Tag Archives: Canon

Mormons and the Fiction (and Poetry) of E Pluribus Unum

2.13.13 | | 7 comments

This summer I have another chance to teach a literature class rather than my usual course in freshman composition. This time around I’ll be teaching (in four short weeks) the second half of the American literature survey, which covers everything since 1900. Initially, I planned on assigning a number of novellas rather than an anthology, but my mind changed when I decided to focus the class on how the canon has been opened up over the past one hundred years to allow writers from a variety of backgrounds to participate in this thing we call “American Literature.” I’ll be calling the class “The Fiction (and Poetry) of E Pluribus Unum” because I intend to focus on the way the canon has and has not embraced the beautiful and elusive American paradox of a unified community comprised of many—often discordant—voices. Plus, we’re going to be reading fiction and poetry. So there’s some wordplay there.

The text I plan to use is the second volume of the shorter eighth edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. The Norton anthology, in many ways, defines the boundaries of the canon today, making it an ideal text to use with my class. I haven’t selected reading assignments yet, but I expect that I’ll include some of my undergraduate favorites—Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”—as well as others that I’m unfamiliar with, but sound interesting—Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Lullaby,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Sexy,” Junot Díaz’s “Drown.” I’m also interested in other texts, like John Steinbeck’s “The Leader of the People,” which seems (tellingly) to have taken the place of “The Chrysanthemums” in the academic canon. I imagine these texts and the others will help us have some interesting discussions about the meaning of the E Pluribus Unum ideal. I especially hope to get them thinking about how and why we construct and reconstruct (a) canon(s). I also want to them to think about the voices that are still outside the canon.

For this reason, I’m planning on assigning three Mormon short stories and a few poems. Mormons, that is, will be our case study of a community of American writers who have not yet been given a place in today’s multi-cultural canon—even though their numbers are comparable to other communities—the Jewish and LGBTQ communities, for example—that are reasonably well-represented in the Norton anthology. My hope is that the Mormon works I bring in will spur a discussion not only about the ongoing “fiction” of E Pluribus Unum—the never-ending (and ultimately impossible?) task of bringing more voices to the table and truly being one from many—but also the limitations and ethics of the canon model itself. Should we even have a canon, after all, if its overriding structure demands that we value one voice over another?

Canon debates are always fun, and I wouldn’t be opposed to having one here on AMV, but before we do so, I want to solicit your help. As I said, I’m planning on using three Mormon short stories and several poems. Which do you recommend? My only stipulation is that they much be accessible free to students via online archives like those of Dialogue and Sunstone. I don’t want to make them purchase any more books than they have to. The Norton anthology is expensive enough.

In asking this question, of course, I am also asking us to create a kind of Mormon canon of short stories and poems—which means I’m asking you to include some works at the expense of others. Feel free to justify and defend your choices.

Gatekeeping and Power in the Mormon Literary Community

8.3.10 | | 19 comments

I was startled recently to find myself described (in response to my review of Alan Williams’s novel Ockham’s Razor) as acting like a gatekeeper for Mormon literature. Partly this was because I had seen my comments mostly as definitional rather than exclusionary: Ockham’s Razor is a book of type X, as opposed to type Y. Mostly, though, I think it’s because calling me a gatekeeper seems to imply a level of power I don’t see myself as having.

The question of who gets to define Mormon literature, and what is good and bad within it, is an area where it seems to me that this kind of conflicted perspective is common. We here at A Motley Vision don’t see ourselves as a center of power and authority in the discussion of Mormon literature: rather, simply as a place where some of us get to hang out, shoot the breeze, talk about things that interest us (and that usually have nothing to do with our day jobs), and spout opinions that generally encounter as much disagreement as agreement from other posters (as witness the reaction to that same review). But to others, we are a bastion of The Establishment in Mormon literature — or so I suddenly perceive or guess. It is (would be) to laugh, if it were not also such a sad commentary on the state of Mormon letters.

