In July 1915—nearly one hundred years ago—Nephi Anderson traveled to San Francisco to attend meetings at the International Congress of Genealogy held in connection with the Pan-American and Pacific International Exposition. While there, he also attended the exposition’s Utah Day celebration and spent three days seeing the sights. Overall, he writes in his journal, he “had a splendid time.”
He was back in San Francisco five years later, vacationing and conducting some Church business. He stayed at mission headquarters on Hayes Street, where he had Thanksgiving dinner, and attended meetings in Berkeley and Oakland.
The house where Anderson stayed during this second visit (1649 Hayes Street) still stands, although it is now the Emmanuel Church of God in Christ rather than an LDS mission headquarters. I had the opportunity to drive past it last weekend when I was in San Francisco to talk about Anderson at the annual meeting for the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies. It’s in a busy neighborhood just north of Golden Gate Park, so I couldn’t find a place to park nearby. I was able to snap two pictures of it, though, before San Francisco’s traffic nudged me along.
In many ways, Anderson’s history with San Francisco is unremarkable. He was never more than a temporary resident of the city—a vacationer, a passer-through—and what he saw and thought of the city is mostly a matter of conjecture. (As a journal and letter writer, Anderson was an ardent minimalist!) Still, when Sarah Reed, Eric Jepson, and I met last Saturday at the SASS meeting to present papers on his life and work, the fact that he had been to the city and left a brief record of his visit seemed to add to the occasion. As Theric pointed out in his presentation, Anderson’s visits to the city remind us that he was not a provincial writer, holed up behind the mountains of Utah and indifferent to the world beyond Mormonism, but a man who traveled throughout the United States and Europe and became well-acquainted with the important issues and ideas of his day. In fact, it was from this perspective—Anderson as a man of his times—that each of us seemed to approach his work.
As I mentioned in a recent post on Dawning of a Brighter Day, our experience at SASS was the culmination of almost a year’s worth of online discussions (via blogs and email), preparation, and study about Anderson. Last August, I came in contact with Sarah, a German studies scholar at the University of Wisconsin, after she commented on a post I wrote about Anderson’s novel The Castle Builder. Before that, Theric and I had also been exchanging emails about Anderson, mostly in connection with his efforts to publish a new edition of Anderson’s Dorian. When Sarah mentioned the possibility of proposing an Anderson panel for the upcoming SASS conference in San Francisco—practically in Theric’s backyard—it seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring us all together.
The conference itself was massive, devoting three days to panels covering a full range of topics within the field of Scandinavian studies. Our panel landed on the last day of the conference, right after lunch, when several other panels—including a popular authors’ roundtable discussion—were in session. All of us, I think, tried to keep our attendance expectations small. I was hoping for maybe seven or eight attendees. Low-balling it, of course.
In the end, we had two—one of whom was my wife. (Thanks, dear!)
Even so: I think the panel was a success. As the attendee-who-wasn’t-my-wife noted, the panel marked the first time in SASS history when a session was devoted specifically to a Mormon subject. Furthermore, I think it was the first time anywhere that a panel was organized specifically around Anderson and his work. When we finished, I think we all had the sense that something important had happened—despite the low attendance.
Our conference proposals are already posted elsewhere (here and here), so I won’t go into too much detail about the content of our individual talks. (I also regret that in my excitement for the occasion, I took lousy notes!) Sarah spoke first on Anderson’s Scandinavian heritage and its influence on his works. She spoke specifically about the Norway novels—Added Upon, The Castle Builder, and A Daughter of the North—and the way they tie together the various threads of Anderson’s Americanism, Mormonism, and Scandinavianism. (Among other things, Sarah’s presentation reminded me of how broadly Anderson understood Mormonism. For him, it had the potential to encompass—and redeem—all truths, all nations, and all tongues.) I spoke next on masculinity in Anderson’s novels The Castle Builder, Romance of a Missionary, John St. John, and Dorian. My basic premise was that Anderson’s masculinity was largely a response to anti-Mormon novels, but was also heavily influenced by contemporary church teachings and a broader national crisis of masculinity. Theric then closed the session with a presentation on Anderson and assimilation, noting that Anderson’s home literature helped to ease Mormonism’s assimilation into the “mainstream”—thus setting the stage, ironically, for its later obscurity among Mormon readers today, whose assimilation makes them more likely to read something published in New York rather than Salt Lake City.
Afterwards, during the question and answer portion of the session, we had the chance to revisit a few themes. Most of the questions focused on Anderson’s Norwegian identity and politics and how that comes through in his work. We also talked about the enormous influence of Added Upon on several generations of Latter-day Saints and its success as “artistic preaching.” If anything came out of that discussion, though, it was the realization that Anderson offers a wealth of possibilities for scholars. Our hour-and-a-half panel only scratched the surface of what can be said about the man and his work.
This formal discussion, of course, carried over into a more informal discussion. At the end of the session, Sarah, Theric, my wife, and I crossed the street to Portsmouth Square in Chinatown to talk about Mormon literature, blogging, books, and Anderson. As the spot—the very spot?—where Samuel Brannan’s Brooklyn Saints first held their Sunday meetings in 1846, the setting seemed appropriate enough—despite the ratty-looking pigeons that were everywhere. Again, we kept coming back to the theme that Anderson is one of the great unappreciated minds of the Church. If anyone’s reputation deserves to be revitalized, it is his.
We also kept returning to the theme of Mormon literary studies and our frustrations for how it is often overlooked in discussions about Mormon studies, and also deserve—in our humble opinions—a revitalized reputation.
This, of course, will not happen on its own. If we want to raise awareness about Mormon literature and the viability of Mormon literary studies, we need to keep the conversation going and bring it to prominent venues—conferences, scholarly journals, big-name blogs—where others can take notice and join in. This is the only way Mormon literary scholarship will have a prominent place in the Mormon studies family. We must make it too big and too important to ignore or dismiss as simply an “AML thing.”
That means we have a lot of work and a lot of recruiting to do. Mormon literary studies is a small field right now, but it is slowly growing and possibly even building some momentum. On our trip home, I told my wife that I hope to see an entire conference dedicated to Anderson by the time I’m sixty. That will be in the year 2040, twenty-seven years from now.
Plenty of time to get the ball rolling, right?
Also, I didn’t get to use my Prezi at the conference, so I’m including it here. Enjoy!