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of the

Association for Mormon Letters


The Association for Mormon Letters

Provo, Utah

2003 by the Association for Mormon Letters. After publication herein, all rights revert to the authors. The Association
for Mormon Letters assumes no responsibility for contributors statements of fact or opinion.
Editor: Lavina Fielding Anderson
Production Director: Marny K. Parkin
The Association for Mormon Letters
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Note: An AML order form appears at the end of this volume.


Elegant Angst: Mining the Treasures of Mormon Personal Essays
Cherry B. Silver

Neila C. Seshachari

Gae Lyn Henderson


Peter J. Sorensen


Lael Littke


Doug Stewart


Noreen Astin


John-Charles Duffy


Ivan A. Wolfe


Eric A. Eliason


The Quest of Essences as an Archaic Religious Quest:

Terry Tempest Williamss Interrogation of Faith, Art, and
Earthly Life in Leap

Tension of the Opposites: John Bennions Falling toward Heaven

Mormoniad: The Book of Mormon as Proto-Epic

Great Plots Leap over Many a Tightrope

Saturdays Warrior: Winning the Popular Market

Saturdays Warrior: The Pioneering Art of the Mormon Ethos

Serpents in Our Midst: What Brigham City Tells Us about Ourselves

Stuck Somewhere before the Golden Age:

The Two LDS Science Fiction Markets

Mark Twain, Polygamy, and the Origin of an American Motif


AML Annual 2003

Mapping Manifest Destiny: The Paintings of Lucile Cannon Bennion

John Serge Bennion


Gae Lyn Henderson


Carolyn Campbell


Lawrence Flake


Tyler Moulton, moderator, Chris Bigelow, Terry Jeffress,

Marilyn Arnold, Jerry Johnston, and Margaret Blair Young


I Love You. Invitation or Demand?: Revelatory Marriage Proposals

in Mormon Fiction

Strong Enough to Face the Dark

What the Mormon Audience Wants: Telling Our Story with Stories

Walking the Tightrope: Mormon Audiences

NOTE: Unless otherwise identified, all of the papers in this compilation were delivered at the Association for Mormon Letters
Annual Meeting, 2 March 2002, at Westminster College. Also presented but not submitted for publication was The Critical
Divide: Where and Why Mormon Literary Criticism Needs a National Audience by Gideon O. Burton.


Elegant Angst:
Mining the Treasures of Mormon Personal Essays
Cherry B. Silver

hen we speak of literature, we think first of

poetry, fiction, and drama. But I nominate
the personal essay as Latter-day Saint literature
of the first order, offering perceptive humor, philosophy, and language. Essayists converse with us
thoughtfully. And we read, as if visiting with a
friend, sometimes in order to laugh at ourselves or
to gain courage, sometimes to find peace, and at
other times, on the contrary, to get a needed prodding of the feelings or intellect.
Where do we find Latter-day Saint essays?
BYU Studies, Sunstone, Dialogue, and Exponent II
regularly publish personal voices. A collection of
that name edited by Mary L. Bradford in 1987
covers two dozen provocative writers. She edited
an earlier anthology Mormon Women Speak (1982),
as well as her own writing On Leaving Home
(1987). Books on contemporary life by individual
essayists like Eugene Englands Dialogues with
Myself (1984) and Making Peace (1995) or Elouise
Bells Only When I Laugh (1990) sit as classics
alongside the sprightly exchanges between poet
Emma Lou Thayne and historian Laurel Thatcher
Ulrich in All Gods Critters Got a Place in the Choir
(1995). Environmental issues are addressed in
New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community, edited by Terry Tempest William, William
B. Smart, and Gibbs M. Smith in 1998. Louise
and Tom Plummer regularly publish their humorous meditations. Mary Ellen Edmunds entertains
and edifies in Love Is a Verb (1995) and Happiness:
Finders-Keepers (1999). Karen Lynn Davidson
attacks stereotypes in Thriving on Our Differences

(1990) and Chieko Okazaki continues to publish

in her distinct voice. Other thoughtful anthologies
appear with each Relief SocietyBYU Womens
Conference. And we can add the reflections on
growing up Mormon by Edward Geary, Marden
Clark, and Karl Sandberg. The health of Mormon
personal essays is sound.
Henry David Thoreau began Walden asserting
that he had travelled a good deal in Concord and
asked of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life (2). Thoreau himself
demonstrated that good essay writing grows in
complexity of personality and outlook. One of our
mentors in writing Mormon essays, Mary Bradford, further capsulizes the components of the personal essay: I maintain that the Is are what
distinguish the personal essay from other forms of
literature and that all the best ones combine the
best use of three Is [I, eye, and the affirmative
aye] (I 7). Bradford describes the results: Many
aye-saying essays are written testimonies. . . . In
fact, most of the essayists I have mentioned bear
their testimonies to life itself, its variety, its humor,
its pain, and to the many lessons it teaches (910).
Last summer I met a woman who said, I hear
youre with AML. I can tell you why Mormon
writers will never produce great work. Why?
I asked. Because, she said, great literature
derives from asking important, painful questions.
And Latter-day Saints have to have too many
answers! In other words, for people like her,
Mormon writing appears insincere, shallow, and

AML Annual 2003

Her remark caused me to reflect that the Mormon writing I like best works on two levels:
Beneath the surface level of working things out, a
lava layer steams and bubbles. Latter-day Saint
essayists are often writing above a subsurface of
unexpressed questions. We may produce answering
essays but their validity comes from the subterranean questioning they imply.
So I argue that the Mormon essays we remember contain a quality of anxiety or angst in the German sense of inner tension. Perhaps this is related
to the command to work out our salvation with
fear and trembling (Philip. 2:12; Morm. 9:27), so
that making or creating anxiety in this sense
pushes us toward divinity. While Latter-day Saints
may downplay the deep-seated nature of our concerns in order to emphasize a turn-out-right-inthe-end scenario, we actually write essays because
we are wrestling with difficulties, yet hope to
resolve them as Thoreau said, in a manner simple
and sincere.
Ten years ago I read about two hundred letters
from Latter-day Saints around the world on what
it means to be a woman in the Church today.
These short accounts, like the more formal essays
published in Balm of Gilead after the Relief SocietyBYU Womens Conference of 1996, recite
story cycles of the answering sort, beginning with
anxiety, progressing through faith, and culminating in relief and belief. We project such patterns
onto life experiences, I think, to testify that there is
a reason behind our suffering and that a providential hand always guides us.
I catalog our underlying angst or uncertainties
into six categories:
Genealogy angst: Who are my people?
Epistemological angst: How do I know God and
does He know me? Is there such a thing as truth?
Does faith work?
Existential angst: Who am I in this huge universe?
Power angst: What do I control? Who listens
to me?
Cultural angst: Where do I belong in a seemingly alien culture?
Environmental angst: Are we good stewards of
the earth?

1. Starting with genealogy angst, I note several

recent prize-winning essays in BYU Studies focusing on ways to connect with grandparents. Brett
Walker, in Vernal Equinox, recovers his heritage
through a harmonica because learning to play
the mouth organ connected him to his taciturn
grandfather. Christin L. Porter re-creates his grandmothers life through her bottling of vegetables and
fruits. A more sophisticated version of the genealogy essay is Karl Sandbergs study of divisions in
his hometown of Monroe, Utah, also his poems on
Johns Valley. He searches the past in order to find
relevance for feelings in the present.
2. Epistemological angst asks, How do we know
God and build a relationship with him? What is
faith? Does prayer work?
BYU law professor Frederick Mark Gedicks
responds to the death of his college-aged son Alex
in an essay titled Irony and Grace. He says that
he wrestled with the irony, the cruelty in the sudden illness and death, the lack of answer to prayers
and blessings, the inadequacy of the ordinary
rationalizations. Tender reaching out by a near
stranger did, however, sooth him. The father of a
boy killed in a car accident six years earlier, whose
bishop Gedicks had been, and his wife had driven
down from Centerville to mourn with us for our
son, whom they had never met. When I embraced
this father, the world seemed to recede for a long
moment, leaving him and me by ourselves, holding onto each other (214). After an effort to
understand Gods presence in human affairs,
Gedicks came to see truth as seated in relationships. Truth is not just a static relationship
between an idea and a thing; it is a developing relationship between one person and another . . . [or
with God] (216).
Gedicks writing represents to me Latter-day
Saint essay writing at its most effective, because he
ponders important trials, reasons and wrestles with
the whys behind suffering, and links to scripture
and Western thoughtall in reasoned, balanced
In quite a different manner, Mary Ellen
Edmunds amuses us with another image of loss, as
she earnestly but judiciously prayed for the return

Elegant Angst: Mining the Treasures of Mormon Personal Essays

of a missing set of scriptures. Edmunds speaks to

our concerns about how to draw down the powers
of heaven. Her familiar style of language and her
simple telling of providential happenings affirms
that He always answers me, even though sometimes He says no, or later, or well see. She discovers that her difficulty led to a blessing for her friend
Yoyo from Indonesia, to whom she passed on the
scriptures she had purchased before her prayer was
answered (Love 5455).
Anxious reflections about how to cope during
the difficult transitions of life have led to significant Mormon essay writing on grace. During the
time her husband was seriously ill, Bonnie BallifSpanvill counseled hearers at the Womens Conference of 1997 on The Peace Which Passeth
Understanding. Notice her play on words:
First, manage with grace. Notice that I did not
say gracefully manage. Most of us are hanging
on by our fingernails. But you can manage
with grace. You must realize of course you cannot handle illness and divorce and difficult
children and a host of other problems by yourself, and that you are not alone. The Holy
Ghost and Gods grace will help. Get up in the
mornings, get dressed, and work on one thing.
The next day, work on something else. Keep
holding on to Gods hand. He has promised to
lead us through our trials. Hold on. Manage
with his grace. (13031)

3. Existential angst: Who am I? Humorist

Elouise Bell explains anxiety about who we are
with a suitcase metaphor. She observed that it is
harder to unpack a suitcase after a trip than packing it in the first place. Bell, who taught a course
at BYU on the quest myth in literature and the
search for the I, compares the unpacking to our
quests for self-understanding:
An important truth we women confront is
that a great many of us have rarely had opportunities to unpack from the ongoing life
journey we all take, have had little or no
chance to say where we have been and what we
have seen and felt. Instead, we have had to
keep that precious baggage within ourselves, all
our lives long.

If you wonder why we are seeing more and

more published biographies, autobiographies
and oral histories of women these daysand
not just of so-called distinguished women
the answer is that at last we are starting to
value and to search out the still-unpacked
treasures from the attics and the basements of
women from all neighborhoods of life, past
and present. (3739)

4. Power angst: Who listens to me? Is this life

logical or fair? What do I control? Neal Maxwell
wryly comments: When at times we encounter a
situation in church service in which a pigeon seems
to be supervising an eagle, we need to be accepting
even if our evaluation seems accurate (51).
Living in a family also stirs power angst. Harried
parents feel out of control. Elinor G. Hyde writes:
There are days when the two-year-old mixes
Karo syrup in the sack of oatmeal, smears
toothpaste on the bathroom mirror, dumps
perfume on his teenage sisters bed, and carefully drops plastic parts of a favorite game
down a heat vent. . . .
Do you laughor cry?
Recently I needed a large hank of rope for
my Blazer scouts. I was expecting a few quizzical glances and stares as I waited at the checkout counter, and I had a clever answer ready.
I was surprised though, when a little grandmother reached out, patted my arm and whispered, That worked for me. When you come
to the end of the rope, tie a knot and hang on.
And when youve worn the knot thin, send for
more rope. Her step was perky as she paused
at the door and turned with a smile, Good
luck, dear. (79)

Louise Plummer, in Thoughts of a Grasshopper,

found Mormons cynical about using pulpit methods to solve family problems:
Sometimes living in a family means
suffering. . . .
I believe I know why those ten women
answered, Pray, read the scriptures, and hold
family home evenings with varying degrees of
cynicism. It is because they have all had times
in their lives when that model didnt work. The

AML Annual 2003

good news is that nothing stays the same. . . .

Families change. . . . I think we should share
our stories and not hide them. . . . Sharing stories with each other gives us the strength to
move on. (46, 48)

Plummers dramatic, confiding voice illustrates

the two-level personal essay at its best, questioning the conventional with humorous directness
and then suggesting the practical solution with
ironic affirmation.
5. Cultural angst: Where do I belong in an alien
culture? This significant question underlies several
recent essays. The alien cultures may be as remote
as that experienced by an exchange student in Zanzibar or a couple teaching English classes in China.
Or the alien culture may be the youth cult in our
own town, seen from the lap-swimming lanes at
the local pool
Tessa Santiago wittily reflects on motherhood
and self-criticism in a bathing suit:
I am struck by the incongruence of what I saw
this summer. Why was it that the women who
had contributed the most felt the least confident? Why did they cover their bodies as if in
shame, plunging themselves to the neckline, . . . as they stood watching children swim?
Why did the girls, who knew nothing of what
breasts and hips and wombs are meant to do,
rule, queens of the roost? In a better world, in
a kinder, more saintly world, a mothers body
would be kindly regarded, with respect and
honor for what she has given, for what she has
done. (83)

Carol Clark Ottesen and her husband, Sterling, teaching English in China, wished to bridge
the wall between Chinese and American cultures.
So Carol listened to her students and their life stories with respect but sometimes wondered what she
had to offer them until the day she didnt want to
go to school at all:
One morning I woke up with a bad cold.
I was tired. A button flipped off my skirt, I felt
unprepared for my class, and I was sick of hand
washing clothes in the bathtub and drinking
bad-tasting water out of a thermos. Besides,
I was late. I grudgingly . . . marched off to class

on a run, dabbing at my nose, wondering why

I had ever decided to come to China and what
good on earth I was doing anyway. . . . I uttered
a quick, desperate prayer that I would be able
to give this class what was needed. The class
went all right, and I breathed a sign of relief.
Afterward, a group [of ] three or four female
students approached me. Weve been talking,
and we want to ask you a question. We dont
understand something. What it is that happens
when you walk into our room? Its kind of like
a light or like the sun shining in and it happens
every time and we want to know what it is.
I nearly choked. . . . I fought a huge lump in
my throat and managed to feebly express my
thanks and gave them a hug. I so wanted to tell
them where the light came from, that I had
received a direct gift from Him, the Father of
Lights, to overcome my puny humanness.

Ottesens voice of affirmation could not register

without first the questioningof self, culture,
even God. But true to the cycle of our story-telling
and essay writing, faith affirms ultimate values.
6. Environmental angst: In a season when we
pay tribute to the essay tradition of Gene England,
I conclude by recommending his environmental
essay Gooseberry Creek: A Narrative of Hope,
published in New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on
Land and Community (1998). Genes account of
teaching his oldest granddaughter the art of fly
fishing progresses from a geographical tribute to
Cottonwood Canyon near Fairview in the Manti
National Forest to a history lesson on overgrazing
and denuding the watershed. The hope in the
title becomes his address to his environmentally
alert granddaughter Charlotte, asking her to
simply love all people who struggle to use Gods
earth wisely within their understanding of human
Thus, the Latter-day Saint essay tradition
ranges widely and wisely. Elegance suggests polish,
flair, aesthetic pleasure. Angst defines the emotional
depths that feed the personal essay, helping it grow
from simple and sincere to complex and nourishing. Mining these depths requires us to read for
shared anxieties but also to anticipate a bolstering

Elegant Angst: Mining the Treasures of Mormon Personal Essays

of hope and faith in relationships, in divine nurture, and in self-expression.

CHERRY B. SILVER teaches American literature as an
adjunct faculty member in the BYU Department of
English. She does research for the Joseph Fielding
Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History on the
Emmeline B. Wells diaries and has a biography of Arizona pioneer John Bushman in process. She has degrees
in English literature from the University of Utah,
Boston University, and Harvard University. She delivered this lecture as president of the Association for
Mormon Letters and chaired the program for the 2003
annual meeting, Directions in Mormon Letters:
Voices and Vision for the Twenty-First Century.
Ballif-Spanvill, Bonnie. The Peace Which Passeth
Understanding. Every Good Thing: Talks from the
1997 BYU Womens Conference. Ed. Dawn Hall
Anderson, Susette Fletcher Green, and Dlora
Hall Dalton. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1998.
Balm of Gilead: Womens Stories of Finding Peace. [Ed.
Lynn Clark Callister.] Salt Lake City: Deseret
Book, 1997.
Bell, Elouise. Only When I Laugh. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990.
Bradford, Mary L. I, Eye, Aye: A Personal Essay on
Personal Essays. Personal Voices: A Celebration of
Dialogue. Ed. Mary L. Bradford. Salt Lake City:
Signature Books, 1987. Rpt. in Eugene England
and Lavina Fielding Anderson, eds. Tending the
Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature. Salt Lake
City: Signature Books, 1996. 14759.
. Mormon Women Speak. Salt Lake City: Olympus, 1982.
. On Leaving Home. Salt Lake City: Signature
Books, 1987.
, ed. Personal Voices: A Celebration of Dialogue.
Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987.
Clark, Marden J. Morgan Triumphs. Salt Lake City:
Orion Books, 1984.
Davidson, Karen Lynn. Thriving on Our Differences:
A Book for LDS Women Who Feel Like Outsiders.
Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990.
Edmunds, Mary Ellen. Happiness: Finders, Keepers. Salt
Lake City: Deseret Book, 1999.

. Love Is a Verb and Other Thoughts on the Greatest Commandment. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book:
England, Eugene. Dialogues with Myself: Personal Essays
on Mormon Experience. Salt Lake City: Orion
Books, 1984.
. Gooseberry Creek: A Narrative of Hope.
New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community. Ed. Terry Tempest Williams, William B.
Smart, and Gibbs M. Smith. Salt Lake City: Gibbs
Smith Publisher, 1998. 8289.
. Making Peace: Personal Essays. Salt Lake City:
Signature Books, 1995.
, and Lavina Fielding Anderson, eds. Tending
the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature. Salt Lake
City: Signature Books, 1996.
Geary, Edward A. Good-bye to Poplarhaven: Recollections
of a Utah Boyhood. Salt Lake City: University of
Utah Press, 1985.
. The Proper Edge of the Sky: The High Plateau
Country of Utah. Salt Lake City: University of Utah
Press, 1992.
Gedicks, Frederick Mark. Irony and Grace. BYU
Studies 40.2 (2001): 21319.
Hyde, Elinor G. Tie a Knot and Hang On. Mormon
Women Speak. Ed. Mary L. Bradford. Salt Lake
City: Olympus, 1982. 7781.
Maxwell, Neal A. The Neal A. Maxwell Quote Book.
Ed. Cory H. Maxwell. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft,
Okazaki, Chieko N. Aloha! Salt Lake City: Deseret
Book, 1995.
. Cats Cradle. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1993.
. Disciples. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1998.
. Lighten Up! Salt Lake City: Deseret Book,
. Sanctuary. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book,
Ottesen, Carol Clark. The Great Wall. BYU Studies
39.4 (2000): 8997.
Plummer, Louise. Thoughts of a Grasshopper. Salt Lake
City: Deseret Book, 1992.
Plummer, Tom. Eating Chocolates and Dancing in the
Kitchen: Sketches of Marriage and Family. Salt Lake
City: Shadow Mountain, 1998.
. Second Wind: Variations on a Theme of Growing Older. Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 2000.
Porter, Christin L. Home Production. BYU Studies
40.3 (2001): 23941.

AML Annual 2003

Sandberg, Karl C. "Getting Up a History of Monroe:

The Long Shadow of the United Order." Sunstone
19 (December 1996): 3745.
Santiago, Tessa. Take, Eat. BYU Studies 37.3 (1997
98): 8189.
Thoreau, Henry David. Economy. Walden. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina
Baym, et al. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher, and Emma Lou Thayne. All

Gods Critters Got a Place in the Choir. Salt Lake
City: Aspen Books, 1995.
Walker, Brett. Vernal Equinox. BYU Studies 40.2
(2001): 18186.
Williams, Terry Tempest, William B. Smart, and Gibbs
M. Smith, eds. New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on
Land and Community. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith
Publisher, 1998.

The Quest of Essences as an Archaic Religious Quest:

Terry Tempest Williamss Interrogation of
Faith, Art, and Earthly Life in Leap
Neila C. Seshachari

n an e-mail sent to me on 13 May 2001, Terry

Tempest Williams says, I love knowing that you
will be introducing Leap to a Mormon audience.
Perfect. Its a tough book for manyothers seem
to feel and see the words and intention exactly.
I wanted to see what it would be like to write the
body. To create an organic text that the reader feels
first and helps understand later, I wanted to break
formplay with form. If we are going to question
orthodoxy or any dominant culture or institution,
then I believe we must also break form on the page
as well. And she ends, I love our community;
dont you?
This brief message includes a world of ideas
that undergird the writing of her book: (1) the
books genesishow she came to writing the book;
(2) what her intention was in undertaking the project; (3) how her enormous and unusual venture
needed her to break form to seek new ways of expressing her ideas; (4) how her intent was to question
orthodoxy in religion; (5) her desire to question dominant culturenot only her own but any culture
that stifles creativity by imposing too many restrictive codes; (6) and her intent to question institutionsa term that, after reading the book, has to
be interpreted variously as in institutionally received
ideas on art, wilderness, social practices, and religious ones; (7) and her sense of appreciation, contentment, and refuge in her own community and
culture expressed so sincerely in her rhetorical ending: I love our community; dont you?
Leap is Williamss response to seeing Hieronymus Boschs painting, a triptych, El jardine de las

delicias (The Garden of Delights), which she and

her husband, Brooke, saw in Madrid at the Prado
Museum in the winter of 199293 when they were
visiting Spain. She was completely stunned as she
recognized the left and right panels, Paradise and
Hell. They were the originals of the prints that
hung on the bulletin board above the beds that she
and her cousins as children occupied when they
stayed in their grandmothers home. (They were
part of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts home
education program under the direction of John
Canaday in 1957, she tells us.) Standing in front of
the painting, she thinks:
Why was this middle panel hidden from
me, the body, the body of the triptych, my body?
Something very profound was unleashed and
set into motion. . . . Little did I know that this
would send me on a seven year journey synthesizing art history, Spanish history, natural history
and Mormon theology through the landscape
of El Bosco, as the Spanish call this visionary
painter. (Random House Interview)

This painting simultaneously provides the

impetus for Williamss inspiration to embark on a
psychic journey into the mysteries of life and death
and spiritual rejuvenation as well as her interrogation of her faith in Mormonism.
Boschs The Garden of Delights is the springboard from which Williams takes her big and freefalling leap into unknown terrain. Inspired by the
implications of total risk in W. H. Audens poem,
Leap before You Look, she says in an interview,
Throughout the writing of this book, I thought

AML Annual 2003

about what it means to take risks, to dare to move

into unknown terrain physically, psychologically,
and spiritually. She recognizes that it was a huge
leap, a leap of faith, a leap of joy, a leap of the imagination from a known landscape into new territory (Random House Interview).
Williamss intrepid journey ends as a leap of
faith, not in the traditional sense of obeying implicitly without questioning the tenets of her Mormon
faith, but of delving into the essence of what it
means to be a Mormon, to share the intuition, mystery, and inspiration of Joseph Smith, its prophet
par excellence. The trajectory of this leap is not an
easy one. It is fraught with doubts and agonies, as
well as visions of hope and clarifications. Mario S.
De Pillis, professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in his Eccles
Lecture titled Mormon Dreams, Mormon Visions,
points out how spiritual manifestations, sought as
a confirmation of faith, are a normal occurrence
among the Mormons. He explains the three categories of Mormon manifestations or visions: foundational, premonitional, and confirmational. De Pillis
refers to Joseph Smiths first vision in the spring
of 1820 at the age of fourteen, as well as those of
1823, 1824, 1825, 1826, and 1827, as a foundational manifestation. Smith is propelled to seeking
guidance from God in the Sacred Grove when he
reads a scripture: Ask God and He will give it to
you (see James 1:5). Joseph Smiths premonitional
dreams during the 1820s contain an element of
expectancy, presentiments of impending upheaval,
and hints of salvation. De Pillis notes that the third
kind of spiritual manifestationconfirmational
onesdispel all doubts.
Viewed in light of these categories, Terry Tempest Williamss first vision at age seventeen seems
foundational, while her vision at the Prado Museum
in Madrid, as she sees The Garden of Delights for
the first time, may be termed premonitional, inasmuch as it contains an element of De Pilliss expectancy, impending upheaval, and presentiments of
salvation. This is not to say that Terry Tempest
Williams is a spiritual leader of Joseph Smiths proportions. Far from it. However, it indicates that
Williamss quest, too, is sincere and spiritual, and it

proves to be not only an honest inquiry, but one

which leads her to spiritual resolutions.
Williamss own quest for the essence of her
Mormon faith begins very early in her life. She is
inspired by the promise in the Book of Mormon,
enunciated by Moroni:
When ye shall receive these things, I would
exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal
Father, in the name of Christ, if these things
are true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart,
with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will
manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power
of the Holy Ghost. (Moro. 10:4 qtd. in Leap 23)

When Williams was seventeen and working as

a cabin maid in Elk Creek Ranch, Island Park, on
the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park in Idaho,
she decides to find out what she truly believes. She
fasts from food for two days, drinking only water,
studies the Book of Mormon, and when she feels a
humility rise out of [her] own hunger (25), prays
fervently that she might know the truthfulness of
the gospel in her heart. That night, she sees a vision
which leaves her trembling and expectant, but it
gives her no answers. Her mother, who rushes from
Salt Lake City to visit her during her hour of agitation and confusion, brings Terry a copy of her
patriarchal blessing from which she reads her: Live
in tune with the Holy Spirit. Seek the truth always.
Be not afraid to learn the truth of anything, for no
truth will be revealed to you as such that will be in
conflict with Gods kingdom.
Now, standing transfixed in front of The Garden of Delights, she feels faint and sits down on
a crescent-shaped wooden chair leaning against a
wall. This chance journey that brought her as an
ordinary, curious tourist to the Prado Museum transforms her into a spiritual traveler, a mythic hero
who sets out on her long journey, frequently visiting The Garden of Delights in search of the essence
of life on earth. But her outward journeys to the
triptych, time and time again for seven years,1 are
truly a journey into her own self as well, a journey
deep into her psyche, leading to interrogation of
her faith in Mormonism and searching questions
about what constitutes her values regarding art,
wilderness, and wildlife.

The Quest of Essences as an Archaic Religious Quest

She is possessed by the concept of the archaic

quest for essences as a means through which she
might find answers to these questions. For instance,
standing in the Brooklyn Museum of Art in front of
Damien Hirsts unique sculpture of a real shark
pickled in formaldehyde floating in a box, she says:
As a naturalist who has worked in a museum
of natural history for over fifteen years, how
am I to think about a shark in the context of
art, not science? . . . My mind becomes wild in
the presence of creation, the artists creation. . . .
Call it art or call it biology, what is the true
essence of shark? . . . How is the focus of our
perceptions decided? . . . Once we realize that
the quest of essences is an archaic religious quest,
there is no reason why something should not be
art for one person or culture and nonart for
another. (6364; emphasis hers)
. . . Damien Hirsts conceptual art, be it his
shark in a box or his installation called A Thousand Years, 1990 (where the eye of a severed
cows head looks upward as black flies crawl
over it and lay eggs in the flesh that metamorphose into maggots that mature into flies that
gather in the pool of blood to drink, leaving
tiny red footprints on the glass installation,
while some flies are destined to die as a lifestopping buzz in the electric fly-killing machine)
all his conceptual pieces of art, his installations,
make me think about the concept and designation of wilderness. (65; emphasis mine)

Similarly, she sees the choreographed movements

of a grizzly walking through the gold meadows of
the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone, as well as the
adaptations of plants, as performance art (65
67). She says: We designate wilderness as an
installation of essences, open for individual interpretation, full of controversy and conversation
(66). And she asks:
Do I think anyone will buy the concept of
wilderness as conceptual art? It is easier to create a sensation over art than a sensation over
the bald, greed-faced sale and development of
open lands, wildlands, in the United States
of America. (68)

Williams laments too that traditionally Christianity has made a distinction, a spiritual separa-

tion between human beings and other creatures, be

they plants or animals, giving the dominion of
the earth to humans. This philosophy within the
Judeo-Christian mind has led to the abuse of natural resources and wreaked havoc on earth. These
ideas are not new, inasmuch as many wilderness
philosophers have voiced them (Devall and Sessions; Nash; Oelschlaeger). However, Williams
now points out how Boschs sense of scale places
human beings alongside animals as equal partners.
They are the same size. Human beings are engaged
in conversation with birds, ride on the backs of
mallards, and gather around blackberries floating
in a lake. The middle panel of Earthly Delights
draws us into a sensuous celebration of our relationship with other creatures of the animal and
plant worldto be in correspondence with Gods
creation (Random House Interview).
The quest for essences often focuses on the
noumenal world, a world seen only through intuition, the unseen realm of essences beyond the visible reality of the phenomenal world. Williamss
quest in art, wilderness, religion, and her own faith
in Mormonism leads her to make connections
between all of these elements and the essential holiness of life on earth. It is as if she is on the brink of
a premonitional vision brimming with the hope
of answers. The Garden of Delights was painted
in 1500, when the Western world was engaged in
the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation that
moved us into a new way of seeing. And now, five
hundred years later, Williams is convinced that we
are on the cusp of another reformation. She sees its
work as putting exterior and interior landscapes back
together, trying to repair and halt the fragmentation.
Repairing such fragmentation of the interior
and exterior landscape has to be a willed psychic
act. Our interior landscape, in good measure, is
composed of the unconsciousnot just the
Freudian unconscious, which is a repository of
repressed desires, but the Jungian unconscious,
which is an entire world that is very much a real
part of the life of an individual, the cogitating
world of the ego (Jung 12). Carl Jung uses the term
shadow for the unconscious part of the personality
because it often appears in dreams in a personified

AML Annual 2003

form. M.-L. von Franz says the shadow becomes

our friend or enemy depending largely on ourselves. The shadow is not necessarily always an
opponent. In fact, it is exactly like any human
being with whom one has to get along, sometimes
by giving in, sometimes by resisting, sometimes by
giving lovewhatever the situation requires
(173). Williams seems to be not only cognizant of
but also obliquely referring to the shadow aspects
of her personality. In Part IV, Restoration, she
actually refers explicitly to her shadow.
Through conscious efforts to understand and
repair her fragmented psyche, Williams is now able
to see connection between her religious beliefs and
evolution. Based on her own Mormon faith that
promises eternal progression, she describes how the
study of evolution became her staple. To evolve,
to evolve from other forms of lifeI saw the process
of natural selection as an act of biotic faith, an
organic definition, an extension, of what I understood the concept of eternal progression to be in
Mormon theology, that of advanced perfectionism.2
Standing in front of the triptych, she recognizes that Christianity pressures its followers into
believing that this earth is but a transition from our
pristine past in paradise to our eternal salvation in
heaven. It prevents us from seeing the painting
in the right spirit. Read from left to right, the
painting warns us that the wages of sin are the eternal fires of hell. She chooses to read the triptych
differently: left, right, and center; Heaven (which
is her name for The Creation of Eve), Hell,
and then The Garden of Delights. She begins to
think of Heaven and Hell as speculations,
while The Garden of Delights becomes the only
verity we have in this life. Earth has never been
the Christians soulful inhabitation, she concludes. Hell is to be avoided. Heaven is what we
seek (32). And the world then becomes black and
white, a dance between good and evil; we are
caught inside a paradigm of dualities (Random
House Interview). By choosing to read the triptych
left, right, and center, the center panel becomes a
landscape of exploration, a place where the reconciliation of opposites is possible. It is not a situation of
either/or but of and. Call it the Creative Third,
she says, 1+1=3, the alchemical landscape where

experience is transformed into its own organic truth

(Random House Interview).
But Williams realizes that seeing the world
through a bipolar lens comes naturally to the Western world. One mode fixes truth as never changing,
while the other way sees truth as organic, growing,
shifting, and changing. How to inhabit this dualistic world that we have inherited without falling
prey to either side is a question that engages Williamss attention.
Thus she ventures on an enormous quest that
encompasses all the things that are dear and near to
her. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell
describes the mythic heros journey not as a courageous act, but as a life lived in self-discovery (xiv).
Seen in this light, the entire book Leap becomes a
testament to Williamss fearless self-discovery. She
is indeed the mythic hero in the truest sense of the
term. Her fervent search and her own faith lead her
to conclude that the essence or core of a religious
faith is different from its practices and rites. As Jung
points out, these rites and practices are cultural
symbols consciously developed to express eternal
truths of religion3 (93). These symbols of eternal truth are the symbols that trouble her the most.
In the act of choosing to read Boschs triptych
left, right, center, Williams appropriates to herself the free agency guaranteed by her own faith.
That her keen mind searches for answers in symbolic,
intrepid ways is seen in an early childhood episode
in the book. She, her uncle, and her cousin are picking cherries. What principle of the Gospel of Jesus
Christ means the most to you? asks her uncle, filling
his bucket. Obedience, her cousin replies, plucking a cherry off its stem. Free agency, Terry answers,
eating one (8). This free agency or choice is a privilege which Mormonism has bestowed on her.
Engaged in her intense psychic quest as an adult,
Williams, like Joseph Campbell, comes to intuit
that every religion is true (Campbell 56). In Madrid,
she tells us, I . . . make prayers to my gods, male
and female, human and animal, recalling privately
the vows I once made and burned (124). Perhaps
her earliest insight into this profound understanding came because of a yellowed quotation that her
grandfather kept where he would see it daily: There

The Quest of Essences as an Archaic Religious Quest

is no one true church, no one chosen people (100).

