Nephi Anderson at the Annual SASS Conference

Next week, the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies will be holding its annual conference in San Francisco. For this year’s conference, a few of us have put together a panel on Nephi Anderson that focuses on his Scandinavian roots and importance as one of the pioneers of Mormon fiction. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first academic conference panel to focus specifically on Anderson and his work.

The panel will be comprised of three Anderson enthusiasts: Sarah Reed, from the University of Wisconsin; Eric W. Jepson, from Peculiar Pages Press; and me. Our session will be held at the San Francisco Hilton/Financial District Hotel at 1:30 pm on Saturday May 4th. If you are in the area, we invite you to join us as we present our papers and share on thoughts.

I’ve included our panel and presentation proposals below. They should give you a general idea about what we will be discussing. For those of you who would like to attend, but are unable to do so, feel free to ask questions about Anderson or our proposals in the comments section.  We’d be happy to answer them for you.

“Nephi Anderson, Mormonism’s Norwegian-American Novelist”

Panel Proposal for SASS 2013

In 1898, Norwegian-American Nephi Anderson was one of the first Mormons to publish a novel in book form. Over the next twenty years, he published nine novels and several short stories, a number of which he set in his native Norway. At his untimely death in 1923, he was recognized throughout Utah as the premier Mormon man of letters. By the 1970s, however, all but one of his books were out of print and his reputation suffered as a rising generation of Mormon literary critics dismissed the apparent sentimentality and didactic quality of his work.

This panel represents a growing number of scholarly reappraisals of Anderson. Rather than focusing on the aesthetic merits of his work, as previous scholars have, we intend to focus on his Scandinavian-American roots and how they informed his contributions to early Mormon fiction. Sarah Reed argues against existing scholarship to show that Anderson’s works belong to Norwegian-American literature as they explore the intersection of the Norwegian immigrant and American Mormonism. Scott Hales examines Anderson’s construction of Mormon masculinity in light of the Mormonism’s 1890 abandonment of polygamy and contemporaneous Nordicist racial discourse. Eric Jepson, a publisher of Mormon fiction who is preparing a new edition of Anderson’s Dorian (1921), describes how Anderson’s place as a Norwegian-American writer was lost as Mormons and Norwegian immigrants became more assimilated into American society in the twentieth century, and outlines efforts to bring his works to today’s scholars and readers.

With this panel, we hope that our revisionist approach to Anderson will help reinstate him as a Norwegian-American writer and give his long-overlooked contribution to Mormon and Scandinavian-American fiction the recognition it has so far evaded.

***

“Nephi Anderson and Norwegian-American Literature: Toward a Transnational Mormon Identity”

 Sarah Reed

University of Wisconsin–Madison

Several of Mormon immigrant Nephi Anderson’s stories and novels have significant Norwegian or other Scandinavian elements. Despite these characters and settings, scholars of Norwegian- and Scandinavian-American literature have neglected this prolific and regionally popular author.  In the only relevant study, Ole Podhorny argues that Nephi does not count as an immigrant author because he is not “concerned with questions of Norwegian cultural heritage” and his “religious roots were deeper than his cultural roots” (78). In this presentation, I will offer a critical reevaluation of Anderson’s works to show their place in Scandinavian-American or “immigrant” literature. I claim Nephi Anderson does count as an “immigrant” author and is concerned with preserving Norwegian cultural heritage as it intersects with his understanding of Mormonism—his “roots” intertwine rather than compete. Anderson uses Mormon cosmology to inscribe Norway into its sacred narrative and America and Norway do not compete in his stories, but contribute to the long history of building God’s kingdom on earth. As such, Anderson offers Mormonism as a transformative and transnational identity that he employs to legitimize Norwegian (and Scandinavian more broadly) participation in this American religion while simultaneously subverting its Anglo-American custodianship.

***

“Nephi Anderson and the New Mormon Masculinity”

 Scott Hales

University of Cincinnati

 Throughout the nineteenth century, Mormon self-representation rarely succeeded in overturning the enormously influential negative representations of Mormons in novels like Alfreda Eva Bell’s Boadicea; The Mormon Wife (1855) and Cornelia Paddock’s The Fate of Madam La Tour (1881), which often cast Mormons as a heathen and degenerate people. In these novels, Mormon men particularly were caricaturized as ignorant, amoral brutes with a thirst for blood and sex. This caricature went almost unchallenged in nineteenth-century fiction, and due to a cultural aversion to fiction, Mormon creative writers seldom responded to it until the early twentieth century, when Mormon masculinity found an unlikely champion in a bookish Norwegian-American named Nephi Anderson.

For my presentation, I will explore how Anderson used the novel to construct a new Mormon masculinity. Specifically, I will look at his novels The Castle Builder (1902), set in Norway, and Dorian (1921), set in Utah, to show how he reconfigured Mormon masculinity following the 1890 Mormon disavowal of polygamy and other practices that set Mormonism apart from mainstream American culture. I will also explore the possibility that Anderson’s concept of masculinity was influenced by Nordicist ideas that were common in the racial discourse of his day.

