This week I plan to finish my dissertation chapter on Nephi Anderson’s novels. As the current draft climbs to around 65 pages, I realize that trying to encapsulate Anderson’s contribution to Mormon letters in one chapter is a fool’s errand. Easily Anderson’s work is worthy of a full-length work of criticism.
Anderson is still not widely read among Church members, although Added Upon still rings a bell among those in my parents’ generation (i.e. those fifty and older). This is unfortunate because I believe that his works ought to be part of every Mormon writer’s vocabulary. The more I read his works, the more impressed I am with his ambition, his depth of thought, and his skill as a writer.
Of course, Anderson was not a perfect writer. I get annoyed with his occasional attacks on Protestant “sectarians,” and I sometimes have a hard time telling his male protagonists apart, but I remind myself that he was writing during a very different era of Mormon history and from a very different mindset than I am accustomed to. I find that his novels work best when I read them charitably.
I don’t expect many of you to read Anderson as enthusiastically as I have, but I thought it might be helpful to recommend a few starter texts for those of you are interested in jumping on the Anderson bandwagon. Below I’ve listed the five Nephi Anderson novels you should read before you die. Beneath each novel is a brief justification for why I include the novel on the list. After each item, I’ve also selected an “alternate” choice from the five remaining Anderson novels that didn’t make the cut.
1. Piney Ridge Cottage (1912)
Piney Ridge Cottage was the first novel Anderson published in book form after his 1904-1906 mission to England. It is also one of three Anderson novels set solely in Utah, making it one of his most explicitly regional novels. At heart a love story, Piney Ridge Cottage offers glimpses into turn-of-the century Mormon life, immigrant culture, and the effects of industrialization on the rural Utah countryside. It’s also introduces readers to one of Anderson’s most memorable characters, Chester Lawrence, who returns in an aptly-titled sequel (and Titanic precursor) The Story of Chester Lawrence.
Alternate: The Story of Chester Lawrence (1913)
2. Dorian (1921)
I like to say that Dorian is the first modern Mormon novel for the way it takes a step back from the propagandistic approach of most early Mormon novels and levels a subtle critique at Mormon culture and the pioneer legacy. While this happens in a limited way in Piney Ridge Cottage and the utopian section in Added Upon, Dorian brings the matter front and center, tackling such issues as wealth inequality and what Anderson seems to suggest is a misguided emphasis on works over grace. Dorian is also worth reading for the way it reflects an earlier time when the Church’s leading theologians—notably James E. Talmage and John A. Widtsoe—earnestly endeavored to reconcile science and religion.
Alternate: The Boys of Springtown (1920)
3. A Daughter of the North (1915)
A Daughter of the North is Anderson’s third novel set in Norway (following Added Upon and The Castle Builder) and contains his best female character, the courageous Atelia Heldman. The novel opens with Atelia winning an all-male national regatta race, follows her through her spiritual and intellectual conversion to Mormonism, and ends with her rescuing a shipwrecked crew of imperiled men. This kind of traditional role reversal, as best as I can tell, is rare in early Mormon literature, making A Daughter of the North a must-read for those interested in gender issues in Mormon fiction.
Alternate: Added Upon (1898, 1912)
4. The Castle Builder (1902)
The Castle Builder is Anderson’s first good novel. (Its predecessors—Added Upon and Marcus King, Mormon—are not so much bad as they are clunky in execution.) Harald Einerson, the protagonist, is one of Anderson’s best-drawn characters. He begins life as a poor sheepherder in rural Norway, survives his abusive father’s alcoholism, educates himself, loses his Protestant faith, becomes a political radical, plots to overthrow the Norwegian monarchy, then converts to Mormonism. Of all of Anderson’s convert characters, I think Harald’s conversion experience is the best written—so much so that I think Mormon writers today ought to look to it for insight on how to write convincing spiritual experiences.
Alternate: Marcus King, Mormon (1900)
5. Romance of a Missionary (1919)
Anderson based much of Romance of a Missionary on his experiences as a missionary in England when he served for two years as associate editor of the Millennial Star. Originally titled The Man from Mormonia, the novel received its current title—I assume—to draw more attention to a subplot involving the main character, an American missionary named Willard Dean, and a former girlfriend who happens to show up in his field of labor near the end of the novel. The title, though, is somewhat misleading as the main plot involves Willard’s efforts to help his English cousins find the gospel and battle poverty and alcoholism in the English slums. The novel is not a great one, but Anderson’s attention to the seedy side of industrial London, as well as it being one of the first Mormon novels about missionary labor, make it worth a read. As I read Ryan McIlvaine’s Elders, in fact, I can’t help but notice how little has changed in Mormon missionary fiction over the years. Just like McIlvaine’s missionaries, Willard Dean struggles with his testimony and libido. McIlvaine details these struggles much more graphically, of course, but the themes are still very much the same…
Alternate: John St. John (1917)