Recognizing that both she and her grandfather
could be thought of as heretics, Williams recollects
that the root word for heresy (hairesis) is the Greek
word for choice, adding:
Jesus wanted to ensure choice. I was taught
that during the Great War in Heaven, two plans
were offered to God from his sons Lucifer and
Jesus as to how human beings were to conduct
themselves on Earth. Lucifer wanted to ensure
obedience; they would be told how to act and
what to do. Jesus wanted to ensure choice; let
men and women decide for themselves what is
right and what is wrong. (Leap 102)

Looking for essencesfor quintessence if you

willshe recognizes that the core of any religion is
separate from the practices that accrue to it. It gives
her and Brooke choice regarding what practices to
follow. And so Terry and Brooke go to the shores
of Great Salt Lake. Sitting on the shore, they lay
their marriage certificate on the salt flats of the
receding lake:
He strikes a wooden match on stone and ignites
one corner. I light the other. . . . We have no
witnesses before God. . . . Emotion swells
inside me. This piece of paper mattered. I look
to Brooke for a similar response. He is elated. It
frightens me. (117)

On the lake, they see a reassuring omena

Phoenicopterus ruberthe phoenix, the firebird rising from the ashes. Walking to the edge of the lake,
Terry takes off her platinum wedding bands and
hurls them out as far as she can. Brooke has
brought an antique dinner plate, a souvenir from
their wedding breakfast, and skims it across the
water like a flat stone. It shatters on the third arc.
Through this difficult and heroic ritual, she
jettisons what she thinks of as unnecessary cultural
rituals (Jungs cultural symbols)the marriage certificate, the wedding bandsand later reaffirms
her bonds with Brooke in a private pact in the presence of awe-inspiring nature. Standing in a sandstone canyon in the redrock desert of Utah before a
panel of awesome winged and ancient pictographs,
Terry and Brooke deliver their

new vows in whispers by the authority of our

own remembered hearts. Standing before these
Elders of Time, we entrust ourselves to each
other. Our vows are simple, spontaneous: Yes
we are here to love. Yes, we are here to experience the body, in both shadow and light, in
forgiveness and joy, we return to each other,
rejoined. Together we will love this beautiful,
broken world of which we are a part. (261)

Then they rejoice and wonder over how they

found their way to each other decades ago, two
refugees wandering in the wilderness. And, holding each other, they perform a slow, celebratory
dance in this holy place of the ancient ones.
This kind of mature understanding rarely
comes without its attendant agonies and soulsearching. When Williams hears about the excommunication of six Utah men and women scholars
and intellectuals for exercising beliefs contrary to
the doctrine, she muses, An institution can never
excommunicate a spirit from its body (88). Shaken
by doubts, as she looks at Hell, she asks:
What is the key? . . . Excuse me, I forgot my
keys, have you seen my keys? Keys to the
Gospel. . . . The Temple is closed. . . . Where is
the key, the skeleton key made to fit many
locks? Here is the key. I am caught in the doorway of my religious past. . . . And again, What
am I afraid of! . . . A shattered glass broken in
rage. / The dismantling of family. / . . . The dismantling of the self. (91, 92)

Out of such inward quest come her insights.

While watching the sesquicentennial celebration
of the Mormon pioneer trek in 1997 at Brigham
Young University, when everyone is singing the
finale, Baptize, baptize, baptize, she says, I weep
because I do not believe there is only one true
church. I weep because within my own homeland
I suddenly feel foreign, so very very foreign. I weep.
My family cries too, but for different reasons.
Brooke, a descendant of Brigham Young and the
only son in his family who has chosen not to serve
a mission, is frozen (181). The closing words of
the Prophet: We have a divine mandate to carry
the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and
people. . . . We must grasp the torch and run the
race (181) leave her cold, distant, and unmoved.

AML Annual 2003

The next day she reads from one of her grandmothers journals:
There is more faith in honest doubt than
in all the unexamined creeds of past and present.
In this sense, each of us must articulate their
own religionthat is, their own concept of
what is of supreme worth in living, their own
mode of expressing that concept in their
own commitment in daily life to the values he
or she believes to be basic. (18182)

The last section of Leap, Restoration, marks

Williamss repairing of her own fragmented exterior and psychic landscapes. After her major spiritual crisis, she expects Restoration. Standing in
front of the empty wall from which The Garden of
Delights has been removed for restoration, she tells
Look at the shadow.
Face the shadow.
My shadow, my inseparable attendant, is
the dark shape of my body, behind my body,
beside my body, everywhere I go, my shadow
follows me. Blocking light, it is largely hidden,
out of view, yet troublesome because it dwells
in the basement of my unconscious mind. I dont
want it to come up the stairs. I lock the door.
Of course Hieronymus Bosch lets it out, my
shadow here, now, just as I am getting comfortable, projecting my own thoughts on El
Bosco. My shadow will stand behind me or in
front of me, there you are, here I am inside the
Prado, my shadow, my shadow as my friend,
my shadow as my father, my shadow as my
Church. I will hurl my darkest self on to someone else and compensate for what I choose not
to see inside my own heart. We live in the company of projected shadows. We are free to blame,
to take no action, to create nothing from our
own highest selves. (242)

In this dualistic world, I have seen obedience on one hand, free agency on the other.
How do I bring these two hands opposed
together in a gesture of prayer?
. . . The heart of the religious experience
is to bond, repair, draw together, to make
whole, to find that which is anterior to the split
condition. (243)

These insights constitute Williamss final and

confirmational vision.
Terry Tempest Williams has truly achieved
what Jung calls the realization of the shadow
(Jung 163)the shadow which represents the hidden and repressed aspects of the personality, certainly, but also the one which simultaneously
nurtures the good and creative impulses. She has
reconciled and repaired her psychic fragmentation.
Her ego and shadow, predictably in a battle for
deliverance (von Franz 118), have emerged reconciled, fulfilled, and whole.
The quintessential stages of Williamss long
journey into herself are best illustrated in the following few key passages:
What happens when our institutions no
longer serve us, no longer reflect the truth of
our own experience? We sit on pews and feel a
soul-stirring disconnect as we are preached sermons spoken from the dead. What we know is
not what we hear. We mistake our confusion
for guilt. (118)

Standing alone in the place her consciousness

has made holy, she consciously confronts her
shadow and negotiates with it:

Never trust the artist, the writer, the philosopher. They will betray the truth that raised them.
Through their curiosity and the Fire of their
imagination, they will evoke change. They are
religion-breakers, myth-makers, and alchemists.
Their loyalties are to the lapis stones they carry
in their hands at birth. . . . Josepha mystic/
Josepha diviner. Josepha restorer, a Man
of the Signs, a student of the occult, a practitioner of magic. Mormonism is magic. He
opens his hand. A stone of lapis rests in his
hand. (144)

My shadow is authority, obedience to authority. General authority. I am wary of authority.

In ignoring my shadow has my own authority been silenced?

As Latter-day Saints, we have closed his hand

and let it fall in the name of respectability. We
are honest, earnest, hardworking people. Work.
Dont dream. Take the beehive to heart and


The Quest of Essences as an Archaic Religious Quest

adopt it as a symbol of industry. As a people,

my people, we have dropped the hand of Joseph
and grasped the hand of Brigham who led us to
the Promised Land, this land of little water,
to organize, colonize, proselytize, and grow.
The pragmatism of Brigham Young is our
religion now. Communal. Corporate. Mormon,
Inc. (145)

Yet, for all this, Terry Tempest Williams is a

firm believer, rooted in Mormonism. When she
sees El Boscos first part of the triptych, Heaven,
for instance, her eyes settle on the grove of trees
that separate Adam, Christ, and Eve from the pool
with the mound of gems and pink fountain. Through
the trees, she sees the young Joseph Smith, kneeling in the darkness of the woods in Palmyra, New
York. He is beseeching God to deliver him from his
doubts, to tell him which of the churches is true.
What the young man hears is that none of the
churches is true, that he must reclaim the true and
living faith. In the sanctity of this sacred grove, he
is given a vision of restoration (21).
Williamss lyrical language, experimental narrative, treatment of art and religion, and autobiographical element often deflect our attention from
the spiritually self-empowering thrust of her ideas.
Without losing faith or stepping out of the bounds
of her religion, she quietly appropriates to herself
the freedom of revelation promised her by her
faitha freedom that has been held in check
through the dictum: Through free agency, choose
to obey.
In what may amount to a confirmational
vision, Williams embraces the center panel of El
Boscos painting, Earthly Delights, as a perfect
world in harmony with discovery, not vulgar, not
profane, but a respectable inquiry into the fruits of
our own experience (146). Hieronymus Bosch has
put his finger on her wound. What is the wound?
Our wound, separation from the Sacred, . . . our
own restored spirits once lost, now found, Paradise
found, right here on this beautiful blue planet
called Earth (265).
Terry Tempest Williams is thus drawn by the
revelatory quality of the Garden: its disclosure of a
rich and spiritual inner life. When she sees humans

in perfect communion with nature and its creatures, she recognizes that personal engagement in
life is its own form of prayer.
Through her harrowing tests that lead her
simultaneously to inward journeys into her psyche
and outward journeys to Madrid, Williams emerges
a mythic hero. Time on Earth wandering, wondering, contemplating. Time to live. Time to reflect
on the living. This is the nature of experience. This
is the nature of El Boscos middle way (188). She
has found answers for herself, but she has no ultimate answers for others.
What is the difference between a religious life
and a spiritual one? Williams asks (211). Spirituality is solitary. There are no rules. There are no
maps. We live with the discomfort and ambiguity
of our own authority (212). She knows too that the
human spirit cannot be tamed into accepting only
one set of ideasspecifically her ideas of the holy.
Through sharing my own spiritual search through
the pictorial landscape of Bosch, I hope the reader
will be inspired to ponder his or her own sense of
the sacred and be inspired to take greater risks with
their heart, opening to their own sense of place and
spirit, she says. We are hungry for truth, for a life
of greater intention. Perhaps thats why we travel to
find that lost piece of ourselves that we believe will
make us whole. And she cautions, It is easy to
romanticize other cultures as having the answers,
a way of distancing ourselves from our own
accountability. But sooner or later, we must return
home and find our own integrity within the landscape of our own traditions (Random House
In her long free-falling leap, Williams grasps
the essence of what it means to be a Mormon. She
has fulfilled her patriarchal blessing: She has lived
in tune with the Holy Spirit. She has unflinchingly
sought truth. And no truth has been revealed to
her that is truly in conflict with Gods kingdom.
In her final confirmational vision, Terry Tempest
Williams sees Joseph Smiths life and teachings as
the essence of the Mormonism she embraces.
NEILA C. SESHACHARI presented this paper at the conjoint session of the Association for Mormon Letters at

AML Annual 2003

the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association,

Vancouver, 13 October 2001, and again at the Association for Mormon Letters Annual Meeting, 2 March
2002, at Westminster College, Salt Lake City. Eight days
later, she collapsed at her home in Ogden and died of a
ruptured aorta. Neila was serving on the AML board at
the time of her death and was president-elect of the
association; but this was only one of many acts of service and involvement that she and her husband, Candidai, and their children, had engaged in since they
moved to Utah in 1969. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Utah and began teaching at
Weber State University in 1974. Here she mentored
many students, was an expert on F. Scott Fitzgerald,
edited Conversations with William Kennedy (author of
Ironweed), edited Weber Studies, and served on the Utah
Arts Council and Utah Humanities Council. She was
the first woman president of the Utah Academy of the
Arts in its history and was planning to write a book on
Utahs immigrants from eastern India. She and Sesh participated regularly in Sunstone Symposia and other Mormon events. Neila, a licensed Hindu priest, also performed
Hindu weddings and officiated at other services.
1. Most mythologies invest certain numerals
often 3, 7, 12, and 40, for example, with special significance. They appear in the Christian trinity of the
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; the Hindu trinity of
Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva
the Destroyer; the Three Graces, or the Three Fates in
Greek mythology; seven-league boots in fairy tales; the
seven deadly sins and seven cardinal virtues of Catholicism; the seven rishis in Hindu Puranas; Jesus 40 days
in the wilderness; the Buddhas 40 days under the bodhi
tree after which he received enlightenment, etc.
2. Orthodox Christians regard the Mormon doctrine of a God who can progress and of the eternal progression of humankind as heretical (Christianity).
3. Jung differentiates natural from cultural
symbols: The former are derived from the unconscious
contents of the psyche, and they therefore represent an
enormous number of variations of the essential archetypal images. They can be traced back to their archaic
roots. Cultural symbols, on the other hand, are those
that have been used to express eternal truths and that
are still used in many religions. They have gone through
many transformations and even a long process of more
or less conscious development, and have thus become

collective images accepted by civilized societies. These

cultural symbols nevertheless retain much of their original numinosity or spell. They work in much the
same way as prejudices. Such repressed tendencies form
an ever-present and potentially destructive shadow to
our conscious mind. Even tendencies that might in some
circumstances exert a beneficial influence are transformed into demons when they are repressed (93).
Campbell, Joseph, Bill Moyers, and Betty Sue Flowers.
The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
Campbell, Karen. Paradise Lost and Found in Three
Old Panels. Rev. of Leap by Terry Tempest
Williams. Christian Science Monitor, 22 June 2000,
Sec. Op-lc, p. 18.
Christianity-2. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Downloaded
18 Aug. 2001 from
Collins, Sandra. Rev. of Leap by Terry Tempest Williams.
Library Journal 125.9 (15 May 2000): 100.
De Pillis, Mario S. Mormon Dreams, Mormon
Visions. Eccles Lecture, delivered 10 April 2001,
Weber State University, Ogden, UT.
Devall, B., and Gene Sessions. Deep Ecology: Living As
If Nature Mattered. Layton, UT: Peregrine Smith
Books, 1985.
Jung, Carl G. Approaching the Unconscious. Man
and His Symbols. Ed. Carl G. Jung and M.-L. von
Franz. New York: Doubleday, 1964.
Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind.
New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1982.
Oelschlaeger, M. The Idea of Wilderness: Prehistory to
the Age of Ecology. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1991.
Random House. A Conversation with Terry Tempest
Williams, author of Leap. Downloaded 18 Aug.
2001 from
Simms, Laura. When Wings Open. Parabola 26.1
(Spring 2001): 8490.
von Franz, M.-L. The Process of Individuation. Man
and His Symbols. Ed. Carl G. Jung and M.-L. von
Franz. New York: Doubleday, 1964.
Williams, Terry Tempest. E-mail to Neila C. Seshachari,
13 May 2001.
. Leap. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.

Tension of the Opposites:

John Bennions Falling toward Heaven
Gae Lyn Henderson

he fourth of my six sons came home from his

mission on 13 March 2002. The Henderson
family gathered at the airport to greet a young man
who spent two years in the Ukraine spreading the
gospel message in Russian. A devoted young
woman had waited for him during his mission,
and they recently became engaged. But before my
son arrived home, while writing this paper, I realized that not every anticipated mission homecoming goes as planned.
In John Bennions novel Falling toward Heaven,
a missionary also comes home. But an airport family reunion never takes place. Belindas missionary
takes an alternate route. Elder Howard Rockwood,
safely boarded on a plane at the Texas airport, impulsively gets off. He finds the woman, Allison Warren, who has haunted his thoughts during the last
two months of his mission, and proposes marriage.
When she refuses, he lays claim to her in the only
way he canwith a resultant fall into sin.
At the 2001 AML meeting, Richard Cracroft
praised Bennions novel as a resounding affirmation of Mormon values: Howard Rockwoods salvation journey . . . brings himand his beloved
Allisonto a profound spiritual maturity, wholeness and reconciliation with the Father God that
would otherwise have been doubtful (1). I agree
with Cracrofts readingthat Howards fall, as the
title suggests, finally propels him (and Allison) toward
a greater light. However, Bennions novel does
more than tell a straightforward repentance story.
The novel deconstructs its apparent resolution
with an underlying (and painfully honest) subtext.

I want to argue here that Howard and Allisons

love story, a coming together of opposites, and
their resultant dialectical examination of reality,
represents symbolically the struggle that any
current-day member/Saint may have to enact
between the rationalistic, twenty-first century culture we inhabit and the powerful mystical-spiritual
tradition of Mormonism. As I reread Bennions novel
during the weeks of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic
Winter Games, I couldnt help wishing that all of
the journalists searching to gain some insight into
Mormonism could have a copy of this novel. They
might discover that Mormons are human beings
who struggle to make sense of their world, just like
anyone else, but with the addition of a powerful
pioneer tradition that may indeed offer comfort,
but also presents a considerable challenge.
A few days after his impulsive action, Howard
comes home to Rockwood, Utah, the town named
for his ancestor-founder, and presents Allison, the
living, breathing fruit of his mission, to his parents.
Bennion gives us this scene from Allisons point of
view, offering the reader a glimpse of dual realities.
As Mormon readers, we understand only too well
the unmediated shock her presence creates for Walter and Emily Rockwood, but nonmember Allison
can only wryly observe the dramatic angst:
Howards father came slowly through a
swinging door which led toward the back of
the house. He was white-haired, too old to be
Howards father. He looked like Henry Fonda
in one of his last movies. I heard him when he
came in. He threw his arms around Howard.

AML Annual 2003

How in hell did you miss your plane? I was

scared to death youd have an accident driving
up He saw Allison and raised his hand slightly
in an ambiguous motion, because God wasnt
protecting you as a missionary anymore.
Protecting him from what? Allison wanted
to ask. (8283)

Howard introduces Allison to his parents, but

there is complete silence: No one else spoke, no
one smiled (83).
Finally everyone attempts to recover from their
embarrassment and emotion, but tears beaded at
the corners of his mothers eyes, ran down her cheeks.
I dont know why Im crying now, she says. Nor
do I, thought Allison, Ive not harmed him (83).
When Howard explains that he and Allison
drove from Texas together and even stopped in a
motel on the way, his father protests: I know Im
just an old Jack Mormon . . . but isnt this damn
irregular? (83).
Then when Howard cant even reassure his parents that he and Allison will marry, his mother
wails, Oh, Howard, youve put your foot in it this
time (84).
Howards face turned an even deeper scarlet.
Certainly not his foot. Allison moved closer to him
on the couch, reached for his hand. No one is dead,
she thought (84).
Then Walter suddenly walks out and Howard
rushes after him. Allison felt as if shed walked
onto a set of a Western melodrama. Next, she figured, the slighted woman would show up (85).
And of course, Belinda does show up soon
enough for her share of this tragic-comic homecoming. Interestingly, as Allison observes Belindas
devastation, she starts to feel the emotional upheaval
these Mormon characters are enacting. You just
flushed a big chunk of her life down the toilet,
she tells Howard (88).
This novel presents, then, a dual perspective,
from both homegrown Rockwood pioneer stock
and the outsider. Allison is continuing foil to the
communitys structured vision of reality. Often she
finds Howards enactment of that religious vision
to be absurd. He was so oddsometimes talking

sense, sometimes babbling out of mystic insanity

(96). Her voice, punctuated with the forbidden
text of profanity, constantly tests the dominant
themes, the Mormon way of knowing.
Certainly the Mormon way of knowing may
seem imprecise to some. Brent Henderson, clinical
psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, puts it
this way:
The Mormon way of knowing is based on
ascribing meaning to ambiguous emotional
experiences. . . . These meanings include attributions about the source, purpose and significance of the emotion that are not part of the
original emotion, but are learned. For example,
a warm and comforting feeling is hardly the
equivalent of a message from heaven giving an
affirmative answer to a specific recently pondered question. Yet in the Mormon way of
knowing, nebulous emotional experiences are
reliably recognized as having such concrete
meanings. (1)

Of course, Bennions novel does not contradict

this Mormon way of knowing; rather Bennion
offers it due allegiance, grants its emotional power.
However, the novel does lay bare the difficulty of
interpreting spiritual feelings and how rationality
constantly undercuts faith.
For example, as the novel opens, Howard is
deeply conflicted about his religious belief (or lack
of it): His soul was in a waning phase, narrowing
to a sliver (3). He labels himself a doubter,
acknowledging that his prayers have become superficial, partly because of the irony of asking God if
he existed, and partly because of Howards longstanding fear of the Father of the Universe (4).
In the midst of this confusion, Howard sees a
light, but it comes from a very human source. His
first glimpse of Allison comes when he and his
companion attend an outdoor concert, continuing
their proselyting among the crowd assembled on
the hillside. Allison seemed endowed with light,
an illusion certainly caused by the sun reflecting off
her sleeveless, white blouse (6). Allisons endowment of light connotes the irony that Howard
finds his symbolic escape from doubt not in his
devotion to missionary duty, but in the vision of

Tension of the Opposites

this sinnera young woman living without the

benefit of marriage with Elliot, her older psychologist boyfriend. Allisons out-of-the-covenant status,
emphasized by her sleeveless blouse, marks her as a
rather worldly source for revelation, perhaps the
point being that she sets up a necessary conflict
between faith and doubt that can engender choice.
Therefore, as a symbol for the intellectual and
sensual challenge posed to the simplicity of childlike faith, Allison is free in some ways, but her freedom is also limited. She is loose and confident,
but her eye was wild, as if she were a mare circling
a corral (6). Allison lives in the world of physical
reality, but she is also trapped in a rationality that
will not admit a spiritual dimension. So, interestingly,
Howard and Allison have something to offer the other.
Even as Allison is curiously compelled by the prescriptions of Howards lifestyle, Howard, equally
felt he couldnt resist a trapped woman (67).
Bennion foreshadows Allisons later spiritual
rescue here in the opening chapter. As the concert
evening progresses on the hillside, Allison gets
drunk and stumbles down the hill toward a line of
traffic. Without hesitating, Howard jumped to his
feet and sprinted down the hill, leaping over the
heads of people as they craned their necks to see
the fireworks (16). Just as she is about to step in
front of a vehicle, his arms were around her, and
he had pulled her back, hearing the whine and fade
of the passing car (16). But the knight-errant cannot escape her sensual presence: He lowered her
to the grass, breathing an odd mix of smoke, alcohol, and musky perfume (16).
The worldly wise Allison, through her relationship with Howard over the course of the novel, is
rescued from the sterility of rationality. She comes
to value the family to which Howard brings her;
she learns to depend on his mother Emily. We see
the beginnings of this relationship emerge as
Allison gets acquainted with these odd folk and
their rural landscape. While traversing the environs of Rockwood, Allison steps on a skunk and
is sprayed. She is agonized, unable to breathe or
see: I thought I was dying (121). Her misery is
alleviated through an evocative home remedy, when
Emily places Allison in the bathtub and pours quarts

of blood-red home-canned tomato juice over her

to efface the smell.
Emily rubbed her back with a cloth, dipping it in the puddles of red juice at the bottom of the white tub. Allison sat in the tomato
juice, swabbing the heavy cloth across her legs.
I stepped right on it. I hope I broke the little
bastards back.
She felt Emilys fingers in her hair, massaging
her scalp, rubbing her back with the rag. Allison
shivered from the cold juice, but Emilys hands
soothed her, moving in a pleasant motion. . . .
Then Allison showered and sat again while
Emily poured three more bottles of juice across
her. (120)

This poignant baptismal moment, in which the

scarlet woman is bathed clean by the red fruits of
Emilys labor, softens and soothes the hardened
Allison. Emilys hands and voice had come to her
out of pain and darkness (121).
One affirmative theme, then, of the novel is
Allisons human growth as she comes to trust
Howard. For example, later in the novel when she
is tempted, after their marriage, to sleep with a coworker, she cant act as though her vows mean
nothing. She remembers her parents ambivalent
commitment and how when they were angry, one
or the other would merely take a lover. She comes
to reject her parents solutions as emotionally barren. She knows her connection to Howard is real
and must be honored.
However, Allisons sensuality, and more importantly, her rationality, caustic wit, and pragmatism
present Howard with a comparable challenge. All
too often his traditions fall flat in the face of her
questioning. And significantly, only when Howard
steps across the boundaries of his prescribed role as
missionary and acts on instinct does he journey
toward spiritual integrity. As Allison puts it, He is
becoming true to himself (91).
We see this conflict between conforming to
outward expectations and following an inner sense
of truth in a scene rich with dramatic irony. Before
anyone knows of his less-than-honorable exit
from his mission, Howards bishop calls on him to
bear his testimony for the congregation. Howard

AML Annual 2003

tells about his most recent convert, Sister Valdez,

a woman who formerly fed and clothed her children with money gained from prostitution. He tells
his familiar friends and neighbors how this simple
and sure woman had one by one . . . packaged
the sins of her life and laid them aside, an arduous
labor (109). Sister Valdez had a believing spirit
that Howard can only envy. What Howard does
not mention to the congregation is Allisons pragmatic question about Sister Valdez, How will she
make her living? (77). Rather, he asserts the idealistic mode of pulpit testimonya rhetorical situation in which both audience and speaker share the
common assumption that spiritual decisions create
miracles, change practical realities. Howard concludes by relying not on his own souls witness, but
on the faith in his investigators eyes: Howard let
her clear spirit fill him . . . Jesus took her sins away.
He can take away my sins and all of yours. Jesus
takes away our sins (109).
But in spite of these idealistic words, Howard
is not convinced by his own rhetoric. As soon as
he sat down, the clarity left. Had he lied to them,
his friends and neighbors? (109). Perhaps speaking to himself as unconfessed sinner, his struggle at
this point is not so much with his own guilt but
with his futile efforts to feel shame (108). He is
unable, despite his embarrassment in the face of
community disapproval, to feel that what he has
done with Allison is utterly wrong. Standing in the
sacrament-avoidance zone, the foyer, he asks himself, why did I do what I did? An answer comes
swift as the believers faith: She was as sudden as
lighting, as crisp as a crack of thunder (108). He
has followed the path of his nature in mating with
this woman.
Howard cannot return to the luxury of the
simple faith of Sister Valdez or his own childhood.
He has chosen to consort with his own veritable
woman of the world, whose reason will unceasingly mock the ordered paradigm of religious faith.
He cant ignore that voice because his very soul
is intertwined with hers. What this novel suggests
to the reader is that both these voicesthe voice
of reason (complicated by physical sensuality and
desire), and the voice of faith (complicated by

tradition, family, and community)may exist

within one soul, may exist inside each of us. The
novel reminds us constantly how painful it is not
to have a simple soul. The debate between faith
and skepticism is an interior one between voices
that can never completely escape the others challenging retort.
Howard discovers there are no easy answers, or
as the Lord says in Kenneth Burkes Prologue in
Heaven, its more complicated than that (280).
He cant believe anymore the simple contraries. His
sin is not merely an act of weakness; rather he finds
some strength in the ability to be a nonconformist,
to shock the pious (Bennion 106), to act independently as a decision-making adult. Life is filled
with contradiction and paradoxthe opposing
forces that structure the universe are evidently
completely bound up in each other and entail each
other, as both sufficient and necessary conditionsa tension of the opposites. All his life he
had been taught that the universe was simple and
unitary; now he knew it was not. Opposites were
true, paradoxes were as commonplace as stars (110).
Bishop Hansen does not comprehend this contrary complexity. He is disturbed that Howard
could stand before the congregation while harboring sin. He worries about example, You bore such
a powerful testimony, but you say you dont
believe. Now all the kids in Rockwood will find
out what youve done. Will confuse them. Confuses me (111). According to the straightforward
understanding of Bishop Hansen, one is not supposed to embody spirituality and unrepentant sin
Of course as literary critic Terry Eagleton
admits, We cannot catapult ourselves beyond this
binary habit of thought into an ultra-metaphysical
realm. But . . . we may begin to unravel these oppositions a little, demonstrate how one term of an
antithesis secretly inheres within the other (133).
The complicated nature of interdependent
binaries is again broached in the novel when
Howard, now living in Alaska with Allison, is
summoned back to Rockwood to face the church
court. This time it is Allison whose thinking is
locked in the binary mode when she demands:

Tension of the Opposites

How does getting kicked out of a church

make you right with God?
He shrugged, unable to explain. Submitting
himself to the charity of Gods representatives
might help him requite his image of God as
cruel and vindictive. (162)

So when the letter comes he does not consider ignoring ithe has been preparing for it by attending
church; moreover he knows that marriage to Allison will help him to face the sixteen men dressed
in dark suits (171) and he begs her to grant him
this boon. She of course resents this court-inspired
marriage proposal: Can you understand how
offensive this is to meto be lusted after and then
married out of religious scruples, not love? (163).
Allison sees Howards submission to the disciplinary court as unreasonable but recognizes its necessity for him, psychologically and spiritually: She
thought that if all religion were cut out of his
being, he would no longer be Howard, no longer
be the man she was choosing to have with her
(163). Howard gets his long-hoped-for marriage.
Before the court, Emily, ever the Earth Mother,
undercuts the spiritual authority of the proceedings
with her pragmatic wisdom, Keep your mouth
shut . . . and they wont excommunicate you. Try to
defend yourself, and theyll think youre rebellious
and unrepentant. Tell them that youre married and
then keep quiet. Let them talk themselves into forgiving you (166). Emilys prognostications prove
accurate. While some high councilors argue for
strict interpretation of the law, other voices chime
in as advocates: Repentance is repentance in my
mind, said Brother Jacob (172). The court is only
too willing not to excommunicate Howard, and he
feels surprisingly touched by the experience, finding the desired reimaging of God as forgiving. They
said they didnt want to lose me . . . I didnt know
Id care so much (174). Binary oppositions break
down, then, in Bennions portrayal of one of Mormondoms paradoxical mysteries: the court of love.
As the court concludes, we read, Howard had
wept (174), these simple words reminiscent of the
powerful scripture Jesus wept (John 11:35). Howard
is able to find God, not as the eternally punishing
father, but as his Savior, the Son of empathy.

And certainly the image of God weeping is

provocative. As Eugene England so beautifully
muses on Moses 7:28: The God of heaven looked
upon . . . the people, and he wept. Gods tears . . .
at which the prophet Enoch wondered, tell me that
God has not resolved the mystery of being. But he
endures in love. He does not ask me to forego my
integrity by ignoring the mystery or he would not
have let Enoch see him weep (Enduring 37).
And so without rational explanation, all Howard
knows is that he feels ecstatically relieved from the
burden of wrongdoing that has haunted him. His
soul still brimmed with lightmarried and now
straight with the church. He felt vital, self-connected,
new (174).
Bennion does not provide any easy resolution,
however, to the faith/skepticism conflict that has
thus far structured the novel. Once more, Howards
faith is tested when Allisons pregnancy is threatened.
Howard prays fervently during the emergency
birth. Ill be a sinner my whole life, but please
dont take this child from us. Ill give you my soul,
my agency (293). And the result of his beseeching is remarkablehe feels an actual physical relief
from his fear: He was flooded with peace (293).
But the subsequent stillbirth of the child plunges
him not only into emotional despair but also confusion about his tentative faith and his supposed
answer from God. You told me it would be all
right (295). Howards peaceful feelings are real;
interpretation is the problem. Then he doubted
himself, believed that he had felt nothing but relief
that the troubled pregnancy was over (295).
In this novel, just as we often see in life, the
desired miracle does not occur. Allisons despair
over the loss of her baby is devastating. Even after
time has passed, she does not heal. Everyone talks
about grief as if its a stage to grow out of. Its not.
Im stuck forever (307). Perhaps only because
she is desperate and in such pain, she opens herself
to Howards faith with less skepticism than ever
before. When Howard wavers, God spoke to my
soul that everything would be all right. It was a
lie. She tries to comfort him: It was an accident
(309). The interesting coming together of these
two characters is not that one adopts the others

AML Annual 2003

view. Rather, the marriage of their souls proposes

that faith and doubt coexist, live together, are one.
In the last pages of the novel, Howard describes
his Mormon concept of eternity and a future joint
Godhood with his spouse: By then well manage
ten or twenty planets (311). But this reassurance
emerges precisely from Howard momentarily
internalizing Allisons skepticism and questioning whether his dead child still exists: What if
youre right? . . . What if we will never have her
again? (309).
Any resolution the novel offers is uneasy. If
Howard comes to spiritual maturity and wholeness (Cracroft 1), then that wholeness is an
acceptance of the continuing questions, rather
than an assurance of absolute answers. I read this
text as simply acknowledging the relief from suffering that faith can provide in the face of overwhelming pain.
Falling toward Heaven describes, for me,
exactly how it feels to be a born-in-the covenant
Utah Mormon at the beginning of the twenty-first
century. As President Hinckley said in answer to
the question as to why he is a member of the
Church: The answer, at first blush, is simple. It
was the faith of my parents and grandparents. My
grandfather was a pioneer in the truest sense (1).
Our powerful pioneer heritage binds us, as it does
Howard Rockwood from Rockwood, Utah, to a
living history that exerts real emotional and psychological power. Of course, as President Hinckley
goes on to explain, Faith is more than a matter of
inheritance (1) and involves an individual struggle
for truth. We are therefore left to negotiate the
inherent conflict between this strong religious tradition and the logical world we live in with its
sometimes sterile text of scientific rationality.
Falling toward Heaven is a splendidly written case
study of such conflict negotiation.
GAE LYN HENDERSON is currently a Ph.D. candidate in
rhetoric and composition at the University of Utah and
a member of the AML Board. She taught writing and literary interpretation at Brigham Young University (1991
2001) and at Salt Lake Community College (2002).


Bennion, John. Falling toward Heaven. Salt Lake City:
Signature Books, 2000.
Burke, Kenneth. Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven. The
Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Berkeley:
U of California P, 1970. 273316.
Cracroft, Richard. God-Finding in the Twenty-First
Century: Alan Rex Mitchells Angel of the Danube
and John Bennions Falling toward Heaven. Paper
read AML meeting, February 2001. In Annual of
the Association for Mormon Letters, 2002, 12535.
Provo, UT: Association for Mormon Letters, 2002.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.
England, Eugene. Enduring. Irreantum: Exploring
Mormon Literature 3.3 (Autumn 2001): 2937.
Henderson, Brent, The Mormon Way of Knowing.
2000. Unpublished essay. Used by permission.
Hinckley, Gordon B. Introduction. Why Am I a
Member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints? The Mission: Inside The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints. New York: Warner
Books, 1995. 14.

The Book of Mormon as Proto-Epic
Peter J. Sorensen

ahwehs voice came into Al-mahs heart

again, saying, Comfort ye, my people, for
on the morrow I deliver you from bondage.
Yahweh caused a deep sleep to come upon the
Lamanites, and upon the taskmasters a great
sleep, and Yahweh drew forth his people from
among Laman, even as Yahweh drew forth a rib
from Adams side, closing up the flesh after it.
Al-mah and his followers went many
leagues, and pitched their tents, and called that
place Al-mah, that is, what God was offered, for
there Al-mah offered thank offerings. Then
Yahweh came to them in the smoke of the sacrifice, saying, Hasten ye out of this place, for
Laman hath awakened and giveth chase; yet
when they enter this valley I shall drown them
in a sea of land, even as Pharaohs chariots
drowned in the Sea of Reeds. But Al-mah
understood not the saying.
When they left that valley, behold, the host
of Laman coming forth to the slaughter, for
King Laman himself said, See, Yahweh hath
left them no quarter; they are hard against the
mountain. Let us pursue them till not a dog of
them is left standing to lick at his sores.
And Al-mahs people, seeing the pursuit,
cried out in one voice, saying, How then shall
Yahweh now deliver us? Behold, we have
offended the God of Lehi, and we are as chaff
and as the leaves of grass. But Al-mah turned
again, saying, What think ye, then? Will Yahweh be a perverse shepherd, that he lead you
into the very mouth of heri-har? [that is, the
lion of the mountain].

