Mormons in the Media, 1830-2012

10.15.12 | | 8 comments

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Because I am, in my grumpy way, going to spend much of this review complaining about things I did not like, let me lead by saying Mormons in the Media, curated by “Jared Farmer, professor of history and prize-winning author of On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard, 2008),” is a terrific book and you should all go download it at http://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/mormon. Especially if you are a journalist assigned to the religion, Broadway, or swing state beats, you should take an afternoon off and read this book and get some perspective.

And you know what? It won’t take you that long. The book’s mostly just pictures and captions.

Now. Onto things Theric is unhappy about.

(note: these complaints are more for a mormon audience, not that hypothetical gentile reporter referred to above)

(note: this post is by no means an essay—it’s just strung-together thoughts)

In discussing Joseph Smith, Farmer calls the destruction of the Expositor “a gross violation of the First Amendment”  (14). Not so, according to the way the law was interpreted at the time he destroyed the press. Was it a dumb decision? I think so. But a Constitutional violation? Not even close.

The talk about Native Americans is interesting and useful and fun with some genuinely shocking images. But my growing lack of faith in the precision of his details makes me wonder how much I can quote outside the actual quotations. Many of which are awesome. And which I will be remembering.

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Farmer’s intro cites Romney as an impetus for this volume, so it’s perhaps no surprise he delights in such comments from the past as the fear Mormons would vote a straight Democratic ticket or a long-time-ago call for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as one man and one woman to solve the Mormon problem. We enjoy the irony, but I’m not sure we need it yelled at us.

One of my favorite sections was 157-161 re Mormonism in popular music and on Broadway in the good ole days. I had had a vague sense of Mormons being, along with the Irish, “niggers” and “Orientals”, a standard fixture in minstrel shows, good for a laugh and a funny song, but I did not realize how standard the stereotype was. And that the New York Herald described Deseret as “the first really successful American opera”? Priceless

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Here are some fun things:

On 175:  “In the context of irrigation, outsiders lauded Mormons for their communitarianism, communalism, cooperation, and consensus—all of the same qualities that made the Latter-day Saints such a religious and political threat.”

What I learned on 177: Days of ’47 is America’s third biggest parade.

This book introduced me to the work of Mormon artists Rachel Farmer (who, it ends up, is sister of the curator) and Trishelle Jeffrey.

But enough with things I liked! More complaints!

On 204: MoTab as a purveyor of “milquetoast Americana”!

205: “Music and the Spoken Word” “mixes choral music with ecumenical words of inspiration delivered in the distinctive declamatory style of LDS authorities (a placid avuncular singsong)”!

These are the sort of sideways slams that can be tiring, no matter how “fair” the book is as a whole. Read in small blasts, very enjoyable. Read in long stretches though, these small snideries can pile on. But if they bother you, just stick with the pictures and avoid the captions.

None of my complaints change the value of the book to journalists.

But if you really want to see how Farmer is going down to the word level just to get on my nerves, check out page 223: “knew” vs “know” to increase sense of weird secrecy.

Also, he often displays difficulty in separating Utahisms from Mormonisms. Even though I’m certain he knows the difference. He has a Mormon background, after all.

You culture observers will be interested to know he says Latter Days was “well received by critics”. Nice research.

On page 264: Yeah, sure, the Book of Mormon “basically contains no women” but I’m not sure about the caveat “besides Lehi’s wife and a multitude of harlots”—I would love to hear all these harlots counted up.

He uses the term Mo-lympics for the 2002 Olympics more than once. I think we can all agree this is a pretty egregious sin.

Chapter 12 about the ERA, priesthood restrictions, etc, probably got on my nerves the most (even though here also it’s mostly fair and still recommended to journalists), and not just because of a blatant misuse of the word “ironically.” One cannot use the term thought police without sacrificing some some credibility re evenhandedness.  Never mind unsupportable speculations like Joanna Brooks would have been excommunicated in the 1990s or The Proclamation on the Family’s bound for canonization. And to act like the change from “white” to “pure” was a post-OD2 out-of-nowhere-ism lacks a certain something. Because, actually, Joseph Smith made that change. Then someone changed it back. Now it’ s back to where he wanted it. You can’t just repeat old stories like that unless you’re paying attention to the research and not just repeating the shocking fact you learned in 1997 on the World Wide Web. I know, sure, this book lacks enough text to capture every nuance on every topic, but it could be trying a little harder.

