Mormon Literature and the Anxiety of “Passing”

In literature, a character’s ability to move unnoticed from one social group to another, often more privileged group is called “passing.” In Disney’s Mulan, for example, the title character “passes” for a man so that she can take her aging father’s place in the male-only military. In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, a criminal, “passes” for a respectable member of mid-nineteenth-century French society. In The Great Gatsby, poor Midwesterner Jay Gatsby makes dirty money and “passes” as the lone inheritor of a San Francisco family’s fortune.

You get the idea.

“Passing” is a common theme especially in literature about the African-American experience. In works from Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative to Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! to Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, light-skinned characters of mixed racial heritage are able to pass imperceptibly into the white majority and thus avoid discrimination and prejudice. Anxiety usually accompanies these instances of “passing,” however. Characters either live in fear of being exposed or in shame for turning their backs on their people.

Mormon literature also contains instances of “passing.” Perhaps the most famous are the Cullens, Stephenie Meyer’s vampire family, who “pass” as regular people in order to avoid misunderstandings with their neighbors. Although they are not Mormons, their guarded desire to be in the world, but not of it seems to parallel a similar tendency among contemporary Mormons who try to fit in and fly beneath the cultural radar—despite a deep-rooted sense of difference and group peculiarity.

At the turn of the last century, when Mormons were becoming more assimilated into mainstream American society, Nephi Anderson was deeply anxious about the perils of “passing.” Like characters in the African-American novels of his contemporaries, his characters agonize over the ethics of “passing.” In his second novel, Marcus King, Mormon, the title character is divided over whether he should preserve his respected place in society as a popular Presbyterian minister or forsake all and be true to his new-found testimony of Mormonism. In The Castle Builder, Anderson’s third novel, protagonist Harald Einersen hides the fact that he is a Mormon to maintain his friendship and position with his employer (and love interest’s father), who is prejudiced against Mormons. In John St. John, the protagonist must pretend not to be a Mormon in order to avoid capture by the mob.

Like “passing” characters outside of Mormon literature, Anderson’s are also often anxious. On the one hand, they fear the risk of not “passing” and losing life or respected social standing. On the other, they fear the shame of betraying personal conviction and community. It’s a dilemma that Mormons of Anderson’s day no doubt faced regularly as they sought more interaction with the world beyond Utah’s borders. Anderson, himself, frequently ventured outside of Utah—he served three missions in his lifetime: one proselyting, two editorial—and his novels and short stories seem to be working out the paradox of how to be a peculiar people and still look like everyone else. In one sense, he warmly embraced this paradox as a challenge to forge a new Mormon identity—yet he also struggled to resolve it charitably. Too often he championed the uniqueness of Mormonism by denigrating the belief systems and creeds of others.

Even so, his work provides excellent early examples of Mormons struggling with the temptation to “pass” as the average WASP. What always happens in Anderson’s work, though, is a big reveal, a “coming out” scene not unlike those you find in LGBTQ literature. Here, for example, is the scene in The Castle Builder where Harald “comes out” as a Mormon to his friend and employer, Mr. Bernhard, who has turned away his daughter, Thora, for joining the Church:

            “But I have been unfair to you, Mr. Bernhard. I am a usurper here. You do not know the whole truth regarding me. What Thora Bernhard should have enjoyed, as your child, I have received.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Yesterday, I received a long letter from your daughter, Thora, wherein she told me her whole story.”

            “What! that she had become a “Mormon?”

            “Yes.”

            “Well, and why should that make you leave me. Harald, my boy, it is bad enough as it is, but don’t you desert me, too.”

            The old man arose and leaned heavily on the table in front of him. I can’t help the disgrace of having such a child. I did all I could to prevent it.”

            “And this is why you have disowned your child!”

            “Yes; is it not enough?”

            Harald’s face was pale, and the corners of his mouth twitched painfully. “Then I also have no right to your esteem!”

            “I don’t understand.”

            “I, too, am a Mormon.”

            The old man looked fixedly at Harald, as if he did not hear. Then he sank down into his chair. “You, you, too, a Mormon!” he gasped. “What does it all mean?”

            “It means, Mr. Bernhard, that I, too, am one of those despised people called ‘Mormons.’ I am in your eyes no better than your daughter. Nay, she, brave, honest soul, is yet far above me. What I have suffered cannot compare with what she has endured. Oh, but I thought she had become something fallen and low—God forgive me for the thought—but now, I cannot express my gratitude.”

            The old man was now quite strong, and it did not take him long to rally from the blow.

            “You are a Mormon, Mr. Einersen,” he said, with some warmth, “and not ashamed of it?”

            “Not ashamed, but truly grateful.”

            “Why did you not tell me of this before? Why should I treat you as a son, I who have made my daughter an outcast—and you are no better than she.”

            “Nay, not so good.”

            “I have treated you as a son, and this is my reward! I have listened to your fine discourses. You, no doubt, thought to make a Mormon out of me also.”

            “In our talks, Mr. Bernhard, have I ever told you anything false? Have I ever advanced any doctrine that has not been according to scripture, and elevating in its nature?”