And Al-mah raised his arms to heaven, and

lo! the valley split in twain, and rumbled, that
the sound rang in their ears, and the dirt and
stone were thrown to the heavens like unto a
great wave, and the ground shook, and the abyss
opened up, and swallowed the host of the camp
of Laman that day, even twelve hundred and
six. And by this portent and type did Yahweh
foreshadow the day that the city of Laman was
swallowed up at the coming of his Anointed.
Yet Al-mahs people were not as Israels children in the days of Moshe, for they were neither
froward nor wanton, and thus they arrived at
Zarahamal [that is, A progeny was spared ], after
but twelve days in the wilderness, and not
after forty years, as with them of old. And
when Moshiah [that is, child of Yahweh] heard
the tale, he rejoiced. (Moshiah 23)

Does this scene seem familiar, yet at the same

time different? Without doubt it should be both,
for it is part of my epic retelling of the Book
of Mormon, the Mormoniad, in the tradition of
Homers Iliad. To be sure, The Book of Mormon
has literary elements, some of them suggesting a
potential epic grandeur, as several studies show1
and as at least two serious poetic efforts have also
demonstrated,2 but it cannot, as it exists now, be
called great literature or even literature.
The reasons must be clear: (1) it is a translation, and its lyrical elements cannot be preserved in
translation. We can only speculate whether the
original book was literary; (2) it is written to teach
doctrine through sermon, allegory, and example; it

AML Annual 2003

is functional language, and the authors delight in

straightforward, unencumbered plainness; (3) it
was not translated by poets and was not written by
poets but is a heavily edited abridgment that gives
only an overview of culture; and (4) it lacks the
concrete images of great literature: colors, shapes,
metaphors, similes, and dramatic effects of speech.
The Book of Mormon is scripture, but as literature
it is very weak compared to the Bible. Thus, I wrote
the Mormoniad to give play to the fiery fragments
of literary genius that I believe Mormon and others
consciously suppressed.
The Book of Mormon is true, and many
equate truth with beauty. I do not; many beautiful
things are not true, and many true things are not
beautiful. The Book of Mormon as scripture is
valuable to our generation because it does not
attempt literary effect to any great degree. The
Bible, especially the King James Version, is chiefly
literary, both in its original and in its translation.
That, I contend, is what makes the Bible so weak as
a proselyting tool. The New Testament is far less
literary than the Old, and its doctrinal message
is far clearer. The Old Testament often presents
moral dilemmas that remain unresolved.
Since the Book of Mormon has never been presented as a primarily literary work, I recast it as an
epic. My narrative imitates that of the heroic books
of the King James Old TestamentJoshua, Judges,
Kings, and the like. My lyric material imitates
the King James wisdom literaturePsalms, parts
of Isaiah, and so on. Since we have no original or
ur text for the Book of Mormon, I avoided the socalled chiasmus of which the King James translators had no knowledge. I justified my efforts to
create a heroic tale or epic, because such attempts
have been made in other media; for example, the
paintings of Arnold Friberg, in which even the aged
Abinadis muscle definition makes men my age
envious. And Leroy J. Robertsons Book of Mormon
Oratorio is a noble attempt to achieve epic grandeur
in a fairly lengthy choral work. Yet the reader may
still wonder why we need a heroic retelling of the
Book of Mormon.
In a speech given at BYU by Elder Boyd K.
Packer on 1 February 1976a speech many of us

faculty and students remember vividlyhe spoke

of several issues attending the arts and the Spirit of
the Lord. As many of us expected, he cited a
famous and stirring prophecy, by Elder Orson F.
Whitney, given in the late nineteenth century in a
lecture at YMMIA conferencean appropriate
venue for such a promised aesthetic:
We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares
of our own. Gods ammunition is not exhausted.
His brightest spirits are held in reserve for the
latter times. In Gods name and by His help we
will build up a literature whose top shall touch
heaven, though its foundation may now be low
in earth. (214)

Of the mention of Milton there can be no

doubt that Elder Whitney had in mind Paradise
Lost, the epic tale, in thousands of lines of formal
blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) of the
War in Heaven; Satans fall; Adams and Eves creation and their temptation, fall, and hoped-for
deliverance. That work contained all the epic conventions: a fit epic subject, an invoking of the muse
of inspiration, epic similes, heroic actions, cosmic
and earthly battles, and the constant interaction of
men, gods, and angels.
The most difficult task for the epic poet is to
find a fit epic subject. In the Restored Church, four
fit subjects immediately suggest themselves: the
glorious plan of happiness, or plan of salvation (a
Miltonic theological subject); the story of Joseph
Smith (the Homeric Odyssey subject, focused on
one hero); the Mormon Exodus (the transplanted
tribe, as in Virgils Aeneid) or the Book of Mormon,
in whole or in part (variously Miltonic, Homeric,
or Virgilian).
The prolific and influential literary critic Harold
Bloom has suggested with real sincerity that the
story of Joseph Smith may yet be the most fit epic
subject for the American Epic: [Joseph Smith]
requires strong poets, major novelists, accomplished dramatist to tell his history, and they have
not yet come to him. . . . He transcends Emerson
and Whitman in my imaginative response, and
takes his place with the great figures of our

The Book of Mormon as Proto-Epic

fiction. . . . So rich and varied a personality, so vital

a spark of divinity, is almost beyond the limits of
the human (127).
The Miltonic or theological epic has been
attempted nobly and was in some ways very successful: Orson F. Whitney wrote an epic, partly in
Miltonic blank verse, centered on the plan of salvation: Elias: An Epic of the Ages. Published in 1914 at
the urging of Elder Whitneys friends, Elias contained explanatory commentary and, like Miltons
great epic, contained twelve parts, ultimately imitating Virgils divisions in the Aeneid. At the turn
of the previous century blank verse would have still
been a respectable, if a bit outdated, formal verse,
promoting the high seriousness that the great
Matthew Arnold suggested must accompany any
lasting literary effort. Elder Whitney counterbalanced the blank verse in some of the poems
cantos with an even more colloquial format, the
Spenserian, a nine-line stanza with alternatively
rhyming lines of iambic pentameter, ending with a
hexameter. Spensers romance epic The Faerie
Queene was modeled in part on Virgils Aeneid as
well but was more fanciful and methodically allegorical than Miltons or Virgils epics. Elder Whitney stated, It is an attempt to present, in verse
form, historically, doctrinally, and prophetically,
that vast theme comprehended in what the world
terms Mormonism (Elias iii). It even contained a
versified history of all those who had ever inhabited the New Worldfrom the antediluvial races
to the Book of Mormon peoples to those gathering to the modern Zion. But Whitneys work has
been largely ignored and forgotten, partly because
its subject is likely too vast, leading to generic rather
than vivid description; by comparison, Milton is
all action.
Thus, I chose the Book of Mormon. For an
author to achieve epic grandeur for the Book of
Mormon story and thus fulfill Elder Whitneys
inspired hopes for the future, I believe that the
Book of Mormon would follow the traditional line
of literary authority. For example, consider the Latin
poet Virgils Aeneid: Like Virgils Aeneid, the Book
of Mormon is a tale of the collapse of one great city

and people and the rise, after a long journey, of a

new great city and people. Virgils Aeneid is very
much a citified epic, designed from the beginning as a written epic, to be read in the parlor of
ones own domus, not recited at a campfire surrounded by brave but tired soldiers. Virgils poem
is a paean first of all to Caesar Augustus as the
divine ruler of the greatest city in the world, but
the Book of Mormon, as proto-epic, is dedicated
to its true author, Jehovah. The Aeneids scenes
reflect well the story and imagery of the Book of
Mormon: the destruction of Troy precedes the
founding of Rome; the young Trojan prince,
Aeneas, must take a rather tattered group safely
away from the destruction dealt the fabled Troy
(Ilium) by the crafty Odysseus and the Greeks
(Achaeans), through the well-remembered ruse of
the original gift horse.
These last scenesof Trojan babies having
their brains dashed out and of desperate adults
leaping from the high walls as the king and queen
look on helplessly at the conflagrationhave been
immortalized in music and painting throughout
Western history, but the many adventures that follow of Aeneas faithful crew are in themselves harrowing, including the requisite descent into the
underworld to seek advice from departed sages,
ancestors, or prophets, and a final epic battle for
control of Italy. Indeed, the Aeneid sets a very clear
precedent for the epic subject of the Book of Mormon, which centers on the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent subjugation of Israel by
Babylon, and of the founding of that greatest of
Western holy cities, Zarahemla.
I mentioned earlier the epic invocation: one
must ask for divine aid to accomplish the artistic
design of the epic, a task too great for even the best
poet without the blessing of the gods (God). The
Book of Mormon has no invocation proper; but
the memorial preface, beneath the title of the modern editions, easily adapts itself to that purpose,
especially since Joseph insisted that he was not that
passages author, but rather that it was part of the
last plate of the metal chronicle he translated (see
Smith 7). I reworked it this way:

AML Annual 2003


Tell us then, Shekhinah, of the Jaredites,
the Nephites, and the Lamanites, the remnants
of Shem and of Israel; speak to the Jew and
Gentile by commandment, prophecy, and revelation. Speak to us of the Other Covenant and
Testament that Yahweh in his wisdom made
with the chosen people of the new and promised land: a heritage to the righteous but a curse
to the wicked.
Speak to us of the great things Yahweh
hath done for Israel; reveal to us Yeshua, the
Anointed One, who is Yahweh made flesh
before all nations; let not our weakness condemn our tale, but make us spotless before our
God. Seal it and hide it in the folds of Yahwehs
robe, to come forth from Yahweh, by the gift
of Yahweh.

Several problems confront us immediately with

such an invocation. First: what is the best format
for this passage? Will prose suffice? What of Miltons or Whitneys blank verse? Certainly blank
verse is formal, but it has lost its familiarity and
power somehow. In 1730, when James Thompson
created a beautiful nature poem in blank verse
titled The Seasons, it was popular, going through
several editions during Thompsons lifetime.
William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy spent
many afternoons and evenings reading Milton
aloud. But in that day educated people read poetry
far more than they read novels, whose popularity
did not displace the epic poem on the bookshelf or
coffee table of England until the midnineteenth
Today, the college-educated person simply does
not prefer blank verse to the action novel. Since
our Latter-day leaders still embrace the KJV, not
the most accurate translation, but surely the most
beautiful English rendering of the Bible, I built my
epic upon those models. Choosing better diction
and syntax than those offered in Josephs translation
is necessary because, perhaps surprising to some,
the Book of Mormons English diction and syntax
is to a great degree early nineteenth-century religious
rhetoric and not genuine seventeenth-century Early
Modern English, except for the Isaiah material and

other truly literary elements (the Psalm of Nephi in

2 Nephi 4). Although chiasmus appears to be present
in various places in the Book of Mormon, it does
not follow that these passages are precisely chiastic
in their original language or that they are beautiful
simply because they are chiastic.3 Chiasmus does
occur in other cultures and languages (e.g., Welch).
A second issue in the invocation regards using
the Holy Spirit as a muse of divine inspiration; the
precedent was established by Milton in Paradise
Lost and by George Herbert in The Temple. The
name Shekhinah is an attempt to get past the hellenized and anglicized Holy Ghost to a more
rustic and powerful name-title (less-used diction
awakens the senses) that refers to Gods fiery presence and inspiration, as from the Ark of the
Covenant; more to the point, the name-title has
a feminine flavor that works well with the idea of
the muse.4
A third issue is changing the spellings of names.
Using Yahweh instead of Lord or God is an attempt
to get past a late development in Jewish mysticism
which equates Jehovahs name with a sort of magic
powerthe less used the more potent. Yahweh is a
tribal deityperhaps not for the modern world
but unquestionably for an ancient and tribal epic
and certainly for the tribal cultures of the Book of
Mormon. The yah- suffix in the name Sariah, or
Jehovahs princess, or Mosiah (Moshe-yah, Jehovahs child), is sufficient proof of its common use;
such divine suffixes or prefixes are common among
ancient tribes, as in Akhen-aton, Amen-hotep, or
Tutank-amen. For the same aesthetic reasons, I prefer Yeshua (or even Yahoshua) to the hellenized and
anglicized Jesus, and Meshiah to Christ. Again, I do
this to reinforce the tribal qualities that give rise
to the ancient epic subject.
The fourth issue in the invocation is the nature
of the covenants and of the argument of the epic,
the moral instruction the epic is offering to future
leaders (the epic duty of instructing princes). It
should be clear that Lehi or Nephi are not in fact
the heroes of this tale; Yahweh is the hero, deliverer, warrior, and king from first to last; it is the
singular dilemma of the Book of Mormon that its
greatest truth is also its most ignored, its tribes

The Book of Mormon as Proto-Epic

forever taking credit not theirs to take (the Nephites

are not blessed because they are righteous but
because Yahweh is merciful to the repentant). The
entire reason for Odysseus ten-year delay returning to Ithaca (and the source for a whopping good
tale) is that he is slow to learn that all his cunning
and wit are as worthless as chaff; he is only a mortal, and Poseidon controls the land and sea (the
earthquake and the ocean tides), not any mortal.
The Book of Mormon becomes potentially
artistic through its treatment of evil, when mortals
pit their wits against Yahwehs. Doctrine itself is
not artistic in any lasting or epic sense, except in
the Aristotelian sense of instructing leaders on the
limits of mortal power and authority. The most
interesting character in Paradise Lost is Satan, not
Jesus; and God the Father runs a poor third in that
epic, as many critics have pointed outthat is,
until Adam and Eve sin. Then the epic power shifts
in their favor, and we last see them, with the
world . . . all before them (Paradise Lost 12:646
47), being led out of Eden by the archangel, to
heroically combat the elements and try to reconcile
themselves with God, with the hope that someday
a savior will rescue them from certain doom: sheol,
the abyss, the dust of death.
The tribes of the Book of Mormon, like the
Trojans and Achaeans, too easily forget the covenants made with the gods, usually in favor of battling others in the name of extended family pride.
Thus, the classical hero Hector is bound to protect
and defend Alexandros (Paris), a decadent and easily cowed prince who violates that most universal
and sacred of all lawshospitalityby kidnapping Helen, the wife of Meneleus. The Greeks,
including the ill-fated Agamemnon and the wily
Odysseus, are thus drawn into a fight that no one
really wants. The gods end up taking sides, and the
heavenly battle is joinedan important element of
the epic.
The Book of Mormon is likewise the scene of
violations of the laws Yahweh has set before his
children. Laban must be slain, partly for violating
the covenant of hospitality.5 It is at least remarkable, and I think purposeful and revelatory, that
the phrase another testament of Jesus Christ was

added as a subtitle to the Book of Mormon, for it

states exactly why the Book of Mormon tribes failed
and were destroyed or otherwise spiritually bereft
or enslaved: the book is another covenant (testament)
of Yahweh (incarnate as Yeshua the Anointed One)
with a branch of Israel. The covenant is straightforward enough and may be found (though it is
mostly ignored) all through the book; but it is stated
nowhere better than in Ether 2:10: For behold,
this is a land which is choice above all other lands;
wherefore he that doth possess it shall serve God
or shall be swept off; for it is the everlasting decree
of God.
Thus the inevitable antipathy between the gods
and the smug heroes appears quickly and vividly,
with the former holy city and nation of God giving
way to a new city and nation of Godlost again
by the end of the Book of Mormon but regained in
latter times when none but Joseph Smith (and,
in his own way, Elder Whitney) could envision
such a confident and widespread influence, prosperity, and potential for good as we see in this
promised land (all of the Western hemisphere) at
the dawn of the twenty-first century. God gives his
chosen people a new home, and they corrupt and
abuse itthe worst thing they could do to their
host and father. The greatest irony of the Book of
Mormon is that it ends tragically, another Paradise
lost through folly, even while the book itself marks
the earliest events of the joyfully renewed covenant
of Yahweh in 1830 with the modern inhabitants of
that promised land.
A final element of the invocation seems
uncomfortably trinitarian until one recalls that, in
fact, Jehovah is the preexistent being who is incarnated (made mortal, flesh and blood) as Jesus (who
is thus Father and Son, exactly as Amulek explains
to Zeezrom, insisting there is but one God, as any
Israelite would)6 and whose presence in Israel is,
before his incarnation, the Shekhinah or divine
presence upon the mercy seat of the ark, a cloud by
day and a pillar of fire by nightinescapably trinitarian in its three aspects of Israels one God.
The invocation is a small element of the epic
formula, but not without importance. Yet another
feature is the episode, and here the Book of

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Mormon is ideal for a heroic retelling. Milton had

a daunting task in attempting to re-create the tale
of the War in Heaven, the fall of Satan, and the
subsequent fall of Adam and Eve. But unlike some
later poets, Milton chose his material for its lack of
development. That is, the actual biblical material
of the Creation and Fall occupies the three first
chapters of Genesis. Miltons brilliant strategy was
to occupy the narrative space the Bible did not,
rather than to compete directly with the terse, stark,
yet strangely artistic opening chapters of the Old
Thus it is that Miltons opening books recount
the actions and conversations of Satan and his fallen
armies of demons directly after their losing the
battle in heaven against Gods angels, as they dust
themselves off and stand up in the dark void of hell
to assess the damages after being forcibly ejected
from heaven. The councils they hold, with Satans
inspiring orations, boldly precede a similar extracanonical council in heaven in Book 3, and the
epic soon becomes a masterful chess game between
devils and angels, with God looking on with a
benign omniscience that Satan actually thinks he
possesses as well. The point is that almost ten out
of the twelve books and thousands of lines of blank
verse precede the actual fall of Adam and Eve, and
the story ends with their departure from Eden.
The Book of Mormon is more compressed
(dense), narratively, than Genesis, but it is considerably less so than, say, Chronicles or Kings, so in
terms of episodes or elliptical passages, it allows the
artist more room for additional poetry, narrative,
and even the sort of speech-making everyone loves
in Miltons Satan. The danger of competing with
the dense narrative of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, or even the heroic material in Judges is borne
out in John Drydens Absalom and Achitophel, the
double story of a challenge to Charles IIs throne
by the Duke of Monmouth and the Earl of Shaftsbury, and of Absaloms attempt to wrest the throne
from the great King David; the poem is successful
only to a degree as political allegory, but is on the
whole inferior dramatically 7 to the original story
in the Old Testament.

Here I will offer another example (the first was

presented at the beginning of this essay) of the
amplification of plot, dialogue, imagery, and lyricism that would befit the episode (the narrative
space between lyric portions of the text, much like
its cousin, an act of a drama) in the Book of Mormon. Lehis first vision and subsequent miraculous events seem purposely downplayed in favor of
the scribes desire to rewrite Nephite history as a
long series of exempla to confirm the truth of
a Christian doctrine superimposed upon the more
rustic aspects of that history.8 The roman numerals in parentheses in the text below refer to the following paragraphs of commentary.
(i) Of Lehis children
(ii) Nephi the scribe, born of goodly parents, learned from his father the mystery of
Yahweh and was made a scribe and a spokesman to his tribe: he wrote these things.
In the first year of the reign of Zedekiah
(iii) (that is, Yahweh is upright) came prophets
prophesying. Lehi was among them, and he
cursed Jerusalem for its infamy: it was abomination, its people as chaff, and the sword and
the thief at night would carry Jerusalem away
captive. (iv) And on a certain day, Lehi
approached the Speaker, the ark of God, which
Jeremiah, certain priests, and the Levites kept
in secret places beneath the city, where water
and food were laid in store. For in the days of
Manasseh, the idolater, he violated the holy
of holies with the infamy of Baal and of
Moloch. And as Lehi prayed, a pillar of fire
settled upon the ark, but Lehi was outside the
portable veil, and durst not gaze upon the dreadful thing which was behind the veil, where the
ark rested upon a rock; for Lehi was of the lineage of Joseph and could not lay hands upon
the ark. Thus he quaked before its brightness,
and all that day long he was overcome in his
soul with what he had seen without the veil.
(v) A vision opened up, that he saw the
Ancient of Days, sitting upon his throne, and
numberless concourses of angels praising God.
One of the seraphs descended from the heavens, and his luster was above the suns at noonday. And twelve seraphs surrounded him. Each

The Book of Mormon as Proto-Epic

seraph had six wings; with twain he covered his

face, and with twain he covered his feet, and
with twain he did fly; one of these same gave
Lehi a book, and as Lehi unrolled the book,
behold, Yahwehs Shekhinah dwelt in him, and
he read:
(vi) The Psalm of Lehi
Great and marvelous are thy works,
O Lord God Almighty!
Thy throne is high in the heavens,
and thy power,
thy mercy,
Thy goodness are over all the earth;
Because thou art merciful
Thou shalt not suffer us all to perish.
Praise Yahweh!
My soul rejoiceth.
My heart is filled with that which Yahweh
Yahweh saveth as no other god in like sort.
His Anointed cometh,
that the nations of the earth be redeemed.
The tender mercies of Yahweh are upon
his chosen, Israel.
He is mighty to save.
(vii) Yet when Lehi went among the people
with these tidings, they disdained him, and
there were but few who believed him. For he
uncovered their sins and called out to them to
return to Yahweh, their only salvation. And
after that day, all Jerusalem sought his life.

I now offer commentary on the liberties I have

taken with the text.
(i) I made the title of this portion unobtrusive;
doubtless I would include many chapters, even two
or three books, under the same title. Most of the
Book of Mormon is the fate of one family over
many generations, so any attempt at grandeur at
this point would be bathetic; what title could adequately account for so many diverse events?
(ii) For the same reason I placed Nephis colophon in third person; the statement is more a punctuation mark than a teenage diary entry and simply
is too rhapsodic, intrusive, and self-absorbed as
it stands.

(iii) I try here to capture the KJVs delightful

habit of offering a translation for any names offered
in the narrative. It should be clear that this narratives diction is an attempt to capture the dynamic
narrative patterns of early Old Testament books of
heroes and kings: Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, Kings,
and Chronicles; the diction is Early Modern English, spoken in the days of James I, and for Englishspeaking Mormons the most elevated diction
(iv) The legendary fate of the ark, not listed
among the temple treasures plundered by Nebuchadnezzar, seems appropriate here because of Lehis
pillar of fire (which always indicates Yahwehs presence on the mercy seat) and the pillars resting upon
a rock (1 Sam. 6:18the stone of Abel where the
disheartened Philistines abandoned the ark). Lehis
lineage forbids his working within the veil, for,
contrary to popular tradition, there is no scriptural
evidence that Lehi held any priestly office at all.
(v) The Ancient of Days in most cases is a
name-title for Jehovah; the Shekhinah is invoked
in this passage because the pillar of fire is the sign
of the presence of the Spirit of God. The twelve
seraphs are typologically the Twelve Apostles, who
of course are the twelve princes of the New Israel
under the reign of the Meshiah, the brightest seraph. Israels angelology was still evolving in Lehis
day, but Isaiah clearly mentions the seraphs who
keep the fiery altar of heaven (see Isa. 6). In Judaism
after the return from Babylon and in Catholicism,
the concourses of angels total nine orbits moving
outward, roselike, from Gods throne, the center of
the rose. This circle contrasts with the nine levels
of the underworld (at whose center Satan sits) or
geocentrically with the Ptolemaic system, including the sun, moon, five planets, constellations, and
crystalline sphere.
(vi) This song of praise attempts to capture the
lyricism of parts of the wisdom literature (Psalms)
and Isaiah and even of the songs of the heroic books
of the Old Testament (e.g., the songs of Moses in
Deuteronomy 32 and of Deborah and Barak
in Judges 5). I am not pursuing chiasmus here, but
rather the cadence and tone of the KJV, whose translators had not yet discovered how Hebrew poetry

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worked. The Book of Mormon is in English, and

if, as I believe, its aesthetic elements were actively
suppressed, then attempting to find English chiasmus will backfire, since what seems parallel, mirrored, or retrograde to one person will not to
another; for the Book of Mormons diction lacks
the concreteness and density of such items as color,
sound, and shape that are abundantly evident in
the Old Testament.
(vii) It should be obvious that Lehi was a
marked man, as was Jeremiah. I actually took this
idea from Davids hiding from Saul, Elijahs hiding
from Jezebel, and Lazarus hiding from the Sadducees.
The second example is taken from a related
scene in 1 Nephi 16:
(i) Now, in those days, the ark of Yahweh,
called Devir, for that out of it Yahweh spoke, was
taken from the most holy place and had been
hid in the places digged for it beneath the temple,
in the days of wicked Manasseh, who set up
Molochs altar in the holy of holies. At that time,
the Levites had moved the ark and its mercy
seat of gold cherubim, and the staves that bore
it, where only the high priest could approach.
(ii) And Jeremiah, in his turn, had approached
the ark behind the veil, but had not shaken his
skirts, so that the bells and pomegranates did
not do their office; and seeing the pillar of
Yahwehs Shekhinah, even as a flaming fire, he
was mute and blind for three days. So now,
therefore, he went forth from before the face of
the king, who had cursed Jeremiah and his
family, who were priests of Anathoth, and
of Aarons order, and came near unto the ancestral home of the descendants of (iii) Eleazar
Levites carried the ark, but covered it in
lambs wool, that no one knew what was there.
These men left the ark with Yahoshua benAminadab, whose ancestors had honored Yahweh in the days when the ark rested among the
men of (iv) Karioth. And Jeremiah then said to
the eldest son of the house, even (v) Yahoshua
Ben-Yamin, See with what honor I approach
thee, that I might return in forty days time, to
take the ark of Yahweh, even The Speaker,
to safety in the wilderness.

When Jeremiah returned after forty days

to claim the ark, Yahoshua answered, I will
not give it up lightly, for its place is in Beth-el,
even the temple at the holy city. (vi) Saith Jeremiah, I say to thee, keeper of the ark though
thou be, that not many years hence, a king
will come from the north, and Judah shall be
humbled not once but three times, till not a
male dog shall remain to piss against the wall.
Then Yahoshua relented, and Jeremiah removed
the ark, and the Levites carried it, to a cave
in the wilderness, and placed it upon a flat rock.
(vii) Now Lehi heard the rumor of it from
the merchants who came by his tent in the
wilderness, and Lehi inquired of them, Is
the ark at a certain cave? And they answered,
Even so. Then Lehi took counsel with his
wife and his sons, and said to them, Surely
Yahweh will lead me there, that I may commune with Yahweh in the holy place. Now all
these things were said and done as Lehi dwelt
in a tent in Lemuel. And Nephi took the
daughter of Ishmael to wife, and she was Anna;
and so likewise did Shem and Laman and
Lemuel among the younger women, even
Rachel, Sharon, and Miriam. But Zoram took
the eldest daughter, Leah, to wife.
Lehi arose early in the morning, took leave
of Sariah, left the door of his tent, and took his
journey to the place where, he was told, the ark
of Yahweh was kept, even in a cave in the
wilderness. (viii) And when Jeremiah saw him,
he ran to him and embraced him; and the saying went abroad, among the sons of the prophets,
even the school of the prophets: As David and
Jonathan, so also Lehi and Jeremiah. Jeremiah
said to Lehi, Are there no righteous in Judah,
that thou comest to me, the poor priest of the
Ark, in a cave in the wilderness? And Lehi
said, I came to thee in fellowship, for I must
know by the oracle what I should do.
(ix) Now Jeremiah donned his vestments:
the breastplate, with its rings and chains and
precious stones, the ephod, the robe, with its
bells and pomegranates, and the broidered
coat, the mitre with Holiness to the Lord set
across it, and the girdle, and all the cloth thereof
of gold, of blue, of purple, and scarlet, and fine
linen; the onyx stones graven in memoriam, and

The Book of Mormon as Proto-Epic

he shook his skirts as he went behind the veil,

that Yahweh was warned of his coming, that
Jeremiah did not die; and (x) he went before Yahwehs ark and raised his hands high above him
saying, See how thy way is prepared, even
with bread, and wine, and incense, and meat
that Thou commune with me; now, how is it
with Lehi? Shalt Thou go before him?
(xi) And the ark spoke forth, Nay.
And when Jeremiah came out to Lehi, he
said, Thus saith Adonai: (xii) I know what
remains unspoken in his heart. But let him
gather his family, and I will show him whither
he shall go. But Lehi was undone, and he cried
a great crying, saying, Now therefore let me
minister behind the veil, that I may plead before
Yahwehs throne. And Jeremiah answered, and
said, Take heed, for Aaron and Levi keep the
way of the ark, and hardly thou, a Josephite
from thy birth.
Yet Lehi importuned, for, said he, How
shall Yahweh go before us, so that as a flaming
fire and a smoking altar, he will discomfit those
who are enemies to my house? But Jeremiah
took pity, saying, (xiii) Yahweh shall go before
you, but not as he did in the day of Moshe,
who wrested Israel from Egypts hand. But
Yahweh giveth to thee a sign within this riddle:
From small things come great works. Lehi
went away sorrowing from that place, wondering at Yahwehs message; and long into the
night Lehi raised his voice to Yahweh, saying,
(xiv) The Second Psalm of Lehi:
I am sent away grieving,
Yahweh has abandoned a righteous branch,
and his mercy is hid even from the faithful.
Yahweh precedeth the priest of Anathoth,
but his jawbone is requited with ashes.
Yet I will trust in his bounty,
though I be to Yahweh as bitter fruit.
I await his will, whose creature man is,
be that gift small or great.
(xv) When on the morrow Lehi saw the
sun in the east, and morning had risen, he came
forth from his tent to praise God for the new
day, and Behold! A ball of curious workmanship, of finest bronze, and set with precious

stones: rubies, diamonds, and emeralds. And

within the ball two spindles, pointing. Now by
means of this globe, called Liahona, that is, the
path ahead, were Lehi and his tribe led into
the wilderness, and from thence to the sea, and
from the sea to the new land of promise (for
that Lehi knew the judgment and doom of
Jerusalem, which had been Yahweh his crowns
royal diadem). And they carried their tents,
their food, and seed of every kind. (xv) And
Lehi was humbled, yet rejoiced, saying, By
small things in very deed Yahweh shall go
before us, who are but a little people. And in
later days, Liahona was kept in the temple,
in the holy city, as a memorial to Yahweh, who
led them forth with only a spindle.

My explication of this lengthy passage follows:

(i) Here again I employ the lore preserved in
part from Old Testament inference and endless
medieval Jewish commentary, part from the literary and narrative absence of the ark when the
scribes must find a strategic replacement for any
narrative in which the ark ought to be present. The
scribal envy of the absent ark is not unlike Professor Hugh Nibleys argument about Christian envy
of the Jewish temple.
(ii) The high priests (that is, presiding sacrificer, not the modern Churchs priesthood office)
safety measures here clearly offered protection from
the unpredictable behavior of the ark; that Jehovah
is here clearly an anthropomorphic being should
be obvious, for not only does the high priest fear
surprising the Shekhinah behind the veil, but the
shewbread, the incense, the meat offering, and, by
implication, the goblet of wine, as well as the shaking of the skirts, his speaking out of the ark, and
his being physically defiled and angry at being
touched by anything ritually unclean, all imply
that Jehovah relied upon his senses to make judgments from the most holy place.
(iii) The Old Testament chronicles in several
places the movements of the ark before its resting place in Jerusalem was constructed.
(iv) The fact that Yahudah Ish-Karioth, Judah,
man (or resident) of Karioth, is Judas Iscariot is a
lovely coincidence, if he was of the ancestral land

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of Karioththey cared for the ark (see 1 Sam.

