Right now, Jonathan Langford and I are collaborating on a volume tentatively titled “The Latter-Day Saint Family Encyclopedia,” which will be published this fall by Thunder Bay Press and sold fairly widely. As you might imagine, we’re taking advantage of the opportunity to write a good, meaty entry on Mormon literature, and I’ve included Jonathan’s draft below. May we invite you all to review the following text and, in this post’s comment section, let us know any clarifications or enhancements that come to mind. We can’t let this entry get any longer, but we can certainly refine what’s here. Thanks in advance for your help!
Literature represents an important way of expressing and exploring ideas, emotions, and experiences, both on an individual level and as a community. From the earliest days of the restored Church, Latter-day Saints have expressed their thoughts and feelings in literary form.In 1888, future apostle Orson F. Whitney delivered an address in which he predicted, “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. . . . In God’s name and by his help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven.” Along similar lines, in 1977 President Spencer W. Kimball wrote, “the full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves.” Such calls for high-quality literature represent an ongoing challenge that Latter-day Saints writers are eager to meet.
Biography, autobiography, and personal writing: Latter-day Saints have a rich tradition of nonfiction narratives that capture personal experience. Within scripture, both the early sections of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith—History represent examples of spiritual autobiography. Many of the early converts to the Church, pioneers crossing the Plains, and settlers in Utah and surrounding areas captured their experiences and emotions vividly through journals and personal histories that qualify not only as historical accounts but also as engaging literature. While journals and narratives by Church leaders such as William Clayton and Parley P. Pratt help to illuminate prominent events, accounts by ordinary members such as Annie Clark Tanner and Mary Goble Pay are no less valuable for the way they vividly capture ordinary life. [Author’s note: I have not read Annie Clark Tanner and Mary Goble Pay and thus do not know for sure if “vividness” is one of their characteristics. If it is not, I would welcome other examples to plug in here.]
This strong tradition has continued down to modern times. Church leaders continue to encourage members to keep journals and write personal and family histories, noting that such accounts may become like scripture to their descendants. Well-researched and finely crafted biographies have been published regarding many Church members, particularly Church leaders during the early days and down to modern times. Official LDS Church magazines such as the Ensign regularly publish first-person narratives of faith-promoting experiences and insights gained from enduring the trials of life. More literary and nuanced personal essays are regularly published in independent LDS-oriented periodicals such as Dialogue, Sunstone, BYU Studies, Exponent II, Irreantum, and Segullah. Such essays often focus on the experience of living a gospel-informed life and insights related to gospel truth. The explosion of the Internet has led to the phenomenon of personal and family websites and blogs, which have been embraced by many Latter-day Saints as a way of expressing and sharing elements of their personal and family life. [Author’s note: With respect to biographies, autobiographies, personal narratives, and personal essays, I’m inclined not to try to name any specific writers, on the grounds that there are so many that it would be impossible to do justice to the field. However, I’m open to anyone who might want to make a case for some particular authors and/or works rising to the top in these fields in a way that should be mentioned here.] The tone of such writing ranges from scholarly to humorous (see Humor).
Novels and short stories: Like many American religious leaders of the time, early LDS Church leaders were often distrustful of fiction and counseled members to avoid reading it. By the late 1880s, however, Church leaders such as Orson F. Whitney were calling for a “home literature” written by faithful Latter-day Saints that would fill the hunger for fiction while still remaining true to LDS themes and values. The result was a flowering of novels and short stories, most notably including Susa Young Gates; B. H. Roberts; and Nephi Anderson, author of Added Upon, a widely read story that follows characters from premortal life through mortality to the Millennium in a pattern that influenced later works such as the late twentieth century musicals Saturday’s Warrior and My Turn on Earth.
While home literature continued to be produced, the 1930s and 1940s saw the rise of a group of writers sometimes known as Mormonism’s “lost generation.” These writers achieved artistic success in addressing Mormon themes and experience, sometimes for a national audience, but at the cost of alienation from their own LDS faith and community. Major writers from this group include Virginia Sorensen, Samuel W. Taylor, Vardis Fisher, and Maureen Whipple, whose novel The Giant Joshua is sometimes considered the finest Mormon novel, at least among those dealing with the pioneer experience. An important more recent writer in this same tradition is Levi Peterson, author of The Backslider and numerous short stories.
A significant development in home literature was the decision in the late 1970s by Deseret Book to start publishing fiction. Early offerings included historical young adult novels by Dean Hughes and romances by Shirley Sealy. Covenant Communications and Bookcraft soon followed, with historical novels, retold stories from the scriptures, young adult fiction, and romances representing the vast bulk of the fiction they published. Particularly noteworthy was the multivolume series The Work and the Glory, by Gerald Lund, which covered the fictitious Steed family from 1827 through the westward migration to Utah. Other popular authors in the home literature tradition have included Chris Heimerdinger, Rachel Ann Nunes, Anita Stansfield, Jack Weyland, and Blaine and Brenton Yorgason, among many others. [Author’s Note: Please suggest additions or revisions to this list to represent names “everyone should know” in this category.] Short fiction in the home literature style continued to be published by the Church magazines up through __; however, by __ the Church magazines were no longer publishing fiction. [Author’s Note: Dates to be inserted. Can someone verify that the Friend no longer publishes fiction stories?]
