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Mormon Letters

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter traces the development of Mormon literature as a subcategory of American literature from pioneer period through to the twentieth century, focusing both on works produced by Mormons for Mormon audiences and on works by and about Mormons written for a general audience. Mormon Literature is grouped into four categories, the final two of which overlap in the contemporary period: (1) the “Home Literature” of the pioneer period; (2) the “Mormon diaspora” of the mid-twentieth century; (3) the contemporary literature written for a Mormon audience and published by Mormon presses, such as Deseret Book, and Mormon journals, such as Sunstone and Dialogue; and (4) the contemporary literature by Mormon writers marketed to a general audience. The chapter contains biographical and bibliographical information on the major Mormon writers from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, including Orson F. Whitney, Vardis Fisher, Virginia Sorensen, Levi Peterson, and Phyllis Barber.

Keywords: Mormon literature, Mormon diaspora, Home Literature, Deseret Book, Dialogue, Sunstone, Vardis Fisher, Virginia Sorensen, Levi Peterson, Phyllis Barber

We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God’s ammunition is not exhausted. His brightest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. In God’s name and by his help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven.

Orson F. Whitney, “Home Literature,” 1888

God, the best storyteller, has made a better story out of Joseph and the Mormon wandering than fiction will ever equal.

Bernard DeVoto, “Vacation,” 1938

Orson F. Whitney—a nineteenth-century writer, editor, and Mormon apostle—believed that the truth of Mormonism would someday produce the world’s greatest literature. Whitney could not help but see Mormonism as a potential wellspring of classic books; literature was humanity’s greatest aspiration, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the purest expression of eternal truth, he reasoned. And great truth has ever produced great literature. To a literary mind like Whitney’s, literary greatness was a logical part of the overall triumphalism of the nineteenth-century Mormon worldview:

In God’s name and by his help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundations may now be low in earth. Let the smile of derision wreathe the face of scorn; let the frown of hatred darken the brow of bigotry. Small things are the seeds of great things, and, like the acorn that brings forth the oak, or the snowflake that forms the avalanche, God’s kingdom will grow, and on wings of light and power soar to the summit of its destiny.1

Whitney’s considerable influence was largely responsible for what scholars of Mormon literature have called—using the title of his essay—the “Home Literature Movement” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “Home Literature” in this context refers to literature written by Mormons to Mormons, often with the (p. 486) official or tacit approval of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Whitney’s own ten-book poem Elias, an Epic of the Ages (1904) fits into this category, as does Nephi Anderson’s perennially popular novel Added Upon, which was published by the church-owned Deseret News Press in 1898 and has been continually in print ever since.

Bernard DeVoto wrote from a very different perspective. Though not a Mormon himself, he was born and raised among Mormons in Ogden, Utah, near the turn of the twentieth century. While DeVoto’s writings about the Latter-day Saints were often barbed and critical, he had a better understanding of Mormonism than any other major writer of his day. When he left Utah to become one of America’s most respected novelists and literary scholars, he was in an ideal position to tell the story of the Latter-day Saints. In his essay “Vacation,” an installment of his monthly “Easy Chair” column for Harper’s Weekly, he writes that the story of the Mormons:

was a story which I had known all my life, which I knew better than any other in American history. It held as much as any novelist could ask of farce and tragedy, melodrama, aspiration, violence, ecstasy—the strongest passions of mankind at white heat; the Kingdom of God and mob cruelty and martyrdom; bigotry and superstition and delusion; mystical exaltation and the purity of faith; ambition and its overthrow, persecution and social revolt—all bound up … with the sweep of a full century of American life.

