephi Anderson’s fiction for its aesthetic value, as the Mormon critics of the 1960s and 70s did, you’ll likely be disappointed—unless your aesthetic standards allow for “preachiness,” that catch-all term commonly used when describing Mormon fiction’s apparent tendency to use art as a vehicle for gospel teaching.
If you read his fiction as products of turn-of-the-century Mormon and American culture, however, you’ll likely have a more satisfying experience. Anderson, after all, was very much a man of his day—and keenly aware of the world around him. Rather than being an aesthetic failure, his work is a rich repository of responses to the cultural changes happening in Utah and the rest of the nation.
In fact, looking at Anderson’s work from this perspective helps us better understand some of his more problematic works, like his 1918 short story “Forfeits,” a second place winner in one of the monthly fiction contests the Improvement Era sponsored for a time. (If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can check it out here.)
In the story, a young man, Gale Thompson, returns to his Utah hometown nearly five years after “seek[ing] adventure and perchance fortune in the world” (519). By chance, Gale meets up with Dick Stevens, a friend who once accompanied him in his wanderings, who has since returned home and married Gale’s sister, Laura. During this reunion, it comes out that Dick and Laura’s child—an ambiguously sexed child that both men refer to only as “it”—was born blind because of a sexually transmitted disease Dick had contracted while he and Gale lived in Chicago and “dabble[d] in forbidden things” (521). The news sobers Gale, who fears that he may still carry the disease—even though a quack city doctor once pronounced him cured. His joyful return is over in an instant:
He was overwhelmed with what had come to him so suddenly. The calloused crust of indifference with which he had smoothed over his past sins now seemed to be in a state of upheaval, threatening to cast into chaotic ruin all the fond hopes he had recently indulged in. He wished he had never come home. Could he get away again without being seen by anyone else? (521)
As “Forfeits” unfolds, it follows an increasingly more dark and cautionary mode. Matching Gale’s despair, Dick speaks of their disease as if it were a biblical malediction. He warns Gale that the “cursed thing is in the blood, and it may crop out to afflict and kill, not only [them], but [their] innocent offspring to the third and the fourth generation” (522). Regret overtakes both men, and Dick urges Gale “to keep away from the girls of this town”—particularly Mell, Gale’s childhood sweetheart—so as not to pass on the disease (521). The story ends with Gale leaving town, realizing he has “forfeited [his] right to live among [his] people” (523).
While Anderson’s short stories are typically heavy-handed in their didacticism—more so, even, than his novels—“Forfeits” is unmatched in its bleak, unbending judgment of Gale and Dick’s sexual sin. Noticeably, Anderson omits any hope for repentance and forgiveness from his story—an omission that strangely contrasts with his other works, like The Story of Chester Lawrence (1913) and Dorian (1921), two of his novels that deal more sympathetically with characters who commit sexual sins. (A character in Chester Lawrence, for example, finds forgiveness in the last chapter of the novel—even though his past sins makes Gale and Dick look like Boy Scouts in comparison.)
One clue I’ve found to explain Anderson’s hard line and apparent disregard for the doctrine of the atonement—which, again, is so important in much of Anderson’s other work—is the historical context of the story itself, which first appeared in the April 1918 issue of the Improvement Era as thousands of young Mormon men were leaving Utah for the trenches of World War I. Their departure, as one would expect, was a matter of no small concern for church leaders in Salt Lake City, whose dual task it was to support the young Mormon troops and help them understand where the moral boundaries lay while they were away from home. Indeed, while President Joseph F. Smith encouraged these young Mormon men to enlist in the war effort, he also expressed great concern over their leaving the security of Utah’s borders. In a 10 June 1917 speech at the Joint M.I.A. and Primary Conference, for example, he had this to say about the “Soldier Boys of ‘Mormondom’”:
Will those men who go out from Utah, from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, forget their prayers? Will they forget God? Will they forget the teachings that they have received from their parents at home? Will they forget the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the covenants that they have made in the waters of baptism, and in sacred places? Or will they go out as men, in every sense—pure men, high-minded men, honest men, virtuous men, men of God? That is what I am anxious about. (825)
Importantly, in the speech, which was later published in the July 1917 issue of The Improvement Era, President Smith directly addressed the issue of chastity. Speaking, he claimed, as a mother would, he counseled the young men to refrain from defiling themselves and others while away from home:
“I have taught you virtue [….] Never in your life think of defiling any man’s wife, or daughter, any more than you would think of defiling your mother or your sister! Go out into the world from your home clean. Keep yourself pure and unspotted from the world and you will be immune from sin, and God will protect you.” (825)
Whether or not President Smith’s speech had a direct effect on “Forfeits” is unknown, although considering Anderson’s close involvement with the M.I.A and Improvement Era, it is likely that he had at least read it and shared its anxieties. Certainly, President Smith’s association of home with cleanliness, as well as the way he contrasts it with the world, finds an echo in “Forfeits.” So too do his anxieties about the moral purity of the Mormon young men, the defilement of sisters, and the way he characterizes sexual sin as a disease from which one must be immune. Could it be that “Forfeits” is Anderson’s cloaked warning to Utah’s “Soldier Boys”?
If nothing else, Anderson’s story can be read as an outgrowth of the concerns of a Mormon community that was newly struggling to maintain its moral boundaries while keeping its long-held physical boundaries open enough to allow for greater assimilation to the mainstream.
Whatever the case may be, “Forfeits” offers an interesting look into the role of fiction in the maintenance of Mormon boundaries in the early twentieth century. If The Story of Chester Lawrence and Dorian are any indication, Anderson believed deeply and compassionately in the power of Jesus Christ to cover the sexual misconduct of the penitent. However, when one considers the historical context of World War I, and the anxieties felt by many of the older generations for the young men leaving the security of home for the first time, the cautionary horror of “Forfeits” makes more sense—even as its stance remains a problematic and uncharacteristic one for the author.
Anderson, Nephi. “Forfeits.” The Improvement Era. 21.6 (1918): 519-523. Print.
Smith, Joseph F. “A Message to the Soldier Boys of ‘Mormondom.’” The Improvement Era. 20.9 (1917): 821-829. Print.