Alongside the continuing home literature tradition, the last several decades of the twentieth century witnessed an increasing number of works by writers who combined the techniques of literary fiction with a fundamentally faithful stance toward LDS doctrine and experience. Particularly noteworthy among these “faithful realists” have been Douglas Thayer, Donald R. Marshall, Margaret Young, Orson Scott Card (in his novel Saints), and Todd Robert Petersen. [Author’s Note: Please suggest additions or revisions to this list to represent names “everyone should know” in this category.] Works by these and other writers in this category have typically been published by small regional presses or university presses, and despite critical acclaim, they are often not widely read, compared to titles from the home literature tradition.
Recent years have also seen an increasing number of LDS writers who have achieved success in the national market with stories that typically feature little in the way of overt LDS connections, though they may incorporate themes that resonate with LDS beliefs. In the area of science fiction and fantasy, Orson Scott Card, Dave Wolverton/Farland, Tracy Hickman, and Brandon Sanderson are among the best-known examples, with Stephenie Meyer achieving perhaps the greatest commercial success of any LDS author to date with her Twilight vampire series. Other successful mainstream authors who are LDS include Anne Perry, who writes historical mysteries; Richard Paul Evans, author of The Christmas Box; and Shannon Hale, a writer of young adult fiction. [Author’s note: Please suggest other LDS authors whose success in the mainstream market warrants inclusion here.]
Drama and cinema: Since the early days of the Church, theatrical performance has been a valued part of LDS community life. Brigham Young stated, “Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth.” However, a significant body of original dramatic works dealing with LDS themes and character did not begin to develop until the later part of the twentieth century (see Drama and Motion Pictures).
First performed in 1974, Saturday’s Warrior, by Doug Stewart and Lex de Azevedo, was the first in a series of highly popular musicals dealing with explicitly LDS themes and written for an LDS market. Other noteworthy examples included Starchild, also by Stewart and de Azevedo, and My Turn on Earth, by Carol Lynn Pearson.
Stage theater in a more serious vein has been fostered on university campuses, particularly Brigham Young University, and in various (usually short-lived) local and regional theaters. Noteworthy authors of serious stage drama have included Thomas Rogers (Huebener, Fire In The Bones), Eric Samuelsen (Gadianton, Family), Tim Slover (Joyful Noise, Hancock County), Scott Bronson (Stones, Dial Tones), Melissa Larson (Angels Unaware, Happy Little Secrets) Orson Scott Card (Stone Tables, Father, Mother, Mother, and Mom ), and Robert Elliot (Fires of the Mind).
The quality and success of Richard Dutcher’s 2000 movie God’s Army about a group of young LDS missionaries marked the beginning of a spate of LDS-themed movies, most notably including Brigham City and States of Grace, also by Dutcher; The Other Side of Heaven, directed by Mitch Davis; and The Singles Ward, directed by Kurt Hale. However, Mormon cinema has thus far failed to live up to the promise of commercially viable movies directed to the Mormon market.
Poetry: Early converts to the Church were inspired to create poetry in response to the truths of the restoration, leading—in cases such as William W. Phelps, Parley P. Pratt, and Eliza R. Snow—to works that have taken their place among the best-loved LDS hymns. The outpouring of poetry—much of it sentimental and didactic, but some of high literary value—has continued from that time to the present. Both Church magazines and independent LDS-oriented periodicals regularly carry Mormon poetry, and single-author poetry anthology collections have also appeared.
Starting in the later twentieth century, LDS poets began to write in less traditional forms and styles. Noteworthy modern poets have included Clinton F. Larson, who also influenced later Mormon poets through his teaching and criticism; Carol Lynn Pearson; Emma Lou Thayne; Lance Larson; Dennis Clark; Susan Elizabeth Howe; Michael Collings; and Kimberly Johnson, among many others. [Author’s Note: Please suggest additions or revisions to this list to represent names “everyone should know” in this category.] Important recent collections of Mormon poetry include Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poetry (published in 1989, edited by Eugene England and Dennis Clark) and Discoveries: Two Centuries of Poems by Mormon Women (published in 2004, edited by by Sheree Maxwell Bench and Susan Elizabeth Howe).
Literary criticism: Mormon literary criticism includes both the analysis of literature by, for, and about Latter-day Saints and exploration of perspectives on literature that incorporate an LDS view of life and eternity. It also extends to efforts to understand scripture by interpreting its literary dimensions (see Book of Mormon Scholarship: Literary Interpretation).
Movement toward a formalized critical discussion of Mormon literature began in the 1970s with the publication of the anthology A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints (edited by Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert), establishment of the Association for Mormon Letters (AML), and the creation of the first classes in Mormon literature at BYU. [Author’s note: Can someone verify that the last of these occurred in the 1970s?] Essays of literary criticism regularly appear in Dialogue, BYU Studies, and Irreantum, and at events such as the annual AML conference and the Sunstone symposium, while awards by the AML and (more recently) the Whitney Awards attempt to celebrate the best in Mormon literature in a variety of genres. Noteworthy voices in Mormon literary criticism have included Richard Cracroft, Eugene England, Michael Austin, Bruce Jorgensen, Benson Parkinson, and Gideon Burton, among many others. BYU also now hosts the Mormon Literature and Creative Arts database, an important critical resource that seeks to comprehensively list literary writings and associated artistic works by and about Mormons.
In recent years, the Internet has became an important venue for discussing Mormon literature. For more than a decade starting in the mid-1990s, AML-List, an online email list sponsored by the AML, hosted often vigorous and stimulating discussions related to Mormon literature. More recently, blogs such as A Motley Vision and numerous personal blogs posting book reviews by individual Latter-day Saints have helped to fill the desire for members of the Church both with and without formal scholarly credentials to talk about Mormon literature.