However, DeVoto concludes, the novel of the Mormon past must remain “the best book I am never going to write.” He judged the subjects of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the Mormon migration, and the settlement of the Salt Lake Valley to be too big for fiction. Recalling the argument in Plato’s Republic, he concludes that “fiction is the reflection of a shadow cast at secondhand on a dull mirror. … What drama could any merely mortal story-teller construct that would not be an idle nursery play for children, compared to the one that is written in our own annals, whose first chapter opens on the Hill Cumorah with a new Bible engraved on sheets of gold?”2 DeVoto did indeed write the story of the Mormons, but he wrote it as a history rather than a novel. His Mormon masterpiece was to be The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943)—a historical narrative that weaves the powerful story of the Mormon migration into the overall narrative of America’s westward movement during the nation’s most crucial year of colonization. DeVoto’s biographer and fellow Utahan Wallace Stegner, though an even more gifted novelist, was similarly unable to craft fiction out of the Mormon story. Stegner wrote two books about Mormonism—Mormon Country (1942) and The Gathering of Zion (1964)—both of them histories rather than novels. This pattern continued throughout DeVoto’s lifetime and well beyond. The best-known works about Mormonism in the twentieth century—works such as Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History (1945), Juanita Brooks’s The Mountain Meadows Massacre (1950), Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom (1958), and Samuel W. Taylor’s Nightfall at Nauvoo (1971)—have been historical rather than literary accounts of the Mormon story.

(p. 487) But literary canons must eventually be constructed, lest literary critics be left with nothing to do. Since the mid-1970s—which saw the publication of the first Mormon literature anthology (1974) and the founding of the Association for Mormon Letters (1976)—scholars and critics have devoted significant attention to the question, “What is Mormon literature?” Those who have tried to define a workable canon of such literature have often found themselves floundering between Whitney’s optimism, which proclaims that there must eventually be great Mormon literature, and DeVoto’s resignation, which declares such a thing impossible. We see this clearly in the first attempt at a Mormon literature anthology, A Believing People by Brigham Young University professors Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert. The original textbook for BYU’s popular Mormon Literature course, A Believing People, had a significant influence on the first group of scholars professionally attracted to the study of Mormon letters. But the canon that Cracroft and Lambert construct in this book consists overwhelmingly of: (1) writings of by LDS leaders or works that appeared in official church publications; and (2) journals, letters, biographies, and other sources that could best be described as “historical.” Of the thirty-six works in the anthology that are not classified as poetry, eight are written by LDS general authorities, twenty-three are from sources published by the LDS Church, and twenty are historical texts or primary historical documents such as letters or journals. Only eight of the thirty-six works do not fit into at least one of these categories. Among the works that are classified as poetry, the most frequently cited source is the LDS Hymnal, from which sixteen of the thirty-six entries for the nineteenth century have been drawn.

Most of the literary scholars who emerged around the time of A Believing People, however, recognized that a meaningful canon of “Mormon literature” must ultimately be located somewhere between Whitney’s “Home Literature,” which drives inexorably toward sponsored propaganda, and DeVoto’s conviction that the Mormon story could be told only as history. A Believing People does indeed gesture—albeit tentatively—toward just such a middle ground. It does so in two ways. First, the editors include works by three midcentury Mormon authors who published to a national audience: Vardis Fisher, Virginia Sorensen, and Maurine Whipple. Just as important, Cracroft and Lambert anthologized several poems and short stories from the new journal, Dialogue—which, along with the less scholarly magazine Sunstone, would soon provide a crucial platform for the development of literature by and for Mormons that neither requested nor received the imprimatur of the LDS Church.

The Mormon Diaspora at Midcentury

In the second meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters in 1977, BYU professor Edward Geary presented a paper entitled “Mormondom’s Lost Generation: The Novelists of the 1940s”—a paper, that has since been published several times and has become a standard starting point for the construction of a Mormon literary canon. Geary uses the term “Lost Generation”—originally applied to American expatriate (p. 488) writers in France in the 1920s—to describe a group of novelists with Mormon backgrounds who started writing in the 1940s and continued through the 1970s. Though these writers were sometimes at odds with their more orthodox coreligionists, their novels were a far cry from almost every fictional portrayal of Mormonism in the first hundred years of its existence. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, books such Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Dynamiter (1885), Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887), and Zane Gray’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) had portrayed Mormon men as violent fanatics and Mormon women as their deluded, brainwashed captives. This new generation of Mormon novelists worked much more diligently to create complex, three-dimensional portrayals of both the Mormons and their history.

