Mormon Studies through Mormon Literature, Drama, and Film

Today we are seeing Mormon Studies slowly emerge as a legitimate field of study in the academy. Endowed chairs have been established at Utah State and Claremont Universities with more on the horizon; courses on Mormonism and Mormon-themed scholarly conferences are found at schools across the nation; and several university presses are publishing major works in the field. The LDS Church has published two articles in its newsroom on the subject, one in 2008 here and one in 2007 here.

Both newsroom articles take a warm and welcome approach to this new era of scholarship. It appears we are moving into a period where scholars are beginning to take Mormonism seriously and the Church is recognizing that, as the newsroom article puts it, “Mormonism has a depth and breadth of substance that can hold up under academic scrutiny.”

For the past few years, I have taught Mormon Literature at Utah Valley University, where, I believe, we offer more classes on Mormon themes than any other school. I have come to believe that Mormon fiction, poetry, drama, and film should be a central focus for scholars seeking to understand and teach Mormonism. Far too often, textbook descriptions of Mormonism tend to “flatten” out the diversity and complexity of the religion, and I see Mormon literature as a corrective to this tendency, enlarging the view and pointing out the breadth of Mormon thought. Terryl Givens’ book People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture provides numerous examples of the value of Mormon cultural production in expanding the vision of Mormonism. He demonstrates that the tensions within Mormon thought give rise to our culture, that great art emerges only when Mormon artists take the religion and theology seriously. And he also documents a more robust version of Mormonism than that portrayed in many Religious Studies textbooks.

So my question for AML blog readers is this: if you were suddenly asked to teach a course on Mormonism at a secular university, what works of Mormon fiction, poetry, drama, and film would you use and why? What works best depict the history and theology of Mormonism? And what works do you see as giving this broader, more robust, view of Mormonism?

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14 Responses to Mormon Studies through Mormon Literature, Drama, and Film

  1. Th. says:

    .

    Instead of answering that, do you mind if I ask a related question?

    I’m planning a return to grad school and I may well end up getting a PhD in lit. What schools have English departments apt to support a turn towards Mormon lit?

  2. Darlene says:

    I love the poetry anthology Susan Howe and Sheree Maxwell Bench, [i]Discoveries.[/i]

  3. How fun it would be to design a class on Mormonism for a secular university. I think films best show the "broader, more robust view of Mormonism." I know it’s fluff, but Singles Ward shows the emphasis on early marriage and premarital chasity in LDS culture. States of Grace shows the difficulties of the missionary experience and the consequences for those who can’t live the standards, Brigham City shows a bishop trying to meet his church responsibilities while holding down a full-time job. It also shows the love and support Mormons generally give their bishop.

    The two historical issues non-Mormons are most curious about are polygamy and denial of priesthood to blacks. Maureen Whipple’s The Giant Joshua is my favorite example of polygamy in Mormon literature. And Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray’s Bound for Canaan is my favorite of their fictionalized history of African American members.

    Levi Peterson’s The Backslider has a theme of guilt and seeing God as a punisher which is not unique to Mormonism.

    Although May Swenson’s poems don’t deal with Mormon topics, she should probably be included as an example of what Mormon culture was capable of producing.

    Does creative non-fiction count? Irreantum’s 2009 vol. 2 published a wonder piece, "Confessions of a Secular Mormon" by Ryan McIlvain which shows the dilemma of contemporary marginal Mormons.

    These are top of my head offerings. It will be interesting to see other suggestions.

  4. Lost Boys, by Orson Scott Card. Most of the "classics" of Mormon literature are rural and/or deal with historical/pioneer-era themes. Of the works I’ve read (which are admittedly limited), Lost Boys gives the best ordinary-life take on a modern suburban, non-Utah (but still U.S.) Mormon ward–though still with a bit too much eccentricity in the depiction of the ward to be *completely* typical…

  5. Boyd Petersen says:

    Th.–You raise a good question. I think many English PhD programs would be willing to consider a Mormon dissertation topic, but I don’t know of too many where you could take graduate courses on Mormon literature. I know Lisa Tait is completing a dissertation on a Mormon topic, but I can’t remember where she’s doing her PhD. Another question that you probably need to consider, however, is whether doing a dissertation on a Mormon topic is going to help you or not career wise. Most English departments hire in particular slots–Brit Lit, American Lit, Comp Rhet, etc. and look for people who can teach classes they teach in those areas. It would be wise, regardless of whether you do a Mormon diss, to think about what slot you could fill.