7:1), as it was Judass calling to care for the incarnation of Yahwehs spirit. Thus, the incarnation of
Jesus is the new ark; Judas must keep the ark
upright, but fails, and the temples rent veil reveals to
everyones horror that the ark is no longer in the
sanctum sanctorum!
(v) The contention over the ark parallels the dispute over chattels between Agamemnon and Achilles
in Homer, but with far loftier consequences.
(vi) Jeremiah here prophesies much as does
Lehi, though I have idealized the prophecy with
elevated diction and with a precision that Jeremiah
apparently did not have.
(vii) In many places I restore names that the
Book of Mormon scribe excludes from his redaction; genealogy and place names honor ancestors
and praise great families. I also like using Lemuel as
a nonpejorative place name.
(viii) The Book of Mormon only rarely employs
such lore and sayings; but when it does, the poet
can multiply these to achieve rusticity and, surprisingly, wonderful emotive effect.
(ix) The donning of priestly vestments here
echoes the wonderful and elaborate description of
Achilles new armor in Book 18 of the Iliad.
(x) The presence of wine with the shewbread
combines with other elements to set out a welcome
for Yahweh, suggesting Gods anthropomorphic
character; God is coming to his house, and his servants prepare everything for his arrival.
(xi) The ark speaks only yea or nay, as with
all epic oracles, and the priest must phrase the question so that the oracle can respond in that fashion;
even more ascetic and rustic would be a sound for
nay and silence for yea.
(xii) Jeremiahs warning here is logical, for
Lehi, despite his prophetic gift, is a merchant, not
a priest, a Josephite and not a Levite. Mosaic ritual
is clear enough about this interdiction.
(xiii) The Book of Mormon scribe clearly must
subvert this riddle, creating a typical exemplum in
its stead in his ongoing task of didactic history.
(xiv) The psalm shows Lehis human weakness;
it is a reaction consistent with biblical and epic

(xv) The Liahona now has a proper context for

its appearance; and Nephi, with David as an analogy, becomes a king over his tribe after the ritual
test of beheading Laban (a Goliath type). Possessing the sword of Laban, the Liahona, and the brass
plates constitutes a requisite number of sacred
relics or furniture to allow the king to build a
temple (as David could have and Solomon did)
and to reconstitute and consolidate a new priesthood to serve in the temple he will build in the
Promised Land.
As a prophet, Lehi can anoint Nephi king, just
as Samuel did with Jesses young son David, who
was then a shepherd and less esteemed than his
elder brothers, especially Eliab. Nephi can begin a
new order of priests, for Lehi, a prophet, and
Nephi, a king, constitute two of the three offices of
Israel; and by building a temple, Nephi has created
the necessity for priesthood. That office is awarded
to Jacob, Nephis younger brother; and for a time,
a triumvirate seems to exist (the triangle or tripod
being the essence of stability). The connection of
Nephi and David is an artistic necessity, though it
is suppressed in the Book of Mormon. Nephi is at
pains to point out that his temple cannot approach
that of Solomon in splendor, a clear reflection of
the size of the Liahona when compared with the
Ark of the Covenant.
The epic battle and the descent of the gods in
the poetic epic are unique in the Book of Mormon
epic; the epic battle must be passed over with only
brief comment. A wholesale condemnation of
war is traditional in the epic (Ares, god of war, is
cowardly and unscrupulousno one loves him).
The Book of Mormon, as Professor Nibleys Since
Cumorah stresses, finds no joy, glory, or virtue in
battle either (while the Greeks love gray-eyed
Athena, goddess of battle, who is beautiful,
wise, and honorable). Characters such as Captain
Moroni and General Mormon avoid war except
as a truly unpleasant last resort, unlike epic characters Achilles, Hector, or Diomedes.
The descent of the gods, which occurs everywhere in Greek epic and drama, must be central to
an epic; so it therefore finds a central position in
the Book of Mormonit must be central to an

The Book of Mormon as Proto-Epic

epic as well. Professor Nibley shrewdly recognized

that the destruction preceding the descent of JesusJehovah bears a remarkable resemblance to both the
decensus of Revelation, the last work of the New
Testament, and the hoary tale of the Harrowing of
Hell (Christ Among 18). It is a supreme literary
effectpotentially. One must keep certain things
in mind about this deus ex machina: the Jesus of the
Book of Mormon is not simply the gentle carpenterrabbi-good shepherd of the New Testament Gospels.
He is Jehovah incarnate. He descends as the author
of the original Nephite covenant (the other testament [covenant] of Jesus Christ [Jehovah incarnate
but immortal and invincible]. The few survivors
of the cataclysm (Nibley rightly reasons a volcano
with shifting plates) (Cumorah 26566) that leveled the temple of the Holy City of the other testament (the Nephite promised land) immediately
begin praying to Jesus, for Jehovah is clearly the
God of the Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon gospel, taught by Jehovah
himself, enlarges the original covenant to include
eternal life, not merely earthly rewards and punishments, as with the older version of the covenant.
His miracles before the people are tokens of that
eternal bliss which awaits Lehis now-decimated
tribe, and which they may enjoy in part, as Enochs
people of old, in this world, showing that the older
portion of the covenant is a schoolmaster of sorts
to restore humankind to Paradisethe Garden of
Eden, that iswhile they await the final rapture
of membership in the divine family. The restoration to Eden revokes the curse on Adam and Eve
and has its literary epic analog in Miltons Paradise
Regained, in which Christ, in the wilderness for
forty days, passes the test that Adam failed, restoring humanity to their garden home. This is the
obvious meaning of Christ as the second Adam,
and the answer to the riddle on the cross: This day
shalt thou be with me in Paradise. Both garden and
Paradise are the epic Elysian Fields.
Lack of space prohibits more examples or commentary. I would conclude by noting only that
when Milton faced the challenge of putting words
into the mouths of God and Jesus, he took a considerable risk. If a writer wishes to create the epic of

the Book of Mormon, she or he must make a solemn

vow against self-interest or self-importance; while a
poets artistic integrity is important, she or he must
tread cautiouslythis is a sacred precinct.
PETER J. SORENSEN is associate professor of English
at BYU. His latest work, Ideas of Ascension and Translation: A Study of the Literary and Cultural Mythological
Tradition of the West, will appear in 2003 from Academica Press.
1. The first really important study was Steven P.
Sondrups challenging, brilliant essay The Psalm of
Nephi: A Lyric Reading. Sondrups restraint is the hallmark of this essay, for he states in his introduction that
which many subsequent studies of literary elements of
the Book of Mormon ignore: It may at first seem fatuous to argue for the presence of accomplished poetry in
a volume identifying itself as a translation, particularly
if one remembers Shelleys caveat that it is impossible to
translate poetry or Robert Frosts quip that poetry is
what gets lost in translation (358). Yet Sondrups point
that the Hebrew poetry of ideas, whose mechanics were
first categorized (quite ironically) by an Anglican
bishop (359) rather than by a Jewish scholar, does not
depend on rhyme and rhythm as does most poetry
sets it apart as eminently identifiable and amenable to
analysis, even in translation. Nephis psalm is unquestionably a meritorious example of devotional lyric
poetry in the tradition of the biblical wisdom literature,
or of the renaissance psalters, and its chiastic character
is real, not imagined.
But one must add that, as Sondrup surely knows,
such lyricism is atypical in the Book of Mormon, which
is largely prose narrative, and even the other religiousliterary forms, such as exemplum, sermon, or allegory
are typical more of the least-admired period of British
literary history, 14001550. Chiasmus, by itself, does
not guarantee great literature, though recent studies,
such as John W. Welchs favorably reviewed collection
of scholarly essays, Chiasmus in Antiquity, contains a
fairly persuasive argument that the Book of Mormons
remarkable chiasmus suggests its ancient origins.
Richard Dilworth Rusts recent Feasting on the
Word, while reverential and faith promoting, simply
does not ring true as an assessment of the Book of Mormons literary merits; its aesthetic is far too forgiving,

AML Annual 2003

for it generalizes grand literary accomplishment from

only a bare minimum of genuinely resonant literary
examples. For the same reasonsexcessive, forgiving
generalizationDonald Parrys The Book of Mormon
Text Reformatted according to Parallelistic Patterns
(Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992) cloys. What separates
poetry from narrative prose in Isaiah is a genuine aesthetic, with both genres repaying the readers attention
with resonant imagery and the delightful play of Early
Modern English.
Harold Bloom is, I fear, a far better judge of the
Book of Mormons literary bona fidesit is wholly tendentious and frequently tedious (American 85) and he
cannot recommend that the book be read either fully
or closely, because it scarcely sustains such reading (86).
Though Bloom has erred concerning the scriptures
spiritual value (it is most precious because it is plain,
uncompromisingly straightforward, and free of the linguistic play that characterizes great literature), he is dead
on target that the book has little place in aesthetic debate.
2. R. Paul Cracroft, former director of Kingsbury
Hall and University of Utah adjunct professor emeritus
of journalism, published A Certain Testimony: A Mormon Epic in heroic couplet in 1979. In 1996 the prolific
scholar/poet Michael R. Collings, professor of English
at Pepperdine College, authored the epic-length The
Nephiad, a tour de force presenting in blank verse an
account of the narrative of Nephi in the Book of Mormon and written to augment the understanding and
the faith of men (title page). Not only is Collingss
effort a demonstration of his considerable skill in the
epic conventions, but it also demonstrates an imaginative power that allows him to break free of the poetephebes infamous anxiety of influence (Bloom, Anxiety
3. During a forum at BYU on chiasmus in, as I
recall, the late seventies, I heard that one clever gentleman stood and reminded the audience that perfect chiasmus occurs in the old nursery rhyme, Hickory,
dickory, dock.
4. Robert Graves claims that only men can write
great poetry, for the muse, whether the White Goddess
of the Welsh bards or the Shekhinah of the Jewish Kabbalistic mystics, is female and must have some sort of
passionate yet cerebral and spiritual union with the
scribe, poet, bard (scop), or prophet (44647).
5. Oedipus behaved infamously in a foreign land,
slaying an older stranger where three roads met; he also
deserved his ultimate fate because of hubris, Jonahs

crime against Yahweh, which is If I journey far enough

from Israel, Yahweh cant hurt me, and his commandments will come to nought. Oedipus, instead of waiting on the solution to Apollos dreadful riddle, thinks
he can undo the God of Truth if he leaves Corinth for
Thebes. That hubris is a conscious, pernicious evil and
promotes the violations of hospitality that Yahweh
hates as much as any Greek deity.
Sodom, as the medieval Sepher ha-Yashar correctly
attests, is destroyed in part for its mistreatment of
strangersespecially angels (18.16). That sin is set
against Abrahams wonderful hospitality toward the
same strangers. Jesus condemned whole cities if they
were inhospitable to his twelve disciples, saying that
Sodom would get off lightly by comparison (Matt.
10:15). The ancient disciples shake the dust off their
feet for the obvious reason that no one was hospitable
enough to invite them in and wash their feet. The reason
Christs washing of the Apostles feet is so sacred (and
why the Adventists practice the rite to this day) is that
Christ is inviting these men into his heavenly home,
washing their feet because they are welcome guests (not
simply because Jesus is playing a servants role, as Peter
apparently thinks).
Suddenly, all of Jesus teachings about opening doors,
having dinner with people, turning water to wine, having God as a houseguest (gods, among the Greeks and
Romans) and inviting people to weddings fits into place.
The single universal law, among all ancient peoples and
humane modern nations, is hospitality. Guests covenant
not to betray hosts, and hosts covenant not to abuse
guests. The principle of hospitality applies to homes, tribes,
cities, and nations. It is not mentioned explicitly anywhere, because it is universal, and therefore implicitly
human and humane. Judas is condemned for dipping
his bread with a host he is about to betray.
In the epic the Iliad is a lenghty tale of Agamemnons pride and Achilles angeryour basic impoliteness.
The whole war is fought over Pariss being a pernicious
guest. Odysseus rightfully slays all the suitors in Ithaca
who have violated his pantry and mantelpiecenot to
mention how they abused his wife and son. It may be
among the most pervasive themes in tragedyLear is
the perfect example. There is plenty of guilt to pass
around in that play. The covenant of hospitality is in
many cases the underpinning of all truly great ancient
literature. The Book of Mormon provides instance after
instance of how various tribes and characters either
honor or reject the rules of hospitality.

The Book of Mormon as Proto-Epic

6. This simple solution has only rarely occurred to

Mormon theologians, though it is clear Jesus is called
the Son because he is created flesh and is his own Father
in the sense that Jehovah is father of all his creations.
I still cannot fathom why, when we know that some
of the sophisticated doctrinesplurality of deities,
Elohim as yet another deity different from Jehovah, or
human potential for godhoodappeared only shortly
before the Martyrdom in 1844, we must assume that
Amulek or even Joseph Smith understood them from
the beginning.
7. Speaking of epic dramas and of dramatic epics is
not nonsense, since from the beginning of epic criticism,
the two genres are linked, the only difference being length,
and of course the gradual disappearance of narrative
commentary (the chorus) in the drama.
8. For another example, consider the editing of the
narrative of Nehors confession: . . . and they carried
him upon the top of the hill Manti, and there he was
caused, or rather did acknowledge his evil and suffered
an ignominious death (Alma 1:15, emphasis mine).
This editing suggests a voluntary confession more consistent with the scribes own principles of Christian
friendly persuasion, and the new wording blunts the
more obvious scene of forced confession followed by
swift execution. It matters very little whether it was
in fact Mormon who made the change, or some other
scribe, though I see Mormons hand all through the
bookmost often without his formally acknowledging
his presence; such a rhetorical study is outside the scope
of this paper.

Packer, Boyd K. The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord.

Classic Speeches. Vol. 1. Provo, UT: Brigham Young
University Publications, 1994. 21127.
Parry, Donald. The Book of Mormon Text Reformatted
according to Parallelistic Patterns. Provo, UT:
FARMS, 1992.
Rust, Richard Dilworth. Feasting on the Word: The Literary Testimony of the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake
City: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997.
Sepher ha-Yashar. Salt Lake City: J. H. Parry, 1887.
Smith, Joseph Fielding, ed. Teachings of the Prophet
Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976.
Sondrup, Steven P. The Psalm of Nephi: A Lyric Reading. BYU Studies 21.3 (Summer 1981): 35772.
Welch, John W. Chiasmus in Ancient Greek and Latin
Literature. Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures,
Analyses, Exegesis. Ed. John W. Welch. Provo, UT:
FARMS, 1999. 25068.
Whitney, Orson F. Elias: An Epic of the Ages. Salt Lake
City: O. F. Whitney, 1914.

Bloom, Harold. The American Religion: The Emergence
of the Post-Christian Nation. New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1992.
. The Anxiety of Influence. 2nd ed. New York:
Oxford UP, 1997.
Collings, Michael R. The Nephiad: An Epic in Twelve
Books. Thousand Oaks, CA: Zarahemla Motets,
Cracroft, R. Paul. A Certain Testimony: A Mormon Epic
in Twelve Books. Salt Lake City: Epic West, 1979.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1966.
Nibley, Hugh. Christ among the Ruins. Ensign 13
(July 1983): 1419.
. Since Cumorah. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book,

Great Plots Leap over Many a Tightrope

Lael Littke

irst, I should say I know that my title is a mixed

metaphor. You leap over barriers, but you balance on tightropes. But I have never claimed to
write great literature. Ive always been a commercial writer, producing the structured, plotted story
that I was familiar with from my childhood when
I read the magazines my mother subscribed to
Ladies Home Journal, McCalls, and the Relief Society Magazine. When I began writing, I imitated.
I sold stories to all of these magazines. All my training has been in the commercial, or plotted, story.
I even taught a class titled The Commercial Short
Story at UCLA a few years ago.
After I sold several stories to Seventeen Magazine,
I decided to write novels for teens and preteens
because these, in general, call for the techniques
I knew.
I offer no apology for not trying to write great
literature. I had to make money, and writing the
commercial story was one way I could do it without working in an office. I dont think I could produce great literature if I tried. But there has been a
price to pay. Gene England, in a reprinted article in
the latest issue of Irreantum, said:
President Kimball appeared in an issue of the
Ensign which included (with implied approval)
artists across the full range of Mormon
approaches, from didactic home literature by
Orson F. Whitney, Charles Penrose, and Lael J.
Littke to recent realistic and experimental work
by Clinton Larson, Emma Lou Thayne, Donald
Marshall, and Orson Scott Card. (82)

When I told Mary Bradford about this statement, she sent an e-mail saying, I re-read Genes
article and I think he didnt even know your
work. . . . Why else would he lump you with the
ancients and not mention you in his childrens lit
I think he thought I was dead, like Whitney
and Penrose. But maybe Im just a bad writer. About
fifteen years ago, another of the leading LDS literary lights said, when we met for the first time, Well,
Lael, Ive been wanting to meet you for a long time.
Oh? I said, preening with pride.
Yes, she said. I wanted to tell you how much
I hated your stories in the old Relief Society Magazine.
I could have gone all my life without knowing
I dont hold Genes statement against him. I wish
he were here so I could tease him about it. I was a
great admirer of his and even came last year to
AML hoping to hear him speak. But thats when he
became ill.
Actually, theres some distinction to being at
the bottom of the heap. Its like winning the booby
prize at a party. Ive heard it said that a bad review
is better than no review at all. Ive never had a bad
review on any of my nationally published books
except one reviewer who didnt like my hunky
hero and said the book jacket was ugly (which
wasnt my fault!).
So theres a place for the commercial, or carefully plotted story and book. These are the stories
in which the theme line runs parallel to the plot
line, until they come together at the climax when

AML Annual 2003

the main character has an epiphany that brings

about a change in him or her. These are the stories
in which the despites get you through the miserable middles to help you arrive at a satisfyingbut
not always happyending.
My friend Eve Bunting, author of more than
two hundred books for children and young people,
says that a good plot has at least three despites
that put obstacles in the way of the main character.
My mentor, Helen Hinckley Jones, who was LDS,
by the way, made us always pose a plot question
and a theme question when we started a new story
or book. Will the little engine get the toys over the
hill for the children? Will the little engine come
to realize that persistence is what can make the difference between success and failure?
Didactic? Could be. But it teaches children something. I had a childrens literature professor when I
was at Utah State University who said that there is
a moral (or what I call theme) built into almost all
childrens stories (and adult ones, too), but kids
usually dont realize it until years later when suddenly it will occur to them that the whole point of
the Three Little Pigs is that, if you build your
character of bricks, the wolves of life cannot huff
and puff you down. Or in a tough spot they might
remember that it was persistence that got the little
engine over that hill.
Heres another quotation from Genes article:
Most students of literature have recognized that
literature inevitably has a problematic, integrated
dual purpose and effectto teach as well as
delight. . . . Most have also understood that the more
direct and conscious the effort to teach, the less
delightful the literature (76).
Books for young people almost always have the
purpose of teaching as well as delighting. Back in
the McGuffey Reader days, stories often ended essentially with, And now, dear children, the moral
is . . . Today were more subtle about it. But in the
commercial plotted story, the theme must be there.
If a book has no theme, it will probably come back
from an editor with a note saying, Too slight.
One charming book that Ive used in recent
speeches is Mark and Caralyn Beuhners Fannys
Dream, in which the heroine comes to realize, as

does Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, that sometimes we spend our lives pursuing a dream, only to
find that what we really want has been there in our
hands all along.
For more than thirty years, I and several other
students of Helen Hinckley Jones have met together
twice a week in Pasadena, California. We are all
convinced that what made it possible for the ten
of us to sell over six hundred books is what she
taught us about plot and theme.
We as Mormons are a moralistic people, so the
temptation to moralize, or be didactic, is strong.
But can our books find a market in the world outside our culture? And what barriers do we find
within our culture?
Ill talk about the second question first. When
I was writing for the old Relief Society Magazine
and Improvement Era, one of the editors sent me a
long list of taboos. The limits have expanded by
now, and I think most subjects can be addressed
for a Mormon audience as long as the character
CTRsChooses The Rightin the end.
What is the plot of the Great Mormon Novel?
If I knew, Id be home writing it. Our Mormon
story is more than polygamy, which so many books
have been about. Our story is also more than
somebody converting somebody else.
Somerset Maugham said, There are three
rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one
knows what they are.
One book that successfully leaped over a lot
of old barriersand sold very wellis Carroll
Morriss The Broken Covenant, published by
Deseret Book in the mid-80s. Written for adults,
it begins with a young married Mormon woman
coming home from a short fling in a motel with a
man she has been friendly with in a chorale. Well,
gasp! Not the usual LDS fare. But the heroine travels
a rough road through depression, excommunication, and rebuilding her whole family structure
after realizing that she is not the only one who is
flawed. She heads back to the Church with a totally
new understanding of and attitude toward a lot
of things.
You have to watch the cultural tightropes when
you pen books for the young people of the Church.

Great Plots Leap over Many a Tightrope

During the 90s I was doing a series about a class of

Beehive girls for Deseret Book. The second book
was The Mystery of Rubys Ghost, in which the girls
are helping on an old historical farm. On Sunday
its closed, so no meals are served. But the woman
who runs the place comes to pick them up, and
I wrote: Mahalia, by request, took them to
McDonalds for breakfast, then on to her ward for
church (104). The editor told me that she received
a furious letter from the mother of a preteen girl
who despairingly asked what good it did to teach
the girls correct principles if books published by
Deseret Book allowed such flagrant disregard of
commandments like not going to public places on
The tightrope lives!
Ive run up against the tightrope when Ive
loaned out my copy of John Bennions Falling
toward Heaven. One person asked, Why would a
Mormon reader want to waste time on a book
about a missionary who goes off to live with an
atheistic girl? I asked her if she didnt think the
last part of the book, where his Mormonness drives
him back, justified writing the story. She said she
didnt finish it. Her cultural barriers deprived her
of a good book.
Now, back to my first question: Can our books
find a market outside of our culture? Absolutely.
Ive received requests from three different editors to
try an overtly Mormon book. One even sent me a
nice write-up about the missionaries from her local
newspaper. She asked if I could use it in some way.
With all three editors I tried. And failed.
I remember Dean Hughes, author of many
books in both the LDS and national markets, saying hed been asked to write a Mormon novel,
too, and hadnt been able to come up with an
acceptable plot. But the opportunity is open.
For one editor I wrote three chapters and a brief
synopsis. The book began with the heroine sitting
in church observing the guys who are blessing the
sacrament, then went on into the activities of an
LDS teen. The proposal came back with a letter saying the setting was entirely too exotic. Exotic!
In one of my books titled Loydene in Love, I had
Loydenes cousin getting married. Not wanting to

go into a long explanation of an LDS wedding,

I had the young couple tie the knot in a chapel. My
editor at Harcourt called after I sent in the manuscript and asked, Is this really the way a Mormon
couple would get married? I said, No, probably
not. She said, Well, tell it the way it would be.
In another book I did for Scholastic, my heroine, Skye, goes to church with her grandfather, but
I closed the scene when they got to the parking lot.
My editor called and said, Take that girl inside the
However, as my Deseret Book editor said to me
once, Having your characters go to church does
not make a Mormon novel. I dont know that Ive
yet written a book where my characters are driven
by their Mormonness, as John Bennions character
is. But they arise from my Mormonness. A school
librarian told me once that my Prom Dress had the
dubious distinction of being the book most often
stolen from her library. It is very moralistic book,
arising from my own moralistic nature. Its about a
haunted dress. An original paperback put out by
Scholastic, it was by far my best seller. I received many
letters from young readers saying, Robin should
not have done what she did! Or Robin got what
she deserved. She did a bad thing. Yet they also
said, I couldnt put this book down! So, moralistic as the book is, the plot carried it along, and the
kids liked it.
My first book with Holt, Haunted Sister, begins,
It was raining on the day I died (1). Its a psychological suspense story, in which I examine the duality of human nature with our good and bad sides.
Its a very moralistic book, even didactic. But Ive
had dozens of letters like this one that says, I just
couldnt set it down. I feel like I could read this book
over and over and never get sick of it! (Sullivan)
I have a book coming out this spring with Holt
which begins, Families Are Forever (1). This is
the theme that runs all the way through the book,
although its a strange book in which the heroine
remembers things that happened before she was
born. A woman who believes in reincarnation tells
her she has lived before and has been born again to
help solve the puzzle of the disappearance of her
older brother, who vanished in a storm on a lake

AML Annual 2003

before she was born. The final statement of the

book is again, Families are indeed forever. I dont
know where this books fits on the cultural tightrope, but my editor likes it a lot.
On the other hand, she turned down another
weird one I just sent her about a boy who meets a
chicken who pecks out in Morse Code that he is the
founder of Bascombville, where the boy lives, and
that he has come back to help save Bascomb Park,
which is about to be taken over by developers. My
editor said it was too preachy and kids would think
theyre being prodded about the environment.
The tightrope is there. Some childrens editors
say they want edgy books, which can be loosely
defined as mega-realism. But is this what young
people want to read? I do a lot of school visits; and
one time when I was at an inner-city school, a seventh grader came up to ask what books I could
recommend for her to read. Looking at her rather
tough exterior, I cited some edgy books. She
shook her head and said, I want to read something thats different from the way I live. And I
could only remember my favorite passage in Man
of La Mancha when the Don Quixote/Cervantes
character says:
I have lived nearly fifty years, and I have
seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger . . . cruelty
beyond belief. . . . When life itself seems lunatic,
who knows where madness lies? . . . To surrender dreamsthis may be madness. . . . Too
much sanity may be madness. And maddest of
all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.

So Ill probably just stick with my didactic

tomes in which my heroines come to realize something that changes their lives for the better. Ill persist like the little engine, and Ill build my character
of bricks so that the wolf of rejection wont huff
and puff me down.
In conclusion, Ill offer my epitaph:
She lived write-ly
And died-actic.
LAEL LITTKE dreamed of being a writer during her years
of growing up on a farm in Mink Creek, Idaho. With
more than thirty-five books for young people to her

credit, she has realized that dream, and it is good. She

now lives in Pasadena, California.
1. E-mail from Mary Bradford, 2/25/02.
Bennion, John. Falling toward Heaven. Salt Lake City:
Signature Books, 2000.
England, Eugene. Mormon Literature: Progress and
Prospects. Irreantum 3.3 (Autumn 2001): 6793.
Littke, Lael. Haunted Sister. New York: Holt, 1998.
. Lake of Secrets. New York: Holt, 2002.
. Loydene in Love. New York: Harcourt, 1986.
. The Mystery of Rubys Ghost. Salt Lake City:
Deseret Book, 1992.
. Prom Dress. New York: Scholastic, 1989.
Morris, Carroll Hofeling. The Broken Covenant. Salt
Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985.
Sullivan, Kim. Letter (Whitmore Lake, MI). 12 November 2001.
Wasserman, Dale. Man of La Mancha. New York: Random House, 1966.

Saturdays Warrior:
Winning the Popular Market
Doug Stewart

[Editors note: Brother Stewart did not speak from

a text, and this summary is reconstructed from my
notes and his outline, which he kindly made available to me. Although it follows the basic outline of
his remarks, it is not a transcript. Omitted material
is not indicated by ellipses and bridging material may
not be in Brother Stewarts exact words.]

hen Marilyn Brown called and asked me to

make this presentation at AML, I said, Are
you serious? They want to hear from me? And as
you can see, Im here. I told Marilyn it would be a
casual speech, that Id speak from my heart and
an outline. I doubt that many of you are fans of
Saturdays Warrior and Ill bet theres not a soul here
who loves it. Ive read the posts on AML-List which
friends are kind enough to pass along. But Im not
here to convert you. Im here to speak on the topic
of winning the popular market and to answer the
question of why Saturdays Warrior continues to
resonate after twenty-nine years. Thats because it
speaks to the audience it was written for, and thats
LDS moms, dads, and kids. Saturdays Warrior
never pretended to be what it isnt. Its not Hamlet.
Its not Les Miserables or Stone Tables. Its a pop
Its a prodigal son story: two missionaries, a
lovable little girl, an aspiring artist, two lovers, and
approachable music. It speaks to the hearts of lots
of people. To call it a phenomenon is an understatement. To use the language of Hollywood,
it was a blockbuster, and it came from humble

I got my start writing student assemblies, most

notably The Purple Cow, with this memorable
line: Shes a razzmatazz purple cow / When she
waddles by, the bulls go wow! I love Shakespeare
and other authors. I sold my horse in high school so
I could buy a sound system and listen to Beethoven,
Stravinsky, Brahms, the Tabernacle Choir, and LeRoy
Robertsons Book of Mormon Oratorio. At BYU
I stumbled into a playwriting class and saw A Day,
a Night, and a Day and it really turned me around.
After I had my masters degree, I went to Los
Angeles, where I worked in the movies, including
on Where the Red Fern Grows, with Sonny and Cher,
and the King Family. Lex de Azavedo called me
up and took me and my wife to Van Nuys to a Baptist pop musical. It was about teens, drugs, and conversion to Christ. We went out to eat afterwards,
and Lex said, Doug, lets do a pop musical about
our culture, our beliefs. Something serious, but
something that will let us laugh at ourselves, too.
Our goal was to write something that would
reach families. Our greatest ambition was maybe to
have BYU do it and then license it out to stakes.
I got the Jimmy Flinders character and a few lyrics,
but not a story. I grabbed a pencil and wrote,
Who are these children coming down? and that
gave me the title. But I still didnt have a story.
A couple of months later, I moved back to
Provo and started working at the BYU Motion Picture Studio. I was actually a little relieved because
I just wasnt getting anything written.
People ask me a lot: Was Saturdays Warrior
inspired? This is my audience asking. People tell

AML Annual 2003

me they were inspired to write something, and I

never dismiss that. My ten-year-old daughter
Shelly prayed for inspiration about a composition
that she submitted to a contest, and I believe that
God inspired her. God takes us where we are.
Based upon our gifts, our talents, and our preparation, he can magnify us, if our desires are righteous, if were humble and willing to receive his
guidance. I believe Handel was inspired, and so
was my ten-year-old daughter.
Then one day Lex called and said he was planning to come up to Utah. Do you have anything
for me?
No, I dont, I answered, but I will.
I wont go into detail about how I was inspired;
but when Lex came, I read the outline to him.
When I looked up at the end of the reading, he was
very moved. I went out and spent the rest of the
day wandering the streets of Provo. For the next
two months, I went to work at 5:00 A.M. and
wrote, and I had a script.
In 1973, I entered it in the Utah State playwriting contest and the prize was a production.
Saturdays Warrior played for three weeks at BYU
to packed houses and was extended for seven performances. I knew we had something big on our
Then I came face to face with our first critic,
Charles Metten of BYUs Drama Department.
I stopped in the office to collect my royalty check
and congratulationsI thoughtand he said,
Nice try. Now go and write a real play. I was
stunned. I thought it was a real play that got this
huge response. I asked, If that wasnt a real something or other, then what was that response all
about? Dr. Metten was honest enough to say,
Doug, I dont understand the response. I left
his office, motivated to prove that I had something
of value.
In the summer of 1974, Lex arranged for
Chatsworth Stake to do a production at Forest
Lawn with a fifty-voice choir and about half of the
King family. Theyre like a Whos Who in Show
Biz. It caught on like wildfire, and Lex and I
formed Omega Productions. I borrowed $7,000
from my dad so I could pay for my half.

I quit my job at the BYU Motion Picture Studio and booked the American Fork High Schools
twelve-hundred-seat auditorium for forty-eight
performances. Kenny, my production manager,
quit because he said there was no way we could
fill the auditorium. We sold out completely and
extended for ten performances. Then we did seventy performances at South High in a very hot
summer with no air-conditioning.
Clifton Jolley, a columnist for the Deseret News,
was my next critic. He wrote a scathing review in
BYU Today. A friend who worked there called me
over and said, Doug, youve got to see this. It was
two or three boxes of letters complaining about
Cliff s reviewmaybe a thousand in the first
week. Cliff called me up and asked if I wanted to
write a rebuttal. We went to lunch. We became
good friends. He still hates the show.
For the next six years, Saturdays Warrior consumed my life. At any one time, we had two touring companies going, covering every major city
throughout the West. I hate the videowe jobbed
that outbut we estimate, including the video,
that its been seen by more than 3 million people.
Its been translated into Spanish, German, and
French. Its been produced in every major city in
the United States, and many in Europe, Mexico,
and South America.
Have people joined the Church because of Saturdays Warrior? I hope not. But I hope its perhaps
softened hearts in preparation for the real message.
It communicates to people. After the Forest Lawn
production, Lex was talking to all of his mothers
friendsshes one of the King sistersand asking
what they thought of this part and that part, and
one of the big producers said, Are you embarrassed by this, Lex? I dont believe in the preexistence any more than I believe in Brigadoon; but
when those two bumbling missionaries converted
the artist, I was cheering along with everybody
else. At the end of the run, about 20 percent of
our audience was nonmembers. One group was a
Baptist Sunday School class. I asked, What are
you doing here? and the teacher said, One of my
Mormon friends brought me and I just had to
share it with my class. Were going to make a

Winning the Popular Market

movieisnt everyone?and I guess Im making

the announcement now.
Many have told me what doesnt work in Saturdays Warrior. Its been criticized for structure,
two-dimensional characters, an overabundance of
schmalz, false doctrine, and simplemindedness;
but for every critic, we have ten thousand people
who have shown by their pocketbooks that they
like it just the way it is. James Arrington said in a
review, Saturdays Warrior works because it works.
Its approachable to the average guy on the street.
I challenge any Mormon playwright to go out and
do better than Doug Stewart, reaching an audience
so vast.
After twenty-eight years, am I proud of Saturdays Warrior? Maybe proud is the wrong word.
Im pleased that somehow the meager talents the
Lord has given me have been used to do some good
in the world. And I do believe its been a blessing to
individuals and families. My reward is the hundreds of letters in which parents thank me for a son
or daughter who got turned around or the people

who were first introduced to the Church through

it, or couples who tell me they decided to have
a baby.
The Provo Herald, nearly a year after we did a
production at Springville, had a photograph of all
these baby cribs spilling out of the maternity ward
and lined up in the hallways. They couldnt figure
out why there was this sudden jump in births right
then. And most of all, Im glad I had a hand in creating a landmark production that has opened
doors for others who have taken a stab at dreaming
big. I feel that maybe Ive helped open some of
those doors for them.
When President Kimball told us in 1977 that
the Church would yet have its Shakespeares and
Michelangelos, he didnt mention that arriving at
that point is going to be a process and that individuals with varying levels of talent, taste, interest,
skill, and discipline could well assist in arriving at
that day, bringing to an ever-growing LDS market
all forms of entertainment and inspiration.


Saturdays Warrior:
The Pioneering Art of the Mormon Ethos
Noreen Astin

arilyn Brown, immediate past president and

program chair for this years conference, has
asked me to speak about Saturdays Warrior following the remarks of Doug Stewart, the playwright
who is obviously fond of his play. I am also addressing
a group of Mormon literary intellectuals. Many of
you may not like all aspects of this particular play,
according to comments Ive overheard. My position,
therefore, is something like walking a tightrope. To
offer something of value to you of both viewpoints,
I have chosen not to present a critical evaluation of
this play. I have, instead, opted to speak on the
important new trail that this play has cut for us
as a Mormon audience in our pursuit of our own
Saturdays Warrior is a pioneering work. I have
heard young people singing songs from this musical while standing in line in the early morning,
waiting for conference sessions in the Tabernacle
as we used to do. These songs gave that group of
youth a sense of identity, similar to what Come,
Come, Ye Saints did for the Mormon pioneers
and Mormons in general. The lyrics from this play
sharpened the desire to become the Saturdays
Warriors of whom Stewart wrote.
Perhaps, intellectuals dismiss Saturdays Warrior as flawed. They sneer that because a musical is
popular, it must not be a serious work of art. These
same intellectuals often dismiss many of the worlds
major musicals, from those of Rogers and Hammerstein to those of Andrew Lloyd Webber. These
objections do not change the popularity, the importance, or the impact of these musicals. The ability

these musicals have to reach people is a powerful

quality and it should not be underestimated or
Shakespeare appealed to the groundlings as well
as to the very cultured and well educated. He
reached the lay audience member. He knew of the
importance of appealing to popular sentiment.
Doug Stewart also has great influence with Saturdays Warrior, reaching the lay Mormon audience
member. In ignoring this audience, a writer is perhaps as shortsighted as a politician who ignores a
large segment of voters.
When I asked Doug about his play, he told me
that his intention was to write a pop musical,
appealing to the widest audience possible. He did
not set out to compete with the greatest of the
great. Doug appreciates the classics but also enjoys
light comedy. He tried to incorporate more of the
latter in his play.
As a Mormon people, we have not produced
anything else as popular as Saturdays Warrior. It
stands alone as the watershed popular Mormon
musical, opening the way, beckoning other writers
to follow. I see in Dougs example the directive to
all theater workers to go and do thou likewise.
Doug said his musical has exceeded his expectations. The public has spoken. The play is loved. Its
impact cannot be denied. Yet both the educated
theatergoers and the music purists frequently doubt
that the play has merit.
However, in determining what is good, meaning of God, we should look at the standard given
us in Moroni 7:1617. If the work prompts us to

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do good works, it is of God; and if the work

prompts us to do evil, it is from Satan. This is a
standard of righteousness; it should be upheld and
recognized as the first and foremost consideration,
more important than any other qualities a work
may have of excellence in craftsmanship. Those
characteristics also ought to be in place, certainly;
but a righteous playwrights intention should be
promoting the Lords work, wholly or in part. Saturdays Warrior has promoted good works. It therefore meets this first objective.
Intellectuals might say the play does not measure up to artistic standards. Ive heard this sentiment expressed in London by students from BYUs
Theater Department and by local theater board
members in this valley. Some have thought this
play was not a serious work of theater. Doug has
admitted to me that he has heard many criticisms
of the play. He told me hes heard all about shallow characters and false doctrine and too many
plots going on at once, and too easily solved. . . .
He even admitted that some of these critics might
be right. Still, he also can cite the fact that people
have been activated in church attendance and
strengthened in their testimonies, becoming better
people because of their involvement with the play.
He mentioned that he is happy to be connected
with the play because of those results.
In 2 Nephi 9:28 people are cautioned against
thinking that they are wise when they are
learned. The great scholar Hugh Nibley humbly
remarked in the video about his life, Faith of an
Observer, that he and others like him know virtually nothing in comparison with Gods knowledge.
No earthly artist or writer can make the works
God can produce. Were told in 1 Corinthians 2:9
that the eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, and it
has not even entered into the heart of man the
things which God hath prepared for the people
who love him and keep his commandments. That
scripture suggests that there is art and music and
perhaps even theater available at a future time, that
weas a Mormon audience and communitycannot now even imagine, let alone produce.
God clearly has a higher standard than we do.
Yet he loves our efforts, particularly when they are

done to celebrate him and his ways. This is much

the same as the mother who lovingly hangs the awkward art of her kindergarten child on the refrigerator. She would never dismiss it arrogantly because
she has greater ability. We all drank milk before
eating meat. God loves us in all our various stages
of maturity as creators, and we deceive ourselves if
we think we are in anything but spiritual infancy in
our eternal creative efforts. The efforts of the greatest creators in the world are minuscule in comparison with the capacities of God, and they were
produced only through the help of God. Still he
blesses us for and with our artistic efforts, regardless of their inferiority in comparison with his aweinspiring scale of excellence. Thus, we are foolish
and proud to dismiss a work as insignificant because
we know better. We step on thin ice to utterly
condemn any work that may be pleasing, wholly or
in part, to God.
Christ gave us the directive to become as little
children. Ether 12:2325 gives a caution to those
who discount the truth because of awkwardness
in the writing. This directive may be applied to more
than these scriptures. In art, for example, the message
of the painting is more important than the stylishness of the frame. In our everyday lives, the nourishment of the meal is more important than the
china on which the food is presented. While a noble
sentiment may be awkwardly expressed, it is still
noble. Critical artistic thinking also changes with
the times, and what was once thought of as good is
often pass. Artists such as OKeefe and Picasso have
stepped across the realistic and classical boundaries
which were once the ideal. Our prolific Mormon
painters C.C. A. Christensen and Minerva Teichert
did not follow conventional realistic or idealized
guidelines for portraiture and landscape painting.
What a rich and wonderful heritage they both have
left us in their own individual styles.
It seems that there may be an idea among some
intellectuals that, when a writer is more mature, he
or she will outgrow the desire to spread the gospel.
Sometimes the result of more education in the arts
is less desire to share the gospel. Thus, more is often
less. Mormon artists have often been known to show
a frightening willingness to accept the ways of the

The Pioneering Art of the Mormon Ethos

world as part of their necessary education. We

should take the excellence offered by the world but
be ourselves. We need to stand up and be the peculiar people we are admonished to be in scripture
(1 Pet. 2:9). It almost seems as if we Mormon people
try to tiptoe around in our activities, hoping
nobody will notice the fact that we are who we are.
Sometimes the admonishment in artistic training
is to follow the world and do what the world says is
correct and fashionable. We do need to learn and
be more discerning, both as writers and as audiences. That, however, is the subject of another discourse. In our learning, we should not abandon
our identity. We should take the excellence offered
by the world, but be ourselves. We need to be in
the world, but not of it.
The humble Tevye in the musical Fiddler on
the Roof did not hide the fact that he believed
he was talking to God. He did so openly and frequently. Tevyes religion made him who he was, and
he did not cover this fact or apologize for it. I heard
author Chris Heimerdinger at a BYU Science Fiction
Symposium recently urge that Mormon writers portray themselves as they are: Mormon, with Mormon
ideals. He stated that Mormon writers should write
from the Mormon perspective and bring that view
to the world. Weand theymust not, as the scriptures admonish, hide our lights under a bushel (see
Matt. 5:15).
We do not have to step to the drum of society,
in the words of Thoreau. We will not be able to
follow that beat as society becomes increasingly
corrupt. In Rome, the entertainments that were
eventually chosen in the Colosseum did not need
writers and plots. We, as Mormon artists and audiences need to step forward and provide alternative
choices for the use of leisure time. We need to produce and support Mormon theater work. We should
not scorn it because it is not fully developed. If we
do, we are turning our backs on tomatoes in June
because they are small and not yet ripe. We are
refusing to irrigate further. Yet August would have
brought an abundant harvest of fully formed produce, had we weeded and irrigated the crop.
We are not a perfect people, although we have
a perfect example. We are human, and we all make

mistakes. Good characters in plays are also human.