However, nearly all of the Mormon novelists of this period were, to some degree, estranged from their home culture. “Most of the writers who emerged during the 1940s were born in the first two decades of [the twentieth] century,” Geary writes, “a traditional time in Mormon country, and most grew up in small towns where the transition was perhaps most strongly felt.” Most of them ended up leaving the region around the time of the Great Depression, and “for many, leaving the region meant leaving the Church, for they could not clearly separate their Mormon-ness from their Utah-ness.” For Geary, then, these novelists were “lost” both geographically and culturally, and nearly all of their novels “have their roots in the author’s effort to come to terms with his or her Mormon heritage.” The one uniting theme that Geary sees in all of these works is “the central conflict between individualism and authority.” In virtually all of these novels,

The founding of the Church and its growth, migrations, and settlement in the West are “great events,” the more so because of the Church’s authoritarian structure. The settlement of Mormon country was communal rather than individualistic. … Communal values took place over individual tastes; obedience to authority was more important than individual judgment; and the achieving of communal goals mattered more than personal fulfillment—or rather, personal fulfillment was to be attained through the achieving of communal goals.

The sympathetic characters in these novels are the ones who experience a tension between the demands of the community and their desires to think and act for themselves.3

Among these Lost Generation writers, Geary includes a number of figures who were never well known outside of Mormon circles, such as Maurine Whipple, Paul D. Bailey, Blanche Cannon, and Jean Woodman. He also includes two writers who became much better known for things other than their contributions to Mormon literature. The first of these, Samuel W. Taylor, was the son of excommunicated apostle John W. Taylor and the grandson of the Mormon prophet John Taylor. Though he wrote a number of serious histories, novels, and Hollywood screenplays, his greatest fame rests on the short story “A Situation of Gravity,” which became the basis for the successful Disney films The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963). The second, Richard Scowcroft, succeeded Wallace Stegner as the director of the Creative Writing Program at (p. 489) Stanford University, where he also became chair of the English Department. But outside of Stanford and academic creative writing circles, Scowcroft is generally known, if he is known at all, as the brother of Brent Scowcroft, who served as the National Security Advisor for Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush and played a major role in the first Persian Gulf War.

The two most important writers that Geary places in the Lost Generation tradition are Vardis Fisher and Virginia Sorensen, both of whom did achieve substantial literary reputations during their lifetimes. They both ultimately rejected Mormonism as a religion—Fisher became an outspoken atheist, and Sorensen converted to Anglicanism—leading to some debate (especially in Fisher’s case) about whether or not they should be classified as “Mormon writers.” But scholars are used to making distinctions between religious belief and the culture that it supports, and, from this perspective, there can be no doubt that Fisher, Sorensen, and the rest of the Lost Generation writers, qualify as “Mormon” in their culture if not in their belief.

Vardis Fisher grew up in rural Idaho at the turn of the twentieth century. Though both of his parents came from Mormon backgrounds, and his mother remained fiercely devout, the Fishers did not live near enough to a church to make it part of their lives. Temperance Fisher provided both the spiritual and the secular education for her three children until they were old enough to attend high school in the nearby town of Rigby. While in Rigby, Vardis experienced renewed spiritual interest and was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the age of twenty. Soon afterwards, however, he rejected the Mormon faith and, for the rest of his life, identified himself as an atheist. Fisher earned a degree in English from the University of Utah and went on to receive MA and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago. After holding teaching positions at the University of Utah and New York University, he left academia to pursue a full-time writing career, eventually writing twenty-six novels and several other critical and historical works and becoming one of the Mountain West’s best-known writers.

