Mormon Lit and Other Nineteenth-Century Religions’ Lit

Many of our recurring discussions about Mormon Lit try to measure how the field is doing and how it is likely to do within our lifetimes. We return again and again to the economics of literature written for Mormons, to the challenges of and prospects for depicting Mormonism for a national audience, to questions of what a “Great Mormon” novel/play/writer/criticism/bookstore/etc.–whether one exists, whether one will exist, whether one ought to exist, etc.

Sometimes, to encourage ourselves, we talk about the success of Jewish Lit or invoke the Harlem Renaissance or get excited when people read books in which Muslim religious identity is an OK thing. Sometimes, to depress ourselves with envy and push ourselves to work harder, we think about Jewish Lit or the Harlem Renaissance or how much better Australian Muslim writers are doing than their Australian LDS counterparts.

But what we don’t seem to do when trying to gauge our progress and prospects is to compare Mormon Literature to the literatures of other nineteenth-century religions.¬†No comparison is entirely fair, of course, but I think it is important to note that Mormonism is one of four worldwide, fast-growing religions to come out of the nineteenth century. How does Mormon Literature compare to Seventh-day Adventist Literature, Jehovah’s Witness Literature, or Baha’i Literature?

I’m not qualified to give a definitive answer to that question, but I do have some ideas about how we could start. If I recall correctly, the Association for Mormon Letters defines Mormon Lit broadly as anything, “by, for, or about” Mormons. If we want to compare, it appropriate to look at each area.

By

Mormons: There are some pressures working against Latter-day Saints who consider becoming committed writers, but there seem to be an incredible number of us who are writing anyway.If we could conduct a thorough statistical analysis where we controlled for complicating variables, my suspicion is that Mormon religious commitment actually makes one more likely to become a serious writer. A Latter-day Saint who becomes interested in writing today also has the benefit of visible LDS predecessors in practically every genre: we’ve had no shortage of successful writers in Young Adult Fiction and Speculative Fiction. We have an extremely high profile Mystery writer. Some well-known people in comics/graphic narrative. We’ve got plenty of poets, strong essayists, a small but fascinating history of playwrights, and a decent crowd of literary fiction people, and some solid screenwriters.

Seventh-day Adventists: it turns out that Richard Wright was raised Seventh-day Adventist and that Art Buchenwald spent some of his formative years in an Adventist orphanage or boarding school or something, but I couldn’t quickly find any examples of prominent practicing SDA writers. That may be because of traditional SDA animosity toward fiction and popular media, and may change with time. I found an interesting piece by an English professor and Adventist named Scott Moncrieff, who makes an interesting apologetic argument for fiction based on an SDA frame of reference. Some of the cultural barriers to fiction Moncrieff discusses may sound familiar, though they occupy a much more prominent place in that community than in ours. Looking at the Seventh-day Adventist situation highlights the contribution of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s more accomodating attitudes toward the arts to the development of Mormon Lit since.

Jehovah’s Witnesses: crime writer Mickey¬† Spillane, who is apparently one of the best-selling authors of all time, became a Witness fairly early in his career, producing numerous books between his conversion in the 1950s and his death in 2006.
In general, though, Jehovah’s Witness writers do seem to be rare. I’m going out on a limb here, but I suspect that the high degree of cultural tension between JW values and modern media values is connected to some degree of suspicion of fiction. I also wonder whether the central role of periodical religious literature in the JW community further contributes to a distance from other literary modes. I will make a note to myself to interview my wife’s good JW friend on the topic and get back to you. Anyone else know much about JW feelings about writing as a major avocation or vocational choice?

Baha’is: Hmm. I am beginning to wonder whether the SDA and JW animosity toward fiction narrative is actually based in a distaste for the intensely commercialized history of American media culture. Having roots in Iran, where poetry and religious mysticism have a long and strong association, may be part of the reason why the Bab’s view of literature shows up in quotes like this: “Treasures lie hidden beneath the throne of God; the key to those treasures is the tongue of poets.” I’ve found one website designed for Baha’i authors; there may be others. I also found references elsewhere to some successful American poets who converted to the faith in the middle of their lives. My guess is that the limited Baha’i literary presence I’m finding has more to do with the smaller numbers of Baha’is in countries like the U.S. and Western Europe where more literature is written and distributed. There may be many unrecognized Baha’i poets and short story writers in Iran, though the context of persecution there makes it unlikely that they’ll have careers in literature.