  6. Boyd Petersen says:

    Great suggestions, folks!

  7. Lee Allred says:

    Overview material
    ———-

    If I were designing a Mormonism course featuring Mormon literature, the general overview two must-have books would be Coke Newell’s LATTER DAY for an accessible-for-Gentiles Mormon-written summation and Terryl Given’s VIPER ON THE HEARTH for a historical look at how Mormonism’s been protrayed in non-Mormon fiction. (I presented a paper on "Projecting the Other: The Mormon Problem" at a non-Mormon venue using images and quotes from VIPERS and you could hear jaws dropping and bouncing off the floor.)

    Academic material
    —————–

    Eugene England’s "The Dawning of a Brighter Day: Mormon Literature After 150 Years" and the long-running epic debate between Richard Cracroft’s "Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature" and Bruce Jorgensen’s "To Tell and Hear Stories Let the Stranger Say" debate, with Gideon Burton’s "Should We Ask, ‘Is this Mormon Literature?’: Towards a Mormon Criticism" refereeing.

    http://mldb.byu.edu/totell.htm
    http://mldb.byu.edu/attune.htm
    http://mldb.byu.edu/gbask.htm

    If it were still in print, I’d throw in Orson Scott Card’s A STORYTELLER IN ZION (maybe Zarahemla could reprint it? hint). At least mimeo off Card’s essay about John Gardner from that book to demonstrate a possible synthesis/approach of commonality between Mormon and non-Mormon litcrit.

    Fiction
    ——–

    I would not, repeat not, include Whipple or Steiger or any of the Lost Generation (or Home Literature period stuff for that matter) material. Mention them, sure. They held tremendous importance for the folks doggedly toiling in Mormon literary criticism before, say, 1995, but the books did so as placeholders for the folks waiting for, as Gene put it, "The Dawning of a Brighter Day." But they were evolutionary dead-ends, and have little or no impact either on Mormonism or the current "Mormon Renaissance" (to borrow a phrase from Gideon Burton) explosion.

    I’d begin with a couple short stories from the BYU-AML generation: Doug Thayer’s "Under the Cottonwoods", a selection perhaps from John Bennion, to start off modern Mormon literature.

    I would most definately include the new fiction anthology DISPENSATION — not because I happen to be in it but that it’s the best current snapshot we have of what’s happening in the Mormon literary field NOW.

    For long form, as a representation for a modern Mormon novel, I’d use the excellent (and recent AML winner) RIFT by Todd Robert Petersen. Mormon enough that it’s a good sample, and literary enough a non-Mormon class can happily digest it.

    Poetry
    ——–

    Hands down, Michael R. Collings Nauvoo-as-Camelot/Joseph Smith-as-Arthur cycle of poems in his Epyllion in Anamnesis: The Taliesin Poems

    http://www.starshineandshadows.com/essays/2009-11-20.html

    Blogs
    ——-

    For discussions on Mormon literature, this blog (AML) and A MOTLEY VISION.

    I’d include as an example of the Mormon essay form Sandra Taylor’s ONE COBBLE AT A TIME,

    http://blog.mormonletters.org/
    http://www.motleyvision.org/
    http://www.onecobble.com

    Extra credit — graphic novels
    ——————————

    At the risk of nepotism or fratertism or whatever the word is, if you branch out into the graphic novel form, I’d include Volume 1 of my brother Mike "GOLDEN PLATE" Allred’s MADMAN ATOMIC COMICS for a discussion of whether we’re just wanton toys of an uncaring Universe, does God exist and if so what’s our place in the scheme of things culminating in a Mormon temple wedding on an alien world.

    http://www.amazon.com/Madman-Atomic-Comics-Mike-Allred/dp/1582409161

    A one-page xerox of Mike’s landmark page of Madman and Superman sitting in children’s park swings discussion whether they believe in God or not would also be fun, (I also mention this exchange I scripted (inspired by a long-running discussion on the old AML-List) for one of Mike’s Batman stories for DC Comics that stirred up a bit of discussion on the comic book blogs when it appeared:

    http://i110.photobucket.com/albums/n114/leeallred/sunshine_and_alfred.jpg

    (The anthology issue it was in, SOLO #7, was a response — at least on my part as script-wrtier — to the doom-and-gloom near-mandatory in today’s comic books.)