Mormonism features prominently in Fisher’s early work. His four autobiographical novels—collectively called The Tetralogy (1932–36)—delve deeply into his Mormon upbringing, his mother’s ambiguous influence, and his relationship with his first wife, a devout Mormon woman whose 1924 suicide became the transformative event of his life.4 The Tetralogy novels were critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful, which caused the young writer to try his hand at the more lucrative fields of regional and historical fiction. After writing several such novels that garnered respectable sales, Fisher decided to tell one of the stories he knew best, and he took up the challenge to write a novel about the founding years of Mormonism. In 1939, only one year after Bernard DeVoto had declared such a thing impossible, he published Children of God, a nearly 800-page epic that featured both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young as major characters. Children of God stirred passions across the country. In Utah, Mormons denounced the book as an attack on their faith. Many of Fisher’s free-thinking friends, however, considered it overly friendly toward the Latter-day Saints, and some even accused him of proselytizing through his fiction. In general, critics praised Children of God for its fairness in neither idolizing nor demonizing the Latter-day Saints. Fisher does not take (p. 490) the official LDS view that the church was restored through divine revelation, and he provides naturalistic origins for the events of the church’s founding, but he does depict both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young as intelligent, charismatic individuals who were sincere in their efforts to build the Kingdom of God. And unlike nearly every novelist who wrote about Mormons before 1939, Fisher does not sensationalize or denounce polygamy. His most forceful criticisms, in fact, occur in the third section of the book when the Mormons renounce polygamy and began to assimilate into mainstream American culture.

Children of God became a best-seller and received one of the most important literary prizes in America, the Harper Prize, given biannually for excellence in fiction, which carried a monetary award of $7,500 (about $125,000 in 2015 dollars). Fisher became a literary celebrity, spoken of in the same terms as Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck (whose Grapes of Wrath was also published in 1939). With Harper and Brothers, he had a strong publisher, a good sales record, and a solid reputation as a regional writer at a time when regional writing was hot. But Fisher increasingly came to resent being known only for a novel about a religion that he had rejected. He did not want to be a “Mormon writer,” or even a “Western writer.” He wanted to write the history of humanity, and soon after the publication of Children of God, Fisher conceived of the project that was to consume the remainder of his life: The Testament of Man, an epic series of twelve novels that would trace the development of community, sexuality, and religion from prehuman primates through the Jewish and Christian worlds and into the present day. Though some of the individual novels in the series sold well, the series as a whole was neither commercially nor critically successful—and Fisher had trouble finding publishers for some of the later novels. Critics now generally agree that Fisher’s obsession with this project drained away the most productive years of one of the twentieth century’s most talented and promising writers.

Three years after Fisher published Children of God, a thirty-year old writer named Virginia Sorensen (1912–91) published her first novel, A Little Lower than the Angels (1942), with the prestigious New York publishing house Alfred A. Knopf. Set primarily in Nauvoo before the Mormon migration, A Little Lower than the Angels uses Mormon history as the backdrop for the story of Mercy Baker, the reluctant wife of a Mormon convert, who becomes a witness to many of the events leading up to the great exodus. Sorensen’s first novel was well received by both Mormon and non-Mormon audiences, and she followed it up with the similarly well-received Mormon-themed novels On This Star (1946), The Evening and the Morning (1949), Many Heavens (1954), and Kingdom Come (1960).

Sorensen, who was born in Provo, Utah, and attended Brigham Young University, always viewed the LDS Church more positively than Vardis Fisher did. She married her first husband, fellow BYU graduate Fred Sorensen, in the Salt Lake City Temple in 1933. Even after she married British writer Alec Waugh in 1967 and converted to Anglicanism, she remained interested in Mormonism and was gratified by the recognition she received from Mormon critics toward the end of her life. However, though Mormon themes and images accounted for the bulk of Sorensen’s writings for adults, (p. 491) her major success as a writer came from her award-winning young-adult fiction, including Curious Missie (1953), The House Next Door (1954), Plain Girl (1956), and the 1957 Newbery Award–winning novel and perennial classic Miracles on Maple Hill.

Vardis Fisher, Virginia Sorensen, and Mormondom’s other “Lost Generation” novelists did not quite become Miltons and Shakespeares, but their accomplishments were not negligible. They wrote modestly successful regional fiction that went a long way toward humanizing a culture that had been demonized for a century in the popular literature of both America and England. In the process, they produced a rich and varied body of work that includes, along with works by Fisher and Sorensen, such well-regarded, nationally distributed novels as Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua (1941), Ardyth Kennelly's _Peaceable Kingdom_, Richard Scowcroft’s Children of the Covenant (1945), Samuel W. Taylor’s Heaven Knows Why (1948), and Paul D. Bailey’s For Time and All Eternity (1964). It is in these novels, and the other works of the midcentury Mormon diaspora, that scholars of Mormondom have found the beginnings of a Mormon literary canon.