Because even kind comments can be annoying when they’re insanely broad; for instance, Mormons “surpass most Protestants in work ethic” (292). As I read, I had to keep reminding myself that this book will provide nuance to the discussion, even if it’s not always so nuanced itself.

(I know I’m expressing more irritation at generalizations of Mormon when the book treads on other groups in the same manner but, in my defense, it’s a book about Mormons, so those examples are simply more frequent.)

All complaints aside, this is a terrific introduction to Mormons in the media through history. And the images speak for themselves, meaning even those with an antipathy to reading can make their way through this book. In fact, those with an antipathy to reading won’t even run in to the things I’ve complained about.

Plus: it’s got a fabulous Further Reading.

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8 comments: “Mormons in the Media, 1830-2012

  1. S.P. Bailey

    I just want to point out that my sisters had that Donny Osmond doll in the fabulous purple satin jumpsuit. The matching Marie doll too.

  2. Ardis

    Should anyone care to actually read that, uh, successful American opera “Deseret,” I posted the text once upon a time at Keepa, in three parts. I’m on my tablet at the moment and have yet to figure out how to copy and paste links, but you can find it there by searching Dudley Buck’s name.

  3. Scott Hales

    Yeah…I see where you’re coming from here. I just finished browsing the book, and while I didn’t read it word for word, I got the general idea that easy potshots were the way to go.

    First of all, as a trove of images, I think the book is invaluable–although I lament that his focus was on Mormon low-brow culture and kitsch–giving off the impression that Mormons have never had any artistic achievements. I also question some of his interpretive moves–notably equating the kitschy Book of Mormon heroes posters with gay porn. Granted, it’s an interesting connection–but one obviously intended to make a point about Mormon homophobia. Why not point out their similarities to sports posters, or pro-wrestling posters, or other types of uber-masculine images that are more a part of American male youth culture? That seems to me to be the more likely influence.

    I also found the book too Romney-heavy near the end–as if Romney has been the only subject of all Mormon iconography of the last decade. Personally, I think the church and its culture has undergone a significant face-lift over the last 10-15 years, and I don’t think this book reflects that enough. Too much of the last 50 pages or so are wasted on goofy images of Mormons pulled from Google images. These images, of course, tell a story, but I wouldn’t characterize it as the story of 21st century Mormonism. In a sense, they do little than show the reader–Mormon and non-Mormon–what they already know and what they’ve already seen. (Which is probably why I think the first half of the book seems so much better and so much more interesting–I felt like every page had something new and exciting–and I consider myself someone who is pretty familiar with 19th century images of Mormonism).

    Lastly, I think it is interesting that this book is free online. It seems to have all the makings of a coffee table book, but I suspect that Farmer realized that he would have a hard time finding a market for it. Most Mormons, I think, would take offense at some of the pictures and some of his analysis. Most non-Mormons would find it an interesting curiosity, but not something they would buy–and certainly not something they would want to display lest their neighbors see it and suspect the worst. That leaves a very small readership market indeed. Free might be the best route.

  4. Th.

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    Your analysis pretty much matches my own. The 19th and early 20th century stuff I found the most interesting because most removed from present-day experience. The present-day stuff I found least interesting because so limited of present-day experience.

    I always get a little sad when books such as this reject Occam’s Razor in favor of the flamboyant explanation that breaks down under the least examination. I think the book may well have been stronger with less analysis, which is not something one wants to hear oneself saying.

  5. S.P. Bailey

    The text left a lot to be desired, but it is a nice collection of Mormon images and artifacts. Call me crazy, but I think it would be fun to decorate a den or an office (a bathroom?) with salacious old anti-Mormon cartoons.

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