Perhaps one of the most discussed literary subjects among Mormons is morality in literature. We worry about profanity, violence, and nudity in media today, and sometimes also worry about the actions of characters and moral messages in what we consume.
These worries are not new, although more than 100 years ago profanity and nudity didn’t appear in plays and novels, so instead the worry was more about how the characters acted and what moral messages were in literature and amusements. And apparently this was true even if you didn’t seek the “sentimentality” so common in the literature and drama of the 1890s.
This week I finished Susa Young Gates’Â John Stevens’ Courtship: A Story of the Echo Canyon WarÂ (1909), one of the first Mormon novels. Below are some notes I drew up to gather my thoughts on the book, which I think is fairly typical of the kinds of fiction Mormons were producing at the time. A few things set it apart, though, and I try to highlight those aspects in my observations.
As best as I can tell, John Stevensâ€™ Courtship is the first novel published in book form by Susa Young Gates, one of Brigham Young’s many daughters. It might also be the first novel published in book form by a Mormon woman, but I could be wrong. Earlier novels by Mormon women had been published before 1909, in serial form, including Emmeline B. Wellsâ€™ Hephizibah (1889) in The Womanâ€™s Exponent and Gatesâ€™ The Little Missionary (1899) in the Juvenile Instructor.
It is probably the best example we have of early Mormon historical fiction. It certainly uses Mormon history in a way that compliments the narrative better than either Nephi Andersonâ€™s Marcus King, Mormon (which is superficially historical) or John St. John (which is textbook historical). I imagine Gatesâ€™ models are the works of Walter Scott, E.D.E.N. Southworth, and their imitators. Here, the action of her characters play out against the pageantry and crises of the Utah War in a way that does not sacrifice character and plot development to the facts of history. In other words, I feel Gates allows the events, atmosphere, and attitudes of the Utah War to unfold through her charactersâ€™ stories rather than through pedantic narration. more →
With the advent of the home literature movement in the end of the 19th century, Mormon culture began to produce novels for the first time. For decades church leaders had taught from the pulpit that church members should avoid reading novels because they weren’t “true,” and one speech at a late 1880s YMMIA event by a Salt Lake City-area bishop (although admittedly an influential oneâ€”Orson F. Whitney) wasn’t going to change the perception of many church members. The message that reading some novels was acceptable would need to be explained and repeated.
The arrival of the transcontinental railroad to Utah in 1869 marked the end of a period of relative isolation for the LDS Church. It also came just at the end of a period of almost no Mormon publishing in Utah and the United States. 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 →