Mormons at the Margins

Throughout the 1960s, Mormon-themed literature continued to appear regularly from national presses. By the end of the decade, however, the steady stream had slowed to a very occasional drip. The most likely reason for this decline is that the LDS market—which had supported the sales of most nationally published Mormon books—became large enough to attract niche publishers of its own. By far, the most lucrative segment of the Mormon media market has always consisted of orthodox Latter-day Saints who want books that promote—or at least that decline to challenge—their faith. The vast majority of these books are nonfiction; however, since the 1970s, a more contemporary kind of home literature, found in plays such as Saturday’s Warrior (1973) and My Turn on Earth (1977) and novels such as Jack Weyland’s Charly (1980), has emerged to meet the demand for literature by the nation’s six million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For a time, such works were published and released by nonofficial or semiofficial outlets, such as Bookcraft Books, which was the largest publisher of LDS fiction in the 1970s and 1980s, and Covenant Communications, which produced books, tapes, and videos for the Mormon market. Both companies, however, were purchased by the church-owned Deseret Book—Bookcraft in 1999 and Covenant in 2006—giving the LDS Church, through its in-house publishing enterprise, a virtual monopoly on literature aimed at a mainstream Mormon audience.

By many measures, this contemporary home literature of Mormonism has been remarkably successful. Novels published by Deseret Book can sell tens of thousands of copies, and one series—Gerald Lund’s nine-volume epic The Work and the Glory (1990–98)—had combined sales of over one million books. By other measures, however, the editorial dominance of the institutional LDS Church does not bode well for (p. 492) the future of a Mormon literature. Deseret Book now keeps hundreds of fiction titles in print and distributes them through its own bookstores. Official Deseret offerings include murder mysteries, thrillers, romance novels, young adult fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, and contemporary Mormon realism. And though the overall quality of literature produced for a broad Mormon audience has increased dramatically since the days of Orson F. Whitney, the production and distribution of such literature remains tightly controlled by the institutional church.

The growth of the Mormon world, however, has created a substantial “niche-within-a-niche” market for a different kind of literature—one that accepts and even seeks out the difficult issues that the more official venues ignore. The first major independent source for Mormon fiction was Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, which was founded in 1966 by LDS scholars studying at Stanford University. Dialogue published, and continues to publish, scholarly articles about the Mormon experience from a wide variety of academic fields. But it also publishes short fiction and poetry in almost every issue. In 1974, the somewhat less academically oriented Sunstone magazine joined Dialogue as a venue for independent Mormon writing, including dramatic works by Mormon playwrights. And in 1980 a group of Utah writers, scholars, and investors founded Signature Books, which has since published both fiction and nonfiction books by writers affiliated with Dialogue and Sunstone. These independent publishers have not shied away from controversy and, as a result, often find themselves at odds with the LDS Church. But they have provided crucial spaces for the creation and dissemination of Mormon literature that would simply not be accepted by the church’s own publishing house.

These independent publication venues have helped to create a cohort of writers who have become well known to a small group of Mormon literati, writers such as Douglas H. Thayer, John Bennion, Linda Sillitoe, Michael Fillerup, Jack Harrell, and Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner. They have also, however, helped several writers—two in particular—gain a larger regional and even a national audience. By most accounts, the two most important figures in this group are Levi Peterson and Phyllis Barber, both of whom have written works that make good candidates for inclusion in the canon of Mormon masterpieces.