            “That was not Mormonism.”

            “My dear friend, I have told you nothing but ‘Mormonism,’ pure and simple. Under any other name, you say it is true, it is beautiful ; the change of name cannot  change the nature of the doctrine.”

            “I will not argue with you! You would better go.” (208-210)

“Coming out,” to be sure, never fully resolves the paradox of identity in Anderson’s work, but it gets the ball rolling. Truth triumphs over error, despite tribulation, and those who are initially horrified by the “coming out” eventually come around, sometimes join the Church, and see the absurdity of their former beliefs. Aesthetically, this kind of resolution complies with Anderson’s notion of “artistic preaching.” Yet, as a working out of the problem of “passing,” it leaves today’s readers wanting.

More recently, Mormon literature has had more complex examples of “passing” and the anxiety that goes with it. William Morris’ new Irreantum story “Conference” (check your mailbox for issue 14.1) strikes me as a story about the anxieties of “passing.” Sara, Morris’ protagonist, is an LDS graduate student who is ambivalent about her place as a Mormon in academia. On the one hand, she embrace the intellectual challenge of graduate school life, not to mention the opportunity for acclaim that goes with it, yet she feels somewhat out of place in the culture built up for its support. Furthermore, she is uneasy with how this culture enables—even encourages—her “passing”:

Was academia simply her cloister? Had she made it her nunnery? Get thee, get thee, and no, it was definitely not time to go off on some tired Ophelia complex and the single Mormon girl train of thought. But had she made it her nunnery? It was, after all, the most viable way for a celibate, single, female Mormon to find refuge from the demands of capitalism and the marriage market, and yet still end up in a position in which to exercise a certain measure of power. It wouldn’t quite bring the understanding nods from her co-religionists that becoming a K-12 teacher would but there would be a grudging respect. She had seen it afforded some of her single, female professors at BYU. Would she be willing to go back and teach at BYU? That was a morass that Sara had no desire to indulge in. What she needed was to focus on the now. What she needed was a cheeseburger and a Diet Coke. (14-15)

Interestingly, as this passage shows, Sara’s anxiety is not simple about being a Mormon “passing” as a secular academic; it’s also about being a secular academic “passing” as the “single Mormon girl.” In a sense, she is “passing” on all fronts, making her “passing” anxiety far more complex than the one-sided anxiety of most of Anderson’s protagonists.1  She is, at once, hyperaware of how she should perform both as an academic and as a Mormon, yet also wholly at odds and uncomfortable with that awareness. She even seems at times to be “passing” for herself.

Unlike Anderson, Morris doesn’t necessarily give his character release from her anxiety. When the story ends, Sara is no more comfortable in her skin than before. However, the last image of the story [SPOILER] has Sara, alone and only in her garments, climbing into her hotel bed and deciding that she will go out with her non-Mormon friends the next night. For me, the image suggests a kind of acceptance of the trade-offs of “passing”—the give and take that comes with interacting with the “outside” world. Sara seems to understand, in other words, that she has a place in two different cultures, both of which have very different expectations for her, and that her task is not to retreat to one or the other, but to find the best way to “pass” through them.

I’m going to keep an eye out for more stories like “Conference” in the future.2 As Mormon writers, we ought to pay attention to and explore how we carve out our niche into the world—what accommodations we make, what aspects of Mormon culture we choose to own, disown, or shove into the corner. Like Anderson, we are writing in a day when the changes are many and the pressures to “pass” are intense. We must ask how our work reflects these changes—and how it tries, like “Conference,” to make sense of the anxiety.


[1] I’d make an exception here for Julia Elston of Piney Ridge Cottage, who feels conflicted everywhere she goes.

[2] I think Theric’s recent “Maurine Whipple, Age 16, Takes a Train North” is also about “passing”…

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15 Responses to Mormon Literature and the Anxiety of “Passing”

  1. Th. says:

    .

    I see this tension in my own life.

    As an example, when I started Tehachapiltdownman (later Thmusings, now Thutopia), even though my audience consisted entirely of old BYU friends and their friends, I was careful to leave out any hints of Mormonness in order to keep the blog friendly for Future Readers.

    Then we brought the internet into our house and I felt I needed to give God a fair share of my time, hence svithing.

    But for the last couple years, I haven’t felt the same drive to svithe, probably because now I wear the Mormon up front. No one visiting Thutopia can doubt for long but that I am a Saint.

    This coming out online reflects my personal life as well. I’m very much and out-and-proud Mormon now. Pretty much everyone knows; if it happens to be relevant to the conversation, I drop it in.

    Note to the rest of the Saints: if you want the world to have more data points than just me—if you want us to remain Latter-day Saints and not become Latter-day Thaints—you better get as out as I am.

    Gauntlet thrown.

    • Scott Hales says:

      My experience with the Low-Tech world was similar. Up until a few years ago, it was all random stuff with very little LDS content. After I jumped on board with Mormon studies, I started writing more about the Church and Mormon literature. Oddly enough, I was trying to attract more readers with universally appealing content…but readers didn’t really start reading until I started writing about Mormons.

