AMV Deep Dive–Liberating Form: A Not Unrepentant Mistruster of Mormon Literature
Welcome to the twelfth email in a series looking at Marden J. Clark’s collection Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature. In this email, we’ll cover: “Toward a More Perfect Order Within: Being the Confessions of an Unregenerate But Not Unrepentant Mistruster of Mormon Literature”
As always, the in-depth treatment of this week’s essay, including discussion questions, is at the end of the email and the discussion post for it can found on AMV.
Snapshot: Clark explains the environment in which he became an academic scholar, why that made him afraid of looking provincial and thus mistrustful of Mormon literature, how that mistrust began to change, and what his vision for Mormon literature is.
Best Lines: “Whatever else, they helped me to know again, and know more deeply, how radically linguistic our lives are, how much of experience is defined by, even determined by, language, hence how deep at the core of our experience language really is.” (153)
Why: The “they” Clark is referring to are a set of literary scholars (many of them younger than him) at a workshop on literature and theory he attended at UC Irvine. Clark came away from it with a greater appreciation for literary theory, but also rejected it in his own work and thinking about literature, especially Mormon literature. So why are these the best lines? Because they succinctly explain why rather than mistrust Mormon literature, we should take it seriously. If language is at the core of our experience, then one important way to make sense of the Mormon experience is to treat the language used to express it seriously rather than dismiss it.
Mormon Lit Recommendation: Clark mentions A Believing People, the landmark anthology of Mormon literature, in this essay. Unfortunately, it appears that the full online version of it is no longer available, but a sample of it can be found on the Mormon literature website. As an anthology, it has its’ flaws, but it’s important for two major reasons:
- For legitimizing the idea of Mormon literature as a modern field of study, and especially as something that should be taught at the collegiate level
- For making the case for the importance of letters, diaries, sermons, and other types of non-fiction/poetry to the field
Other Recommendation: The French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari define minor literature in their landmark book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature in a very specific way that precludes the notion of Mormon literature (and other literatures) as a minor literature. But it’s also an interesting read in relation to both Mormon literature and other minor literatures. If you’re not familiar with this work but want to get the gist this blog post by Victoria Addis summarizes it pretty well.
William Update: At the beginning of this month I revised the novella I wrote from late winter through late spring. It’s about 20k words and is titled The Unseating of Dr. Smoot. I’ve referred to it in earlier newsletters and in other venues. It’s the one that uses the structure of a typical LDS sacrament meeting: Chapter 1 is titled Prelude, Chapter = Announcements, Chapter 3 = Opening Hymn, and so on.
It needs at least one more revision (and then a thorough copyedit), but I’m quite pleased with it.
I also didn’t change as much as I normally would in a first revision, although sections definitely got deleted or fixed or cleaned up. It may be that I’m deluding myself on how good of shape it’s in, and I already have a few things jotted down to fix in the next revision, but I also think there’s another factor at play, which is that having a structure—even one that’s somewhat artificial—really helps you produce a coherent first draft. Not all works can be created that way, of course. But it’s definitely something to try out if you do creative work or pay attention to if you’re a reader or critic.
Liberating Form Deep Dive: Toward a More Perfect Order Within: Being the Confessions of an Unregenerate But Not Unrepentant Mistruster of Mormon Literature
That’s quite the title.
And yet it neatly encapsulates Clark’s ambivalent (but moving towards positive) feelings about Mormon literature.
I think it’s also the essay that feels the most dated to me so this is going to be less of a summary with a bit of analysis and more of a history-based diagnosis with some analysis.
Fear of the Provincial
I mentioned Mormon literature canards and truisms last week. I have one that I over-use, which is that nothing is more provincial than being afraid of appearing provincial.
Now, I think that’s particularly apt to deploy the last 30 years or so. I’m a bit more sympathetic to Clark’s fear of appearing provincial. As he writes:
“I grew up literarily when an accusation of provincialism was greatly feared. English departments were just discovering that the creation of literature had not ended in 1789. The mention of an American literature would send colleagues into gales of laughter or, if the suggestion seemed serious, into shocked or embarrassed silence” (147).
Things changed quite a bit over Clark’s career, of course. But even when I studied at UC Berkeley in the late 1990s, there was this perception that you need to have an interest in at least late 19th century literature, and every English major was required to take courses in early English and early American literature as well as at least one Shakespeare course.