Levi Peterson was born and raised in the Mormon settlement of Snowflake, Arizona. He attended Brigham Young University and the University of California at Berkeley, before receiving a PhD in English from the University of Utah in 1965 and beginning his thirty-four-year career as a professor at Weber State University. During this time, he began writing short stories for Sunstone, Dialogue, and other regional journals—six of which were collected in his first book, The Canyons of Grace (1982). Peterson has written that his early stories, like his later ones, deal with two primary themes: “conflicts between belief and disbelief and between sexual impulse and conscience.”5

Both of these themes reach their fullest expression in Peterson’s first and most widely read novel, The Backslider (1986). After trying, and failing, to secure a national publisher for The Backslider, Peterson published it with Signature Books, where it went on to become a regional best-seller and one of the most important works of contemporary Mormon literature. The Backslider tells the story of Frank Windham, (p. 493) a Mormon cowboy growing up in the 1950s and struggling with both his sexual impulses and his wavering faith in Mormonism. Frank continually tries to overcome his doubts and desires, but is unable to do so, sending him further and further into depression. The novel concludes with one of the most famous scenes in all of Mormon fiction. While alone in a bathroom, right after baptizing his pregnant wife, Frank sees a vision of Jesus Christ, dressed as a cowboy and standing in the place of the urinal smoking a cigarette. When Frank announces that he wants to emasculate himself (as his brother has already done) to remove his sexual temptation, Jesus asks him, “why can’t you believe my blood was enough. … Why do you have to shed yours too?”6 After experiencing this moment of grace—a crucial part of Protestant Christianity that is rarely discussed in Mormon circles—Frank is able to make small steps toward enjoying the terrestrial life that he has instead of torturing himself constantly for his failure to live up to a celestial standard.

Phyllis Barber grew up in Boulder City, Nevada, in the 1940s and ’50s—a community that had grown up a generation earlier as the base of operations for the construction of the Hoover Dam—the massive engineering project that forms the backdrop of her best-known work, And the Desert Shall Blossom. This novel revolves around the spiritual struggles of Esther Jensen, a Mormon woman whose husband is one of the thousands employed working on the dam. Through Esther, Barber explores the limited roles available for women in mainstream Mormon culture and the spiritual frustrations produced when orthodoxy collides with patriarchy. As the novel progresses, Esther comes to identify the heroine’s own vital nature with the flow of the Colorado River—and, therefore, the stifling role of her male-dominated religion with the Hoover Dam. The novel ends with the completion of the dam and the metaphorical apotheosis of Esther—who realizes that, like the river, she can be frustrated for a time but will eventually triumph over the obstacles in her path. “Nothing can stop me now. I am water,” she muses in the book’s final paragraph. “Fingers of water splitting into channels finding new paths. There’s always a way through.”7

Both Peterson and Barber have continued to write stories in Sunstone and Dialogue, and to publish books with Signature—with Peterson serving as the editor of Dialogue from 2004 to 2008. They, along with the other writers in their circle, pioneered a new space in Mormon letters that was neither fully inside nor fully outside of the larger Mormon community. Unlike most of the Lost Generation writers, they have stayed close to both the LDS Church and the Wasatch Front—with many of them remaining practicing Latter-day Saints throughout their careers. But they have also accepted the disapproval of their community, and the possibility of official censure, in order to raise issues and create characters that have not been welcome in the official story. In his autobiography, Peterson gives a clear description of the space that he hoped to occupy within the Mormon community when he was writing his major works of fiction: “If, while completing … [Canyons of Grace] only a year earlier, I had sensed my distance from Mormonism acutely, I by now admitted to an impulse to intensify my involvement with it. I had long recognized that I was no anti-Mormon, having no wish to see Mormonism dwindle and die away. But I did wish to see it liberalize itself, becoming more humane, (p. 494) more adaptable to change, and less at odds with science and learning, and I saw therein an active role for people like me.”8

Mormons in the Mainstream

In recent years, Mormon writers have made major inroads into the national and international literary markets, beginning in the 1980s, when Orson Scott Card won unprecedented back-to-back Hugo and Nebula Awards for the science-fiction novels Ender’s Game (1985) and Speaker for the Dead (1986). In his public lectures and nonfiction writings, Card has been very outspoken about his Mormon beliefs and has published several fictional works—notably A Woman of Destiny (1984) and Folk of the Fringe (1989)—that deal with Mormonism directly. He has also used allegorized versions of both the Book of Mormon and LDS history as the basis for his successful series, The Homecoming Saga (1992–95) and The Tales of Alvin Maker (1987–2003). Other well-known Mormons writing genre fiction include Anne Perry, the best-selling British mystery novelist; Stephanie Meyer, the author of the phenomenally popular Twilight saga (2005–8); and Brandon Mull, whose young adult fantasy series Fablehaven topped best-seller lists between 2006 and 2010. Unlike Card, these writers do not deal with Mormonism explicitly in their work, but they regularly acknowledge that their religious beliefs have shaped their fiction.

