Mormon Letters … Literally

In the recent archaeological dig that was my attempt to reconstruct life in the 70s I found a sealed tomb, a treasure trove that had yet to be excavated: old issues of The New Era. I ordered several copies of the first issues and spent many hours reading through all of the 1970s issues at www.lds.org.  The earliest volumes brought one word to mind: trippy. I’m serious. Some of this feeling was attributable to mere nostalgia, of course, but most of it was a result of the amazing production values. Compared to previous LDS church magazines, The New Era was downright colorful, some of the covers and illustrations at times suggesting psychedelic album artwork for Cream or Jimi Hendrix, like something you might imagine Austin Powers would like to read … if he were Amish.  And, they published letters to the editor.  Even more surprising than the burst of color in the pages was how outspoken these early New Era correspondents were: they were as bold as the magazine they often criticized. I’d like to share some of these letters with you. With the exception of one public figure, I’ve withheld the names of these early faithful dissidents quoted below in order to protect their latter-day descendants from unwarranted shame and persecution.

Here’s an early mixed review from someone we know and love (Feedback, 1973 October New Era):

“I would like to commend you for the professional appearance of the magazine. I’m proud to be seen reading it. And the content is genuinely improving with every issue. Although some places still slip rather badly, like the fiction and poetry in the February issue, which couldn’t be said to be up to much of anyone’s artistic standards, some really well-done pieces make the entire magazine worthwhile, like “Hold Hands with God” or the Rembrandt article. Your photography shows some excellent and often creative work. [emphasis added]

Elder Orson Scott Card, Brazil North Central Mission”

It should perhaps be noted that in the August 1973 New Era, a certain “Orson Scott Card” is listed as a BYU scholarship winner as a result of a winning entry in the photography category of The New Era contest that year.

Not all New Era readers were as enthralled with the new look as I was. Consider, for instance, this missive from, one suspects, an Unfrozen Caveman Gospel Doctrine Teacher (Feedback, 1971 June New Era):

“Because I was late in subscribing, the first three issues of your challenging magazine showered upon me all at once, providing ample evidence upon which to base a judgment. While the flaming colors and bizarre designs dazzle me, I sense their purpose, realizing that I must be old-fashioned and need to adjust better to youth.”

For some readers, the sensory stimulation was too much, and, like Martin Luther, they were forced to take a stand (Feedback, 1973 October New Era):

“Several years ago I started taking the New Era when we had a teenager at home. We gave it up then because you were printing over color, which is not easy to read nor good for the vision …. Then last year I decided to try it again. But during the year some of the most important articles were again printed on color, so I have given up. I would like to have the New Era in our home and would if it were not for what some people must think a ‘cute’ practice to attract the youth.”

Other, proto-symbologist readers, tried to uncover hidden mysteries in some of the photographs (Feedback, 1975 November New Era):

“The front cover of the August New Era is a mystery to me—a big, red, ugly blob with strings yet. What is it, a guessing game?

Would you believe a closeup of a raspberry? Editor.”

In some extreme cases, readers found the artwork almost satanic, raising the question (that has never been satisfactorily answered) if exorcisms could be performed on magazines (Feedback, 1975 November New Era):

“I am writing to express a little dismay at the cover photo on the August 1973 issue of your magazine. What menacing, foreboding presence this multiple-exposure composition has! We see three young boys with grim if not tearful and frightened faces, running helter-skelter across an undefined space looming with vast indistinct planet- and moon-like orbs. What are they running from? What threatens them? Within the cover the subjects treated are not at all grim; instead we read of batik dying, contest winners in various literary and fine arts fields, of purity of heart—all uplifting and happy subjects. How then to reconcile that brooding, awful (awe-full) cover with the contents? Make no mistake; the photographer is obviously talented and the work represented on the cover is excellent as far as craftsmanship and art are concerned. I am objecting more to its mood, which I feel to be out of place on such a fine publication as the New Era.”

Of all of the letters I read, this one I found the most troubling. When I ordered back issues I made sure this August 1973 issue was included. While awaiting delivery of the FedEx package, I was frequently haunted by this letter, wondering if some of my own neuroses and fear of certain Beatles songs could perhaps be traced back to this very New Era issue cover I no doubt viewed as a youth? Well, I am now holding this very issue in my hands and must say I disagree sharply with this correspondent. What was he or she thinking?  Certainly the most menacing, foreboding and grim subject to ever appear in the pages of the New Era magazine, or any other church magazine for that matter, is no doubt the 4 pages of tie dye and batik instructions in this August 1973 New Era, not just explaining how these crimes and misdemeanors could be perpetrated by the reader, but actually promoting the wearing of articles of clothing produced in this fashion on the temples that are the bodies of the Mormon youth or hanging these items on the walls of that most sacred space, the LDS home.