***

“Lost to Assimilation: Rehabilitating Nephi Anderson, Mormon Norwegian-American Writer”

 Eric W. Jepson

Peculiar Pages Press

Mormon assimilation into general American society during the twentieth century resulted in a loss of literary tradition. When a church-owned publisher began offering novels in the late 1970s, many felt something unprecedented was occurring, even though Mormon novels had existed for decades and Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon (1898), the first published Mormon novel, had never been out of print.

Added Upon’s cultural influence is still apparent to those able to recognize it, but few can. This loss of cultural literacy parallels those of other American minorities, such as Anderson’s fellow Norwegian immigrants, who come to America and within a generation or two are no more likely to have Wergeland on their shelves than Anderson.

In my presentation, I will discuss how Anderson’s reputation is undergoing a reevaluation. I am currently compiling an edition of Dorian that will include essays on the novel and its place in Mormon history, what it has to say about Mormon assimilation, Anderson’s place as a Norwegian-American and Mormon-American author; Anderson’s own essays on literary philosophy; comparisons between the manuscript and typescript; and notes on the text itself. This and other current efforts are heralds of Anderson’s to relevance and are paving the way for later scholarship on this largely forgotten Norwegian-American novelist.

 

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18 Responses to Nephi Anderson at the Annual SASS Conference

  1. Glenn Gordon says:

    Scott, I want copies of all of the papers presented please…pretty please! Hope it all goes brilliantly for you.

    Glenn

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Ditto. Wish I could be there. I also find myself convinced by the notion of (re-)situating Anderson as a Norwegian-American writer.

    Which leads to the question: Would Anderson’s fiction appeal to non-Mormon readers with a non-academic interest in Norwegian-American culture? As someone who has read only Added Upon (so far), I can’t think that anyone except Mormons would find its issues sufficiently engaging to really enjoy it. (Which I did, on reading it as a teenager, literary blemishes aside.)

    • Scott Hales says:

      Sarah could probably answer this question better than I could, but I’ll give my two cents.

      I’m not sure. Anderson’s novels The Castle Builder and A Daughter of the North both take place in Norway and both reflect Anderson’s experiences in Norway and with the Norwegian people as a missionary in the 1890s. Both provide interesting portraits of late-nineteenth-century Norwegian life that may or may not be accurate or realistic. Based on my limited readings of his mission journals, they seem to an idealized view of what he saw there among the rural populations.

      I think A Daughter of the North is entertaining enough to appeal to non-Mormon, non-academic readers–but the ideal reader would have to be someone who doesn’t mind its old-fashioned style and Mormon bias. The novel has an interesting main character, some well-written passages, and some adventure and romance–which might be enough for some people. My thought, though, is that the average recreational reader would not necessarily be drawn to it.

      Interestingly, Anderson’s novel sets outside of Norway do not really contain Norwegian-American characters–which (I believe) led one scholar back in the 1970s to dismiss Anderson’s works as not distinctively Norwegian-American enough to be labeled such. I think, however, that Sarah’s presentation speaks more to this issue than mine does. Personally, I think Anderson’s desire to show Mormonism as a global presence is an outgrowth of his Norwegian-American background, his participation with the Scandinavian-American community in Utah, and his experiences in Europe as a missionary. Anderson identified deeply with that region of the world and I don’t think you can understand his work fully outside of that context.

      • Sarah Reed says:

        I think some of Anderson’s works would appeal to a sympathetic reader with an interest in Norwegian-American culture. As Scott mentioned, I think the Mormon content of “Daughter of the North” and “The Castle Builder” is less intimidating than in “Added Upon.” “Daughter of the North” and “The Castle Builder” both share themes/motifs with Midwest Norwegian-American literature, including Norwegian nationalism, literature, history, political development, class struggles, religion and religious freedom, and emigration. “Added Upon” actually follows the Norwegian characters to the US with similar depictions of immigrant life such as language learning, chain migration, foreign farming techniques, questions of interethnic relationships, and even includes a visit to the Norwegian relatives in Minnesota.

        I think there’s enough in common there to be of interest. I’m optimistic that the sympathetic Sons of Norway members could read and enjoy Anderson’s Norway novels. If they can get through Rølvaag, they surely they can read anything!

  3. Wm says:

    That’s awesome that you all were able to pull together a quorum and make this session happen.

    • Scott Hales says:

      Sarah is the one who first suggested the panel and I brought Theric in. And it was Theric’s first AMV post on Nephi Anderson’s Dorian that got me interested in reading more about Anderson and his work. It’s been a fantastic group effort.

      I think the panel itself also illustrates the importance of Mormon literary blogs like this one, AMV, The Low-Tech World, and others. Without them, we would not have been able to become familiar with each other’s interest in Anderson and coordinate our efforts. I know these blogs struggle for readership, but they are crucial to the future of Mormon lit studies.

      I am, however, looking forward to moving this digital exchange into the real world for a few hours. (The real world also being crucial to the future of MoLit Studies.) Having us all in the same room and bringing our different perspectives to the table will be cool.

    • Sarah Reed says:

      We’re also fortunate that our assigned panel moderator is Richard Jensen (from the Church History Department) who’s worked on Scandinavian-Mormon topics.

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