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.