For

As far as I can tell, SDA and JW publishing focus almost exclusively on content-driven religious commentary. They continue to publish doctrinal works by early major religious figures in their respective movements, religion-based commentary on contemporary life, etc.

Baha’is are extremely active in small, decentralized publishing units as this list of Baha’i publishers demonstrates. Because of the Baha’i focus on world peace, social justice, etc., there appear to be large numbers of nonfiction works on social and public issues as well as writings of prominent early figures, religious pamphlets, etc. Baha’is also seem interested in biographies of different figures in the global story of their faith’s expansion–what we would call modern-day pioneers. Because of the decentralized nature of the publishing community, I would expect to see some variation–I noticed one fantasy novel, for instance.

While there are good reasons to critique Deseret Book et al, the brick-and-mortar LDS distributors seem fairly impressive in this context. Obviously, part of that has to do with our uniqueness among nineteenth-century faiths in having a quasi-homeland in the Mormon corridor. A consequence of the doctrine of gathering has been that we appear to have larger for-members book distribution centers that offer a wider range of genres and support a broader base of authors.

The recent development of numerous independent small publishing operations is also intriguing to me in this comparative context. Unlike decentralized Baha’i publishing, where an imperative to actively promote the religion’s message still seems to be dominant, most small Mormon publishers seem interested in developing a literary culture.

In general, I think it’s fair to say that among other nineteenth-century faiths, content is still the overriding interest of publishers, while the category of writing for Mormons includes many works that are interested in their forms.

 

About

Adherents.com has a fascinating collection of pages about religions in literature, which is almost entirely focused on references to religion in science fiction. I took a look at their sub-pages on how each of the four faiths in this group are portrayed in science fiction.

While I would have anticipated a great number of depictions of Latter-day Saints in science fiction than of SDAs, JWs, or Baha’is, I was surprised by how extreme the difference was. The researchers found references to Latter-day Saints in 308 sci-fi novels, movies, and stories with only 4 references to SDAs, 25 to JWs, and 38 to Baha’is (although this number is somewhat inflated, since every reference to Dizzy Gillespie is counted as a references to Baha’is). According to their count, roughly one-fourth of Hugo- and Nebula-winning novels mention Latter-day Saints.

While the disparity may be wider in English-language science fiction than in other genres or languages, I suspect that Mormons do show up in most genres and in most languages with extensive printed literature far often than adherents of other nineteenth-century religions. There are probably numerous reasons for this, and I think we would gain a lot from discussing them, though it’s too big a project for this blog post.

Admittedly, many of the depictions of Mormons in literature are negative and/or inaccurate. But I still think that in some ways, we benefit. After all, the history of representations of Jews in Western literature has been largely anti-Semitic, but it paved the way for Jewish topics and symbols to be recognizable to so many readers today. Lots of people have hated Jews for a very long time–but it does mean that most people on earth have heard of Jews by today.

Mormon characters and vocabulary are more difficult culturally to incorporate into mainstream fiction than Jewish characters…but it appears that we may be a full degree of magnitude more common in literature than our fellow major nineteenth century religions.

Therefore…what?

What does all this mean for Mormon writers and critics? Is the comparison roughly fair, or at least useful? What else does anybody know about SDA, JW, or Baha’i Lit? Should we care? Discuss…

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18 Responses to Mormon Lit and Other Nineteenth-Century Religions’ Lit

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    A fascinating perspective. I had never thought of making this comparison before.

  2. Scott Hales says:

    I did some similar research recently, but you seem to have turned up more than I did. Zadie Smith, I believe, has some ties to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I don’t think she ever identified with that religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses play a prominent part early on in her novel White Teeth.

  3. Andrew Hall says:

    Great idea.
    Adherents.com is created by a Mormon, Preston Hunter, so it may be more thurough in sniffing out Mormon authors than those of other religions. Hunter also created the LDSflm.com website, which is less active than it used to be.

  4. Wm says:

    Mormonism pops up in the 2012 Hugo and Locus-nominated Leviathan Wakes. One of the co-authors was raised in a Jehovah Witness family.

  5. Wm says:

    Uh-oh. My close tag must have been wrong. Let’s hope it doesn’t carry over to the other comments.

    This is a test.

  6. Th. says:

    .

    I’ve tried looking for JW lit a number of times, but without success. I was disappointed enough that I’ve haven’t done much else. I did once find a SDA cozy-mystery series. I’ve looked for Christian Science lit before too. No dice.

    • Th. says:

      .

      Although CS does, of course, have a history of journalism.

    • Actually, we may be the least-journalistic of the cohort. Baha’is (and CSs, since we’ve added them) seem very invested to publishing on broad social issues. The SDAs and JWs both emphasize religion-based print media.

      LDS Church publications have some article-style content, but seem to be dominated by sermon and personal narrative pieces and have an intermittent history of fiction. And I feel like the magazines are less important to us than the oral storytelling tradition: we’re big on religion as a family oral inheritance, you could say, supported by a larger church framework.

      Maybe the other religions are a little more focused on the objective reality of their descriptive tools while Mormons say our faith is objectively true, but insist that it’s only useful when you can also in some sense access the truth of it subjectively?

      I don’t really know enough about the other communities to speak definitively about them. But I think I’m right that we really value that making objective truth subjectively immediate thing…

  7. So to what to we ascribe the apparent gap in literary production?

    It seems to be that the gathering and the Zion project are probably significant. The gathering allows the population density to decrease economic barriers to literary production, and the Zion project emphasizes beauty as a core value instead of just righteousness.

    I do wonder how much credit we should give Joseph Smith’s wrestling habit. J.S. especially, and also other early Mormon leaders, defied decorum for religious leaders of the time, which seems to have opened up significant cultural space for us.

    There’s also a numeric element: there are more SDAs, I think, than Mormons, but Mormons are more concentrated than SDAs in countries with significant lit markets. And there are more Mormons than JWs or Baha’is by a factor of 2:1 or so.

  8. Also: is there a meaningful depiction gap, and if so to what do we ascribe it?

    Hunter’s Mormonism gives another reason to wonder if the adherents.com numbers are accurate, but it does seem like Mormons do come up in Lit more than the others.

    Part of that may be the territorial element: the existence of a Mormon corridor means an obvious Mormon landscape.

    Part may be the more “cinematic” nature of the Mormon historical narrative…whether it’s the First Vision or the Exodus or stock images of polygamy, we simply have a story that’s easier to imagine visually, and therefore perhaps more dramatically compelling. (I’m pretty sure, incidentally, that Sikh identity is disproportionately depicted in Indian film–and largely because it’s so easy to show.)

    Other thoughts?

  9. Wm says:

    Your point about Sikh identity finds an analog in the U.S. with the Amish community. Ironically, of course, the Amish appearances in film (especially in the film The Witness) have been translated as Mormon when dubbed for showing in Europe (I know for sure that both the French and Romanian version of this film had that issue; I believe other languages did as well).

  10. Jonathan Langford says:

    Mormonism, like many other reformist religious movement — including I believe SDA and JW — includes a major exclusionary thrust: ridding oneself of the corruption of modern society. (Don’t know about Baha’i.)

    However, Mormonism also has a strong inclusive — or perhaps a better word would be acquisitive — streak. All truth is part of the gospel, whether people know it or not. Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, and all that kind of stuff. There’s a strong stream within Mormonism as seeing culture not as that which must be shunned, but rather as that which must be colonized, subverted, claimed, and ultimately redeemed. I don’t know if there’s a similar strand in SDA and JW though, but I suspect not.

  11. Th. says:

    .

    I was coming back to say sorta what Jonathan just said. We are instructed to look afield for greater light and knowledge. And you can’t do that without bringing stuff back. Ergo, a literary culture.

    Also, although Brigham Young et al often talked about sequestering the Saints away from the rest of the world, at the same time, we were anxiously engaged in becoming a greater part of the American dialogue. Trying to become a state, Mormon women attending suffrage conferences, etc. I suspect distance just made it safer for us to more fully engage.

  12. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Fascinating stuff, as always, James. I love the global outlook you consistently have.

    I found a list of famous Jehovah Witnesses that includes a couple of authors:
    http://www.adherents.com/largecom/fam_jw.html

  13. Mahonri Stewart says:

    I was surprised how many pop musicians had connections to the Jehovah Witnesses. They’ve definitely countered our Donny and Marie with Prince and Michael Jackson (lapsed).

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