On Feb. 18, 1912, Franz Kafka introduced a Yiddish poetry reading at Toynbee Hall. In typical Kafka fashion he put his finger on the fear of and attraction to Yiddish that the assimilated Jews in the audience had (or he presumed they had). In analyzing that speech, Louis Begley writes in The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head:
The rub was there [in the fear of Yiddish and by extension the fear of themselves]. Kafka knew that the assimilated Jews sitting in Toynbee Hall feared close contact with their grandparents’ language, and most likely deep down he feared it as well. Of course neither Kafka nor the other Jews he was addressing were afraid of being identified as Jews: they weren’t trying to pass as Christians, if only because it would have been impossible to do so in Prague, where everyone in the German-speaking minority knew everyone else. Rather, the fear was of a crack in the veneer of assimilation through which might enter the miasma of the shtetl or the medieval ghetto that had been left behind, the heritage that these Jews had recently and completely cast aside. For Kafka, Yiddish and the shtetl held out the attraction of the close-kint spiritual community that he imagined flourished there and, I believe, a special terror: that of further linguistic alienation. (65-66)
Kafka’s situation — and that of other assimilated Jews — is very different from that of Mormon Americans. I am not making any strong case for parallels of any sort here. However, I do want to note the phrasing “a crack in the veneer of assimilation through which might enter the miasma… the heritage… that had been recently … cast aside”.
And clearly assimilated Mormon American artists do not fear a further linguist alienation. Prague’s Jews were alienated from the majority because they spoke German instead of Czech so that to twist that alienation further via Yiddish was truly a further linguist alienation.
And yet Mormons do have sets of demarcations that show up in dress, vocabulary, socio-cultural attitudes and daily life. Some of the art produced by Mormons does show a certain crack in the veneer. Much of it, especially the lost generation stuff, is cracks in the veneer of Mormon life. Now that we are post-assimilation, I find myself interested in the cracks in the veneer of assimilation, and (I would hope) have no fear, but rather a deep interest in what comes seeping through those cracks. Bring on the Mormon miasma!
Since Kent’s post on a free online Mormon literature course, I’ve begun thinking about what Mormon texts I could use in a survey class on nineteenth-century American literature and how I could justify their place on the syllabus. In some cases, like the millenarian poetry of Parley P. Pratt and W. W. Phelps, I think I could easily place them with early American Protestant poems and hymns that express similar millennial longings. I could also find a place for poems by Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells among American women poets of the West, as critic Nina Baym has done in a recent work.
Nephi Anderson and other early Mormon fiction writers could also be worked into a syllabus. In some ways, after all, their fiction is not unlike the works of late nineteenth-century African American writers like Charles Chesnutt and Frances Harper, who also used the short story and novel forms to explore the problems and potentials of assimilation, social passing, and identity. At the same time, however, the works of Chesnutt and Harper have the advantage of belonging to a minority group whose basic narrative has already been well-incorporated into the broader American narrative. When teachers go to teach Iola LeRoy, that is, they don’t have to teach students from the ground up about racism, slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, racial stereotypes, and Jim Crow—the issues these text are responding to. They usually have high school and college history classes–not to mention the tireless efforts of social activists–to thank for at least some basic student knowledge about these issues.
I am an assimilated American. I shop at Trader Joe’s, Target and Costco. I play fantasy football and love watching NFL games. I have degrees from two of the most diverse, liberal, meritocratic universities in the nation. I listen to punk, post-punk, electronica, pop, heavy metal and several associated subgenres. I saw every episode of Firefly, Wonderfalls and Freaks & Geeks when they aired. I’m a big fan of network sitcoms and Hollywood romantic comedies. I read literary fiction (mostly American authors), science fiction and fantasy, and big idea general nonfiction (like Freakonomics or The Tipping Point). I wear jeans and t-shirts at home and dress pants, shirts and ties to work. I like Smashburger and Culver’s and The Original Pancake House as well as a host of non-chain American and ethnic restaurants. I use an iPhone. I’m on Twitter and Facebook and Google+. I read an article or column on the websites of Slate, the WSJ, Mashable, Eater and the NY Times almost every day. I’m a political independent who has voted for Republicans, Democrats and third party candidates. I own a Wii and play Lego Star Wars and watch Netflix on it.
And yet still I was struck when I read these two paragraphs near the beginning of Thomas G. Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930: more
Let’s get two things out of the way first:
1. This references two podcast episodes that contain content some AMV readers may be uncomfortable with: Sex. Language. Irreverence. Transsexuality. etc.
2. I am an assimilated American (although not fully). It’s likely you are too. But if you aren’t, this post isn’t for you.
Today I listened to the episode Marc Maron’s WTF comedy podcast that was posted this past Monday, a live episode recorded at The Bell House in Brooklyn. After doing his opening bit, Marc Maron brought out Ira Glass and they talked for awhile (about Ira getting drunk, actually) and then (at around the 40-minute mark; and again: content warning) they bring out Elna Baker who reveals that she is no longer a practicing Mormon and talks about why that is and what she has done (as in, you know, “rule” breaking stuff) since making that decision. It’s about what you would expect if you know anything about the three personalities involved. And I say that with fondness. more