Tevye didnt pretend he was perfect. I applaud
Richard Dutcher for presenting Mormons as human
beings with problems in his two films Gods Army
and Brigham City. Doug Stewart also did this in his
portrayal of his protagonist, Jimmy. An honest portrayal of character is important, and it doesnt take
away from a viewers feeling about the Church. We
need to avoid getting caught in the web of past
years standards of verisimilitude, or the assertion
that people of high station (or with a great religion
or religious position) could act only in high (or
righteous) ways. We need to be fearless, allowing
people to realize that we are human beings.
Writers have often been thought of as strange
ahead of their times, believing they had something
worthwhile to say. This happens even in our LDS
circles, although we ought to be more enlightened.
Author Anita Stansfield spoke to our Harbor First
Ward Relief Society meeting on the evening of
9 September 2001 in American Fork, Utah. I was
saddened but not surprised as she confessed that
some ward members regarded her with suspicion
when she announced her hobby as writing romance
novels instead of scrapbooking, quilting, doing
counted cross-stitch, or something similar. We, as a
Mormon audience, should be thrilled when someone has a desire to create. If, like a missionary,
a person has a desire, we can perhaps stretch the
scripture to think that, in that given field, he or
she is called to the work (D&C 4:3). In many
cases, much artistic technique can be taught. We
claim to believe that we seek after things that are
virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy (Article of Faith 13). Sometimes that
claim is only lip service.
I have a friend who lives in London who comes
to visit the Salt Lake area periodically. Shes a convert to the Church and is very devout. She said that
she can find any kind of theater in the world in
London, done as well as it can be done anywhere . . .
except Mormon theater. Then she remarked that
she could not find Mormon theater even here. Shes
visited three times for two weeks at a time. All we
were offering then were basically Broadway shows
from thirty years ago, since these were the only

AML Annual 2003

ones clean enough to do. I told her that periodically we offer religious things. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was my main example,
but that show is frequently produced in London,
as well. I pointed out some occasional harmless
original works for family entertainment, but she
did not think of them as Mormon. I mentioned
that we produce actual Mormon things here, too,
some of the time. She thought it sad and wondered
why the offerings were so sparse. She had come to
the heart of Mormon country to see Mormons having the courage to set the standards of entertainment for their area, since they were in the majority.
She wished we would really be Mormons, as she
put it, in the arts. She was disappointed. She claimed
that everything we were offering was being done
better in London. We had nothing for her. While
I know this is not always the case, and while the
number of offerings is better now than it was then,
I am still saddened by her feeling that we Utah
Mormons are faltering in our role to lead in the
arts in this area.
We need to build our own literary body of art
as a Mormon people. This has to be a priority. We
cannot complain if the repertoire is not yet full of
worthy works. This is a society of instant gratification, and we all want our brand-new houses and
new cars on credit, now. The Mormon culture
grew up, however, on the farming ethic. We plant
a seed and nurture it, and it grows. It is true that
the tougher plants will survive long lapses of a gardeners attention; but they will be weakened, and
many works will be lost. Yes, tares will grow with
the wheat, but they will be separated at the end
of the harvest.
The finished body of Mormon art will not
instantly spring forth fully grown and mature, like
the mythical Athena from the head of Zeus. It needs
time. Growth takes time and patience. We should
not be the frogs that pull another down as he tries
to climb out of the kettle. We need a spirit of cooperation, not competition, to promote a much-needed
Mormon renaissance in the arts.
All artists deserve some warm-up time. Pitchers need it. Vocalists require it. Instruments need to
take time to tune. Our writers need time to find

their voices and figuratively clear their throats. God

also matches the efforts of those with righteous desires,
and his help is often felt. Many famous creators in
all fields acknowledge help from a divine source.
The result was not due to the artists efforts alone,
but the artist first prepared himself or herself.
Sometimes water has to run from a tap for a
little while to become clear. This purification process
takes time. Babies crawl before they walk, and they
stumble in taking their first steps. This also takes
time. Small regular deposits add up to large sums
in savings accounts. This is, again, a result of sustained effort over many days. Rembrandts early popular style of paid portraiture developed into more
significant later works such as Night Watch in his
mature years. Many artists and writers grow and
improve as they practice their crafts. Shakespeare
wrote Titus Andronicus in his early years and King
Lear later. Even the master poet matured and developed his craft over the years of his lifetime.
Shakespeare was also helped by the climate of
general interest in theater held by the audiences and
fostered by the work of other authors. This interest
in theater prompted interest in each new work
Shakespeare produced, and it was probably a big
factor in his development. The impetus to be a playwright probably didnt come from home. Shakespeares father was a glovemaker and merchant. It
seems likely that he wanted young Shakespeare to
follow in that career. Similarly, George Lucas reported
in a televised interview that his own father worked
hard to build up a thriving business, and he wanted
George to take over and run the stationery store for
his lifes work. That career choice was not the one
young Lucas made, and this decision was initially
disappointing to the elder Mr. Lucas. Somehow
both Shakespeare and George Lucas received the
support they needed from the community to follow their own dreams and make their own significant marks. They improved and become excellent
in their own paths, in time.
Painter Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting, for the equivalent of about ten dollars, in his lifetime. Emily Dickinsons poems were completely
unknown to the public during her lifetime (Janaro
and Altshuler 128, 177). I wonder what more she

The Pioneering Art of the Mormon Ethos

and Van Gogh could have accomplished in their lifetimes had they had community support throughout their careers. I also wonder how many
hundredsor thousandsof other budding writers and artists have died unknown, lacking any
help and encouragement in their work. There are
probably many. We as a Mormon community
should make it a motto to spread our money. In
the words of Dolly in the popular musical Hello,
Dolly! quoting her husband Ephraim Levi, we
should spread money around like manure,
encouraging little things to grow.
I took a writing class from playwright Tim
Slover at BYU. He showed great tolerance, confidence, and patience. He helped us bring our own
works into fruition, and our plays improved over
the course of the semester. With his direction and
encouragement, and with practice, some writers
began to develop what looked like the beginnings
of talent in the class. In some cases, this writing
ability had not been conspicuously present at the
beginning of the class. Encouragement, along with
some training and practice, brought about improvement. I noticed the same phenomenon in an art
class I taught for Nebo School District. A mother
enrolled in the class to help her young son with his
drawing, but she began to improve her own skills
as she practiced and received direction and encouragement. This improvement can happen.
We, as a Mormon community, need to have
some confidence that writers with increasing skill
will emerge with greater and greater works of merit.
I attended a workshop at a recent Mormon Arts
Festival taught by Dr. Rodger Sorensen, a BYU
instructor. He stated that his directing students
start with chaos but eventually grow into order
when they are given a directing task to accomplish.
In his opinion, the chaos is even a necessary step in
the creative process, and he compares this idea
to the creation of the Earth from the raw materials.
I spoke with BYU professor and director Barta
Heiner while attending the annual Utah High
School Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City in
September 1991. She tells her acting students that,
if they deeply think about their characters and
the tragic situations in which these characters find

themselves, the appropriate emotional signseven

tearswill follow. She said that this emtional
response took placeeven for young actors
when they really followed this direction.
So it is with our creative works as a Mormon
community. These will unfold, step by step, like
butterfly wings emerging from the chrysalis. Many
painters employ steps in their creative process that
could look a bit doubtful to a viewer. Yet they are
essential to the success of the end product. The
painter needs to be allowed the freedom to find the
style and method that suits the purpose. Every
kindergarten teacher knows the truth that improvement does take place in an atmosphere of confidence and love. We still are much like those students
in many ways: we are creatures who need confidence and encouragement and direction, rather
than indifference and disdain. Our artists and writers are no different.
Naturally, in the course of eternal progression,
the skills of each artist and writer will improve and
develop. We can assume that a perfect being, an
omniscient Godsomeone we hope to emulate
is able to do all things well, if he desires. Therefore
we can reason that a high degree of perfection in the
arts may be possible and even probable in our distant divine futures. Thus, as we learn and become
more perfectboth as artists and as audience
membersour works of art will also become more
perfect. Mormon artists will improve throughout
the eternities.
Concentrating on producing only work of the
best quality can be intimidating. It was only when
George Bernard Shaw adopted some healthy and
realistic skepticism about some of Shakespeares
works that Shaw was himself able to write well.
Ive heard suspicious rumorsperhaps in English
departmentsabout a kind of strict mental reverence for the great writers of the past that almost
paralyzes anyone in this generation from producing original work. We, as writers and as a Mormon
people, think our first work needs to be better than
the old masters culminating triumph, forgetting
that we need figuratively to use the on-ramp to
build up our speed before entering the freeway of
production. The master of piano performance first

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had to learn to play piano scales. Each playwright

has to do the same in the written word.
We will find that the quality and quantity of
our Mormon literature and theater will increase,
with Gods help. In Doug Stewarts own lyrics from
Saturdays Warrior, we will gain it:
Line upon line
Precept on precept
Like a summer shower
Giving us each hour His wisdom. . . .
Line upon line upon line.

Overzealous critics can be harmful to a budding writer. It is far easier to tear down a person
and a work than to build up either. We as audience
members need to be more cautious about criticizing and more concerned about helping. When a
Boy Scout wants to build a fire, he nurtures the
small spark. He adds tiny bits of kindling, dry moss,
and twigs, a bit at a time. Big logs must wait until
the flame is strong and burning brightly. We should
use the same approach in helping to build the body
of theater works that reflect our values. We need to
gently feed and protect our beginning fire, blocking the winds of hostility. Playwrights need encouragement to make their second efforts, and their
third. We need their voices.
It takes great courage for a playwright like
Doug Stewart to offer his own feelings, exposing
himself in a work of art. Some writers have called
their works their children, because of the amount
of time and interest invested. Writing is a sacrifice.
There are many ways to spend ones time that are
far easier than writing and that avoid the backache,
eyestrain, stiff legs, and possible carpal tunnel syndrome. This playwright could have rested or played
golf or watched TV or gone on numerous outings
or curled up with a number of books. All of these
activities would have been easier and probably more
pleasant. He didnt write this work simply as a diversionary activity for his own recreation. Writing is
hard, concentrated work. Doug Stewart wrote it so
that we, as a Mormon people, might be enriched.
Doug has blown the initial trumpet blast that can
lead to the tumbling down of evils walls of Jericho.
More sound is needed to complete the task.

Doug Stewart and his play make up part of the

vanguard. He has nobly cut a path for us, as the early
pioneer company did for those coming in 1847.
Saturdays Warrior was a new venture. It was difficult for Doug to break this ground. He took risks.
Yet, he has shown us that the Mormon community
is hungry for a genre representative of our own lifestyle. It is a shame to let the path he has cut grow
over with weeds. More vehicles need to follow the
wagons and handcarts. Motorized vehicles are now
being sought. As the Doctrine and Covenants states,
the field is white already to harvest (D&C 4:4).
We need to take action and follow up, and not lose
momentum and opportunity.
In our local Mormon community theaters and
schools, we choose most of our plays from Samuel
French and other New York catalogues. The plays
suitable for a Mormon audience are often harmless
and delightful, even with uplifting messages; but
theyre the same ones being produced in many other
small-town communities across the United States
sometimes in more artistic and lavish productions.
Its nice for us as producers to provide acting,
directing, and designing opportunities for local
people; but we, as LDS art-supporters, can do so
much more. We can share our unique witness.
Shouldnt having the gospel give us additional
light to offer as good entertainment? Is a Mormon
artist really converted, if that light does not come
through in his or her work? Im positive that, if we
provide the venues and opportunities, writers will
come forth with a series of good works. In the words
of a character in the recent motion picture Field of
Dreams, If you build it, they will come. If we
provide the soil, the works will begin to grow. We
can have Saturdays Warrior and more plays that
will come, building upon each other, for now and
for all the Saturday evenings we have from now
through the Millennium.
How can we as Mormon people promote our
own plays and help playwrights? A contest could
be sponsored and advertised by a private party or
club. A stipend could be offered as a prize for
a contest, or goods or services could be offered.
Authors could be asked to speak or give master

The Pioneering Art of the Mormon Ethos

classes for civic groups or friends in a neighborhood. Testimonials could be offered about the works.
We can ask writers about their work and offer suggestions and encouragement. We can ask producers to play more Mormon work and then attend
the productions. We can offer rehearsal space or
advertising or a piece of costuming that might have
been thrown out. I call on you as community members to do whatever you can to promote and support. Be involved in putting on a Mormon play or
in generating a new one. You could even have a slot
for a regular Mormon production on the season,
if youre a producer. Playwrights need financial
support, as do we all. Above all, we can attend the
productions and speak highly of the positive aspects
of the experience.
If we do our part as an artistic community to
build our budding artists, all the Mormon arts
would flower. Every year we would see at least one
major musical produced, each better than the last.
The effect would snowball. Eventually people of
the world, as well as those within our community,
would look to us for wholesome and wonderful
entertainment. There are many people outside the
Mormon faith who are also crying for excellent stories without filth.
My visit to the 1998 American College Theater
Festival demonstrated that most cutting-edge
modern theater offerings do not come close to
fitting Mormon standards in their content. My
recent trips to London have shown the same thing.
Directors have even added nudity to works of
Shakespeare. The Mormon college graduate who
hopes to become a professional actor or actress
will likely be asked to compromise standards in a
Hollywood or Broadway setting. The world needs
our uplifting type of art and writing. The more
Godlike we become, the greater need we will fill to
create and foster uplifting things. That desire is one
evidence of our own divine heritage and our similarity to our eternal parents. They create good
things, and so do we.
Christ will come again. We may want to take
him to the theater while he is visiting. We may prepare a special pageant, full of wonderful effects,

similar to the spectacular event we witnessed for

the Olympics in The Light of the World. That is certainly an appropriate option. Christ, however, may
also come to a small Utah community without the
resources to stage such a spectacle. We dont want
to limit ourselves to offering him only a play written
in the 1940s or 1950s. Perhaps instead we could
proudly take him to something that is new, not a
revival, and even currently running on Broadway,
featuring fine actors, directors, and designers. Generally we would have to do much surgical removal
of immodest clothing, inappropriate actions, and
bad language. Can we dilute the worlds expressions
and stamp the remaining work as Mormon art? Is
the absence of evil really the same as the presence
of good? Even if we find the rare, wholesome new
show from New York and bring it here and produce it well, will this kind of effort really impress
Christ that we are letting our light so shine
(Matt. 5:16) to the fullest? Might he not think that
were being wicked and slothful servants if we offer
him only what is already available and playing in
other towns? That sort of show might entertain,
but it might not teach. Do we do any better if we
can offer only an array of lightly scripted historical
vignettes in one program, flitting across numerous
situations, but without a strong central character
and story? That event might teach, but it might
not be great entertainment without the lavish addition of special effects, large musical numbers, and
great costumes. We need to be able to teach and to
entertain. We as a Mormon people need to foster
and produce scripts that can inherently do both,
regardless of the budget restrictions of the play
The Lord wants us to bloom in the arts as a
Mormon people. Remember the Parable of the Talents? (see Matt. 25). The servant who magnified
his talents was commended. Arent we still stepping
to the worlds drumbeat if we dont also have
mighty works from our own writers to offer the
Lord? Is having a production in New York or London the only stamp of excellence for a play? If it is,
why arent we striving harder to give to, rather than
take from, those offerings?

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The arts are important to us as Mormons.

Brigham Young directed people to build opera houses
and theaters alongside the churches and schools in
the burgeoning Utah settlements, and the early
Saints championed dance and song. The music of
the Tabernacle Choir touches lives and brings the
gospel to peoples attention many times. We are
touched by the marvelous paintings and sculptures
in and around Temple Square. Observers can live a
thousand lives through works of excellent art in all
its forms. The Holy Ghost can move us to righteousness through excellent works of art that promote good. There is a need for entertainment.
We will seek our diversions almost as a baby seeks
milk, and it is a pity if the only milk we have available is either powdered, watered down, or sour. We
ought to go milking in our own fields, bringing in
our own fresh product. Dont all dairy-oriented
regions produce their own varieties of cheeses? Like
Pippin or the characters in The Fantastiks, we have
yet to realize that the source of our happiness is
here, in our own simple communities and lives,
rather than in what appears exciting out there.
Elder Boyd K. Packer in 1976 challenged Mormon artists to better use their light to bless people
with their gifts:
Some have reached great heights in their
chosen fields. But few have captured the spirit
of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Restoration
of it in music, in art, in literature. They have
not, therefore, even though they were gifted,
made a lasting contribution to the onrolling of
the Church and kingdom of God in the dispensation of the fullness of times. They have therefore missed doing what they might have done,
and they have missed being what they might
have become. (60)

A year later in the July 1977 Ensign, President

Spencer W. Kimball called for Mormons to produce wonderful works that share our own knowledge. He declared:
We are proud of the artistic heritage that
the Church has brought to us from its earliest
beginnings, but 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 masterpieces should run for
months in every movie center, cover every part
of the globe in the tongues of the people. (5)

In President Kimballs words, we can improve

on the greatest art the world has ever known: Take
a da Vinci or a Michelangelo or a Shakespeare and
give him a total knowledge of God and personal
revelation and cleanse him and then look at the
statues he will carve and the murals he will paint
and the masterpieces he will produce (5).
Doug Stewart has figuratively offered us an
artistic Olympic torch to carry forward. We can do
it. Let us not stumble and stuff it into a snowbank, as I heard LaVell Edwards quip at the
Olympics torch-lighting ceremony in Provo in
February 2002. Let us not let it go out because of
our indifference. As the scriptures say, many people
will not open their mouths . . . because of the fear
of man and the Lord is not well pleased (D&C
60:2) with this inaction.
We need to be the Saturdays Warriors who
pioneer new works of Mormon art in all forms,
and there is not much time. As Doug Stewart has
pointed out in his play, this is the Saturday night
before the morning of the first resurrection.
NOREEN ASTIN has a Ph.D in theater history and criticism from BYU with a minor in art history. In addition
to mothering eight children, she teaches English part
time at Utah Valley State College and humanities at Salt
Lake Community College, chairs the New Plays Contest Committee for the Villa Theater in Springville,
Utah, and won the critics award in the spring of 2002
at the four-state Rocky Mountain Theater Conference
for her play reviews.
Janaro, Richard Paul, and Thelma C. Altshuler. The Art
of Being Human: Humanities for the 21st Century.
6th ed. New York: Longman, 2000.
Kimball, Spencer W. The Gospel Vision of the Arts.
Ensign (July 1977): 57. Adapted from Education
for Eternity, an address to the BYU faculty and
staff in Speeches of the Year (196768), 1219.

The Pioneering Art of the Mormon Ethos

Lucas, George. Interview about the filming of Star Wars

Episode I. Aired on KSL Television. April 1999.
Nibley, Hugh. Interviewed in Faith of an Observer:
Conversations with Hugh Nibley. Video documentary. Sterling Van Wagonen, dir.; Brian Capener and
Alex Nibley, writers. Provo, UT: Brigham Young
University in association with the Foundation for
Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1986.
Packer, Boyd K. The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord.
Ensign 6.8 (August 1976): 60+. A fireside address
given at Brigham Young University 1 February


Serpents in Our Midst:

What Brigham City Tells Us about Ourselves
John Charles Duffy

othing attracts a serpent like a paradise.1

So reads the tagline for Richard Dutchers
most recent film, Brigham City, a story about good
people threatened by evil forcesconventional
fare for thrillers. But Brigham City aspires to be
more than a conventional thriller. It aspires to
address theological questions like, Do we have
to lose our innocence to gain wisdom? or Can a
murderer find forgiveness? And, of course, it is
one of the very first nationally distributed feature
films to present a Latter-day Saint community
through the eyes of an insider rather than those of
an outsider.
Its said that literature holds up a mirror to life.
So what do we see in the mirror that is Brigham
City? What does this film tell us about ourselves?
How is our community, the community of the
Saints, portrayed in Brigham City, especially in
relationship to the outside world? And what does
the films preference for that particular portrayal
suggest about our communitys values?
One of the principal messagesperhaps the
principal messagethis film sends is that the
Saints cannot afford to be innocent, at least not in
the sense of being gullible. We have to recognize
that we live in a world where terrible things happen, that simply praying and leading a good life
will not provide immunity from evil, and that we
therefore need to take precautions. Its a reasonable
message, but as I look closely at how the film goes
about making its case, I become concerned.
During a scene in the first half of the film,
Ralph, the construction foreman, tells the story of

being robbed by one of his employees and discovering afterwards that this employee had a criminal
record. Its my own fault, Ralph concludes. I
never did any kind of background check. . . . I took
his word. I deserved to get robbed. And from then
on, anybody whos on my crew, I know who they
are and where they come from. And I dont hire no
man with a shady history. Ralphs story foreshadows the conclusion of the film, when Wes discovers
that his own failure to check Terrys background
has brought a wolf into the center of the flock. Had
Wes taken the precautions that Ralph takes, the
film proposes, these murders would never have
However, Ralphs refusal to hire [any] man
with a shady history implies a philosophy of once
a criminal, always a criminal. This philosophy
denies the possibility that a person can change,
which is to say that it denies the principles of
repentance and forgiveness. And the film knows
this. Ralph admits that his approach may not be
Christlike. Later, Terry will cite this same unforgiving attitude on the part of the people in Snowflake, Arizona, as the reason that he felt forced to
adopt a new identity. They dont forgive you,
Terry says, not ever. For the rest of your life, no
matter how good you are. But while the film
acknowledges the un-Christlike, unforgiving nature
of the strategy it promotes, still the film insists that
this is the strategy the Saints need to adopt for coping with life in a dangerous world. What the film
ends up saying, intentionally or not, is that forgiveness and Christlike behavior are luxuries we

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cannot afford, at least not in our relations with

strangers. Within our own community, yes, we can
live out the principles of repentance and forgiveness, as in the moving sacrament meeting scene
which brings the film to a close. But we cannot
afford to live out those principles in our relationships with outsiders. Its not safe, this film says.
That leads us to another message this film sends:
that there is a sharp divide between the community
of the Saints and the outside world. The Saints of
Brigham City are depicted as representing all that
is good and innocenta Mormon Mayberry, a
paradise. By contrast, the films hero sums up the
outside world as murderers, rapists, robbers, kids
with guns . . . the same story over and over again.
Where Brigham City follows the stereotypical Utah
Mormon pattern of a chapel on every corner, one
of the outsiders in the film brags that where he
comes from, there are taverns on every corner and
whorehouses in between.
This isnt exactly a nuanced or sophisticated
worldview; and indeed, Dutcher seems to realize
that he is vulnerable to accusations of not being
sophisticated, because as Wes Clayton, he addresses
those accusations explicitly in the film. In a conversation with Meredith, the non-LDS federal agent
from Manhattan, Wes says, Ive heard it all my
life. Because we dont want to experience some of
the things out there, some people think were naive.
In what we are apparently intended to see as a
clever rhetorical move, Wes flips the accusation of
naivete, maintaining that, actually, the Saints are
experienced in the things that truly count, and that
its the people of the world who are naive because
they dont share those experiences. We have our
own experiences, Wes insists. We get down on
our knees, and say our prayers, and we do our best
to live the way God wants us to live; and every now
and again, He gives us a little experience. Wes adds,
I guess were both naive to one extent or another,
just about different things. Note that while that
last statement sounds egalitarian, it isnt really,
because the kind of naivete Wes attributes here to
the Saints is desirable, while the kind of naivete
he attributes to the outside world is undesirable.
Earlier the film had asked: Do we have to lose

our innocence to gain wisdom? The films answer

is two-pronged. On the one hand, the film argues
that, yes, regrettable though it be, the Saints have
to lose their innocence, in the sense that they
have to give up their childlikeness, their trustingness, their gullibility, in order to protect themselves. But the film wants the Saints to retain their
innocencetheir naivete, as Wes puts itin the
sense of not experiencing the wickedness which
the film represents as originating in the outside
world. Once again, we see the films dichotomous
worldview. The Saints are innocent, good, righteous;
the world is sinful, corrupt, and wicked, threatening to overrun the community of the Saints. The
film suggests that there was a time when the Saints
of Brigham City were sufficiently isolated from the
outside world to keep themselves safe. But times
have changed; growth and prosperity have brought
the Saints into closer contact with outsiders. A new
way of life threatens to seduce the Saints away from
the old values. Hence, Wes tells Ralph that he wishes
he could slow down the towns growth: Im . . .
trying to keep things reined in, he says, implying
that he feels things are racing out of control. Stu
expresses the same feeling when he gives the speech
that provides the tagline for the film: Little places
like thisour days are numbered, you know. The
rest of the world wont let us be. Theyre going to
drag us in, whether we like it or not. See, what
weve got here is a little paradise. And nothing
attracts a serpent like a paradise.
This fear that the Saints paradise is threatened
with destruction gives rise to the films insistence
that the Saints need to be on guard, even if that
means being unforgiving or un-Christlike in our
approach to the outside world. Scholars often call
this fear a siege mentality, and it is a commonplace in Mormon studies to see such a mentality
as a significant force in our peoples history.
Gordon B. Hinckley frequently cautions against
a siege mentality (though he doesnt actually use
that term), urging the Saints to be optimistic, not
fearful; to reach out across historical barriers; to
not be clannish or holier-than-thou. But the very
fact that President Hinckley perceives a need to
keep reiterating this counsel suggests that the siege

What Brigham City Tells Us about Ourselves

mentality is alive and well within our community.

Brigham City, with its black-and-white worldview
and its fearful, hostile attitude towards those it
dubs outsiders, demonstrates the mentality President Hinckley cautions against.
One of the great dangers of the siege mentality
is the possibility that it will lead to violence; the
Mountain Meadows Massacre is the most horrific
example of that in our history. In that context, it is
troubling to observe how easily Brigham Citys
characters turn violent when confronting people
whom they suspect of being the metaphorical serpents in paradise. When Sister Peck refuses to let
her home be searched, on the perfectly justifiable
grounds that no one has a warrant to search her
home, Wes pounds on her door and threatens to
break it down if she doesnt open up. A few minutes later, when Steve balks at opening a locked
closet, Terry slams him up against the wall, facefirst, while Wes shouts at him, I want you to open
this door before somebody gets hurt!
The films most horrific act of on-screen violence comes, of course, at the climax of the film,
when Wes shoots Terry, blowing him out of his
chair, in the presence of his wife. The film could
easily have ended more peacefully: Wes could simply
have wrestled Terry to the ground and cuffed him
instead of standing there, ordering Terry to cuff
himself while Terry calmly reassembles his gun,
until things have reached a point where Wes is
forced to shoot Terry in self-defense. But the film
seems determined to move to a violent climax.
In fact, this ending looks uncannily like an act
of blood atonement, a notion the film itself brings
up early on, when a Jack Mormon federal agent
tells Wes, Relax, Sheriff. This womans only been
dead for a day and a half. Its not like her blood
is crying out for vengeance just yet. Those in our
tradition who have subscribed to this particular
notion hold that atonement for murder requires
the shedding of the murderers blood, which is, of
course, what happens to the murderer in this film.
Furthermore, the execution is performed by a man
who holds both civil and ecclesiastical authority,
which Bruce R. McConkie maintained was a prerequisite for practicing blood atonement (93); and

the execution occurs with the tacit consent of the

murderer, consistent with a claim that blood atonement requires the voluntary shedding of the murderers blood (Snow 1:131). (Earlier in the film
Terry has told Wes that execution is the only cure
for a murderer.)
Even if Im pushing too far in reading Terrys
death as an act of blood atonement, the fact
remains that Brigham City adopts a shockingly violent response towards those who are, or who are
merely suspected of being, enemies of the community of Saints. We saw that same kind of response
in Gods Army: the violently angry reaction of
Dutchers character to Elder Kinegar, the doubting
missionary. Dutchers films are not about turning
the other cheek, or loving our enemies, or burying the weapons of violence. As we saw earlier, the
philosophy promoted in Brigham City is that such
Christlike behavior is impractical in our dangerous
world. If we, the righteous, are to survive in the
midst of the wicked, we need to learn mistrust. We
need to learn to be unforgiving. We need to learn
All is well in Brigham City, Stu and Wes declare
near the beginning of the film. Clearly, were meant
to see this as dramatic irony; perhaps were even
meant to recall the Book of Mormons warning to
those who declare that all is well in Zion (2 Ne.
28:21). As it turns out, things arent all well in
Brigham City; but that doesnt mean what it might
at first seem to mean. When I watched this film for
the first time, I anticipated that the cry All is well
would prove to be ironic in the sense that the blackand-white worldview promoted by Wes at the beginning of the film (were good; the outside world is
evil) would be shown to be overly simplistic. To
borrow from a saying of Jesus, I thought the film
was setting us up to recognize that it isnt just outsiders who have beams in their eyes.
But thats not, in fact, the message of this film.
The cry All is well proves ironic only in the sense
that the Saints of Brigham City have naively
believed they are safe from evil and have therefore
failed to take the necessary precautions. Instead of
unraveling Wess black-and-white worldview, the
film reinforces it: the reason all isnt well, according

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to this film, isnt that the Saints have major moral

deficiencies of their own; its that evil forces from
the outside world are closing in, but the Saints
havent yet opened their eyes to the threat.
Perhaps motivated, again, by accusations of not
being sophisticated, the film does contain moments
which challenge the black-and-white worldview.
But in every case where this happens, the film neutralizes the challenge so that the black-and-white
worldview ultimately emerges unscathed. In the
end, the film cannot bring itself to depict the Saints
with a beam in their eyea mote, maybe, but not
a beam.
The first moment in which this dynamic plays
itself out comes when Wes confesses to Terry that
he has the same taste for killing which he believes
motivates the serial killer. Wes describes the dark
thrill he felt as a twelve-year-old shooting a rabbit
in the head: I had this strong feelingI mean,
I mean I liked it, you know. There was some part
of me that really liked killing that animal. It was
like some part of me came up that I didnt like, so
I went home, and I put the gun away, and I never
went hunting again. You know, I hadnt thought
about it, but I havent fired a weapon at any living
creature since then. . . . I think some men just have
a taste for killing. I think they like it.
This is an amazing moment in the film, because
Wes places himself here in the same category as the
serial killer, the category of men who like to kill.
For a moment, the sharp dichotomy the film otherwise draws between Saints and sinners has collapsed:
the hero has confessed to having the same vice, the
same impulse, as motivates the villain. A Jungian
literary critic would see in this moment the realization of the shadow, a recognition that the murderer embodies qualities which Wes is uncomfortable
recognizing within himself and therefore prefers to
conceptualize as Other. (A Jungian critic would
interpret Wess black-and-white worldview in the
same terms: Wess thoroughly negative vision of
the outside world is a projection onto the Other
of qualities which Wes refuses to recognize within
his own community.) But having made this provocative move, the film declines to follow up on it. Wes
immediately starts speaking of men [who] have a

taste for killing in the third person: as they, not

we. And the conversation shifts away from Wes
back to the murderer. This guy were looking for,
Terry says, you think this guy could ever be cured?
You think he couldI dont knowrepent? I
dont know, Wes replies. I have a hard time imagining it. Well, I know one cure, Terry says. He
raises his gun, blows away the entire row of targets
in rapid succession, smiles . . . and in the very next
scene performs a baptism.
There are disturbing things going on here: the
chilling suggestion that a murderer is beyond the lifechanging power of the Atonement; the juxtaposition of vigilante violence with a saving gospel
ordinance; the self-loathing implicit in Wess statement that he cant imagine how a man with a taste
for killinga man like himselfcould be made
whole. But I see no evidence that were meant to be
disturbed by this scene. Ultimately, it appears, the
function of this scene is simply to provide foreshadowing and to justify the films violent climax.
Since Wess confession is forgotten as soon as this
scene ends, it does not seem intended to make us
rethink the black-and-white dichotomy between
Saints and sinners. As near as I can tell, the function of Wess confession is to make Wes look all the
more righteous (this man condemns himself for
killing even a rabbit) and to preempt Terrys later
claim that he cannot control his impulse to kill
(because Wes has managed to control the same
impulse, Terry has no excuse). The film thus justifies its treatment of Terry as an accountable moral
agent who merits violent punishment rather than
as an extremely sick man who needs help.
Another moment when the black-and-white
worldview is challenged comes when we discover
that Steve has a secret stash of adult videos. Suddenly we are faced with a Latter-day Saint who is
not, after all, an innocentwho has a beam in his
eye. But the film neutralizes this challenge to its
otherwise rosy depiction of the Saints by portraying Steve from the beginning as someone who
doesnt really fit the LDS mold. In other words, the
film distances Steve from the LDS mainstream. For
one thing, Steve wears a beardand we are reminded
that facial hair is a sign of being out-of-step with

What Brigham City Tells Us about Ourselves

LDS norms when Peg tells Wes, Bishops arent

supposed to have mustaches. Whenever we see
Steve in church, hes wearing a brown shirt with
the top button undone beneath his tie, giving him
a somewhat unkempt appearance, in contrast to
the white shirts and blue business suits of the bishopric. We learn early on in the film that Steve has
confessed some past transgression to the bishop
(You kept my secrets; Ill keep yours). Steve looks
to be around thirty yet is unmarried. Later we discover he comes from a fatherless home.
In short, Steve stands at the margins of the LDS
community. It comes as much less of a surprise to
find that Steve is a closet porn addict than it would
be to discover the same thing about Steves nextdoor neighbor, a clean-cut, married father of three.
Because Steve doesnt altogether fit the LDS mold,
he isnt altogether one of us. Indeed, in what I
suspect is a Freudian slip on Dutchers part as screenwriter, Wes speaks of Steve as if he were not a member of the community. Dont call me Bishop! Wes
snaps at him. Right now I have to care about the
people in this town a lot more than I care about
you. Note that Wes did not say, I have to care
about the other people in this town a lot more than
I care about you. Rhetorically, at least, Wes has
cut Steve off from the community of the Saints.
The film thus minimizes the challenge that Steve
would otherwise present to the depiction of the
Saints as a model community. Its worth noting,
too, that Steve would have had to bring his adult
videos in from outside Brigham City, again reflecting the films tendency to represent evil as originating in the outside world. The serpent infiltrates
paradise; it isnt native.
Potentially the most serious challenge to the
black-and-white worldview is the discovery that
the serial killer is a trusted member of the LDS
community. Prior to this discovery, the film has
had great fun playing off our own inclination, as
the audience, to look to outsiders or individuals on
the margins as suspects. The killer doesnt turn out
to be a patron of the local bar, or the out-of-town
construction worker, or the newly baptized member, or the member with a beard, or the only character whose skin isnt a perky shade of pink, as one

reviewer puts it (Fox). Instead, as frequently occurs

both in literature and in real life, the serial killer
turns out to be the last person anyone would have
suspected: an insider, an Eagle Scout, a returned
But there we run into the catch: Terry isnt
really those things. He isnt who he appears to be or
claims to be. Terry is an ex-con who has stolen the
identity of a young LDS man who drowned in
Snowflake, Arizona. Its not even clear from the
film if Terry (or whatever his name is) is himself
LDS. Were told that church folks in Snowflake
describe Terry as having turned his life around in
prison. Does that mean Terry was baptized? We
dont know. But it doesnt really matter. In either
case, Terry is presented to us as a fraud, someone
merely posing as an insider, not really one of us.
Thus the LDS community is kept untainted. The
Saints are not forced to confront the reality that
one of our own has proved capable of such heinous
crimes. The moment in the film when everyone,
LDS and non-LDS alike, was suspect has safely
passed. Our hands are clean. The only failing that
can be imputed to our community is our overmuch innocence, our overly trusting natures. Were
too good for our own good.
The one Saint who attributes guilt to himself is
Wes, who believes that because of his failure to
check Terrys background, he is as much responsible for the murders as if he himself had pulled the
trigger, thus recalling Ralphs statement, Its my
own fault. . . . I deserved to get robbed for having
failed to check the background of the employee
who robbed him. But the film rushes to assert that
Wes should not be condemned. Nobody blames
you, Meredith assures him. Youre a good man,
Wes. You really are. Actually, Meredith is mistaken:
when Wes walks into sacrament meeting, were given
the impression that the ward does blame him,
especially Ernie and Evelyn, the parents of one of
the murdered girls.
The creative and moving scene which follows
in which Wes declines to partake of the sacrament
and the rest of the ward stands in solidarity with
him by likewise declining to partakeis clearly
meant to absolve Wes from condemnation. But its

AML Annual 2003

not clear on what grounds this absolution occurs.