      This post grew out of my reading on Anderson, of course, but it also began to weigh heavy on my mind over the past two weeks when I had two somewhat confrontational Mormon moment experiences that could have been less so if I had been more up-front about being a Mormon. The first one left me disappointed in myself; the second ended well and positively. Both got me thinking about how we Mormons have to really try to put ourselves out as Mormons if we want to be noticed as such. Otherwise, as much as we like to think we don’t, we kind of look like everyone else. And–if we play our cards right–if we’re careful–we can appear to act like everyone else–even if we don’t act like everyone else. I think William’s story hints at this.

      • Wm says:

        My online presences are tri-furcated, but I also don’t make a secret of the fact that they are all me. It’s more so that those who are interested in only one particular aspect of me don’t have to be bothered by the other stuff if they don’t want to be.

  2. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Really enjoyed this post, Scott. That temptation top “pass” is always there for those of us who regularly interact in a secular environment (theatre especially has some sharp bias’s against Mormons). I, for one, tend to strangle the impulse, so much so that one of my friends jokingly told me that I was “Mormon 24-7.”

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    Passing is a sign of discomfort: a sense that you don’t really fit in the community where you’re trying to pass.

    Some would argue that all of us are always passing: that identities are always tentative and contingent in any group where we may find ourselves. While I’m tempted by that thought on an intellectual level, on an emotional level a life where one is always passing seems like a perfect description of hell. In this sense, I would contrast the idea of passing with the idea of home: that is, the place where one does not need to pass. And I would argue that one of the universal human impulses is the search for home.

    It strikes me that there’s a convenient (if probably too convenient) implied typology for literature featuring Mormon characters who also spend time in non-Mormon contexts:
    - Those whose home is Mormonism but who attempt to pass in other contexts
    - Those whose home is somewhere else but who attempt to pass as Mormon
    - Those who feel like they are trying to pass everywhere, including both Mormon and non-Mormon contexts
    - Those who feel at home in both Mormon and non-Mormon contexts (are there any such? and how do they end?)

    And, of course, this can change over time.

    Enough babbling. But it’s fun to talk/think/write about.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I think another way of thinking about Mormon literature and “passing” involves thinking about the ways certain works written by Mormons that are not about Mormons. Are these works “passing” in the same sense that characters try to “pass”?

      I don’t know.

      Generally, “passing” is looked upon as a bad thing–something inauthentic. To say these works try to “pass” as non-Mormon literature would be a negative critique, right? I imagine, though, that most Mormon authors who write for non-Mormon audiences would take issue with accusations of “passing.”

      But, marginalized writers have a history of trying to “pass” as members of a more privileged class–including the Bronte sister, whose books were initially published under male names.

      Or there’s someone like Charles Chesnutt, an African-American writer who could have “passed” as a white writer, although he chose not to. Nevertheless, his books flirt with (and ultimately subvert) the idea of passing…

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    Okay, so I lied about not babbling on anymore.

    When I asked about those who feel at home in both Mormon and non-Mormon contexts, I wasn’t really asking if there were any people who felt that way, but rather if there are any stories about people like that. And if so, where does the conflict come from? Or do they think they fit in both places, only to discover later that they have to make a choice?

    Back before my mission, I had a friend who had joined the Church as a teenager. Applying to go to a non-Church school, he applied also for membership in a “Christian fraternity,” only to discovery that Mormons weren’t eligible for membership. A discovery that he wasn’t accepted in a place where he had thought he would be. I think that’s not an unusual experience for many Mormons.

    • Scott Hales says:

      It’s okay to babble, Jonathan–especially since you wrote one of the most recent extended fictional treatments of Mormon “passing.” I nearly brought “No Going Back” into this post since Paul has to pass on so many different levels its little wonder he [SPOILER] has the breakdown at the end.

  5. I’m a few days late getting to this discussion, but I’m intrigued. Perhaps because its made me reflect not only on the “passing” and “coming out” experiences of my own life, but because I’ve thought about the stories I’ve written. I’ve discovered that “passing,” in one form or another, exists throughout. Hm. Not something I’d thought about so directly. I think you’ve nailed a huge undercurrent in the Mormon psyche, one that should leave us more compassionate people in the whole and hopefully better, more aware writers. Thanks for the post.

  6. Scott Hales says:

    Speaking of “passing,” I think today’s Four Centuries story, William’s “Release” (http://www.everydaymormonwriter.com/work/release/), provides a really interesting take on the phenomenon, especially this passage:

    “Davvid saw faces he didn’t know, felt presences he had only communicated with chemically. He felt an expansive, effulgent love for all of the members of his hidden flock, all those who had picked up the chemical traces he had covertly spread on his meandering walks. A gospel preached in pheromones; a ward whose members hid their devotion from each other — and themselves.”

    Wow. Good stuff. I know I should be discussing this on the official discussion site, but the story seems pretty relevant to this discussion.

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