Mormons and American Literature Anthologies: An Exercise in Optimism

In the last forty years, the American literary canon has changed dramatically. If you go back to Norton American literature anthologies from the late 1960s and early 1970s, you’ll notice that most of the writers are white men, a dozen or so are white women, and a few are Jewish or African-American men. Skipping ahead to the late 1970, you’ll find that not much has changed except for the inclusion of more women and African-American writers—and the inclusion of memoirs, letters, and journals. By the mid-1990s to the present, you get more Hispanic writers, Asian-American writers, Native American writers, African-American women, one Indian-American writer, and writing with more overt LGBT themes. Still missing from the anthologies, however, is writing from Muslim-American authors and authors from a number of other American communities, including the Mormons.

The exclusion of these groups from what is supposed to be multi-cultural cross-section of American literature is understandable. Aside from the fact that the Norton Anthology of American Literature is already too big for most college freshmen to carry around in their backpacks, the expectation that a single-volume anthology—or even a multi-volume anthology like the unabridged Norton—can give everyone a place at the table is perhaps too much for editors who have to juggle the politics and economics of anthologizing. In her preface to the Shorter 8th Edition of the Norton, Nina Baym describes the challenges of balancing “traditional interests” with “developing critical concerns” in writers and groups that have not always been a “part of the standard canon.” Recalling the “so-called canon wars of the 1980s and 1990s,” she suggests that while an awareness of extra-canonical writing has changed “our understanding of American literature” and “enlarged the number and diversity of authors now recognized as contributors to the totality of American literature,” canon-expansion remains an ongoing task—often dependent on the suggestions and recommendations of teachers and students (xxi-xxii).

As a literary critic with interests (and faith) in Mormon literature, I believe that Mormon literature will someday have a place in an American literary anthology like the Norton—especially if Mormonism remain as visible as it has over the past decade. Some grassroots lobbying will have to happen, of course, from teachers and students who believe Mormon literature has a place alongside the canonized, but that will come as more scholars and teachers turn to Mormon literature as a field of study. Besides, if the trend Norton set with its anthology continues, it will eventually be in search of more minority voices. (It’s promising, I think, that Baym has written about nineteenth-century Mormon women writers in her latest book. That’s progress, right?) I imagine we’ll see more Muslim-American writers anthologized within the next decade or so, along with more emerging writers from groups that are already represented in the anthology. With excellent literary anthologies of their own, can the Mormons be that far behind?

So, here’s my question: when time comes to canonize and anthologize the Mormon writers, who will they be? And why?

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11 Responses to Mormons and American Literature Anthologies: An Exercise in Optimism

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Good question.

    I was about to go into a lengthy analysis of the kind of literature I think is most likely to make the cut: short fiction and/or personal essay, about identity conflicts related to conflicting pulls between Mormon culture and larger culture and/or the conflicts inherent in growing up. But then I realized there’s a larger question.

    While I’m optimistic about the eventual inclusion of Mormon literature in the American literary canon broadly speaking, I’m more dubious about its inclusion as a separate category in limited-space basic American literature anthologies in the way that, say, African American literature, Jewish American literature, Hispanic American literature, LGBT literature Asian American literature, and Muslim American literature are being considered. Rather, I suspect that that Mormon literature is likely to be seen (rightly or wrongly) as part of a broader category that I might call “modern mainstream religious literature,” together with people like Flannergy O’Connor and a surprisingly negative personal essay I recall reading by Garrison Keillor about schism within the religious community of his youth. Mormon writers will be included only if they can beat out the best Catholic and Protestant authors, as opposed to holding a separate slot due to the distinctiveness of our experience.

    And I’m not sure they aren’t wrong, in terms of important unrecognized voices of American experience. The most distinctive thing that sets us aside from other Americans experientially is our early history, but that isn’t the major focus of most Mormon literature. You could, I suppose, make an argument for including the Joseph Smith Story as another document of American transcendentalism (with a different flavor) and a reaction to Puritanism, e.g., the much-anthologized Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. And there could be a good argument for including primary source narratives of the trek West and/or the expulsions from Missouri or Nauvoo. Once they get to the Valley, though, narratives become part of the Settlement of the West: not a period that typically is much anthologized, past a few stories by Willa Cather. Maybe something by Maureen Whipple et al. could compete here, though again the focus for anthologies must be short pieces/selections.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I hadn’t thought about Joseph Smith’s first vision being anthologized, but I think you could make a strong case for it.

      I think the two most likely writers to make it into something like the Norton Anthology would be Brady Udall or Terry Tempest Williams because they have been the most successful overtly Mormon writers published nationally.

      Unless you count Orson Scott Card. Card, however, does not strike me as Norton material.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        It’s more likely that Card would be included as an illustration of another (and perhaps more inexplicably) underrepresented category in American literature anthologies, despite its importance as an important expression of American identity and values: that is, science fiction and fantasy. His short story “Kingsmeat” would make a very thought-provoking addition.

  2. Sarah Reed says:

    I think optimism is the right word. My guess is May Swenson, but I guess it depends on what counts as Mormon.

  3. Wm says:

    I don’t know. But I’d like to see a short story from the school of Mormon faithful realism that is also somehow highly relatable to college students. That may be too tall of an order. And I don’t think that Doug Thayer’s work is the right fit.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I think you’re right about Thayer not being the right fit, although my students at UC seemed to connect with “Wolves” when they read it. I think some of Todd Robert Petersen’s stories, or Angela Hallstrom’s “Thanksgiving” have potential to appeal, but they might lack the glossiness and polish of a Norton piece.

      Besides, I get the impression that you have to publish a Pulitzer before the big anthologies even consider including your work.

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