When the ward refuses to partake of the sacrament, are they saying to Wes: We dont think you
merit condemnation in the first place; on the contrary, we think youre such a good man that if
youre not worthy to take the sacrament, then none
of us is worthy? Or are they saying: We think
your negligence was blameworthy, but we forgive
you? (Though in that case Im tempted to ask:
Will Steve, or Judy Perkins, receive such ready forgiveness?) Or are they saying: We think your negligence was blameworthy, but we recognize that
weve all been guilty of that same negligence and
gullibility? Its not clear.
What is clear is that this scene is meant to restore
our sense of the communitys innocence (meaning
guiltlessness). All is well in Brigham City as the
final credits roll. The Saints have had a horrific
experience, but theyve learned from it how to protect themselves, and their virtue, from the threat
posed by the outside world. The black-and-white
worldview, the siege mentality, has prevailed.
Brigham City could have been a highly thoughtprovoking film. It could have been a film about
complex LDS characters motivated by complicated
arrays of good and bad impulses. It could have
been a film about an LDS community grappling
with the reality that one of its own is a serial killer,
or groping to figure out what would be a Christlike
response to a series of horrific crimes against some
of its members, or struggling to move beyond
provinciality to work out a place for itself as part of
a larger, more diverse society. But Dutcher didnt
tell any of those stories. Instead, Dutcher told a
story that reflects a siege mentality, an unabashedly
isolationist, unforgiving, us versus them approach
to the world. After watching, first, Gods Army and
now Brigham City, I sense that Dutcher wants his
films to be seen as sophisticated, as tackling tough
issues. But whenever his films begin to move into
truly complex territory, Dutcher retreats to safer,
familiar ground. Ultimately, his films cannot resist
the impulse to represent the world in simplistic,
black-and-white terms.
Granted that LDS cinema, and Dutchers own
oeuvre, is still in its infancy. Granted that it is

thanks to Dutchers pioneering endeavors that we

can even speak of such a thing as LDS cinema.
Granted that Dutcher is a talented filmmaker and
that Brigham City is a well-crafted thriller. But
Brigham City leaves me wondering: What does it
say about our community when our most celebrated cinematic storyteller thus farthe man
who is slated to go down in the history of Mormon
letters as the father of LDS cinematells stories as
reductive and unchallenging, however well told,
as this one?
JOHN-CHARLES DUFFY is an associate instructor in the
Writing Program at the University of Utah. His literary
criticism has appeared in American Literary Realism,
American Transcendental Quarterly, and Victorian Literature and Culture.
1. My thanks to Richard Dutcher and Zion Films
for providing me with a demo copy of Brigham City,
which was not commercially available as I prepared this
paper. All quotations are my transcription from this copy.
Fox, Ken. The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Rev. of
Brigham City, Richard Dutcher, dir. TV Guide Online.
ShowMovie.asp?MI=42864, downloaded 26 February 2002.
McConkie, Bruce R. Blood Atonement Doctrine.
Mormon Doctrine. 2nd ed. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966.
Snow, Lowell M. Blood Atonement. Encyclopedia of
Mormonism. Ed. Daniel H. Ludlow. 4 vols. New
York: Macmillan, 1992.

Stuck Somewhere before the Golden Age:

The Two LDS Science Fiction Markets
Ivan A. Wolfe

omewhere there is a rule that forces anyone

who writes on science fiction (SF) as a genre to
attempt to define it before he or she can discuss it.
I will make such an attempt,1 but I will cheat and
steal Damon Knights definition:
Science Fiction is a misnomer. . . . Better labels
have been devised (Heinleins suggestion, speculative fiction is the best, I think), but . . . were
stuck with this one; and . . . it will do us no
particular harm if we remember that . . . it
means what we point to when we say it. (13)

Of course, I wont stop there, but that will have

to suffice for all of the fine details of what actually
is and isnt SF. Besides, it is only at the fringes that
most of the fights take place (Clute and Nicholls
314), and the texts I will be discussing in this work
are obviously SF, whatever your particular definition. For my own particular purposes here today,
I will focus on one particular aspect that most
of SF seems to sharethat of the novum (plural
nova)the new thing that creates a point of difference (Roberts 6). As Adam Roberts states:
A SF text may be based on one novum, such as
the device that enables HG Wellss hero to travel
through time. . . . More usually it will be predicated on several interrelated nova, such as the
varieties of futuristic technology found aboard
the starship Enterprise. (6)

One way to read the history of SF is as the history of greater novain both number and sophistication. While H. G. Wells and Jules Verne were
fairly sophisticated in how they treated their

novum (since nearly all of their SF stories have a

controlling, central, and singular novum), most
early writers of SF (especially in the Gernsback era)
wrote stories focused on one particular novum.
Whether it was a robot that gained sentience, a
time machine or an alien from space, almost all of
the stories focused on only one real new thing or
point of departure. Other incidental nova popped
up, but they were meant to be incidental and therefore relatively unimportant to the story line.
Even rather sophisticated writers like Hal
Clement, who seemed to have several nova in their
stories, really had only one important novum. In
Clements Iceworld (1951) for example, there are
all sorts of incidental new ideas; but the real novum
in question is an alien from a planet with temperatures so hot that most things we consider to be
solid are liquid.
Such nova have not completely disappeared
from the SF field, but they have become increasingly less used in the genre. Where this type of
approach has the most success is when it is not
labeled as SF, as in the case of Michael Crichton.
But even while Crichton generally uses only one
point of departure to further his story (for example,
an alien bacteria or an island of genetically engineered dinosaurs), he uses these central nova to
explore all of the possible ramifications of his particular novum. Chaos theory is discussed, economic models are explored, and other possible uses
of the same technology are hinted at or discussed.
Science fiction written before the golden age2 also
tended to have some interesting new idea as the

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controlling aspect of its stories, but these ideas

were never explored in any real depth, and they
were often used as an excuse for a story rather than
actually being central to the story.
Another trait of early SF versus modern SF was
the information dump. The author would take
time out of the narrative to explain just why this
novum works or what it is supposed to do. Modern
SF tends to use standard conventions like faster than
light travel that dont necessarily need explaining, to
explain in bits and pieces as the story goes along, or
(as in the case of Gene Wolfe) to explain nothing at
all and let readers create their own explanations.
Early SF, on the other hand, usually tended to bring
the exceptionally intelligent protagonist (usually
a scientist or engineer) together with some lesser
mind who would invariably ask, Just what does
this do, anyway? The brilliant protagonist would
then spend a few paragraphs, pages, or chapters
explaining it. This tactic is still used occasionally in
SF but is generally laughed at by SF readers and
sent back by editors to authors for rewrites.
There are many other differences between early
SF and modern SF, but those two will suffice for
now: (1) the unsophisticated and singular novum
and (2) the information dump.
Although there are actually several LDS SF
markets, I can easily split them into two main markets by using Ben Parkinsons wonderful and wellthought-out distinction between the Deseret and
Missionary schools of LDS literature. For this
paper I will focus entirely on the Deseret School
the literature written by Mormons, for Mormons.
I will not, other than in passing or to make a particular point, discuss SF written by Mormons for a
general audience, SF written by non-Mormons for
a general audience, SF written by former Mormons
in order to attack the Church, etc. This paper is for
books written by Mormons for Mormons, although
the authors can have an eye on the national market
too. What exactly the two markets are will be
explained over the course of this paper.
Arguably, Nephi Andersons early LDS novel
Added Upon (1898) was the first LDS SF novel.
True, it contains supernatural themes of life after
death and a premortal existence; but since for a

Mormon these are not truly new ideas (nova), they

do not disqualify it as SF. Since most of the first
part of the novel deals with pre-earth life, mortal
life in the nineteenth-century world and an afterlife
uniquely LDS, the story initially seems to be very
un-SF like. But in Part Fourth there is a sudden
jump to an unspecified time in the future (during
the Millennium) where electricity is used as a
means of mass transit (174) and unspecified technology (better than electricity) controls the heating
and lighting in cities (183). While these elements
are science fictional (although present in a work first
published over twenty years before the term SF
came into use), they are vague and not truly related
to the work as a whole.
Considering, though, that there were SF elements in Added Upon, it seems surprising that there
are not more LDS books with SF themes out there.
LDS literature as a genre received an important
developmental boost from Added Upon. Why didnt
an LDS SF field develop from it, too?
Well, perhaps it did. In a recent issue of Sunstone, the Mormon Index feature contained an
interesting statistic: 175 SF authors with LDS connections versus 30 with Catholic ties. Most of these,
as evidenced by a glance at the LDS SF bibliography
on the net, have published for a national market.
The LDS SF that has been published specifically for the LDS market is small and generally falls
under two divisions. First are the works written for
an LDS market in imitation (but not in complete
imitation) of a national market; second are works
written and published by individuals to promote
their own particular views of the end times. The
first group aims to at least make some money at
the job and is typified by the early works of Gerald N. Lund (see The Alliance, [1983]), the LDSF
anthologies and the current crop of SF tales being
published by Cornerstone Press. By its very nature,
the second group is hard to track down and it
seems almost serendipitous when they are encountered, but Mark C. Petersons House upon the Sand
(2000) is an excellent representative example.
Im aware that some mainstream LDS publishers print end-times fiction, but Im not going to
discuss them here, mainly because I havent read

Two LDS Science Fiction Markets

them yet. I have read several of this type, although

not recently; and I wouldnt have even discussed them
in this paper if I hadnt found this particular book
(House upon the Sand) sitting on top of a trash can.
Works like House upon the Sand probably have
the best case for being the LDS SF most closely
tied to Added Upon and other early works by the
first LDS fiction writers. A concern with the end
times and especially with the fulfillment of prophecies has always been a strong part of Mormon culture and theology.
House upon the Sand bears this description on
its cover: This story takes the prophecies about
the United States in the last days and paints a picture of one way they might be fulfilled. Such an
approach is pretty typical of this genre. The work is
also extremely didactic, though I am not bothered
by that fact, mostly because the work proclaims
itself loudly as didactic.
As fiction, it fails utterly. Characters are weak;
in fact there arent any characters, just platitudes.
The dialogue is forced and seems unnatural. Motivations are nonexistent. Because the plot is about
prophecies, and since they are going to be fulfilled
anyway, it doesnt really matter why they happen or
why the people behind them create the situations
which cause them to take place.
But as a scream, a shout, or a wail in the darkness, House upon the Sand succeeds admirably. The
author obviously feels outraged at what the United
States has become, and his work reveals his belief
that America has already forfeited its divine destiny. To him, its only a matter of time before the
United States falls into shambles under the weight
of its unjust government.
Works like these know that they have only a
small audience, and they dont try to be anything
other than what they are. They do not pretend to
be entertaining or well written. They will never move
beyond the small circle they are aimed at, but the
authors dont seem to care. They are really aimed
only at the elect, since the texts themselves show
that theyre fairly sure that no one else is going to
survive to benefit from reading these books. Such
books aim only at those who would be convinced
by them anyway, and thats fine by them.

The main problem with this approach is that it

seems out of place in a work of fiction. The fact
that the author has chosen to write fiction, rather
than nonfiction, about last-day prophecies, can be
taken as a compliment to the power of fiction. Yes,
Peterson could easily have written another book
like Duane S. Crowthers (in)famous book Prophecy:
Key to the Future (1962); but he apparently felt that
the story would come across more powerfully with
a fictional setting.
If compared to any other modern SF end times,
post-apocalyptic literature (from the Left Behind
series to works like Walter H. Millers A Canticle
for Leibowitz) House upon the Sand fails. But when
considered inside its own narrow parameters, the
work does exactly what it sets out to do: present
the authors views on what is wrong with America
and how this will lead to its downfall, as well as
what well need to do to fix things after everything
falls apart.
The main problem with this genre is that it is
small and limited. Its very nature prevents it from
growing and maturing. Every work will wind up
being a mere variation on a theme. Interpretations
of prophecies may differ; but in the end, they
almost will all express disgust with the decadent
path America has taken, show how it will fall, and
end with the declaration that only the Mormons
can save America.
At this point, I should warn the reader that Im
not going to be very nice to the fiction of Gerald
N. Lund, Michael Ritchey, or the LDSF anthologies. I am not going to be too harsh either, but I am
not happy with them. In 1935 they would have
been cutting-edge SF; but for the most part, they
fail as modern SF. Gerald N. Lund and the LDSF
anthologies are the oldest, but Cornerstones new
LDS-oriented SF works, such as Disoriented, have
fewer excuses.
Gerald N. Lunds The Alliance is in itself an
unremarkable idea. There have been hundreds of
these seemingly utopia future society turns out to
be an oppressive dystopia stories. That is the controlling novum of Lunds story. Technology, while
apparently updated, is not really dwelt on. Other
possible ramifications of this particular novum are

AML Annual 2003

not really explored. The work has one note to play,

and it hits it; but like the One Note Samba, it
actually does it fairly well. Lund writes from an
unabashed LDS moral universe, and he doesnt
apologize for it or attempt to justify it. Of course,
since The Alliance was written for an LDS audience,
he doesnt have to, but it still shows some courage
and belief in his story. There is a lot of information
dumping about how society got the way it is, but
not so much as to overwhelm the plot. To Lunds
credit, he starts right into the story without giving
a lot of background right up front, and he allows
the reader to begin to care about the characters and
situations before he begins his dumps.
The Alliance first appeared in 1983, meaning
that it was an early work in an unestablished genre.
Christian pop music until recently has lagged about
ten years behind mainstream pop music in terms of
sophistication, musicality, and professionalism; and
LDS pop music has lagged about ten years behind
Christian pop music. LDS pop music is finally
starting to catch up; but rather than condemn the
early LDS pop pioneers, I praise them for being
brave enough to try. While his work lacks the
sophistication of mainstream SF, it is a respectable
effort given when it was published.
Likewise, the LDSF anthologies are a mixed
bag, combining LDS writers writing about explicit
LDS themes, nonfiction essays, stories by nonMormons about LDS people, and even works with
no real LDS theme except maybe a vague thematic
connection, such as a Rudyard Kipling tale which
apparently echoes Alma 30. The best stories are
(surprise) those written by non-Mormons, or Mormons who, like Orson Scott Card, have already
published in a national market. Overall, the works
by LDS members for LDS members suffer from
the same problems: an unsophisticated novum,
information dumps, and a tendency to preach
rather than to tell a story.
Because I believe that all texts are didactic at
some level, it may seem inconsistent to condemn a
group of stories for their didacticism. However,
I agree with Dave Wolverton that, while an author
may have a theme, a moral, or a lesson to get across
to the reader, it is better done by exploration than

by preaching; the wise author doesnt approach his

tale with the idea that he has a message to cram
down the throat of the world (Wolverton 11).
For example, Stephen Scotts tale Entry in
the first LDSF anthology isnt a story at all but the
authors wish list of what a truly righteous prophet
would do, namely, fulfill a particularly politically
liberal agenda. This prophet is translated because
he is so righteous; but all the story has him doing is
being a really good liberal Democrat with an LDS
bent. While I know many liberal Democrats who
are great Mormons, this story is basically preaching
that holding this particular political affiliation is
the only way to be truly LDS. Perhaps its meant to
be a nice turn against those who claim that only
conservative Republicans can be good Mormons,3
but its still just as badly didactic. Scott fails to
explore how this prophets liberal politics and his
use of the Church as a political entity makes him
righteous enough to be translated. Hes righteous
because hes liberal, period. No discussion, no
allowance for disagreement.
Thom Duncans The Glowing is about a
BYU professor who travels back in time to witness
the First Vision. I think it should have ended three
paragraphs sooner, but it explores a theme with a
faithful backdrop. And Frederick Israelsons The
Last Gentile is a lightly comedic tale that is fun to
read, even if it doesnt really stick with the reader
afterwards or have anything profound to explore.
Cornerstone Publications, a new LDS-focused
publisher, was founded recently by Richard Hopkins, who used to work at Horizon. Cornerstone
has begun publishing LDS-themed SF; and while
it seems primarily aimed at the LDS market, there
have been hints that it also has an eye on the national
market.4 One of the first entries in this category,
Disoriented (1999) by Michael Ritchey, has an
interesting Mormon novumthe intelligence of
subatomic particles. However, I hated the book.
Its been over a year since I first read it, and I still
have problems not getting emotionally worked up
over it. Perhaps getting a strong reaction is the sign
of good fiction, but it got the wrong type of reaction out of me. Some books make me angry in a
good way because they have challenged me in some

Two LDS Science Fiction Markets

way that I dont like. Disoriented made me angry

because, even though it has been over a decade
since LDSF or the SF works of Gerald N. Lund, it
appears that LDS SF has taken a backwards step.
Ritcheys book has only one controlling novum
the ability to change matter by confusing the
intelligence of quarks (subatomic particles that
make up all matter). This novum is explained in an
early information dump when the detective, obviously ignorant of science, asks the protagonist to
explain what it is. Ryan McKay obliges with an
explanation that takes nearly three pages (2224).
The technology itself creates most of the problems
as it occasionally pops up for one reason or
another, but as a novum, it is woefully underdeveloped. Instead, it gets buried in Ritcheys apparent
excitement to be writing in an explicitly LDS
world. The spirit world, possession by devils, and
encounters with the spirits of unborn children are
all thrown in, giving the work a fantasy feeling,
even though all of those elements are part of Mormonisms picture of the world.
Beyond that, Ritchey seems determined to
force his personal beliefs on the reader. Meditation
(a discipline which was introduced to me in a BYU
yoga class) is evil. Two characters who learned how
to meditate are possessed by evil spirits. Ritchey
also makes an explicit link between military service
in Vietnam and being a psychotic killer. Granted,
one character apparently served in Vietnam and
didnt become psycho, but his connection to Vietnam is made almost in passing. The others directly
link both items.
It gets worse when Ryan meets up with nonmember Tara, and they flee to his familys mountain retreat, where they take time off from being
pursued by the forces of evil to discuss the gospel,
baptize Tara, and get married. Ryans discussion of
LDS theology is expressed in the narrative as definitive, not personal. Mormons dont believe in
Metaphysics at all, he asserts (91), although its
not clear what metaphysics means in this context. I guess that means Sterling McMurrin was
wrong to ever discuss Mormon metaphysics.
While most of Ryans exposition of LDS doctrine is actually fairly accurate, it adds nothing to

the tale. Tara is the equivalent of the lesser mind

in early SF, and Ryan is the great scientist who
must enlighten her, adding nothing to either the
story or to their characterization. It seems to be
merely an annoying opportunity for the author to
preach to his readers.
The book is also stylistically unsophisticated.
The text is heavily laced with extraneous exclamation marks, almost as if Ritchey doesnt trust his
own writing to adequately express his point. One
of the main villains says, Make you pay fifty dollars every day. This slogan not only appears on the
cover but turns up with mind-numbing frequency
in the text.
In short, it seems as if Ritchey has not read any
SF since 1935 or so, since he so masterfully follows
most of the conventions for pre-golden age SF. If
Disoriented had been written then, it would have
been cutting-edge SF, especially for its inclusion
of Mormon elements. However, it just seems old
fashioned now.
Why is LDS SF generally still stuck back in the
era before SFs golden age? Im not sure, but perhaps the LDS audience is not as well read in SF as
the general SF community; as a result, LDS SF is
exactly where it needs to be in relation to the development of a genre. However, I give little credence
to this theory. As Algis Budrys attests in Paradise
Charted, nearly all SF writers come from the
community of SF readers. And since the LDS community has a large number of SF writers, it seems
reasonable to hypothesize that large numbers of
LDS members are already well read in the SF genre.
Are these works aimed at LDS readers who
arent already readers of modern SF? I doubt it,
because they are marketed as SF. Michael Crichton
is not usually marketed as SF because his tendency
to use only one controlling novum appeals more to
non-SF readers than to SF readers. If this LDS SF
were really aimed at those who arent reading SF, the
marketing seems misguided.
Another hypothesis, which I personally think
may be the correct one, is that LDS writers who
can write high-quality LDS SF are writing for the
national market, and exclusively LDS-oriented SF
writers are the second string. Orson Scott Card has

AML Annual 2003

written explicitly LDS-themed works, and it has

yet to hurt his career. Dave Wolverton/Farland
has not (yet) written anything explicitly LDS, but
he has a solid foundation of Mormon values in
nearly all of his works. M. Shayne Bell, Lee Allred,
and others have also received national publication
for their LDS-themed works. And what do all of
these authors have in common? They are all up to
date on the status of the genre. Lund, Ritchey, and
others in the LDSF anthologies seem unwilling or
unable to seek publication in a national venue.
They write for an insular market. In contrast, the
best writers of LDS SF set out to write good, solid
SF, their Mormon values emerge in the writing,
and the result is often great LDS SF. Its the difference between setting out to explore an idea and setting out to deliver a prepackaged message.
Lund, of course, doesnt really need to branch
out, as hes found his niche with Mormon historical novels. He has no real need to return to SF.5
But others like Ritchey need to pay the price to
improve their writing and become familiar with
the genre so that their stories can succeed on a
national level. Then they will have something powerful and useful to sayand theyll say it correctly.
IVAN A. WOLFE has recieved a MA in English from
BYU and is currently working on his PhD at University
of TexasAustin. He has served as the symposium chair
for BYUs annual Science Fiction symposium Life, the
Universe, & Everything and has been on its committee
since 1997.
1. This is very much a work in progress, and so
nearly all of my conclusions are tentative. I still have to
find and read some of the hard-to-find works of early
LDS SF, some of the newest works that have just been
published, and works that have been announced but
will not be out for a few more months, as well as some
of the juvenile LDS SF out there.
2. The golden age of science fiction is usually defined
as 193846, when John Campbell took over from Hugo
Gernsback as the preeminent SF editor. Despite the
inevitable debate, I see no reason to disagree. The myth

of a golden age (whether it actually existed or not) is

useful for any society.
3. For the record, I am politically neither a Republican nor a Democrat, though I am a conservative.
4. I have not yet read Linda Adamss Thy Kingdom
Come series, published by Cornerstone, although I have
heard it is excellent.
5. Since Lund was called as a General Authority in
2002, it is probably not realistic to expect more fiction
of any kind from him until after his retirement.
Anderson, Nephi. Added Upon. Salt Lake City: Deseret
News Publishing Company, 1898. Rpt. Salt Lake
City: Bookcraft, 1997.
Budrys, Algis. Paradise Charted. Visions of Wonder.
Ed. David G. Hartwell and Milton T. Wolf. New
York: Tor, 1996. 292338.
Clement, Hal. Iceworld. Serialized in Astounding Science
Fiction 48.24 (OctoberDecember 1951). Rpt. in
The Essential Hal Clement, Volume 1: Trio for Slide
Rule & Typewriter. Framingham MA: NESFA
Press, 1999. 205374.
Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martins Griffin, 1995.
Duncan, Thom, The Glowing. LDSF: Science Fiction
by and for Mormons. Ed. Scott Smith and Vickie
Smith. Thousand Oaks, CA: Millennial Productions, 1982. 1227.
Israelson, Frederick. The Last Gentile. LDSF: Science
Fiction by and for Mormons. Ed. Scott Smith and
Vickie Smith. Thousand Oaks, CA: Millennial
Productions, 1982. 911.
Knight, Damon. Critics. Visions of Wonder. Ed. David G.
Hartwell and Milton T. Wolf. New York: Tor,
1996. 1316.
Lund, Gerald N. The Alliance. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1983, 2000.
Mormon Index. Sunstone (April 2001): 27.
Peterson, Mark C. House upon the Sand. Roosevelt, UT:
DawnStar Book, 2000.
Ritchey, Michael. Disoriented. Salt Lake City: Cornerstone, 1999.
Roberts, Adam. Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom.
New York: Routledge, 2000.
Scott, Stephen. Entry. LDSF: Science Fiction by and
for Mormons. Ed. Scott Smith and Vickie Smith.

Two LDS Science Fiction Markets

Thousand Oaks, CA: Millennial Productions,

1982. 2830.
Smith, Scott, and Vickie Smith, eds. LDSF: Science Fiction by and for Mormons. Thousand Oaks, CA: Millennial Publications, 1982.
Urrutia, Benjamin, ed. LDSF 2: Latter-Day Science Fiction. Ludlow, MA: Parables, 1985.
. LDSF 3: Latter-Day Science Fiction. Ludlow,
MA: Parables, 1987.
Wolverton, Dave. Interview. Irreantum 2.4 (Winter
20002001): 1024.


Mark Twain, Polygamy, and

the Origin of an American Motif
Eric A. Eliason

wain readers all know that he made sport of

the Mormons in his popular 1872 travel narrative Roughing It. Those familiar with nineteenthcentury print culture may also recognize the common
motif of a ridiculously massive Mormon bed
usually shown as Brigham Youngsconstructed for
many women and one man. This image appeared
in numerous political cartoons during the era that
the Mormon question was a hot political topic.1
However, what seems to have gone unnoticed until
now is that Roughing It contained the first graphic
and written representation of this visual stereotype
of the Mormon bed.2 Although Orson Pratt,
under Brigham Youngs instructions, in 1852 had
preached the first sermon publicly acknowledging
the practice of polygamy (Arrington 323), all
known representations of the Mormon bed postdate Mark Twains widely read Roughing It. Thus,
it seems likely that Twain originated this motif.
While the Mormon bed was, of course, one of
Twains many tall tales, it still had an impact on the
way Americans popularly misunderstood Mormon
plural marriage.
To give an appropriate background context to
Twains invention of the Mormon bed motif, some
review of his interaction with Latter-day Saints and
their leader Brigham Young is in order. Twains
brushes with Mormon issues may have begun at an
early age. During the 1840s, anti-Mormon sentiment ran high, and Governor Lilburn S. Boggss
notorious anti-Mormon extermination order was
still in effect in Samuel Clemenss boyhood home
state of Missouri.3 Hannibal lay only sixty miles

away from the Mormon city of Nauvoo and the jail

at Carthage, Illinois, where Joseph Smith was murdered. Twain never comments on his attitudes
toward Mormons before Roughing It, but after that
point he maintained a lifelong fascination with
Mormonismespecially with polygamy, an institution from which he wrought some of his best
From Twains first known contact with Mormons in 1861, he made relentless fun of them while
maintaining an essential respect for them as a
people (Cracroft). His barbs were not unlike those
one might hurl at a dear old friend or a respected
adversary. There is little in Twains humor that a
Mormon of the time could not have laughed along
with; and there is some evidence that they did,
since the memory of his visit remains in Mormon
oral tradition to this day (Rudy).
Mark Twain and his brother Orion stayed in
Salt Lake City for two days while traveling by
steamer and stagecoach from Missouri to Nevada.
In Reno, Orion was to be installed as secretary of
the newly formed Nevada territorial government.
This trip was part of Twains five-year excursion
throughout the West, which he wrote up in Roughing It, his acclaimed and popular follow-up to his
first big smash, Innocents Abroad. Twain spent much
of the latter part of 1872 in the Northeast and
Midwest on a lecture tour that further popularized
Roughing It. The book probably became the most
widely read nonpartisan account of Mormon life in
its time. Twains humor at the expense of Mormons
neutralized potential anti-Mormon suspicion of his

AML Annual 2003

writing as soft on Mormonism, but a subtext of

the work is a message that Mormons are fully
human and that their society is healthy and functional, albeit strange.
Unlike its predecessor, Roughing It is not truly
autobiographical nor does it strive for the factuality of a serious travelogue. Instead, its embellished
reminiscences nine years after the fact display the
marked influence of the tall tale style of Western
folklore that infused so much of Twains work
(Brown). Any accuracy in reporting is admittedly
accidental and takes a backseat to the imperative of
relating a good yarn through astonishing, hoodwinking, and tickling the funny bone of the reader
(Twain, Prefatory). To set up the reader for these
kinds of situations, the Twain persona in the book
is much younger and more naive than a genuinely
autobiographical Twain would have been. Twains
account of all aspects of Mormon life should be
seen in this light.
The narrator of Roughing It marvels at the surprising order and grandeur of the Mormon city he
finds in the middle of the Great American Desert.
It reminds him of something out of the Arabian
Nights stories he relished as a childa mystical
kingdom, a shimmering apparition in the desert.
In ethereal romantic terms he calls the Mormon
Mecca a fairyland . . . of enchantment, goblins
and awful mystery. The fact that there were no
loafers or drunkards in this extremely healthy
city left him with a sense of pleasant strangeness
(93). Upon his departure, his general reaction to
the otherworldly city was a good deal confused as
to what state of things existed there . . . sometimes even questioning in my own mind whether a
state of things existed there at all or not (111).
In Roughing It Twain recounts his and Orions
audience with Brigham Young in the Mormon
prophets home, the Lion House. Orion chats
amicably and intelligently with the Church president on interesting contemporary issues, while poor
young Sam tries excitedly to gain Youngs attention so he can draw him out on federal politics and
his highhanded attitude toward Congress. Finding no entry into the conversation, he retreats from
the edge of his chair into a silent sulk for the rest

of the meeting. As he and Orion prepare to leave,

Brigham put his hand on my head, beamed down
on me in an admiring way, and says to my brother:
Ahyour child, I presume? Boy or girl? (94)
One might wonder if such a meeting ever took
place at all were it not for the fact that its occurrence, but not necessarily its details, is verified in
the appointment book of Brigham Youngs secretary (Arrington 325).
In perhaps his most often quoted passage on
the Mormons, Twain claimed that he came to Utah
ready to spout pious indignation about the evils of
polygamy; but after seeing the plural wives, he
was touched. My heart was wiser than my head.
It warmed toward these poor, ungainly, and
pathetically homely creatures, and as I turned
to hide the generous moisture in my eyes, I said,
Nothe man that marries one of them has
done an act of Christian charity which entitles
him to the kindly applause of mankind, not
their harsh censureand the man that marries
sixty of them has done a deed of open-handed
generosity so sublime that the nations should
stand uncovered in his presence and worship in
silence. (97)5

In further describing the lot of plurally married

husbands, Twain relates, in a somewhat long-winded
manner, a hearsay tale he picked up from a presumably fictitious Mormon. This Mr. Johnson

Fig. 1. I Was Touched. Illustration from the 1872

(first) edition of Roughing It.

Mark Twain, Polygamy, and the Origin of an American Motif

tells how Brigham Young gave one of his favored

wives a breast pin only to have the rest of his
harem interrupt his whole days work by trickling
one-by-one into his study and demanding equal
treatment as word of his first gift spread. Poor
Brigham is set back $650 before he hears the end
of it. Following this obviously hyperbolic anecdotal lead-up, the fictional Mr. Johnson goes on
to give the first known narrative description of the
Mormon bed. According to Mr. Johnson, living in the Lion House was just as hazardous physically as it was financially. In an effort to save some
money, Brigham sold his wives seventy-two beds
at a loss and, purportedly quoting Brigham,

built a bedstead seven feet long and ninety-six

feet wide. But it was a failure. I could not sleep.
It appeared to me that the whole seventy-two
women snored at once. The roar was deafening. And the danger of it! They would all draw
in their breaths at once, and you could actually
see the walls of the house suck inand then
they would all exhale their breaths at once, and
you could see the walls swell out, and strain,
and hear the rafters crack, and the shingles grind
together. My friend, take an old mans advice
and dont encumber yourself with a large family. . . . [T]en or eleven wives is all you need.6

This description and its accompanying illustration appear to be the prototype for the many cartoon
Fig. 2. The
Family Bedstead. Illustration from
the 1872
(first) edition
of Roughing

Fig. 3. In
[sic] Brigham
Young. And
the Place
Which Knew
Him Once
Shall Know
Him No
Puck 5 September 1877.