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Slowly Flowering: My grad school paper on Mormon literature

7.31.08 | | 8 comments

I have decided to post a Mormon literature-related paper I wrote for a graduate school class titled “Memory, Nation and Diaspora.”. The class was actually my final comp lit seminar at SF State and was taught by Martha Klironomos, the Nikos Kazantzakis Chair and director of Modern Greek Studies. She was very supportive of my desire to write about Mormon literature. I think she even gave me an A on the paper. Most of the non-Mormon-related criticism cited in the paper is pulled from some of the works we read for the course so the theoretical framework might not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it interesting. In fact, it’s the university course that has influenced my thinking about Mormon literature the most.

Anyway, here it is. No modifications have been made to the original text except for correcting one spelling error that I caught in a very quick re-reading:

Slowly Flowering: Mormon Literary Criticism on Mormon Literary History and Future

And here is an excerpt:

“But more fundamentally, through its recovering and criticism of Mormon literary history, Mormon literary theory invokes a set of texts and way of viewing them that helps preserve a Mormon ethnies, an ethnies which includes individuals beyond active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And more importantly, by exposing the deficiencies of the current Mormon literary canon, Mormon literary theory sustains the dream of a great literature produced by a chosen people, a dream that combines memory and desire, a prophecy that drives the very literary production that ensures the survival of the ethnies.”

It was also an interesting exercise in trying to figure out how to give decent context for Mormonism without getting long-winded about it. Upon re-reading, I cringed a bit at some of my notes, but on the whole I think the paper stands up fairly well. Or at least I’m not so embarrassed by it that I wasn’t willing to post it. My thanks to AMV commenter Laura Craner who reminded me of this paper in Anneke’s Twilight post.

What Should Mormons Know About Mormon Culture?

6.9.08 | | 34 comments
Sor Juana by Miguel Cabrera.

Last week on the NPR radio program On The Media, in a segment titled “Vanishing Reviews,” I heard a great story from Steve Wasserman, a past editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. It seems that Wasserman had been told by Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes that his ignorance of an early Mexican writer and Saint, Sor Juana de la Cruz, would be, in the Spanish-speaking world, “as if you said the word Shakespeare and got a blank stare.”

So, when Penguin Classics came out with an English translation of the works of Sor Juana de la Cruz, Wasserman decided to feature the author on the front page of the Book Review. But his American-educated superiors at the Times objected saying “Sor Juana who?” Wasserman then carried the mockup of the issue into the executive lunchroom and sat it on the table while he ordered lunch. There, a Mexican-born waiter noticed it, and exclaimed: “Sor Juana!” Wasserman asked, “You know who this is?” “Yes,” the waiter replied, “every school child in Mexico knows Sor Juana de la Cruz.”

Wasserman won the day and the issue was published and gained a flood of reader response. It seems one third of the Times’ audience speaks Spanish as their native language. The responses acclaimed the Times for finally recognizing their culture.

Now, I have a couple of questions about this:

  • First, could you substitute a Mormon writer who is as important to Mormons culturally as Sor Juana de la Cruz is to Mexicans? Is there a writer that fits this bill? Or is it just that you don’t know enough about Mormon literature to know if there is one? *(see my note on this at the end of this post)
  • Second, If there were such a writer featured in a major book-related publication, would most Mormons even know who the writer is?

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An Artist is Not Without Honor, Except in His Own Culture

4.22.08 | | 12 comments

While home teaching the other day, I got into a discussion of how single LDS Church members passed on apartments from member to member, so that some apartments have been held by Church members for a decade or more. As an example of this, I was able to cite the case of Keene Curtis and Jon Beck Shank, both LDS Church members (at least nominally), who shared an apartment here in New York City in the 1960s. I then explained that Curtis went on to become a very successful actor, playing most famously the part of John Allen Hill, the upstairs restaurant owner in the sitcom “Cheers” and the part of “Daddy Warbucks” in the musical “Annie” on stage (not in the film version).

“Daddy Warbucks” was Mormon?!! was the incredulous reaction I got.

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