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17 Responses to Mormon Letters … Literally

  1. jendoop says:

    This leaves me feeling that the current issues of the New Era are downright sterile. Let’s hear it for tie dye!

  2. Ed Snow says:

    The article doesn’t make it very clear that batik rarely works well on shirts. OTH, if you’re ever in a cave and need to construct a torch, first see if any of your companions have a batik shirt or wall hanging to wrap around your stick before resorting to any other cloth materials.

  3. FoxyJ says:

    My mom had a short story published in that August 1973 issue; she was a winner for the fiction contest that year. I just went searching for her name online and apparently two different people wrote in praising her story. Go Mom!

  4. Ed Snow says:

    FoxyJ, I’ve been very impressed with the early fiction and poetry in The New Era, so your mom wrote with good company. You’ve got several LDS luminaries who got their start there, like Carol Lynn Pearson, among others. Also, there were several roundtable discussions about Mormon lit that were first rate (including Richard Cracroft, Arthur Henry King, John Harris, Elouise Bell, Clinton Larson, etc). I’ll be reporting on some of them later on.

  5. Moriah Jovan says:

    This discussion reminds me of a time in my youth when exceptional musical talent was semi-showcased in Sacrament Meeting, when chorale music other than hymns was used, practiced, and performed well.

    *now haz a sad*

  6. Ed Snow says:

    For one, brief shining moment, Moriah. You and I will start signing songs from Camelot if we’re not careful. I’m not sure how it happened that we collectively hid our candles under bushels. Where are the candlesticks?

  7. Ed Snow says:

    Singing, that is–not sure anyone would want my autograph.

  8. Moriah Jovan says:

    Well, Ed. You know deBussy and Rachmaninoff in Sacrament Meeting inevitably leads to premarital sex.

  9. Ed Snow says:

    Well, that’s why prelude music was invented, right? I mean, to start off Sacrament Meeting. I would die a happy man if someone dared to play Rach’s Prelude op.23 no.4 in D Major as prelude music one Sunday: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-y7aKNjUeVY&feature=related

  10. Ah! But is it the music or the dress that you want to see?

    I have to ask: In the last letter you quoted, did the writer really say that the New Era included stuff about "batik dying" (as opposed to "batik dyeing")? Now *that* would be a worthwhile topic for a grim magazine cover featuring children fleeing in terror…

  11. Th. says:

    .

    Our ward had a big cleaning-things-out activity last year and I spent much of the time in pain because we were tossing all the old New Eras, including the one with the letter from Elder OSC that I found through random flipping. I kept a few of the most interestingly designed (Lady Steed and space issue forbade taking them all) and the rest are now gone.

    Although they hadn’t always aged well, I think that’s because they were engaging on the Now level. I would rather the mags sinned on the side of timely, I think. Timely at least gets people interested.

    I have wondered if they’re moving in that direction ( http://thmazing.blogspot.com/2009/12/svithe-review-of-new-ensign.html ), but I don’t see letters to the editor of this stripe coming back any time soon.

    I wish our teens felt that connected to the magazine, but I’m doubtful. Any parents of teens or actual teens out there who can clue us in?

  12. Ed Snow says:

    Jonathan, I copied that letter directly from lds.org, so it could have been a transcription error. But that’s funny and I hadn’t noticed.

  13. Ed Snow says:

    Oh, and it’s the music–of all of the youtube options for this song, the lady and dress and the way she plays it had absolutely nothing to do with anything at all.

  14. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    How nice to have a post that made me laugh aloud. Thanks, Ed. Keep it coming.

  15. Ron Priddis says:

    Back then, I used to read the Ensign’s General Conference issues from cover to cover for content. But what touched my heart (and libido) was the New Era with its stories and photos of beautiful young people engaged in communal activities–service projects and so on–and smiling like they were going to be translated. I kept wondering who these people were and where they lived because they were so much more beautiful and happy than the people I knew) and how I could become a part of this better life. It was wonderful propaganda and couldn’t have worked better for me! I didn’t know that these were semi-pornographic fantasies whose artistic directors knew the power of fresh faces and communal endeavors intended to stir the heart of the most idealistic youth. Thanks for reminding me. It puts me in a nostalgic mood.

  16. Ed Snow says:

    Ron, that’s pretty funny. There were way too many happy smiling people between those pages. It was the "Osmond Effect."

  17. Orson Scott Card–how funny. This sounds just like him. As for the other letters, I am in awe. Thanks for sharing!

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