Fig. 4. Utah DefiantThe Mormon Commander Mustering His Forces, which included, clockwise from the
upper left, The Old Guard, The Infant-ry, and the Knife-and-Fork Brigade. Puck 14 January 1880, drawn by
J. Keppler.

Fig 5. This Shop to Let. Printed and Sold by E. Smith & Co. (Not dated, but apparently a commemoration of
Brigham Youngs death in 1877.)

Mark Twain, Polygamy, and the Origin of an American Motif

depictions of Brighams Bed or the Mormon

bed which came to be a minor trope in American
magazines, newspapers, and humorous prints until
the turn of the century. While hardly one of Twains
greatest or most important achievements, this
motif s entry into the American popular mind is a
tribute to his comic genius worth noting.
These depictions of Brighams Bed are from
various popular periodicals and prints, but all postdate the 1872 publication of the popular and influential Roughing It. Brigham Youngs death in 1877
seems to have been an irresistible temptation for
the humorous use of the Mormon bed motif.
ERIC A. ELIASON is an assistant professor of English at
Brigham Young University, where he teaches folklore
and Mormon literature. His edited collection, Mormons
and Mormonism: An Introduction to an American World
Religion, was published in 2001 by the University of
Illinois Press, which will also publish his forthcoming
book Jester for the Kingdom: J. Golden Kimball in Mormon Folklore. This paper was presented at the annual
meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters, held

24 February 2001 at Westminster College, Salt Lake

City. He thanks his research assistant, Patrick C. Madden, who helped organize and scan the images for this
1. This Mormon bed was just a humorous image
and had no relationship to actual Mormon sleeping
arrangements. Mormons would have seen sleeping with
more than one wife at a time as abominable. In
nineteenth-century Utah, most plural wives had their
own room; many had separate houses. For social and
familial arrangements of Mormon polygamist households, see Van Wagoner, Embry, and Hardy. At least
some polygamist husbands slept alone in their own
beds; Brigham Young himself did (Arrington 329).
2. Bunker and Bitton (40, 44, 45, 47, 50, 89),
authors of the definitive work on graphic images of
Mormonism, reproduce many images of the Mormon
bed but do not identify it as a distinct motif.
3. This order authorized and legalized the slaying
by militia and private citizens of Mormons who refused

Fig. 6. Brigham Youngs Successors:New Rule. Last into Bed Put Out the Light. Printed by J. Marks. (N.d.
Except for the depiction of Young, the title would suggest a commemoration of his death in 1877.)

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to leave Missouri (Anderson). This order lay dormant

for many years until it was rescinded by Missouri Governor Christopher S. Bond in 1976.
4. Twains humor based on Mormon polygamy
explores its ludicrous but not sexual possibilities. Later
molders of the Mormon bed motif took it in prurient
directions of which Twain would have likely not
approved. I thank Tom Tenney, editor of the Mark
Twain Journal, for this insight.
5. Twains appraisal of Mormon beauties is no
doubt driven more by the internal logic required for his
joke than by his observations. Richard Burton found
Mormon women attractive, noting their noble regular
features, the lofty, thoughtful brow, the clear transparent complexion, the long silky hair, and greatest of all,
the soft smile of the American woman when she does
smile (25152). Evaluations of Mormon womens
attractiveness has more to do with the rhetorical goals
of the evaluator than any objective reality.
6. Again Twain exaggerates for effect. The size of
Youngs family depends on the year in question,
expanding and contracting with marriages, deaths, and
divorces. In the span of his life, he married fifty-five
women, sixteen of whom bore him children (Johnson;
Arrington 42021).
Anderson, Richard L. Clarifications of Boggss Order
and Joseph Smiths Constitutionalism. Church
History Regional Studies, Missouri. Ed. Arnold K.
Garr and Clark V. Johnson. Provo, UT: BYU
Department of Church History and Doctrine,
1994. 2770.
Arrington, Leonard J. Brigham Young: American Moses.
Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986.
Bond, Christopher S. Executive Order, 25 June 1976.
Governors Office, Jefferson City, Missouri.
Brown, Carolyn S. The Tall Tale in American Folklore
and Literature. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1987.
Bunker, Gary L., and Davis Bitton. The Mormon Graphic
Image, 18341914: Cartoons, Caricatures, and Illustrations. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 1983.
Burton, Richard F. The City of the Saints and Across the
Rocky Mountains to California. New York: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1861. Rpt. New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.
Cracroft, Richard H. The Gentle Blasphemer: Mark
Twain, Holy Scripture, and the Book of Mormon.
BYU Studies 11 (Winter 1971): 11940.

Embry, Jessie L. Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in

the Principle. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 1987.
Hardy, B. Carmon. Solemn Covenant: The Mormon
Polygamous Passage. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1992.
Johnson, Jeffery Ogden. Determining and Defining
Wife: The Brigham Young Households. Dialogue
20 (Autumn 1987): 5770.
Rudy, Jill Terry. Portraits in Song: Gleanings from the
Brigham Young Folksong Cycle. Unpublished
manuscript in my possession. N.d.
Twain, Mark. Roughing It. 1872. Rpt., New York: Penguin, 1980.
Van Wagoner, Richard S. Mormon Polygamy: A History.
2nd ed. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992.

Mapping Manifest Destiny:

The Paintings of Lucile Cannon Bennion
John Serge Bennion

or Mormon pioneer families the pull of Manifest Destiny became a religious mission. Under
Brigham Youngs leadership, pioneers settled communities across the Great Basin wherever there
was water. Their cultivation of land helped fulfill
the prophecy that the desert should blossom
as the rose. In my family, this obsession with
exploring westward into the desert for unsettled
but fertile land has affected every generation.
My novel, Falling toward Heaven, a fictionalization
of the male Bennions obsession with the western
desert, includes the protagonists self-analysis:
Howard could describe to [his wife] Allison or his mother his fathers desperation at the
thought of selling land . . . , Howards own lust
to return, to raise up cattle and children in the
desert, but it would be like describing color
to the blind, or sickness to the healthy. . . .
Land, sex, power, and God intermingled in
every Rockwood male. (178)

Both men and women were affected by the

impulse toward westward expansion, but they
responded differently. One manifestation of this is
the difference between my grandparents house at
Greenjacket near Vernon, in western Utah, and my
grandfathers homesteading cabin in the desert.
The house had a garden, shade trees, and beautiful
yellow roses and was surrounded by a tall woven
wire fence with mesh too small for rabbits. The
cabin in the desert, inhabited only by men, was a
square box with a pail for drinking water, a tar
paper exterior, and no tree or nondecorative plant

for five miles. Although these differences are stark,

both my grandmother, Lucile Cannon Bennion, and
my grandfather, Glynn Sharp Bennion, responded
with similar fervor to the concept of pioneering
and colonizing. My grandfather took up and abandoned a series of eight ranches, moving farther and
farther west. My grandmother painted detailed, illuminated maps of explorers of new lands: Abraham,
the Vikings, Columbus, trappers and fur traders.
In this paper I will compare the pioneering values written by male Bennions in their journals to
those constructed in my grandmothers paintings.
Lucile Cannon Bennion was born in 1891 and
died in 1966. In addition to her labor of raising my
father, Colin, and his four siblings, she worked as a
teacher and an artist. My earliest memories of her
have to do with her efforts to stimulate my imagination. She led me across the hill behind her house
at Greenjacket, where she showed me a pathway
through the junipers that she called the fairy tunnel. There was a ring of junipers where she said the
deer council met at night. I imagined the bucks,
huge as Bambis father, standing inside the circle.
When I tried to find this place years later, I discovered that the ring was imperfectly formed, smaller
than I remembered, with branches growing toward
the middle of the circle. In her house, she kept her
paints and brushes inside a black, lacquered Chinese cabinet. Her house, white with a western
porch, was rimmed by rosebushes which produced
a small yellow flower. I have made this house the
setting of a novel and several short stories, and
truth and fiction mingle in my head. She owned a

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toy Viking ship made of brown plastic. Its sail is

cream-colored plastic. Tiny brown men wield the
moveable oars. I remember an easel with a painting, which I wasnt allowed to touch, set up in her
living room.
One of her maps, The Vikings, hangs in our
hall. I pass it dozens of times a daypart of my
grandmother hanging there. The painting was
done in watercolor, light blue for the ocean, beige
for the land, with a rim of dark blue defining the
boundary between. The middle of the map is
the Atlantic Ocean, with the Americas to the left,
Greenland upper center, and Europe and Asia to
the right. Ships are the most prominent feature
great striped, parabolic sails, sails with rising sun, a
rearing horse, a long-tailed dragon. They stream
from left to right, showing the movement of colonization, outward from Norway to the Baltic Sea,
the Gulf of Finland, and to an inland Lake Ladoga,
inside current-day Russia. Ships also stream southward to England through the Irish Sea, past the
coast of Portugal, through the Straits of Gibraltar,
across the Mediterranean Sea, past Istanbul and
into the Black Sea. Westward the ships pass Iceland, up between the coasts of Newfoundland and
The men in my family manifested this romance
of western expansion more pragmatically and prosaically. My great-great grandfather, John Bennion,
who immigrated to Nauvoo in 1842 and went west
in 1847, eventually settled across the Jordan River
from the city. He ran his livestock in Bingham
Canyon and Rush Valley. He describes one of these
expansions in his journal:

plan was for the Saints to cultivate the wilderness.

He writes of the pioneering enterprise as follows:
[W]e as a people came here poor and had before
us a rich a free soil free water and free timber and
other facilities the country afforded the climate
invigorating and enticing to industrious people
(Rogers 111). This impulse eventually destroyed
the tall stands of native grass, allowing sagebrush to
spread across the desert, but that is a subject for
another essay.
He passed his drive to make Gods resources
useful on to his son, Israel, who lived in Vernon, in
southeastern Tooele County, farmed, ran a store,
and also convinced many of his neighbors to settle
a new community, Benmore, closer to the Sheeprock Mountains. He promised that water would
increase if they all moved there; but when that
didnt happen, the town failed. His central philosophy is that God wills us to organize communities
for the benefit of his children and the efficient use
of the natural world.
Concerning a conflict over water rights, he
wrote in his journal:
Knowing that the life of Vernon depended
on her having the iron hand of Secondary Water
Right removed from her throat, I interested that
strong, determined, organizer, Bishop John C.
Sharp, in the matter; and together we went to
the rescue.
Amid suspicion, accusation, and bitter
opposition, we worked, and accomplished our
object. We bought out Ericson, compromised
with Pehrson; secured control of the secondary
water rights, and then sold the same to Vernon
for a reasonable sum; then as President and Secretary of the Vernon Irrigation Company, we
secured the vote of the shareholders to extend
our limits from 220 acres to 1100 acres. (7 January 1894)

About one year ago I with a few others took a

few days journey in a South West direction
beyond the settlements in search of better grasing [sic] country soon after I moved my sheep
cattle & horses out there, I am now well satisfied that it was a move in the right direction,
our live stock wintered well, by getting their
own living, I now have a flock of 1150 sheep
about 70 of cattle and about 20 head of horses.
(Rogers 136)

He is not simply expanding his land holdings

as did his father, but he is driven to use his power
as a manager to spread the dominion of Zion, the
community of God. This is even clearer in journal
entries he made during and after the October 1894
general conference:

This passage is typical of his drive to spread his

livestock across the desert; he believed that Gods

The Saints were urged to divide the water and

the land, and make such use of both, as to


The Paintings of Lucile Cannon Bennion

support the most settlers possible; in the organized wards; and to avoid scattering too much.
(8 October 1894)
Watered Hales land. I find that the land
here requires much less water than is required
higher up the valley. The alkali will be hard to
overcome, but I feel sure we shall raise a great
deal of lucern without water. (22 October 1894)
Although a firm believer in the principles
of Democracy, I believe that the Priesthood of
God is superior to any system of politics; and
that if God were allowed to rule, the greatest
good would result. . . . It is a time to learn
and practice, wisdom, self-restraint, prudence;
accord, to all, freedom of opinion; pay courteous attention to opponents; respect ideas, and
men, that are worthy of respect; bear injury,
patiently; subdue passion; cultivate charity;
while seeing truth, and shunning evil, yet love
all men. (26 October 1894)
Already men of wealth, in the world, looking for a place of safety, to invest their means,
and to dwell in peace, are turning their eyes to
Zion. (29 October 1894)

His colonizing interest certainly had to do with the

romance of cultivating new land, but it also had
a communalizing focus. Zions success has to do
with the character of her inhabitants, their love of
God and of each other.
My grandfather, Glynn, didnt have the same
confidence in the mutual benefit of Zion. He left
the Church and spent the last years of his life living
solitary in a cabin in the west desert. Even so, the
desire to develop land into a thing of economic
beauty drove him. As mentioned above, he developed and lost eight ranches as he moved westward
from Vernon, farther and farther into the desert:
Greenjacket, Hill Springs, the Sharp place, the dry
farm near Black Rock, the Faust Ranch, the James
Ranch, Indian Springs, and Riverbed. After each
loss he moved on, motivated by the mirage of a
blossoming desert. In 1962, during the glory years
on his last ranch, he wrote:
Pioneer spirit for homesteading, adventure,
hard work and realizing ones dreams, regardless of age, was once an important part of our

American life. People of today . . . just cannot

be convinced that there are thousands of acres
of unappropriated land in the great valleys of
the west Desert, potentially rich and productive
with ample underground water for irrigation.
These lands are going to waste because
homesteading is generally considered to be for
poor people and then only of necessity. . . .
True to make a success of a homestead nowadays requires money, credit, courage, a quality
of imagination that can make a mirage actually
become a garden of Eden. (Colbath 7)

His last farm was huge, with a half-section

(320 acres) of irrigated fields. Four diesel engines
pumped water out to irrigate tall stands of bright
green alfalfa.
My own father, Glynn Colin Bennion, participated in his fathers vision. In his autobiography, he wrote about a homesteading venture with
his father and two brothers when he was sixteen
years old:
June 21st, 1934my father, my brothers
Owen and George, and I set out on an adventure. We rented a truck and loaded it with $12
worth of groceries, lumber and fixtures for a
cabin, seeds and fruit tree starts, and bedding.
We left Salt Lake City in the morning. We
traveled over Lookout Pass, Government
Wash, Simpson Springs, and finally arrived at
our destinationa hollow six miles south of
Simpson [a former army camp, 25 miles west
of Vernon]. . . .
We planted a garden before we did anything else. . . . Then we built our cabin. My
dad wasnt anything special as a builder, but I
thought he was great. The thing I remember
best was that he made a latch-string. He said
When you are away, you leave the latch-string
outwhich means, Everybody is welcome to
this house.
Then we started work on our ditch. Shovels and rakes, work that bent backs and gave
us aches. When we got the water down, we
dragged a harrow, meant for a horse, by 3 boy
and one manpower, after we had planted the
10-acre field in alfalfa. Four days later the little
cotyledon came upthen the true leaves. We

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knew we could grow it. . . . In August my

father walked across the mountain, bringing
back the . . . bronco team, a wagon, and a plow
and a few staples to eat. He introduced me to
the one-man plow. An acre a day. Thirty acres
were put under cultivation and planted. More
irrigation, more ditch work, more concern for
the growing alfalfa. Many people search for the
wonder crop of the west. Search no more. It is
alfalfa. (Glynn Colin Bennion)

In this writing is the same passion for land that

is implicit in his great-grandfather Johns writing,
the idea that pioneering the chaotic is a heroic act,
universally beneficial. They all assume that there is
an aesthetic, economic, philosophical beauty in
a well-managed field or garden. Making such a
thing, organizing the chaos, participates with God
in the creation. It is like the creation of a work of
art, a bodying forth, a making. I believe that there
is a specific connection between my grandfathers
love of a well-ordered field and my grandmothers
love of painting maps. Both involve the aesthetic
and practical creation of a beneficial entity. In a
letter she wrote to my father, my grandmother
describes my grandfathers efforts at historical writing. Its clear that she thinks about his making of
history as an act of bringing a useful object into
existence. In a letter to her son, she writes:
[He] has just completed a very excellent article
on Brigham Young and Jim Bridger. . . . It
really is very, very fine. He is all the time gaining in ability to see, to analyse and to express
with conviction the wonderful things he finds
in the files of the Historians Office. I feel too
that he has gained this winter a new view of
Brigham Youngs work which will be helpful to
him, to us and to others who read his findings. (Lucile Bennion)

She demonstrates here her belief that a body of

knowledge can be a worthwhile creation, perhaps
even more important than an irrigation ditch or a
tall field of alfalfa. In her illuminated maps, she
chooses as subjects men who followed, like her
husband and his fathers, the colonizing impulse.
I will describe four such maps: her painting of
Abraham, the Vikings, Columbus, and the trappers and fur traders.

My grandmothers painting, Abraham: Friend

of God, Prince among Early Peoples (1958, prang
tempera, 35 x 60 inches) shows Abraham in the
center of the painting, with angels in ranks to
the left and right. The angels extend their arms and
bow their heads toward him. The circle in which
the Patriarch stands is violet, with a swirl of blue
and white below, as if he stands above the curve of
the earth. Scriptures from Genesis and Abraham
are inscribed below his feet.
The background is a map of the lands Abraham wandered across, the area bounded by the
Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea. To Abrahams right is Canaan, to his left
the Ur of the Chaldees. Sailing ships float on the
three seas. Small images of Greek, Roman, and
Assyrian statuary and Egyptian paintings ornament
the map. To the left and right are twelve smaller
images titled Canaanite Captives, Felling Cedars
of Lebanon, Semite and Nubian Captives,
Measuring and Recording the Harvest, Egyptian Funeral Rites, Syrians Bring Tribute to
Pharoah, Tribute to Nanar, the Moon God,
Assyrian Lion Hunt, Scribes Record Plunder,
Goldsmiths Work at Ur, Sumerian Archers,
and Babylonian Two-Winged God.
My grandmother is interested in the fabric of
history which was the context of the specific act
of colonizationAbraham leaving the land of his
father in order to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and
to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace
(Abr. 1:2). He wishes to obtain another place of
residence (Abr. 1:1), certainly for economic benefit, but also for spiritual advancementto have
greater dominion in the eyes of God. My grandmother has read Abrahams life according to an ideology that is very close to that recorded by the men
in my family. In fact, she is simply transcribing an
ideology that was created by the pioneers and exists
today, that the Mormon pioneers follow the pattern of Abraham in their colonizing efforts. She
writes in small letters on the pantry:
Born among a sinful, idolatrous people, Abraham yet maintained faith in the living God to
become his chosen instrument, through whose

The Paintings of Lucile Cannon Bennion

ministry Gods name should be known in the

earth forever. Revered by Christian, Jew, and
Mohammedan, he was priest, patriarch, prince
of peace, exalted father of many nations; faithful, just, steadfast in righteousness, possessor of
great knowledge, through whom all nations
of the earth should be blessed.

That is exactly what my ancestors Israel and John

believed. When my grandfather Glynn left the
Church, he clung to a secular version of that dream.
My grandmother painted several versions of a
Viking map. The one in my house, Vikings (1936,
prang tempera 24 x 41 inches) shows seven Viking
figures in Europe, Greenland, Iceland, and the
eastern coast of America. On the St. Lawrence
River floats a birchbark canoe paddled by an
Indian. An old Viking warrior/settler stands on
Nova Scotia, leaning on his long ax. In the same
locale are a lodge and a figure resting on shipshaped bier. Standing on Iceland, a young Viking
raises a horn of mead. A horseman rides across
Norway. In southern England, a warrior facing an
invisible enemy holds his shield before him and
raises his sword behind his head, ready to deliver a
chopping blow. A trader standing on Turkey offers
furs to a Middle Eastern merchant.
Around the border are twenty-eight small inset
sketches, alternating with Norse poetry and
descriptions. The sketches show Odin, Thor, the
Valkyries, the Skald or singers of the sagas, Niflheim or hell, a dragon ship on a wild sea, and the
northern lights. She has written, All men who
have fallen in fight since the beginning of the
world are gone to Odin in Valhalla. The phrase is
close to what she seems to feel toward their heroic
nature as explorers and colonizers. Below the drawing of Valhalla is the following poem:
Gladsheim is the fifth called
Where the gleaming
Valhalla stands
There Odin chooses
Weapon-dead men.
That hall is very
Easily known to those
who come to Odin;

The hall is roofed with shafts,

It is thatched with shields,
Benches are strewn with armor.
That hall is very
Easily known to those
Who come to Odin;
A wolf hangs
West of the door,
An eagle hovers above it.
Five hundred doors
And forty more
I think are in Valhalla;
Eight hundred warriors
Go through a door at once
When they go to fight the wolf.

Theirs was not the righteous colonization of Abraham, but by inscribing this poem onto her painting, my grandmother gives colonizers the status of
warriors. Elsewhere on the map, she is more specific about the values she admires in the Vikings.
Next to a picture of a fjord, she writes: The small
farms of Scandinavia, separated by mountain and
fjord, too poor to support a feudal castle, bred a
race of proud, freedom-loving men, whose descendants fought tyranny in England and America.
A scroll under the central Viking contains her
description of the values of the Vikings:
The sagas reveal a magnanimous quality in the
Vikings, for the contests therein glorified had
to be equal, chief against chief, ship against
ship. From this sporting spirit, which included
a religious zest for daring enterprise and fierce
retaliation for wrong, may be traced the
chivalry of medieval Europe. The Vikings were
more than pirates. A mature nobility, a magnificent daring, a power to lead, to organize, to
establish a better order of things, made them
the master spirit of their age. Independent,
just, imaginative, ruled by the heroic tenets of
their virile religion, they developed the spiritual elements from which have sprung the
institutions of free government.

My grandmother thus endows the Viking wanderings with a romance similar to that described by
my male ancestors as they have written about the
settlement of the West.

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The third painting, Columbus (1938, prang

tempera, 15 x 11 inches), is divided horizontally
into two parts by the following text: Born in
obscurity, unhonored in death, Columbus yet
made the greatest discovery of all time. Sustained
through peril and strife by his glorious visions he
held to his purpose and won the undying gratitude
of mankind. My grandmother situates him in the
same heroic group as Abraham and the Vikings. In
the upper half of the painting, Columbus stands
slightly off-center to the right, a sail behind him.
He extends his arm toward the sea. Above him in a
swirl of clouds are images of the Far East, where he
imagined his voyage of discovery would end.
Smaller images surround the main scene, a dragon,
Spanish monks and warriors, and the Statue of
Liberty. By this last image she suggests that his voyage paved the way for all those who left Europe
for America, where they could search westward for
their own land. Below the text she has painted the
Atlantic Ocean; white lines record Columbuss various voyages between the Old and New Worlds.
The fourth painting, Trappers (1934, prang
tempera, 18 x 23 1 2 inches), centers on the Great
Lakes, which are open like a cluster of fallen leaves.
Surrounding the lobes of the lakes are images of
animals: mink, otter, beaver, fox, wolf. Canoes cross
the lakes. Trappers and Indians meet on the right
of the canvas. An Indian leans forward in a battle
stance, shield extended, axe upraised to strike.
A scroll across the bottom of the painting reads:
For more than 150 years the Great Lakes
region, richest beaver lands of America, furnished New France with its sinews of war &
peace. The rich profits of the fur trade & the
free adventurous life in the wilds lured the most
vigorous young men of the colony from the
farms & likewise the Indian from his fields &
useful village arts. Suited by temperament to
pioneer the trade, the dashing coureurs were
never more at home, never more happy than
when paddling swiftly over the cold waters or
passing noiselessly along ancient forest trails
with a band of Indian hunters. The Jesuit
priest, patriot as well as missionary, zealously
aided in diverting the fur trade from Dutch &
English rivals to Montreal. From the forts

which dotted the shores the coureurs-de-bois

each spring rounded up the Indians with their
winters stock of furs for the grand rendezvous
at Michiliinackinac or Greens Bay. Here the
canoes, at times numbering 400, joined in one
great flotilla, proceeded down the Lakes to the
annual fair at Montreal, greatest of fur marts.
But if the Iroquois were on the war path the
lake route was abandoned, portage made &
the journey continued by way of the Mattawa
& Ottawa rivers.

These images portray the nobility of men who

explored the world, moving west to open new
lands. The most heroic men are those who went, a
mingling of Manifest Destiny and an odd theory
of survival of the fittest. To the best men went the
rewards of exploration.
While I have a more cynical attitude toward
the land fever which has made my fathers see the
desert wilderness as a potential field or garden, she
had a romantic vision of charting wilderness to
make way for human communities. She used her
paintings to teach that vision of the history of
westward expansion, participating in the creation
of an ideology that fused ideals borrowed from
Hebraic, Viking, and European traditions. Through
these four maps she portrays acts of exploration
and colonization as heroic, as embodying the highest cultural virtues of courage, freedom, ambition,
and community.
My grandfather often told me the story of one
of my grandmothers painting expeditions. She
drove west toward his homestead and stopped the
car in the middle of the wide desert plain just south
of the current-day Dugway Proving Grounds. She
climbed to the top of a bluff, braving the rattlesnakes that often hide in the shadows of boulders.
On top she found the vista she had sought, with
gray buttes, mountains, and flats spread around
her. That is how I remember her, on top of that
bluff, sketching the desert.
JOHN BENNION writes short fiction and novels about
the western Utah desert and the people who inhabit
that forbidding country. He has published a collection of short fiction, Breeding Leah and Other Stories

The Paintings of Lucile Cannon Bennion

(Signature Books, 1991), and a novel, Falling toward

Heaven (Signature Books, 2000). He has published
short work in Ascent, AWP Chronicle, English Journal,
Utah Holiday, Journal of Experiential Education, Sunstone Magazine, Best of the West II, Black American
Literature Forum, and others. He has written a contemporary YA novel, Born of Ashes, which he has submitted
to publishers. An associate professor at Brigham Young
University, Bennion teaches creative writing and the
British novel.
1. The painting of Columbus, the painting of the
trappers, and a lithograph of the Abraham painting
are in possession of my uncle, George Bennion, Luciles

Bennion, Colin. The Family of Colin and Sergene
Bennion of Vernon, Utah. N.d., n.p. This unpublished collection of writings, in my possession,
has page numbers in only certain sections of the
Bennion, Israel. Journal. Typescript in my possession.
Bennion, John. Falling toward Heaven. Salt Lake City:
Signature Books, 2000.
Bennion, Lucile Cannon. Letter to Glynn Colin Bennion, 21 March 1940, in my possession.
Colbath, Lyle E. Homesteader of Riverbed. Salt Lake
Tribune 23 September 1962, 7.
Rogers, Ruth Winder. Bennion Family History. 4 vols.
N.p.: Bennion Family Association, 1990. Vol. 4:
John Bennion Family. [This is a narrative history
for children.]


I Love You. Invitation or Demand?:

Revelatory Marriage Proposals in Mormon Fiction
Gae Lyn Henderson

here is a Mormon myth that circulates around

BYU and the Church in general: A returned
missionary approaches a beautiful young woman
and tells her that he has received a revelation that
she is to be his wife. However, the young woman is
shocked, puzzled, and does not quite know how
to answer this protestation of love combined with
spiritual authority.
In this paper, I examine a novel and two stories
written by Mormon authors who look at varying
manifestations of this myth. During my life, Ive
encountered a few variations of this scenario, and
many Mormons have heard of something similar.
What these three texts seem to reflect is a bit of cultural anxiety regarding this phenomenon.
As I compare these texts, I point out some psychological similarities in the lives of the female
protagonists who face the problem of revelatory
marriage proposals. To this end, Ive found a foray
into psychoanalytic theory helpful. Ill summarize
the gist of the theory here and then move on to
how I see it manifested in the texts.
Psychoanalytic relational theory posits the individuals search for identity always within a family
and cultural matrix. Barbara Schapiro in Literature
and the Relational Self observes: In the psychological universe, theorists are increasingly suggesting,
identity at the core level of the self is other dependent (2). Human beings form identity in relation
to others, first with family, and then within culture.
Further, she summarizes an argument by Stephen
Mitchell that relationships with these others always
involve conflict regarding issues of autonomy and

dependence (3). It seems clear that growing up is

about establishing some degree of independence.
Mitchell also finds sexuality . . . the medium par
excellence for the experience of self in interaction
with others (3). So, as young adults experience
emerging sexuality, autonomy issues naturally
come up. Mitchells work suggests that the choice
of a mate is unconsciously tied to the younger
inner-childs attempt to differentiate him- or herself from the primary caregiver, usually the mother.
The mother, according to psychoanalyst Jessica
Benjamin in The Bonds of Love is the babys first
object of attachment . . . provider, interlocutor,
caregiver, contingent reinforcer, significant other,
empathic understander, mirror. She is also a secure
presence to walk away from, a setter of limits, an
optimal frustrator, a shocking real outside otherness (23). However, Benjamin notes that for the
child to progress developmentally and properly
separate from the mother, their relationship must
become intersubjective. The child must see the
mother, not as existing merely to satisfy his or her
needs, but rather recognize her as an important
person in her own right, as an individual with
independent identity (241).
Therefore, beyond the issue of differentiation,
there is another important psychological drama being
enacted as children grow and maturethat of establishing connection. Benjamin explains that the central issue in psychological development is not only
how we separate from oneness, but also how we
connect to and recognize others (18). This is intriguing, especially given our family-oriented Mormon

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culture. In forming identity, connecting to others

(parents) may be even more important than separating from them. Schapiro further points out:
The essential interaction between self and other
involves a combination of resonance and difference, and a delicate tension between selfassertion and mutual recognition. . . . When
that necessary tension breaks down, the dynamics of domination and submission result. . . . If
the need for attunement has not been satisfied,
patterns of submission can result as the self
seeks to remain attuned by surrendering completely to the others power and will. (19)

In other words, a very delicate balancing act

must be achieved for emotional health. If the family or the culture has an authoritative bent to it, or
if submission to authority is emphasized, then the
individual may have difficulty negotiating between
competing internal pressures to submit or to strike
out independently.
What I find in each of these fictional works is
an intriguing look at a young womans search for
identityand her resultant poignant struggle with
issues of domination and submissionas she tries
to make marriage choices.
In Margaret Youngs Salvador, the protagonist,
Julie, faces the insistent demands of a would-be
lover and his patriarchal father that she marry and
fulfill a destiny defined not by her own but by their
spiritual vision. She resists this pressure and escapes
their rather smothering influence. Similarly, in Levi
Petersons Canyons of Grace, Arabella finds herself
yoked to a polygamist, on his terms, and for his
purposes. She acts to free herself. Finally, in Mary
Clydes story A Good Paved Road, Lori vacillates
between her current husband, a traditional Mormon elder who can offer her security and safety,
and her out-of-the-covenant first husband. She
demonstrates perfect free will but not perfect decisiveness, as she seeks both adventure with security, two qualities the country song assures us are
more than one man can provide (Mcanally).
I examine the demands that the love relationship places on these female characters and the varying degrees of agency they practice in determining
their destiny. Each of these women struggles to

establish autonomy in decision-making and, at the

same time, relatedness in sexual/marriage relationships. Each sees her identity within a family and
cultural matrix, very much bound up in connections to other people. Each is told whom to marry
by a manand the man calls upon Gods name to
establish his revelatory certainty. To complicate matters, each young woman carries around with her a
voice, her mothers voice, warning her to submit to
God and his law. I argue here that the difficulty each
woman experiences in marriage decision-making
emerges from her attempt (perhaps unconscious)
to accomplish dual goals: She must differentiate
herself from the relational ties (especially with her
mother) that bind her; and at the same time, she is
compelled to reinstate these same ties (bonds of love)
that create her identity. Because, in psychoanalytic
terminology, if the relationships in the family system are not attuned, problems of domination and
submission result.
Julie, the in-the-process-of-divorce protagonist
in Youngs novel, travels to El Salvador with her
parents: her mother, who represents activity in the
Church and unconditional love, and her father,
whose status as excommunicated former missionary who served in El Salvador gives him a troubling
spiritual status. They visit the domain of her Uncle
Johnny, her mothers brother and her fathers
former missionary companion. Uncle Johnny has
married a native woman, Luisa, devoting his life to
the spiritual and political salvation of the Salvadorian people. Julie idolizes her uncle as a middledeitya few notches below the Holy Ghost (6).
As she works in Johnnys household-estate, attempting to heal the emotional scars of her brief, but
emotionally destructive marriage, Julie also explores
a tentative love relationship with her uncles protg: Alberto, a handsome and romantic young man
who quotes Shakespeare and rechristens Julie as his
As Julie hesitantly begins to respond to Albertos
pursuit, she argues with his belief that God might
allow a man to have more than one wife, even
require it:
Sometimes peoplemen especiallyget
revelations from an overdose of testosterone,

Revelatory Marriage Proposals in Mormon Fiction

and think its God calling. A lot of people

think theyve found God when theyve found
their own instincts. I thought God wanted me
to marry my husband. It wasnt God.
Are you so sure?
Yes. I know who it was. Sometimes we
create God. (66)

The conflict here is between Gods will and

human desire. Julies ultimate challenge is to distinguish between these imperatives as Uncle Johnny puts
increasing pressure on her to marry Alberto. One
of Johnnys techniques to ensure Julies compliance
involves using his priesthood authority. At one
point, Julie describes her feelings as Johnny places
his hands on her head and pronounces a blessing:
Julie Suzanne Albertson, . . . I bless you
and give you direct from Heaven the words of
God to you. Then he waited. It seemed like a
full minute of utter silence, as though this was
the time it took for Gods thoughts to make it
to Zarahemla. When he spoke again, his voice
had changed, become lower and softer. There
was new power in his hands. They trembled on
my head as though electrified. Waves of warmth
came through my scalp. (8586)

Alberto participates in this blessing by placing

his hands on Julies head and also responds to
Johnnys powerful wordswith tears and trembling. Of course, the problematic point, in retrospect, is that Johnny turns out to be an apostate
priesthood-holder, one who is usurping Gods
name to unrighteously influence other people. But
Johnnys utter conviction, his assurance of his
authority as Gods surrogate, has a powerful effect
on Julie. She responds physically to his hands, to
his words.
When Julie finally discovers that Johnny has
designated her to be Albertos second wife and that,
in fact, Alberto is Johnnys son by one of Johnnys
polygamist relationships (and hence her first cousin),
she changes her opinion of her uncle, branding
him as the most evil of profligates and finding in her
excommunicated father a source of truth: Johnnys
off the wall, she realizes. Hes an apostate. A damned
sinner. Dad knew it. Before any of us saints, Dad

knew it (189). And, momentarily, as Julies disillusion with her uncle sinks in, her entire belief system disintegrates: There was no God. There was
no rule, no morality . . . (191).
But Julie is able to rather quickly rekindle her
faith. The key figure in that rebirth is her mother.
The opening line of the novel refers to her: My
mother was a scream when I was growing up (1).
Her mothers humor, warmth, even her minor
rebellionsall create for Julie an ideal persona,
one that she tried to model in her first marriage.
A key central moment in the novel is when Julie
angrily confronts her mother regarding that marriage: You encouraged me. I was falling in love or
in crush or whatever it was, and you were right
there, my model of womanhood and all that crap
(140). Her mother protests, One sentence from
your mother shouldnt ruin your life (140). But
Julie explains the power her mothers example held
for her, I worshipped you. If you had told me to
marry Mohamar Quaddafi and save the world,
I would have tried (140).
So even after the failure of a first marriage and
the second family failure of seeing Uncle Johnny
misuse power, Julie is still tied to this queen-mother
example. Her mother admits, If I did encourage
youif I did, that was why. A womans greatest
potential is realized in wifehood (14142). And in
the dramatic climax of the book, Julie watches her
mother as she attends the weak-willed Luisa during
childbirth, infusing life and love into the dying woman. Julie witnesses her mother perform a
womans miracle.
So it is no surprise that the novel ends with
Julies prophecy of her future, reinforcing relational
bonds: I will be married. I will have children of
my own (244). Julie finds her identity, in essence,
by becoming her mother.
Perhaps Youngs novel can be seen as a faithful
rewriting of the earlier Canyons of Grace. Petersons
story, published in his 1982 collection, fails to reinforce Mormon traditional values when his female
protagonist is similarly designated as the receptacle
of a polygamists desire. Arabellas relationship with
God seems as troubling as Julies is later, but she
resolves her dilemma very differently.