    Extra credit — other
    ———————

    Extra credit assignment could also include the first book in Scott Card’s ALVIN MAKER series.

    – Lee Allred

  8. Mark B. says:

    The Backslider
    Folk of the Fringe
    Dutcher’s Mormon trilogy
    Dispensation
    The Best of Mormonism
    Napoleon Dynamite
    Jack Harrell’s recent essays on Mormonism and Fiction and the future of Mormon lit

  9. Boyd Petersen says:

    Mark B.: Great suggestions, but could you elaborate about how you would use Napoleon Dynamite to discuss Mormonism? I know its director is Mormon, but I don’t know what "Mormonness" it reveals. That one sort of has me stumped.

  10. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Lee Allred wrote: "I would not, repeat not, include Whipple or Steiger or any of the Lost Generation …. [T]hey were evolutionary dead-ends, and have little or no impact either on Mormonism or the current ‘Mormon Renaissance’…"

    Bah humbug. But putting aside that I disagree with Lee on this point, it seems to me whether or not home lit and the lost generation would be included in a course on LDS lit would depend on the scope of the course. If the scope is historic, sure, put it in. If its limited to what Lee refers to as the "renaissance" then okay, no.

    As to them being evolutionary dead-ends, well, I think there are a few of us who found creative inspiration in them. I simply can’t file them away as irrelevant.

    "Whipple: Dead End or Ahead of Her Time." Present the paper. :)

    By the way, I’m reading your story in Dispensation. Loving it, Lee.

  11. Boyd Petersen says:

    I guess I should clarify, Lisa: I’m not asking about teaching a course on Mormon Literature but rather a religious studies course on Mormonism in which Mormon Lit becomes a frame of reference, a way to access and understand the religion. So whether or not one used Whipple et al. is not as important as what you would use them for. Certainly Lost Gen and Home Lit are relevant to the Mormon Lit class, but what texts would you use for introducing Mormonism in an academic setting?

  12. Back in February 2008 I created a list of various courses (within and beyond BYU) featuring Mormon studies content. It might be of interest to readers following the discussion on this post.
    http://gideonburton.typepad.com/gideon_burtons_blog/2008/02/mormon-studies.html

    Also, since film is being mentioned, here is the syllabus I used in teaching a Mormons and Film course a little while ago:
    http://burton.byu.edu/MormonCinema/

    Someone was telling me recently about the rise of Buddhist studies, and how this came about largely through money: as professorships or centers for Buddhist studies were endowed, suddenly academic studies about Buddhism gained legitimacy. I don’t think that monetary sponsorship is the only or even best way forward with Mormon studies, but it is an important way.

    Mormon literature has not been taught at BYU for a couple of years now. It isn’t that there is any conspiracy against it; there just aren’t sufficient academic reasons for it. That is to say, those who have toiled in Mormon literature (at least in BYU’s English department) have found that their work is discounted because of being "local," and we are allowed to do LDS-oriented work only as a sideline to our primary assignments. This effectively becomes a disincentive to pushing forward with Mormon literary studies. It’s too bad, and deeply ironic, given the massive explosion in LDS culture these years and the success of LDS authors in national markets. But perhaps these "gentile" efforts at advancing Mormon literature through more general Mormon studies programs will help prime the pump around here.

  13. Tyler says:

    You’ve inspired me to post a draft of the reading list I’ve been putting together for a (potential) program internship, Boyd. You can find it at the following link (after my theoretical musings): http://www.motleyvision.org/2010/beyond-prescription-part-3-5/

  14. Lee Allred says:

    Lisa,

    I meant to reply to your comment yesterday, but got sidetracked by some pesky real-life issues. The delay in answering was a good thing, because I realized last night that the course I suggested was even further off topic than Boyd gently pointed out. Never mind a general course on Mormonism using literature, my list wasn’t even a course on Mormon literature for students. It was a Mormon literature seminar for working Mormon professional writers writing for the national market.

