In 1941 when Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua was released, her publishers anticipated huge sales and an endorsement from Church leadership. Whipple doubted this very much. In the end—and the publisher blamed this on the advent of WWII—the book was not the breakout success New York anticipated.
The only official statement in a Church organ was John A. Widtsoe’s review in the February 1941 Improvement Era. Based on the vitriol the novel allegedly had hurled against it, I expected this review to be dripping with anger and outrage. That’s not what I found:
This is neither dismissal nor endorsement. He doesn’t like its sex or its “method modern ‘literary realism’”; he does appreciate its compassion and its respect for pioneer struggle. He’s split on its history. One could read this review and decide yes buy the book or no don’t buy the book or hmm let’s see if Betty bought it and borrow her copy.
For all the review’s ambivalence, allegedly, the people of Utah were anxious to read the book and the Church prevented them from getting it. In St. George, for instance, one local bookseller received over 500 requests for the book yet was not allowed to stock it by decree of the Salt Lake Star Chamber.
(For more on this, read this fascinating essay on Whipple. Since Whipple herself is the source of the above anecdote [and much of the information on conspiracy], it may be suspect. She may not have been all there, if you know what I mean.)
At any rate, here are two things we can agree on: some people were deeply offended by the book, and The Giant Joshua likely was read widely enough that it helped define, in our collective imagination, what polygamy was like.
I recently finished the novel and was quite happy with it. But I completely understand both why New York thought the Church would be buying copies for every home in Zion and why Sister McKay was pulling her hair out in anger.
Let’s start with some yikes moments:
- The book has sex. Not explicit as today’s norms, but it’s there. And the first instance looks a great deal like rape to me.
- The main character is not 100% sold on this Mormon thing. She does not think she has this mysterious elusive thing called “a testimony.”
- The characters have human flaws. Too many for someone looking purely for inspiration. Backbiting and gaslighting and lack of compassion and lust and all kinds of things.
Now let’s look at why 1941 Mormons could have been expected to embrace the novel:
- These Dixie pioneers are true heroes. They suffer and struggle and strive and they never give up. You will be in awe of what they suffer through and what they accomplish.
- The faith is treated with respect, and historical characters (such as Brigham Young and Erastus Snow) are great men.
- It’s a fun read about Mormons with national respect! How could they not love it!
In the end, I suspect the book could not be fully embraced in 1941 for two reasons. I’ll pronounce them, and then we’ll move the conversation to the comments.
First, in 1941 polygamy was still a raw wound. Whether the would was inflicted by polygamy itself or the American response to polygamy or by polygamy’s sudden removal after so much sacrifice is immaterial. Plenty of polygamists were still alive in 1941. We hadn’t had time to figure out for ourselves what shape the polygamy narrative should take and we certainly did not want Houghton Mifflin telling us.
Second, primary p-o-v Clory suffers from an Elna Baker problem. She’s too conflicted about the faith. A more faithful character like Willie or Pal could have been Whipple’s primary set of eyes, but Clory is. And Clory is filled with doubts. And whether those doubts will win in the end is a constant, underlying tension. Which I don’t think it supposed to be bedrock in fiction for the faithful. We start with faith and work out. Faith can’t come last. Faith must be first. Pay attention, people!
Whether you’ve read The Giant Joshua or not, what do you think? Why does this book have such a tortured cultural history? Any chance Deseret Book would promote it today?