In the somewhat more nebulous category of “literary fiction,” writers from Mormon backgrounds have had some success incorporating Mormon culture into serious—or at least frequently praised—works of contemporary literature. For example, in Brady Udall’s debut novel The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint (2001), the title character, a Native American boy who suffers a near-fatal accident on his reservation, passes through the home of a Mormon family as part of the LDS Indian Placement Program. Similarly, the protagonist of Walter Kirn’s Thumbsucker (1999) goes through multiple obsessions—including Mormonism—after he is hypnotized at fourteen to cure his thumb-sucking habit. Both authors invoke Mormonism with the authority of personal experience: Udall was raised in a traditional (and politically powerful) Mormon family in Arizona, and Kirn’s family converted to the LDS Church when he was twelve, though he did not remain affiliated with the church as an adult. And the Mormon characters in both novels, while often quirky, are generally sympathetic. Judith Freeman, another well-regarded contemporary novelist with Mormon roots, deals with contemporary Mormonism briefly in her novel The Chinchilla Farm (1989) and with historical Mormonism extensively in her novel Red Water (2002), which centers on the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Mormon writers have been somewhat more represented in literary nonfiction than in literary fiction—and especially, in memoirs by Mormon women, of which, in academic circles, Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991) is by far the most influential. Refuge blends together two compelling (p. 495) narratives: the public narrative of the 1983 flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, where Williams worked as a naturalist, and the private narrative of her mother’s death from ovarian cancer, which occurred at the same time. The Mormon religion that Williams shares with her mother plays an important role in both narratives as the author learns to accept, and even find beauty within, nature’s destruction of her places of refuge. Refuge has been frequently anthologized in college textbooks and has been the subject of a number of scholarly works and dissertations during the past twenty years. Other recent best-selling memoirs by Mormon women include Deborah Laake’s Secret Ceremonies (1993), Carol Lynn Pearson’s Goodbye, I Love You (1995), Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam (1999), Carolyn Jessop’s Escape (2007), and Elna Baker’s The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance (2009). These memoirs are often critical of Mormonism, but, collectively, they have had the effect of making the Mormon women’s experience part of the general consciousness of the American reading public.

As impressive as these works of Mormon literature are, however, they do not quite fulfill Orson F. Whitney’s hopes for Mormon Literature. Mormon culture has not produced Miltons and Shakespeares—world-historical figures who annihilate everything that precedes them and remake literature in their own image. But Bernard DeVoto’s dire predictions have also proved groundless. After nearly a century of fighting the good fight, writers who have drawn on Mormon themes and experiences have not experienced “the crash that any man must make who tries to compose fiction out of Joseph Smith and the Mormon people.”9 Like other religious traditions and subcultures, Mormonism has produced its fair share of bad literature, kitsch, sentimental drivel, and overt propaganda. But, in or out of the Mormon world, 95 percent of everything is garbage. It is to the other 5 percent that we must look to construct canons, be they of Mormon literature or of anything else.

No official canon of Mormon literature has ever been proposed or agreed upon, of course. But the same can be said for Catholic literature, Jewish literature, American literature, and indeed “literature” in general. Canons are not the sorts of things that anybody ever agrees about completely—they depend too much on individual preferences, identity politics, and historical contingencies to produce anything like unanimity. But in the forty or so years that scholars have been grappling with the question of what Mormon literature might be, they have discovered, unearthed, and advanced an impressive body of literary work that we should at least consider in any attempt at an answer.