    I guess I have the Family Curse™. When we Allreds get interested in something — really, really interested in something — we don’t just want to sit back and enjoy or observe or even just learn — we want to do it. Looks like I have the same Family Curse™ approach to AML and Mormon literature. As much as I enjoy the subject matter and all the academic by-play, my true love for AML is for what it can teach me to better be the writer I want to be. Rather along the lines of what Orson Whitney wrote in his Home Literature essay (of "Miltons and Shakespeares of our own" fame):

    "…in order to win men with our writings we must know how and what to write."

    I guess I must have some commonality with that crusty old cantankerous Brother Brigham after all. Brigham was a thrifty practical Vermont Yankee with carpenter calluses on his hands and blacksmithing grime under his fingernails. He sent all those artsy types off on missions to Europe to learn to paint so they could come back to paint stuff he needed painting. He sent Truman Angell off so he could design an actual building.

    I’m not quite so utilitarian as ol’ Brigham, but anyone attending last week’s AML session where I followed Bruce Jorgensen could well note a difference of approach. Bruce (a gifted writer) masterfully presented a very scholarly paper, ably divorcing his writer-self from his sober, dazzling discussion of literature as literature.

    Mine, on the other hand, maintained a bulldog grip on the aesthetic choices and considerations of a writer throughout, growling and shaking the subject material with the clamped jaw and pointy canines of someone who daily gnaws the same shared considerations. Even my discussion of Alexander Pope and [i]The Dunciad [/i]was on Pope, the fellow writer, and not Pope, the literary artifact. (Entirely fitting, considering [i]The Dunciad[/i], Lee said cattily.)

    Keeping all that in mind, my exclusion of Whipple from my imaginary seminar course wasn’t meant to denigrate Whipple or her literary value — far too many of the people I admire most in AML hold her in great esteem to do that. I misspoke about her being "an evolutionary dead-end" ( that’d be [i]Corianton [/i]:) ); a "false start" might be a better term. (I’m not the one who named it the Lost Generation, after all.)

    It’s just I don’t believe a direct application of Whipple will help push a manuscript over an editor’s transom either in New York or at Deseret Book. For my purposes, examining the works of currently producing writers who have distilled applicable Whipple-ness into their works is a more production use of time.

    I skipped ahead yesterday and read your Esther story, Lisa (I’m currently slowly plowing my way through Dispensation one story at a time in glacial study mode). I can see why it won an AML award. Great interweaving of distant omniscient flat statement of events with deep personal inner monolog and intense emotions. I can well believe that you found inspiration in Whipple, but I feel I can learn a lot more of what I’m wanting to learn from you and your modern gleaning of Whipple than I can directly from the source.

    Put it another way, Robert Nathan –essentially a contemporary of Whipple — is one of my favorite authors. Today’s he’s best known for his [i]Portrait of Jeannie [/i]and [i]The Bishop’s Wife [/i]– if his name is recognized at all — but he was one of the big authors of his day. His book 1933 book One More Spring is THE novel about the Great Depression in my opinion, one shared, I think by a number of people living through 1933. My second-hand copy (currently packed up in storage, I’m going off memory here) is a 1935 copy I think and something like the 23rd printing. The book sold out that many printings such short of a time even in the depths of the Depression. Pretty amazing. (They also made a film of the book.)

    Nathan wrote not quite fantasy, not quite magical realism. He was essentially his own genre, one that one reviewer called "Nathanland" where the transcendent casually and inexplicably trespasses the boundary of the mundane world. Nathan’s Nathanland approach has influenced me — especially my "And Dream Such Dreams" and "East of Appomattox" — but if I were teaching a fantasy-writing genre class, he’d get a brief mention at best. I don’t think studying him would be the best use of the time teaching those students marketable modern fantasy fiction. (And, yes, I’d probably "bah, humbug!" anybody who tried to label Nathan an evolutionary dead-end. :) )

    Not quite your "Whipple: Dead End or Ahead of Her Time" paper, but that’s my reply.

    – Lee

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