Or to frame it another way: if Mormon scholars, poets, dramatists, and prose writers feel much more freedom from the shame of provincialism, it’s, paradoxically but also inevitably, because of:
a) the efforts of other minor literatures to work and agitate for space in the discourse, especially in African American, Hispanic, feminist, and queer literatures
b) the (somewhat) legitimatization of Mormonism due to the increase of power and influence of the LDS Church after WWII
To be blunt: part of the reason I can claim to not be afraid of the charge of provincialism is because other folks have made efforts to open up literary studies and cultural spaces in the 1960s and ’70s while my own people sold out and attempted to integrate in the larger American cultural project starting in the 1920s (only to have the ground shift under them in the late ’60s [but that’s a story for another time]).
Feel free to debate the terms I use and, yes, the specifics require nuance, but I don’t think the overall narrative is wrong.
And yet in spite of all that, it seems to me the fear of the provincial is still very present among us. For some reason, we seem to yearn for endorsement and respectability.
It’s not unwarranted: look at the way the films of Jared and Jerusha Hess have been reviewed. Or the discourse around the Twilight series.
But even if the fear is warranted, being worried about the critical opinion of others—whether coastal elites, narrow-minded middle- and low-brows, or even your own people—is a recipe for not creating interesting, complex, unique creative and critical work, and, often, for not creating any work at all.
There are thousands of people who can do the non-Mormon culture making. Why throw yourself in with them?
Ashamed of the Paucity
Even when Clark initially feels the pull of Mormon literature he tamps it down:
“I can hardly claim, however, that I burned with a conviction of the significance of an established body of Mormon literature. Rather, I sensed the paucity of the Mormon literature even while I desired to promote it. My desire to promote was thus at war with my fear of provinciality. Or perhaps it was just another expression of that fear: I wanted a literature that I would not have to feel apologetic about because of its provinciality” (152).
There are several things about Mormon literature that are true that make me both sympathetic to this claim and quite irritated with it:
- There is, indeed, an overall paucity of Mormon literature in terms of the amount and shape of the body of work that can be grouped under that umbrella
- There is also a lot more Mormon literature than we tend to hear about, and a lot that needs to be rediscovered, especially in the form of poetry, short fiction (esp. from the late 19th and early 20th century periodicals), and nonfiction (diaries, letters)
- Much of the body of Mormon literature does not have what Clark’s cosmopolitan professors would see as literary value
- There is a lot more literary value in Mormon literature than most people think
I’m also sympathetic to this fear because the discourse about Mormon literature has too often been more about the worst of what it is and hopes for what it could be or all the reasons why it can’t be great rather than what it actually is. This means that the standard baseline for those who don’t know the actual texts (and this is where I remind everyone that I’m not as well read in the field as I should be) is one of not curiosity but rather disdain or downplaying (often born out of the fear of looking provincial).
At the same time I’m also highly irritated by the fact that there remains a huge segment of the Mormon Studies crowd who refuse to engage with Mormon literature—the “I never read the short stories in Dialogue/Sunstone” contingent. Cultural activity is history and politics and sociology and theology and community building and religious studies.
There seems to be perception that the literary output lacks the polish of the other work in Mormon Studies. Or that it’s doesn’t have as much to say. Or—honestly, I’m not so sure. And I do get that there are people who just don’t like reading fiction.
But part of me thinks that so much of this attitude comes out of this same fear of looking provincial. Mormon literature is seen as being in a state of paucity and so it can be safely ignored.
And yet, the messy emotions in Mormon Studies that erupt from time to time—not just in the era social media but even before then at Sunstone conferences and in the letters section of Dialogue, etc.—suggest to me that quite a few folks would do well to process some of their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with the help of Mormon literature.
Mistrust of Theory
And now is where we get to a deep irony in this essay. Clark has this desire to cheer lead that’s warring with this deeply engrained fear of provinciality, and in 1976 he attends a six week workshop in theory at UC Irvine that includes theorists like Girard, Frank Kermode, and Edward Said, and instead of coming away with a set of critical tools that would be perfect for approaching the body of work that was Mormon literature (especially since few works in his time were of the type to contain what we’d see as traditional literary value), he rejects this “exotic new critical vocabulary” because it “flattens any work of literature … a text” (152-153).
Now, the way he presents this whole experience is more nuanced than I can capture in this summary. But the bottom line is still that Clark was concerned that “[w]e seemed to be theorizing and vocabularizing ourselves right out of touch with both readers and literature” (153).
This is a standard charge laid at the feet of the theory turn the field took in the 1970s and early ’80s, which then intensified into the culture wars of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
I’m certainly not going to defend all theory—and most definitely not all of the ham-fisted, ideologically arguments for and against it, esp. in the academic and other cultural institutions in the U.S.
