One of the perks of being review editor for Irreantum is receiving unexpected review copies in the mail. Some weeks ago, I opened the mailbox to find the new edition of Terryl L. Givens The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (Oxford University Press, 2013) waiting for me. If you’ve never had a chance to study this book, I highly recommend that you check it out. No student of Mormon literature should overlook it.
Earlier this week, Dr. Givens graciously agreed to answer five questions I had about the new edition of Viper and other matters related to Mormon studies. Here are his replies:
What motivated the new edition of Viper on the Hearth? Was it simply the recent “Mormon Moment” or has more happened in the sixteen years since the book’s initial publication that necessitated a new edition?
Two factors led to the update. First, Viper was my first book and had a limited release. It was only available in a print-on-demand format that approached one hundred dollars. Obviously it wasn’t going to get any circulation at that price, so Oxford agreed to do a paperback. Second, it wasn’t just a matter of an additional 16 years of Mormon representations that needed filling in. A shift in the cultural winds had occurred, and Mormonism became interesting–or of interest–in new ways. One way to think about this is in terms of what I refer to as the 1893 devil’s compromise. At the Chicago World’s Fair, the Tabernacle Choir was given the silver medal, even as B. H. Roberts was denied a real forum and equal billing with other religions to present a discourse on Mormonism. The message was, you can sing and dance for us, but don’t ask us to take your theology seriously. And in many ways, Mormonism signed on to that deal. For over a century, Mormons became to a large extent acceptable and increasingly respected–but not for their beliefs. The public face of Mormonism was more likely to be an Osmond, a Steve Young, or a David Archuleta, than a B. H. Roberts or Neal Maxwell. And Americans and Mormons alike were fine with that. But as Mormonism assumed a more prominent place American political life in the last two election cycles, the compromise frayed. When a Mormon threatened to win the highest political office in the land, bringing his Mormon beliefs with him, the old nineteenth-century canards returned with a vengeance. One sign of the breakdown of coherent discussion about Mormonism was evident in the frequent insistence that, like Kennedy in his Houston Ministerial Association speech, Romney should address his religious beliefs to reassure an anxious public. Sadly, few journalists or pundits seem to have actually read the Kennedy speech. For in it, he said emphatically that he would not address those concerns: He would not “state once again what kind of church I believe in–for that should be important only to me.” His message didn’t penetrate very lastingly. In the Viper re-issue, I bring the story up to date by including those developments.
Ángel Chaparro Sainz recently received summa cum laude marks for his dissertation “Contemporary Mormon Literature: Phyllis Barber’s Writing” from University of the Basque Country (Universidad del País Vasco – Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea) in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. He was kind of to answer some questions about his dissertation and Mormon literary studies in general.
How did you first come in to contact with Mormon literature?
At college. When I began my postgraduate studies, you had to follow three different steps. First one was going back to class. One year taking some new lectures, getting ready a few essays and getting good marks. Then you had to write like a little dissertation, a first attempt. People usually took advantage of it to write a chapter, or a couple sections of their future dissertation. Third step was writing the dissertation. In the first step, I took a lecture on Western American literature. There, the professor who was to become my advisor gave us to read a short story by Phyllis Barber and he told us a little bit about Mormon history. He also pointed out that nobody was researching the Mormons in Europe. Most of my fellow students were interested in Chicanos, Basque-Americans and so on. Me too, but I wanted to do something about rock lyrics from a literary perspective. I was not brave enough to propose that topic though and when I was desperately looking for a topic for the second step, I went upstairs and I told that professor that I was thinking about researching Phyllis Barber and the Mormons.
Why did you decide to do your dissertation on the work of Phyllis Barber? What about her work led you to decide that it was a viable project?
I say in my introduction to the dissertation that it was “by accident” that it was Barber whom I came to know first. And it’s plain truth. That first short story I read was “Mormon Levis”. I thought it was a pretty good piece of fiction, and some of the inner motivations of the story were a mystery to me. I began reading the rest of her fiction and I did not stop discovering new things and new mysteries that I wanted to resolve. But my conviction came after the decision. In that sense, it was a good love story, a real love story. It was not “love at first sight”. I had to work hard on that relationship, reading and rereading, making questions and leaving them unanswered. I found a literary body which was complex and compelling. Her fiction led me to so many different paths, paths in which my own involvement was as important as understanding what she was saying. When I was done reading all her work I realized I had taken the right decision, but the decision had already been taken anyway. Now I know I took one of the best ways to understand Mormonism and Mormon literature. In my dissertation, I talk about the idea of the “middle way” as a moral stance, both personal and universal, in which the risks taken gave more value to Phyllis Barber’s literature. That was the main reason why I thought hers was the best work to make this project viable, as you said. more →
Some time ago, I started following John Granger‘s Twilight studies blog, “Forks High School Professor” as a corollary to my own academic interest in Meyer’s books. Granger made a name for himself as Dean of Harry Potter Studies when he took J.K. Rowling’s books as subjects worthy of academic study. And now he’s trying his hand at Twilight, an effort I heartily applaud as I think of my own haphazard attempts to do the same thing.
And yet, sometimes he just rubs my believing-Mormon-skin the wrong way with his cursory engagement with Mormonism, something that’s simply secondary to and arising from his academic interest in literature, faith, and culture. Since he’s a newcomer to the still-blossoming field of Mormon studies* and an outsider to the LDS faith, I can’t fault him for this engagement and for getting some things wrong every now and then. Heck, cultural Mormons are a peculiar lot with an equally peculiar history. Putting things together about the religion can be difficult even for those with a lifetime commitment to it. more →