Dorian, Sectarians, and Nephi Anderson’s Careful Critique

2.19.13 | | 3 comments

There’s much to admire about Nephi Anderson and his work, but I have always been troubled by his (mis)treatment of other religious faiths—“sectarians” as he called them—in his novels. On the one hand, I understand that his unflattering representations of Protestants and Catholics in Marcus King, Mormon (1900), The Story of Chester Lawrence (1913), and The Romance of a Missionary (1919) were responses not only to the opposition he encountered during his three missions for the Church, but also to the anti-Mormonism that was rampant in the presses of his day. On the other hand, though, I find myself wishing that he extended more charity to those who disagreed with him theologically. So much of his work, after all, seeks to redeem and ennoble characters who have been either marginalized by cultural maladies—sexism, poverty, class prejudice—or oppressed by sin and guilt. Why couldn’t he do the same for the “sectarians”?

Interestingly, my research into his novel Dorian (1921) has uncovered something that has added a layer to my image of Anderson as a staunch anti-sectarian. As Chapter 17 of the novel opens, Dorian has “found something which appeared to him to be the end of all things”: Carlia, the woman he thinks he loves, has become pregnant by another man, run away from home, and given birth to a stillborn baby. (We discover later that she was raped, but Dorian doesn’t know that yet.) Dorian is unable to stomach the news, and wishes he had “found her dead, in her virginal purity,” rather than in her apparently lost and fallen—and unmarriageable—state. All he can think about are old Sunday school chastity lessons and  the “bitter dephts [sic]” of his remorse. Particularly potent is the image of Uncle Zed, his father figure and spiritual mentor, raising a hand of warning against the gravity of sin. For Dorian–and especially Carlia–the situation seems hopeless.

Then, as if out of nowhere, he hears a voice speak Christ’s loving counsel to leave the ninety and nine and seek after the one. The revelation marks a change in Dorian’s heart toward Carlia. What was once condemnation and repulsion turns into love and caring.

Here’s how it plays out in the published version:

Presently, he heard the ringing of church bells. The folks would be going to Sunday school in Greenstreet. He saw in the vision of his mind Uncle Zed sitting with the boys about him in his class. He saw the teacher’s lifted hand emphasize the warning against sin, and then he seemed to hear a voice read:

            “For the Son of man is come to save that which is lost.

            “How think ye if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?

            “And if so be that he find it, verily, I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.” (173-175)

In the original manuscript, however, Anderson rendered the scene in a way markedly different and uncharacteristically sympathetic (mostly) towards sectarians:

He heard the ringing of church bells and he wondered if there might be a branch of Latter-day Saint[s] in the town. He went out again [and] enquired of the hotel clerk who said he did not know but thought not. Dorian walked out down the street and followed a thin procession going into a church. and if the Lord if perchance he might. The singing was restful the prayer was too sectarian to suit Dorian but when the minister arose and began reading a text, Dorian was all attention:

            “For the Son of man is come to save that which is lost.

            “How think ye if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?

            “And if so be that he find it, verily, I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.”

True to Andersonian form, Dorian dislikes the “sectarian” quality of this church; yet, this prejudice in no way dampens his ability to experience the words of Christ and change his uncharitable judgment of Carlia. In fact, in this original version, Dorian receives a change of heart because of the source of his prejudice, which turns out to be the vehicle of Christ’s message. In many ways, it’s a very beautiful passage that betrays a softened stance toward those who usually play the antagonists in Anderson’s fiction.

So, why did Anderson revise the passage?

My hypothesis is this: Anderson rewrote Dorian’s epiphany because its “sectarian” setting added a discomforting–and possibly distracting–layer to the novel’s careful critique of Mormon culture and Pioneer-era dogma. While wholly faithful to the Restoration and Mormonism, Dorian nevertheless departs from the propagandistic tendencies of the era’s Mormon literature to interrogate the provincialism and isolationism of nineteenth-century Mormonism, its failure in the twentieth century to meet Zion’s call for unity and economic equality, and its well-meaning but misguided emphasis of good works and righteous living over Christ’s grace. Perhaps Anderson worried that readers of the original passage would read too much into Dorian receiving greater light and truth from a Protestant minister—which could come across as heretical within the context of the critique. It is also possible that Anderson’s own prejudices against “sectarians” ultimately prevented him from following through with the cautious ecumenism of the original.

Significantly, while the revised passage abandons the uncomfortable contrast between the Mormon works and the Protestant grace, it nevertheless retains—in the dogmatic image of Uncle Zed’s raised hand—Anderson’s critique of his people and their legacy. This suggests to me that Anderson believed that Mormonism had within itself the germ or seed of its own course corrections. For him, that is, the remedy for any deviation within Mormonism from Christ’s core message of love and redemption was not to be found in “sectarian” settings, but in personal revelation and the inspired changes-of-heart of young Mormons like Dorian.

Personally, I think he was on to something.

3 comments: “Dorian, Sectarians, and Nephi Anderson’s Careful Critique

  1. Th.

    .

    This reflects my own, less studies reactions to Anderson. I wonder—if your more careful study, have you seen any evidence of his making rewrite choices such as this due to outside pressures, say his publisher for instance?

  2. Scott Hales Post author

    I haven’t, although I’ve looked around. I’m sure Deseret Book has an archive somewhere, but I haven’t been able to track it down yet.

    By the time Anderson typed up a typescript, the change had been made to the nature of Dorian’s epiphany. So it seems the revision was made rather quickly.

    Another difference I’ve noticed in the original manuscript is that the passage in the published version that indicates that Carlia was drugged and raped (which I completely missed my first reading) was not present in the original manuscript–suggesting that her sexual encounter with Jack Lamont was originally meant to be consensual and an exercise of free agency. This makes how Anderson treats the incident later in the novel make more sense–and significantly less problematic (the language is ambiguous, but the narrative seems to leave the impression that Carlia sinned in being raped. There are, I think, other ways of reading the problematic passages, though, which is matter for a follow-up post.)

    I do wonder if Anderson felt pressure to change Carlia’s willful breaking of the law of chastity to rape in order to make Carlia a victim and a more sympathetic heroine. I also wonder if his original intentions for Carlia as a sexual trangressor made pure through Christ’s atonement was too scandalous for the times–something that would give young Mormon readers the “wrong ideas” about sex and repentance.

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