At the same time, this is a fascinating what if for the nascent field of Mormon literature. Clark sort of alludes to this (and then sort of even engages with it as he later explains how he came to appreciate Mormon 19th century literary output), but, mostly, he either completely elides or misses the point that Mormon literature is a fascinating field for the approaches to marginalized cultures and minor literatures that much of the literary theory of the 1970s and later concerns itself with.
Or if I am going to be harsh: in this reaction, Clark manages to both betray the very provinciality he was afraid of being tagged with and fail to embrace the tools that would pull him out of that fear of provinciality.
The Quest for Sincerity & A More Pefect Order Within
And so now we get to the point of Clark’s essay: what he wants from Mormon literature: sincerity and a more perfect order within.
He nods to the problem of sentimentality—“sincere feelings expressed in insincere forms” (155)—and also to the fact that appraising sincerity in art can be tricky.
But it’s their sincerity in telling that allows him to appreciate early Mormon literature, from Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision to the journal of Mary Goble Pay. For Clark, “our literature grows out of, seeks for, and/or responds to a more perfect order within the mind” (156).
In doing so, he is quoting the literary critic I. A. Richards, who defines sincerity as “obedience to that tendency which ‘seeks’ a more perfect order within the mind” (155). Which is to say, he’s not even quoting from theorists of New Criticism (which is what his literary training seems to be in—the New Critics placed a primacy on close readings of the text), but from one of their direct precursors (I, again, wonder how different his approach might have been if he’d not rejected the workshop on critical theory).
Even so, I think he has a point there. By the “more perfect order within”, Clark is referring specifically in the context of Mormon literature to the worldview that Joseph Smith (and many others) create and how converts to that worldview saw it as unlocking new knowledge about the world a “fuller sense of order” (156).
Clark writes: “And the excitement of that new fullness carries through nearly everything they wrote. Even when it was written in pain and suffering, even when it carries deep questioning or some sense of rebellion, the writing is informed with that sense of new-found order and the excitement it generates” (156).
Richards’s definition of sincerity helps him greater appreciate early Mormon literary texts, but it also informs what he wants from Mormon authors: “The very least we can demand of our Mormon writers, I would say, is the kind of sincerity that seeks to know and reflect and embody this more perfect order and that seeks an even more difficult end—to create from, and in, that matter unorganized a new and more perfect order” (158).
Clark goes on to define and enlarges that order to connect the individual to the gospel and the LDS Church. He, like Eugene England, was primarily interested in linking creative work to the project of creating Zion.
And I do think that artists who have that as a goal can make interesting, important contributions to Mormon culture. Heck, my own work could be seen as fitting into that framework, although how it does so gets (intentionally) complicated and strange.
At the same time, and for a number of reasons, Mormon literature can’t and shouldn’t confine itself to that project.
But neither can it fully divorce itself from it because what makes Mormon literature interesting here in the second decade of the 21st century is how Joseph Smith’s worldview, and all the variations that derive from and/or react to it, collide with the creation of culture, especially, in my opinion, literature. The Association for Mormon Literature defines Mormon literature as literature created by, for, and/or about Mormons (and a reminder that Mormons includes folks who don’t come from the Brighamite tradition).
I stand by that definition. And enjoy work from all permutations of it.
And if I’m being honest, what I’m most interested in is work that engages with Mormonism in interesting, unabashed ways. There are plenty of writers out there who one can go to for the non-Mormon stuff.
But I came of age in the post-theory turn in literary studies, so I am unable to define sincerity in the same way that Clark does.
What I’m looking for is not sincerity, but openness.
That is, for writers who are open to the possibilities of using Mormon materials in their work, who open new avenues for how those materials can be used, who are open about their complicated relationships to Mormonism, who openly embrace the weirdness of Mormonism.
The thing with the fear of being provincial is that it closes you off to where you and your people come from and who you are.
That doesn’t mean you need to be an apologist for those roots. It does mean that if you completely close yourself off to them, you become a lot less interesting to me.
Both active LDS and ex-LDS artists do this closing off. They may have valid reasons for doing so. They most certainly experience cultural and economic forces that encourage them to do so.
And if you prefer that type of Mormon literature, that’s fine. It’s good to support the artists that come out of your community (even if it sometimes comes across as provincial
It’s just not what I’m looking for.
Unlike Clark, I have no Mormon literature confessions to make^.
I have committed Mormon literature, I am committing Mormon literature, and I will commit it again in the future.
I hope you will too.
^other than the fact I’m still avoiding God’s Army and The Backslider.
- Where does your mistrust and/or championing of Mormon literature come from?
- What literary/cultural studies theories, thinkers, texts, etc. have you found useful (or not useful) in relation to Mormon literature?
- What forms of sincerity or openness do you value in Mormon culture? Are those the same as in non-Mormon works of culture? Why or why not?
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