Though bereft of Miltons and Shakespeares, Mormonism has managed to produce a reasonable number of Saul Bellows and Graham Greenes—writers who understand their culture but don’t always approve of it, who understand the narrative potential of their history and traditions, and who walk the fine line between “insider” and “outsider” to produce sympathetic yet challenging portrayals of Mormonism’s history, culture, and worldview. Occasionally, these authors transcend the boundaries of their culture and use elements of the Mormon story as the background for bigger stories that capture yet unexplored aspects of the universal human experience. And when such a thing happens, we must allow that Mormon literature does indeed have its share of “classics.”

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                    Cracroft, Richard H., and Neal E. Lambert. A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints. 2nd ed. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1979.Find this resource:

                      DeVoto, Bernard. “Vacation.” Harpers 177 (October 1938): 559–60.Find this resource:

                        DeVoto, Bernard . The Year of Decision, 1846. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1943.Find this resource:

                          Fisher, Vardis. Children of God: An American Epic. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1939.Find this resource:

                            Fisher, Vardis. In Tragic Life. Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1932.Find this resource:

                              Fisher, Vardis. No Villain Need Be. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1936.Find this resource:

                                Fisher, Vardis. Passions Spin the Plot. Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1934.Find this resource:

                                  Fisher, Vardis. We Are Betrayed. Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1935.Find this resource:

                                    Flora, Joseph. Vardis Fisher. New York: Twayne, 1965.Find this resource:

                                      Freeman, Judith. Red Water. New York: Pantheon, 2002.Find this resource:

                                        Geary, Edward. “Mormondom’s Lost Generation: The Novelists of the 1940s.” BYU Studies 18, no. 1 (Fall 1977): 89–98.Find this resource:

                                          Jessop, Carolyn. Escape. New York: Broadway, 2007.Find this resource:

                                            Kirn, Walter. Thumbsucker: A Novel. New York: Broadway, 1999.Find this resource:

                                              Laake, Deborah. Secret Ceremonies. New York: William Morrow, 1993.Find this resource:

                                                Pearson, Carol Lynn. Good-bye, I Love You. Carson City, NV: Gold Leaf, 1995.Find this resource:

                                                  Peterson, Levi S. The Backslider. Salt Lake City: Signature, 1986.Find this resource:

                                                    Peterson, Levi S. The Canyons of Grace: Stories. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.Find this resource:

                                                      (p. 497) Peterson, Levi S. A Rascal by Nature, a Christian by Yearning: A Mormon Autobiography. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                                                        Pryor, Elinor. And Never Yield. New York: Macmillan, 1942.Find this resource:

                                                          Scowcroft, Richard. Children of the Covenant. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1945.Find this resource:

                                                            Sorensen, Virginia. The Evening and the Morning. New York: Harcourt, 1949.Find this resource:

                                                              Sorensen, Virginia. Kingdom Come. New York: Harcourt, 1960.Find this resource:

                                                                Sorensen, Virginia. A Little Lower than the Angels. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942.Find this resource:

                                                                  Sorensen, Virginia. Many Heavens: A New Mormon Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1954.Find this resource:

                                                                    Sorensen, Virginia. Miracles on Maple Hill. New York: Harcourt, 1956.Find this resource:

                                                                      Sorensen, Virginia. The Neighbors. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947.Find this resource:

                                                                        Sorensen, Virginia. On This Star. Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946.Find this resource:

                                                                          Stegner, Wallace. The Gathering of Zion. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.Find this resource:

                                                                            Stegner, Wallace. Mormon Country. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1942.Find this resource:

                                                                              Taylor, Samuel Woolley. Heaven Knows Why. New York: A. A. Wyn, 1948.Find this resource:

                                                                                Taylor, Samuel Woolley. Nightfall at Nauvoo. New York: Macmillan, 1971.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Udall, Brady. The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint. New York: Norton, 2001.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Whipple, Maurine. The Giant Joshua. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Whitney, Orson F. Elias: An Epic of the Ages. New York: Knickerbocker, 1904.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Whitney, Orson F. “Home Literature.” In A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-Day Saints., ed. Richard H. Cracroft and Neal E. Lambert, 129–33. 2nd ed. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1979.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. New York: Pantheon, 1991.Find this resource: