Novelist Nephi; or Why We Still Need the “Author of ‘Added Upon’”

In less than a week I will be traveling to Salt Lake City to spend a week in the Church History Library with the Nephi Anderson papers. To prepare, I have been reading Anderson’s novels and short stories and making a list of research questions to guide my thoughts. I have three novels left to read—John St. John (1917), Romance of a Missionary (1919), and The Boys of Springtown (1920)—and I hope to have them finished by the time I step off the plane at Salt Lake International.

Anderson is best known for his first novel Added Upon (1898), but my interest in him and his work began a little more than a year ago after I read his last novel, Dorian (1921), and wrote an essay on it for one of Theric’s Peculiar Pages projects. For those who haven’t read Dorian, it is a fantastic novel about a young Latter-day Saint’s spiritual coming-of-age in the early twentieth century. It’s an underappreciated work of Mormon literature and arguably Anderson’s most thematically complex and thought-provoking work. Through it, Anderson not only advocates for the harmonizing of spiritual and scientific learning, but also offers a subtle critique of Mormon culture and theology. In my opinion, it should be on every MoLit enthusiast’s reading list.

So should Anderson’s other novels—including Added Upon, which I think is equally undervalued today. True, they are not likely to pass the Gold Standard for realistic fiction so recently debated on this blog, but they have a certain charm that makes it obvious why they won over fiction-wary Mormon audiences in the early twentieth century. Readers familiar with the conventions of popular nineteenth-century fiction will instantly recognize where Anderson drew from for his aesthetic. They are full of unlikely coincidences, highly-wrought emotion, deathbeds, and plenty of love-triangles and melodrama: just the sort of thing young Mormons wanted to read at the time.

And this is why we should pay attention to Anderson. He wasn’t the first Mormon novelist, nor was he the best writer of his generation, but he loved fiction and he dedicated much of his life to popularizing it among the Saints. I don’t think of Anderson as a highly subversive figure in Mormon history, but his defense of fiction as a moral art form subtly countermanded previous admonitions against fiction by authorities like Brigham Young and George Q. Cannon. In his essay “A Plea for Fiction” (1898), for example, Anderson pointed out the hypocrisy of denouncing all fiction as “wicked” while permitting the reading of salacious newspaper reports:

Again, some, who strictly exclude every work of fiction from the home, admit any newspaper. The latter may be and often is filled with accounts of base deeds and revolting crimes put into readable form and which are eagerly “devoured” by the young. As such reading matter is supposed to be true and deals with facts, it is all commendable or at least, permissible; but the story wherein characters are drawn that beautify honor and virtue and nobleness, is shunned and condemned. Facts may be debasing, fiction may be elevating. Jesse James was a reality, Adam Bede was not. (Improvement Era 1.3)

Anderson, to be sure, acknowledged that some works of fiction were morally dangerous—especially to impressionable young people—but that was not enough for him to write off the form altogether. He saw it—and its astonishing popularity among readers of all stripes—as a way to instruct the young and mold the future of the Church. The purpose of good fiction, he believed, was to effect positive social change:

The Latter-day Saint understands that this world is not altogether a play ground, and that the main object of life is not to be amused. He who reaches the people, and the story writer does that, should not lose the opportunity of “preaching,” as the author of “Tom Brown’s School Days” puts it. A good story is artistic preaching. A novel which depicts high ideals and gives to us representations of men and women as they should and can be, exerts an influence for good that is not easily computed. (“Purpose in Fiction,” Improvement Era 1.4)

As his novels show, Anderson practiced what he preached—much to the annoyance of his late-twentieth century critics. Sermonizing is a common feature of Anderson’s work, and this can grate—admittedly—on modern readers who prefer more indirect approaches to moral literature. At his best, however, Anderson found ways to make his sermonizing work within the context of the novel. Missionary work and gospel sharing, for example, are common occurrences in his work, so the sermonizing often happens through theological discussions between characters—which are common enough in Mormon circles to make them seem less jarring to readers. And it helps that Anderson’s novels rarely use annoyingly intrusive narrator that address or preach to readers directly. Anderson is not that presumptuous.

Among my favorite Anderson novels are Piney Ridge Cottage and its sequel The Story of Chester Lawrence, which offer insightful portraits of life in early twentieth-century Utah and missionary labor in Europe. Both also offer gleefully dramatic subplots involving love triangles, polygamy, and dark family secrets. The Story of Chester Lawrence even includes a kind of Luke Skywalker/Princess Leia quasi-incest flirtation that at once charms readers and creeps them out. (It’s also Anderson’s most Titanic-esque work, FWIW.)

But Anderson’s works have more going for them than their sermons and (to use Anderson’s phrase) “love-making.” Today’s Mormon fiction writers, in fact, can take lessons from Anderson’s global vision of Mormonism and his interest in the social issues of his day. Unlike the insular, Utah-centric texts so prevalent in Mormon fiction today, Anderson’s novels see Mormonism as a global phenomenon that provides powerful solutions to problems like class and gender inequality, alcoholism, political oppression, and lack of education. In these works, the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the Great Equalizers of humanity. They are transformative forces that have the potential to revolutionize world communities and individual hearts alike.

In this critique of the world, Anderson is also often unflinching. Added Upon, for example, includes a chapter that uses descriptions of a millennial utopian society to condemn the ills of late nineteenth-century capitalism and industrialization. The first chapter of The Castle Builder, on the other hand, takes a more real-world approach to condemning social ills by depicting the main character, Harald, being beaten by his alcoholic father. Likewise, The Story of Chester Lawrence has the title character witness the squalid consequences of poverty and ignorance as he passes through the slums of Liverpool on his way to the LDS mission office:

He noticed that the slum district of the town pressed closely on to the office quarters, and he saw some sights even that first afternoon which shocked him: dirty, ragged children, playing in the gutters ; boys and girls and women going in to dram shops and bringing out mugs of beer; men and women drunken. One sight specially horrified him-: a woman, dirty, naked shoulders and arms; feet and legs bare : a filthy skirt and bodice open at the breast hair matted and wild : reeling along the pavement; crying out in drunken exclamations and mutterings. It was the most sickening sight the young man had ever seen, and with perhaps the exception of a fight he witnessed some days later between two such characters, the worst spectacle of his life. (99-100)

Anderson’s unflinching critical eye is not reserved for the world alone, though. In Piney Ridge Cottage, for instance, Anderson contrasts the idyllic simplicity of rural Piney Ridge Cottage with the worldly materialism and selfishness of turn-of-the-century Salt Lake City. In Dorian, he uses the unwed pregnancy of a Mormon girl to question the hardline stance the pioneers took against sinners and to emphasize the need for a theology of grace and forgiveness.

As I hope this post shows, Nephi Anderson’s work continues to be relevant to Mormon readers and creative writers today—even if at times it shows its age. More than anything else, I think, its value is in the way it offers readers fiction that takes Mormons, Mormonism, and a Mormon world view seriously (something a few here have found lacking in today’s Mormon fiction). On the level of craft, Anderson’s novels are not “perfect” the way The Great Gatsby nearly is, but they are often much better than we usually make them out to be. Not only do they offer an interesting snapshot of Mormonism at the crucial juncture of the early twentieth century, but they also affirm what we here already know: that great things happen when Mormonism and fiction meet.

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19 Responses to Novelist Nephi; or Why We Still Need the “Author of ‘Added Upon’”

  1. Thanks, Scott, for the articulate recommendation. I will move Dorian up on my reading list.

  2. Almost thou persuadest me to give Anderson a try. (Previously, my only exposure was having my dad read “Added Upon” to me as a young teen; I remember kinda liking it, at least better than raw scripture.)

    OK, “Dorian” is free on Kindle, so I just downloaded it. http://www.amazon.com/Dorian-ebook/dp/B0084BAYJO

    • Scott Hales says:

      I’d be interested to hear your reaction to it. It was written in the 1920s–the same decade as The Great Gatsby–but it has much more in common with novels from twenty or thirty years earlier. I guess that falls in line with Mormon artistic products always being a few decades behind the mainstream.

      I sometimes compare Anderson and his works with those of Willa Cather. Both are very different writers, but their interest in rural life and regional immigrant/pioneer stories ties them together.

      The Story of Chester Lawrence is also on Kindle, although it’s best to read Piney Ridge Cottage first. Unfortunately, that one is not free on Kindle for some reason or another. All of his novels, though, can be accessed for free through the Internet Archive.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      You can also get Added Upon, Chester Lawrence, and A Young Person’s History for free (or at least you could this morning).

      There was a second Chester Lawrence with a very long title that included Piney Ridge; don’t know if that’s the same book or if it somehow incorporates the prequel (longer by 70 pages).

      Just search for Nephi Anderson from Chris’s link above.

      • Scott Hales says:

        The longer title is the extended title of the same book. I didn’t read the Kindle version of the book, but the additional pages could be a matter of formatting. Chester is a secondary character in Piney Ridge Cottage and the novel tells of his conversion to the gospel. The Story of Chester Lawrence is a sequel about a trip he takes to Europe as a new member of the church.

  3. Th. says:

    .

    I’m already on record as being a Dorian booster, but I’m glad you, Scott, have delved so deep in the catalogue. I intend to, but your traveling guides will come in handy as I decide in what order to go.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    One of the biggest problems (it seems to me) in Mormon letters is our lack of memory: few of us (and I include myself) truly know what has gone before. Kudos, Scott, in helping to reactivate our collective memory.

    I’m particularly interested in your comparison to Cather, since she’s one of the very few authors from the American realist period whom I really like. Do you see other similarities between the two, aside from their interest in rural life and the immigrant/pioneer experience?

    • Scott Hales says:

      Those are the two main areas. Admittedly, I haven’t read as much Cather as I’ve read Anderson–but what I have read of her work (O Pioneers!, My Antonia, and some short stories) shows interest in the immigrant experience on the Great Plains and nostalgia for the pioneer way of life that is giving way to modernization.

      What interests me with Anderson is that he doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on the immigrant experience in America–even though he is the son of immigrants himself and wrote two very good novels about Norwegian converts who either remain in Norway or immigrate at the very end of the novel. Immigrant characters in Utah only appear as minor characters and sometimes in caricature. You don’t, in other words, see the depth of character of Cather’s immigrants in Anderson’s immigrants. However, that compassion and depth of character is present in his characters still living in Norway.

      You do, however, see the nostaligia for rural life and anxieties about modernization in “Piney Ridge Cottage,” which feels Catheresque in its yearning for a rapidly fading way of life.

      In my doctoral exams I compared Dorian with Jim Burden in “My Antonia” and made the point that the characters are similar in many ways–both personality-wise and in life experiences–but Dorian does not share the longing for the past that Jim shares–nor does he regret his eventual move east. In fact, Dorian is all about embracing the opportunities that the east coast provides while My Antonia is much less optimistic about what something like an Ivy League education has to offer. (If what I wrote on my exams is coherent enough, I’ll try to post it on my blog for you to read.)

      Anderson’s optimism, I suspect, has to do with his desire to construct through his fiction a new image of Mormonism for the twentieth century–one that downplays polygamy, agriculture, and pioneering and emphasizes education, virtuous living, and increased interaction with people and places beyond the Utah border. In dealing with the past, I sense that he wanted to create a reverent feeling about it without generating a longing for it. He preferred to use his fiction to help Mormons look ahead.

      • Wm says:

        This is fascinating, Scott. I would never have associated Anderson with the changes that took place in Mormonism during the first part of the 20th century, but now that you lay it out like that, it makes a lot of sense.

        • Scott Hales says:

          It makes sense, though. Anderson was in frequent contact with prominent members of the Church from the era. He once bought a used Model T off of Joseph Fielding Smith, for example. At his funeral, he was spoken highly of by President Heber J. Grant and other General Authorities.

          He was also involved with Church publications and European missionary work throughout his adult life, so he was well aware of what was going on in both the church and the world. I’m sure he was familiar with some of the behind-the-scenes actions of Church administration as well.

          Interestingly, his short stories for Church magazines–I’m not sure if he wrote fiction for any other kind of venue–dished out much more conventional moral wisdom than his novels did, which *tended to be* more nuanced in their treatment or presentation of gospel themes and social-moral issues. I assume that this had to do with the length of the form but also the difference in purpose between short stories and novels. For Anderson, all fiction had the potential to instruct, but he seems to have seen the short story as a blunter tool than the novel. Some of his short stories, in fact, seem meant to scare the crap out of the church’s youth–like his short story “Forfeits,” which is this story about two guys who leave their Utah town, dabble in “forbidden things” in the big city, get incurable venereal diseases, and return home to tragic consequences (one of them, for example, infects his wife who gives birth to a blind baby).

          The message of the story, which was written at the height of WWI and is probably the bleakest thing Anderson ever wrote, is that those who leave the fold and commit grave sins pass those sins on to generations and forfeit their place in God’s kingdom. No talk of repentance. Everything is about the ongoing punishment for sin. You don’t get that kind of message in Dorian or any of Anderson’s other novels. In fact, The Story of Chester Lawrence ends with a philandering dead-beat dad finding redemption and peace through baptism into the household of faith.

    • Scott Hales says:

      And while we’re comparing Anderson to writers we’ve only kind of read, I’ll note that his novel “Romance of a Missionary” is shaping up to be Anderson’s most Dickensian novel. I’m pretty sure Anderson read Dickens (he mentions him in “Purpose in Fiction” and who didn’t read Dickens back in the day?), and I can’t help but think his descriptions of British police courts, slums, and prisons in the novel were inspired by a combination of personal experience (Anderson served as a missionary in England for many years) and a healthy dose of Dickens novels.

      Now I should state that the majority of my experience with Dickens comes from the BBC via PBS and Andrew Davies. I hope that doesn’t discredit my speculative observation.

  5. Th. says:

    .

    I only have slight familiarity with Cather, but she strikes me as more of a Whipple than an Anderson.

    I say having read only a short story of two of Cather’s, a short story and novel of Whipple’s and only a couple handfuls more of Anderson.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I have’t read Whipple, but I would say that Virginia Sorensen’s “The Evening and the Morning” is very Catheresque too.

      • Th. says:

        .

        I thought about mentioning Sorensen, but I decided one short story was overpushing the write-about-people-I-don’t-know conceit.

        • Scott Hales says:

          You could have faked it and no one would have known until Judgement Day.

        • Th. says:

          .

          But then I would have to stand face to face with Nephi before that bar and know that I have not only been weak in my reading of MoLit, but that I lied as well and thus am not spotless.

          I do like this new false doctrine I’m starting that Nephi Anderson will judge the readers, writers and critics. . . .

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          There’s something both scary and strangely fitting about the idea (suggested by Th) that critics might be judged by the writers whose works they’ve reviewed at the Judgment Day.

          Of course, to go along with that, I’d be interested in the notion that writers are judged by the characters in their stories…

          (Who then shall be saved?)

        • Scott Hales says:

          I’d like to think there’s a judgement panel involving Nephi Anderson, Orson F. Whitney, Emmeline B. Wells, and Eugene England. It would be like American Idol for Mormon writers and critics–but with eternal consequences.

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