AML Annual 2003

The story is set in the Utah canyon country

(102) at an archeological dig. Arabella, a twentynine-year-old virgin, finds herself on the verge of
her first sexual encounter. She conceives of the relationship as a desire to break Gods law, exulting
in her newfound, rebellion-based strength. When
the intelligent, attractive, good-humored Franklin
first proposes to Arabella, How come you and me
dont set up my little tent across the wash and sleep
together? she feels a minor tremor of triumph
However, when Franklin slips from his satiric
banter and says something about falling in love,
she recoils from his words as a betrayal of her lustful fantasy. She imagined her relationship with
Franklin as purely sexual, without tenderness,
commitment, or any of the distasteful accoutrements that her Mormon parents lifestyle represents. She intends to break irretrievably with the
power that lifestyle holds over her with a premeditated act of sin. It was to be an act of defiance, a
thousand-megaton blow against the conformities
of her previous life (110).
But Arabellas soul seems to crack. A fissure
appears in her sense of self when she approaches
the sexual act. Such behavior violates the essence of
her upbringing, an upbringing capstoned by her
mothers desperate warning less than a month previously to promise to pray as a safeguard against
sin: If you pray about it, you wont fall (108).
Arabella is vulnerable because, even though her
scientific training disallows belief in God, her very
identity has been formed through her relationship with her parents and their shared religious
Therefore Arabella is primed for divine intervention. At Minnies Good Eats, a grimy caf in
Blanding, she catches the eye of the obese prophetpolygamist, Reuben Millring, who approaches her
with bizarre command and insists on setting
her apart as his ninth wife. Her obedience to his
demand that she sit in the chair and say her name
reflects years of training:
He put his hands on her head, pressed heavily, and prayed: God Almighty, by the authority Thou has bestowed on me . . . I lay my

hands on the head of this sister . . . He paused.

Whats your name? Arabella was silent. Whats
your name? he burst out indignantly.
Arabella Gurney.
I lay my hands on the head of this sister,
Arabella Gurney, he continued, and I consecrate her unto the duty and elevation of wifehood unto Thy servant, Thy prophet, even
myself. Amen. (112)

Reuben Millrings hands on Arabellas head

further fracture her sense of self. Metaphorically,
the hands function like an ice pick hit with the
hammer of authority: Arabellas personhood splits
along the fissure in her soul. As his heavy hands
lifted from her scalp, electric sensations surged in
her belly and thighs. She pulsed with an uncanny
recognition (112). Later, she tells Franklin that
the unpleasant prophet is like someone I might
have known in my pre-existence (117).
No longer can she even consider making love
to Franklin. She is completely numbed to his touch,
responding perfunctorily to his kisses (114). She
fears that the concupiscent tryst toward which
they were moving was lethal; God would not fail to
give it his closest, most angry attention (115).
And yet, without any kind of prior intent,
when she is alone with Franklin in the canyon, an
area she proclaims as filled with grace (117), she
suddenly feels holy and decides to act again upon
her plan, the sexual act sanctified by her surroundings. However, the holy act also ironically and
irrevocably relegates her to the ranks of sinner. So
she simply shuts off part of herself: She refused to
think about God (121); she cuts off the world
at the limit of the archeological dig. Arabella is
not acting as a complete personshe is still split
between her grace-filled sexual impulses and the
ugly evidence of Gods disapproval communicated
through Reubens blessing.
When Reuben sends a cohort to round her up
with a cattle horse and bring her to the homestead,
she resists, but only until the fellow tells her:
We know you been shacked up with that curly
haired fellow (122). And as if it were God himself
doing the watching, Arabellas self-determination

Revelatory Marriage Proposals in Mormon Fiction

disappears. She gets into the truck, later allows

Reubens first wife to wash and clothe her, and sits
at his side at the dinner table while he makes pronouncement about her sins and her future.
That night as she falls asleep, she knows she
must face the world outside of camp because of her
sin with Franklin, that inevitably there would be
a temporary excommunication before she could
fit back properly into the church, and who knew
how long it might be before God would forgive
her? (127).
When Reuben wakens her by entering the
room, she confesses her sins and submits to his violation of her person as an act of atonement for her
lifelong sin of untamed ego. She accepts the rape of
her body as an act of submission to Gods will that
she has never been able to give, until now.
She felt, hot upon her face, the gusts of
Reubens passionate breath. . . . All her life she
had known him. From the talk of teachers,
friends, and parents, from the word of the
Scriptures, she had assembled his portrait. In
Reubens faceaflame with conviction, wrathful against sin, touched by the promise of a
remote salvationArabella saw the face of
God. (130)

But with the morning comes clarity of thought.

She sees suddenly the fact that her own human
dignity has been attacked and attempts to escape.
When Reuben orders her to stop, she lifts a heavy
porcelain basin and drops its edge down with all
her force upon his head. Reuben sprawled across
the floor; thick blood flowed from the split in his
skull (13132). Arabella kills this self-proclaimed
prophet, this surrogate for God.
Arabella is a particularly vulnerable victim.
Again we see in her relationship with her parents,
and particularly with her mother, the poorly
attuned dynamic of autonomy versus submission.
Her mother tells her: Chastity is a serious thing. . . .
Even married people have to be careful. . . . You
shouldnt do things that will provoke each other
before the Spirit tells you it is proper to make love
(108). Arabella views her parents as extraordinarily
good, mild mannered, and dutiful. They seem to
lack all passion for living in their repetitive cycle of

obedience. In this case, the religious culture, with

its willing sacrificial victims in her parents, creates
in her a compelling need to rebel, to break away.
Petersons story is an acclamation of the self, of
freedom, but it seems to assert that such freedom
can be obtained only through killing the angry,
avenging father. This rewriting of the Oedipal myth
is particularly poignant because the father/God not
only requires containment of the sexual desires with
which he has apparently cursed his children but
ironically demands his daughter as sacrifice to his
own lust.
Canyons of Grace concludes with Arabella facing a joyous futurewithout God. Now that God
is dead, for the first time in her life she feels grace
in her instincts, in knowing her status as human
animal, an ephemeral predator upon a minor
planet (135). Such meaninglessness is better,
much better, than purpose, and the terrible
inescapable family connection to God the eternally
frightening Father. But the cost of killing God is
also to sever her bond with her parents, because,
as the narrator reminds us, Arabella loathed them
for their subservience, yet she also loved them,
needed their approval (109).
It is the words I love you, the external markers of connection, that can carry a powerful weight
in determining life choices. Robert Solomon in
About Love argues,
To say I love you, . . . is an aggressive, creative, socially definitive act, which among other
things places the other person in an unexpected and very vulnerable position. . . . It is
not so terrible, of course, if he or she is willing
and ready with the one acceptable response,
namely, I love you too. But nothing else will
do. No excuses are appropriate. One cannot
say How interesting or How curious, Im in
love with someone too. (379)

In Mary Clydes story, Lori, the protagonist,

says yes twice to declarations of lovebut she cant
seem to stick to her answer. She keeps comparing
and choosing between two men. Young Loris first
marriage was short lived. Lowell didnt meet the
idealized requirements of her upbringing, so she is
soon able to throw him over as unacceptable. He

AML Annual 2003

doesnt go to church, hold the priesthood, or take

her to the temple. Another huge factor in her assessment is his laissez-faire attitudehe lacks the drive
for success, work ethic, celestialized-sense-of-destinyfor-the-highest-kingdom that gets translated into
type-A behavior, goals, competitiveness, and material success. He exists in the present, a present of
pleasing himself, of enjoyment.
Soon after her divorce from Lowell, Lori meets
her second husband, Dennis, at a church dance.
Dennis is three months off his church mission,
where he saw that the Lord had a plan for the
people of Indiana (38). The narrator/protagonist
goes on wryly,
And guess what? Pretty soon it came out
the Lord had a plan for me, too. And even
though it was as ordinary as marrying Dennis
in the Mormon temple, it was what Id been
moving toward all my life, where I would have
been anyway, if not for tripping over Lowells
big feet and ending up married to him. (38)

Lori feels that her future has been, if not predestined, at least foreordained, by her culture.
Therefore by assenting to this hard-working,
earnest young mans proposal, she is able to get herself back on track from her tripped-up mistake of a
first marriage.
Will you marry me, Lori, and be my wife
for time and all eternity? Dennis . . . said,
radiant as the angel Gabriel, sure and sweet as
a messenger from God should be. (38)

Her answer comes promptly, Well, sure.

But she goes on to address the reader, to explain
her quick agreement, just in case we have missed
the inherent difficulty of saying no to an angelic
pronouncement. Because, there it was, a good
paved road right at my feet. It was like suddenly
figuring out where you are on a map. Direction.
The lure of a steady course. You see? (39).
Loris questioning You see? is her way of
inviting us to recognize, as she apparently does, in
retrospect, her nonparticipation in the marriage
decision. It is as if she must justify such a lack of
self-caretaking. And it also is a painful admission
of guilt and an asking for forgiveness, a turning to

the exterior world for judgment about her most

personal of decisions.
It is in church that Lori impulsively walks out
on Dennis, which seems a bit unfair since he certainly is keeping his part of the marriage bargain:
He goes to work early every morning and comes
home late, grout under his fingernails (39) from
laying tile. Dennis is everything the first husband
Lowell was not: steady, dependable, attending
church, praying over meals. Lori can even predict
exactly how hell eat: Hell pour a huge pool
of [taco sauce] to dip his taco in, does the same
with the syrup for waffles, ketchup for hamburgers (48).
But Lori, while she admires Denniss work ethic,
keeps comparing her two husbands. She remembers Lowells slow kisses, Lowell was never in a
rush, particularly in his pleasures (45). And suddenly, in church, husband Denniss whispered citation of the speakers scriptural reference, Hebrews
11:1, before the speaker can even get to it, seems
claustrophobically conformist (49). Lori daydreams
about Lowells refusal to join ranks, how he couldnt
see the necessity of her Mormonism: I was planning for eternal life; Lowell was looking forward to
the weekend (50).
And so, on impulse, Lori returns to Lowell
with the explanation that she is ditching church
(50). Lori is searching for freedom to act. Interestingly, she apparently conceives of freedom only
through returning to Lowell. While she cant find
in herself the dutifulness of Dennis (who prays over
what kind of sprinkler heads to put in his lawn),
having placed herself in the position of follower to
Denniss leadership, it is equally difficult to act
autonomously from his brand of religion in which
God helps people prevent costly mistakes in lawn
care. Unable to separate herself from her husband
spiritually, she is forced to remove herself physically. But she doesnt stand alone, even for a
minute. Lori goes right back with Lowell, whose
nonconformity and living-in-the-moment stand
now in stark, but life-giving contrast to Denniss
sheeplike submissiveness. Lori can discover her
own identity, her own freedom, vicariously, only
through a mans ability to choose his life.

Revelatory Marriage Proposals in Mormon Fiction

She is able to choose but, in this story, able to

choose only a husband. (Of course, the story does
not tell us whether Lori will stay with Lowell, or
whether she is only leaving Dennis for an afternoon visit. We dont know what comes next.)
Again, it is instructive to look at Loris relationship with her mother. When the story opens,
Lori sees Frances Bigelow, the mother of a crime
victim. Years before Lori remembers questioning
her mother about the crime, a frightening episode
of murder and rape. She remembers her mothers
refusal to answer Loris questions:
Lori, some things happen in life that are
unpleasant. It does no one any good to dwell
on them. [Lori protests:] Im not dwelling. . . .
Im thinking. I dont want to get myself killed.
Go empty the dishwasher, she said. (42)

The admonition here is to not think about evil

or danger. Her mother also adds a cryptic comment about not going into the desert with your
boyfriend, which Lori interprets as a veiled warning against sex. It is easy to understand then, in this
fearful world where things cant be discussed, Loris
assent to the safe and steady Dennis when he presents her with that paved road. But later the
memory of this repressive incident with her
mother triggers in Lori a decision to walk out on
her second husband, in search of less blind obedience and more conscious choice-making.
Youngs novel and Petersons and Clydes stories
share in common a similar concern about a
womans responsibility to choose carefully regarding marriage but, even more importantly, to make
choices that determine her own identity. Male
authority figures proclamations of revelation complicate the females ability to discern what she
wants. But the difficulty of self-assertion seems to
lie in the womans relational construction of identity. These texts that look at Mormon culture
suggest some anxiety regarding poorly attuned
dynamics of autonomy versus submission. Women
are at risk of unhealthy submission when authority
is reinforced by maternal expectations.
Benjamin states in Like Subjects: If the clash of
two wills is an inherent part of intersubjective relations, then no perfect environment can take the sting

from the encounter with otherness. The question

becomes how the inevitable elements of negation
are processed (47). The good news in these texts
is that, in spite of the traumatic struggle involved
in establishing autonomy, each protagonist acts
toward self-determination and successfully escapes
GAE LYN HENDERSON is currently a Ph.D. candidate
in rhetoric and composition at the University of Utah
and a member of the AML Board. She taught writing
and literary interpretation at Brigham Young University
(19912001) and at Salt Lake Community College
(2002). She presented this paper at the AML conjoint
session of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language
Association in October 1999 in Boise, Idaho.
Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love. New York: Pantheon, 1988.
Clyde, Mary. A Good Paved Road. Survival Rates.
Athens: U of Georgia P, 1999.
Mcanally, Mac. All These Years. Recorded by Sawyer
Brown. Greatest Hits 19901995. All These Years
Copyright 1992 by Beginner Music (ASCAP).
Peterson, Levi. The Canyons of Grace. The Canyons
of Grace. Midvale, UT: Orion Books, 1982. 10235.
Schapiro, Barbara Ann. Literature and the Relational
Self. New York: New York UP, 1994.
Solomon, Robert. About Love: I Love You. Lives through
Literature: A Thematic Anthology. 3rd ed. Ed.
Helane Levine Keating and Walter Levy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000. 37880.
Young, Margaret. Salvador. Salt Lake City: Aspen, 1992.


Strong Enough to Face the Dark

Carolyn Campbell

s writers who are Latter-day Saints, we know

that darkness was once part of light during the
premortal existence and the War in Heaven. Each
soul is born in innocence and chooses to embrace
dark or light thousands of times in a given life.
The dark is near us, the dark is like us, the dark is
powerful, the dark is sometimes part of us, and
it emerges in our spoken and written words.
There is a feeling that if we face the dark we
risk becoming part of itthat if we seek to study
and write about dark topics to gain understanding,
we will also gain dangerous and risky proximity.
Yet there is also a saying, Know your enemy.
I would submit that in most instances, knowledge
of the darkness reduces its power, makes it less
mysterious, makes it less an object of curiosity, and
shrinks its hold over our thoughts and deeds. Knowledge of evil increases our perspective and helps us
register where such opposition fits relative to the
light in our lives and our written work. Such knowledge causes the dark to haunt our thoughts less,
because many of our questions are answered and
we can move on past our fears.
Darkness is often the strength of written stories
because of the counterpoint it offers to accent the
goodness of heroic, noble actions. Often the villain
is the strength of our story, and sometimes that villain is us. Others can relate to our own tales of
being in the dark and emerging from it. Often the
most brilliant light shines most brightly when
placed against the darkest dark.
I would like to express the thought that it is
more possible now to explore the dark and capture

controversy as a writer and as a seeker of understanding, while remaining an active Mormon, than
ever before. One reason this is so is that it does
appear that there is more darkness now than in past
years and that such darkness has acquired a greater
capacity to weave itself, occasionally unseen and
unfelt, into our everyday fabric.
Consider the phenomenon of profanity. Extensive permission was required to allow Rhett Butler
to utter a single swear word at the end of the movie
Gone with the Wind when it was filmed in 1939.
Profanity then was considered to hold the power
of darkness. Though swear words may still sting,
I would submit that they are no longer as shocking
as they once were, because we have grown used to
the sting of darkness that they once held.
My son went through a period (thankfully brief )
of using drugs. When I suggested that his choice of
friends might be part of why he participated in
such activities and asked about a particular friend
whom I thought might be safe, he told me that this
friend had not only used marijuana, as my son did,
but that this person was now a heroin addict. He
asked, Mom, in your day, was it easier to tell which
kids were using drugs by how they looked? I agreed
that probably it was; yet even within that time of
remembering, I acknowledged within myself that,
with rare exceptions, it really isnt possible to divine
someones actions by their outward appearance.
My son emphasized his belief that appearance is a
less reliable guide now than ever before. He says kids
who use drugs today look like any other kids. Darkness doesnt always appear dark the way it used to.

AML Annual 2003

Those who choose to embrace the dark now

have more company than ever, and it appears that
there are more varieties of darkness to choose
among than in the past. One reason we are fascinated with darkness is that we wonder what it
would take to pull us into it. Each of us can think
of times when we did something we thought we
never would do. We hear of the horror of a woman
drowning her children, of Ted Bundy killing young
women, of a well-respected banker embezzling
thousands of dollars; and we ask ourselves, Which
curve did he go around to take this action, and
how close am I to that curve? How close will I
come in the darkest moments of my life? We wonder if we will know at the onset of the curve and if
we will choose to turn back.
Somehow we sense that life is like driving on
the freeway. A small veer in one direction or another
can make all of the difference. In the recent Olympic
games, a writer for the Salt Lake Tribune wrote that
Utah wasnt relaxed enough to lighten up and enjoy
the actual Games. We tensed over what people
would think, inwardly knowing that there was
darkness here in Utah for people to find if they
wanted to (Kirby). We know that we are not perfect and that we are fallibleand these facts in
themselves are frightening. It is that tension that
we can impart to our writing to engage our readers
and cause them to wonder, too, how they will face
their own demons.
Some think that nothing really bad happens to
a writer because we can use all of our experience as
writing material. Darkness around us is material that
we can use, toothat it often creates tension and
interest in our work in that it provides an opposition
and an obstacle that affects the people and events
in our words. The tension resulting from our facing
the darkness with our words causes the reader to
face the darkness within his or her own thoughts,
which generates interest in our material in his or
her mind. Darkness has its own powerful energy
an energy we cannot deny but which we can harness so that its power enlivens our written work.
I have been writing for twenty-five years and
have published three books and six hundred magazine articles. I have been published everywhere from

the Ensign to Redbook to U.S. Weekly to Playgirl,

and I am still a nursery leader. Ive been asked many
times if my bishop or Church leaders have called
me to question me about my writing, but it has
never happened. The scope of acceptability within
the Church for writers has widened. I think that
there is less stigma placed on writers personally by
Church leaders. A more sophisticated generation
themselves, they recognize that we are only trying
to portray the world beyond ourselves and that the
topics of our work dont necessarily reflect the theological position of our lives.
In many cases, subjects that were once considered darkness are now simply considered factual
information. My parents were born in the 1920s. I
remember my father telling me he didnt know what
homosexuality was until he saw two servicemen
kiss in an elevator after he was drafted as a cadet in
World War II. Now homosexuality is mentioned in
daily newspapers, seen regularly in movies and TV
shows, and is a topic of everyday discussion.
I cant help but think back to the days of my
youth when Lucy and Ricky always slept in twin
beds, and when, in any diaper advertisement, the
mothers gold wedding ring was always visible.
Today, behavior in the world is completely different. In many ways, the world is less like us as a faith
than ever. Our light is more on a hill now, and it
would be harder for us to hide it under a bushel
even if we tried. Its hard for an LDS writer to
escape controversy today. Even stories that are not
inherently controversial are more likely to include
elements of controversy.
In the 1950s, TV shows such as Leave It to
Beaver and Father Knows Best used language and
portrayed lifestyles that were congruous with LDS
lifestyles. Today, it seems that there are many more
media eventsand actual life eventsthat are
considered controversial by LDS standards: Hundreds of thousands of people live together without
being married. There is more use of illegal drugs.
There is AIDS. There is pornography addiction. In
September 2001, we witnessed mass murder at the
World Trade Center. There is lots of high drama
nowlots of the good vs. evil that are the elements
of a good story.

Strong Enough to Face the Dark

Within my formula for writing query letters to

sell my writing, I begin with one persons story.
I would probably begin a controversial article with
one persons story, then state that such a phenomenon is on the increase. The following paragraphs,
with which I would begin a query letter about sexual addiction, for instance, demonstrate how readers can explore the dark by seeing inside worlds
where they imagine that they will never go in life.
John woke on a Sunday morning with an
overwhelming urge to buy a pornographic
video. He drove two hours to Wendover, where
he spent $80 for videos and a pornographic
magazine to hold him over for the two-hour
ride home to his VCR. Hed thrown away pornographic videos and magazines countless times
before, telling himself each discard was the last.
But he still found himself buying another video
every three or four months. His sexual addiction bottomed out when he became suicidal
after his girlfriend of two months broke up with
him, because he told her about his pornography problem.

Darkness, or controversy, sells as writing, because

it offers the tension present in conflict. Conflict
can be as small as an argument between two people
or as large as between two countries. Conflict simply
builds tensionthe same feeling of energy and
friction as two people trying to get through a locked
door. There is often the stuff of novels within controversya battle of two forces, good and evil
that again builds tension. While articles and nonfiction sell at ten times the rate of fiction, my guess
would be that the presence of controversy increases
that already high rate by at least ten times. Thus, a
controversial nonfiction article or book means that
our chances of selling it are twenty times higher
than if we choose a noncontroversial article or
topic or a fiction story or novel.
Readers of nonfiction have always been voyeurs
who like an opportunity to peer into other lives to
see how the people in those other lives cope. Seeing someone face a dark conflict that we ourselves
are now facing provides a kinship between reader
and written material, particularly if the aspects of
the dark topic are those that often are private in

everyday conversation. If we find ourselves thinking thoughts that trouble us and that we are reluctant to tell others, reading about them in a written
work is a safe way to explore such banned subjects
without risking the disapproval of others. When
facing the darkness, there is always comfort in
not facing it alone. When we as writers choose to
face the darkness in our written work, we know
that we are not alone, that we are inviting our readers to take part with us, to risk this venture and to
know that at the end of the book, we can close the
cover and lock the darkness away, until we summon courage to face it once again.
Remember that a controversial article asks the
questions that peopleincluding youwould ask
if they dared. Expect a good editor to push you
toward dealing directly with the heart of the controversy. Dont shy away from it. Stay committed
to digging for research and interviewing more participants until you have satisfied your editors
requirements and your own sense as a writer.
To sum up, one reason for choosing to write
about controversial subjects and face the dark is
simply that such writing sells. There is so much
darkness in life that arouses readers curiosity, hidden fears, and secret empathy that darkness finds a
frequent market in todays magazines and books.
In the wake of terrorist attacks, international conflict, and personal tragedy, people look for warmth,
comfort, and encouragement; but they are also
looking for distractionfor another place to channel their thoughts. Controversy offers that place.
In its own way, controversy is comforting. When
we read about a mother whose son had a sex change,
about someone dying of a rare disease, or about a
candidates political defeat, inwardly we think,
There but for the grace of God go I.
Here is a paragraph from an article I wrote on
cross-dressing that illustrates how we can peer inside
the darkness within a life that is likely not our own:
Twelve-year-old Malcolm was panicked.
His parents were already in the kitchen, seconds away from catching him dressed in his
mothers green satin nightgown. Usually, Malcolm timed his forbidden deeds precisely. He
knew how long it took his parents to drive to

AML Annual 2003

town and prided himself on his ability to change

his clothes in 30 seconds. But this time, he
didnt hear the car door slam shut. Now his
mother was headed for her bedroom. Malcolm
dived into his parents bed and yanked the covers up to his chin. He told his mother he didnt
feel well, which wasnt a lie. When she placed
her palm against his forehead, Malcolm prayed
she wouldnt reach under the covers to pat his
During another close call when he was
dressed as a woman, Malcolm quickly slid
under his parents bed and nervously watched
his fathers feet walk just inches away. Another
time, he clung to a rope that hung from the
ceiling of a shed as his unsuspecting family
walked below. Today, 36 years later, Malcolm
regularly ventures out in female attire. Now
hes comfortable scanning the racks at Penneys,
Sears, or Nordstroms, then taking womens
clothes into the mens dressing room to try
them on. If anyone questions him, he says hes
evaluating these items for purchase.

In many self-help books, half the appeal is the

advice, and the other half is the case histories, which
let readers peer behind the scenes into other lives.
Whether we admit it or not, others troubles are
comforting to us. We can say, Ive had a son who
uses drugs, but I havent had a son who has killed
someone. In many instances, there is nothing as
lonely as pain, and to somehow share the pain of
others is comforting.
These considerations generally hold true for
any writer or reader, regardless of religion, but what
are the specific issues of facing the darkness for
Mormon writers? First, as Latter-day Saints concerned about the state of the world, we may feel
safer if we know our enemies. Sometimes we may
feel a bit sheltered and wonder what is going on
out therewhat the rest of the world is doing.
Second, sometimes when we read about controversy, we look for the fulfillment of predictions
regarding the last days. Controversy takes our
mind off our own troubles and allows us to focus
on issues and opinions. It sells.
Third, as Mormons, there are probably more
worlds where we wont go in our personal lives

than there are with other people, so writing about

them is a way of expanding our experience without
violating the commandments. A friend feels that
my controversial articles are written by my alter ego.
Fourth, if we are assigned to describe those
worlds in our writing work, we bring a unique perspective to bear. We understand that all of the
people in our stories are children of God who are
exercising the concept of free agency. We understand that this world is not the end of the line and
that Heavenly Father will have the final say. In covering controversy in our work, we are able to
extend a hand of understanding that is unique
to us. Just as we have reached out in missionary
efforts, we can also reach out in times of controversy. We have understood the battle between good
and evil ever since the War in Heaven. And we
have known which side we are on. At the same
time, we have understood that there is a concrete
opposite side, and we can bring that perspective to
controversial issues.
Here are nine guidelines I think are useful for
Mormon writers:
1. Remember that you are the messenger. No
matter how close you come to the story, it is still a
story. It isnt you. While you cant divorce yourself
from your beliefs, you can think of your story as a
message from others to the reader with you occupying the middle ground between the sources and
the reader. Most of the time, the story is not our
fault. We didnt make it happen.
And what if it is our fault? What if we want to
confess a wrong in a story? I think it helps if we can
remember that we ourselves are, most often, not
writing a pronouncement from the Church. We
are not perfect. We are human. A tale of overcoming our sins can inspire others and help them feel
that they are not alone.
2. Use noncontroversial facts such as statistics,
dates, laws, and chronological data to add weight
and validity to your story. Here is a research
paragraph I wrote for an article about gays in the
If 10 per cent of Utahns are gay, that means
tens of thousands of people in the states workforce are homosexual. Companies with familiar

Strong Enough to Face the Dark

names in Utah, like KFC, Nordstroms, and

REI now have antidiscrimination clauses that
relate to sexual orientation. Nationally, hundreds of major businesses and at least 100 municipalities have anti-discrimination clauses that
include sexual orientation in their policies with
no problems, notes Rich Cottino, a U.S. West
employee who is involved in diversity issues.

3. Describe situations in factual, nonjudgmental terms. For example, when I was describing a
woman who suffered from postpartum depression,
I used the description she gave me. I said that the
woman either wanted to throw her baby on the floor
or out the window, rather than saying that the
woman wanted to murder her child. Tom Green
married five women, rather than Tom Green committed bigamy. This writing strategy allows the
reader to draw his or her own conclusion, rather
than requiring you to state that such-and-such a
position is wrong.
If you do need to label a particular behavior as
wrong, I suggest using the language of secular law
rather than religious law. Write that someone violated statutes rather than commandments. Mention the consequences of the deed rather than its
spiritual wrongness. For example, the man moved
out of the home where he lived with his wife and
left six children without a fathers support.
4. Be sure to let both sides have their say. Especially on controversial topics, your stories have a
greater chance of being accurate and objective if
you research as many angles as possible and include
as many voices as you can. Direct quotations from
sources other than yourself can help you tell the
story from individual points of view and express a
variety of opinions. Stress to potential interviewees
on both sides of the controversy that this as an
opportunity to express their opinions. For example,
say, I am writing an article about the Mountain
Meadows massacre. I want to be sure that your side
is portrayed accurately. Your quotations will help
me do that.
Nobody can resist telling you that youre wrong.
If you say, Someone told me that the Mountain
Meadows Massacre was initiated by Mormon
pioneers, an interviewee who feels differently will

give you what he or she feels is the right answer.

I suggest beginning with noncontroversial
questions, such as: How long have you lived here?
How long have you had this job? How did you
decide to choose this specialty? Preparing the interviewee with nonthreatening questions will create
more comfort with the hard ones, and he may even
bring them up himself. The beginning may be
stilted; but at some point, the interview will take
off and become a conversation. Sometimes it seems
to me as if the interviewee has been given truth
serum: He or she will really open up and talk. Be
sure you ask the hard questions during this phase.
You can tell when this stage ends because the interviewee will start repeating himself or herself. When
you hear phrases like, As I said . . . or As we
were discussing . . . end the interview.
5. Also consult sources who dont have a personal stake in the controversy. If there is someone
who oversees the situation and isnt likely to choose
sides, be sure to consult that person. For example,
if two hospitals are in conflict, choose someone
who is over both of themsay the Utah Medical
Associationin addition to the opinions of the
specific doctors and administrators who represent
the views in the controversy.
6. Let the LDS Church speak for itself. The best
place to start is the Church Public Affairs Office.
Ask for an official response. Emphasize that your
topic is an important one and that this is a chance
for the Church to speak out on this issue. If Public
Affairs declines to comment, then simply say so in
your article and try to find someone else in another
official department, such as LDS Family Support
Services or the Missionary Department. Even a
stake president who has some connection to the
topic will do. Its best to get a statement from Public Affairs, but get it anywhere you can.
Regardless of Public Affairss response, also ask
the person to whom you are speaking whom else
he or she would suggest you talk to. I have frequently been given the name of someone who has
also been willing to speak for attribution.
7. Stay spiritually centered in addition to staying
completely professional. I once felt that spiritual
warfare was taking place while I was writing an

AML Annual 2003

article. Although Im somewhat hesitant to talk

about such subjective phenomena, I felt that I was
being spiritually attacked. I asked my stake president for a blessing. I cant say that my worries
instantly lifted, but it was comforting to me that
I had taken every step that I could.
Part of being professional as an LDS writer is
to search your own soul and pray about your work.
Ive frequently experienced being torn by a topic
as Ive researched it and having to struggle to find
a way to write about it. I now expect this reaction.
I expect dissonance between what Ive been taught
and what I discover through research. I expect to
change. I expect to feel compassion where I didnt
think I would and to relate to someones anger
even when I thought my sympathies were on the
other side. Getting involved in your story is one of
the hallmarks of a good journalist. Getting
involved is a sign that your readers might become
equally involved someday. If you have lingering
doubts, read your scriptures and consult with a
Church authority. Continued prayer will help reconcile your feelings with your beliefs.
8. If theres no positive explanation possible,
call a spade a space. Explain the reasoning behind
it, if possible. Polygamy is a classic example. There
is no way to state that the Church never practiced
polygamy and that people with profound testimonies of Joseph Smith today do not practice plural marriage. In this case, say, The Church took
this action because . . . Again, ask the Public Relations Department for input. If a Church spokeman
declines to give a statement, simply say, If you
dont give me a response, I will have to say, The
research Ive completed so far suggests that . . .
9. If necessary, bow out. There is no rule that
you have to cover every topic you are assigned or
face the dark at every invitation. You can say no.
You can admit to yourself that a particular story
isnt right for youfor any reason. It took me a
long time to reach this step. I was so thrilled to get
writing assignments that I felt I had to take them
all. Then I suffered as I struggled from taking on
the wrong story.
What makes a story wrong? A story is wrong
when it doesnt ignite your interest, when the topic

doesnt feel good to you, when writing is work

instead of fun. When I was once assigned to write
a story about Wiccans and pagan beliefs, I had a
sick, sad feeling inside. Finally I realized that this
story conflicted so profoundly with my beliefs that
I couldnt make the stretch to stop resisting the
topic emotionally. Rather than just backing out and
leaving the editor in the lurch, however, I brought
in a coauthoranother writer Ive known since high
school who has actually embraced pagan beliefs.
He worked on the parts of the story that I felt I
couldnt cover, and we shared a byline and the payment. But ever since then, Ive felt comfortable
saying, No, this story isnt for me, for a variety
of reasons.
After all, there is always another story. Struggling with a story that isnt right for me costs. It
costs in time, energy, and thought. It takes me away
from other stories that I do like. In fact, sometimes
real strength is choosing not to face the dark.
CAROLYN CAMPBELL is the author of Love Lost and
Found: True Stories of Long Lost Loves Reunited at Last
(New York: Penguin Putnam, 2000), of Reunited: True
Stories of Long Lost Siblings Who Find Each Other Again
(New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001), Together Again:
True Stories of Birth Parents and Adopted Children
Reunited (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1999), and of
six hundred magazine articles.
Work Cited
Kirby, Robert. Moment of Reckoning Draws Near.
Salt Lake Tribune 23 Feb. 2002, O-18.

What the Mormon Audience Wants:

Telling Our Story with Stories
Lawrence Flake

[Editors note: Brother Flake did not speak from a

text, and this summary is reconstructed from my
notes. Although it follows the basic outline of his
remarks, it is not a transcript. Omitted material is
not indicated by ellipses and bridging material may
not be in Brother Flakes exact words.]

salute those of you who seek for what edifies,

which, as you know, means to build. I want to
tell you a story about President Ernest L. Wilkinson. A professional forum speaker had been on
campussomeone who was on the speakers circuit and who delivered talks in two or three places
a week. Hed spoken at BYU and had a couple of
hours before his plane left, so President Wilkinson
showed him around campus. He didnt say much;
but when he was getting ready to leave, President
Wilkinson pressed him about what he thought
about the campus. He said, I dont know what the
hell this Holy Ghost is; but whatever it is, you
people have got more of it than anything else.
Well, we do have the Holy Ghost and it makes all
the difference.
Television requires no effort. You just sit and
watch it. Its where vegetation came from. But
radio required you to re-create in your imagination
what was happening in the storythe adventures
of the Lone Ranger, for instance, or the Shadow.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but
I think a story is worth a thousand words. Some
stories are burned into my mind, and I hope some
of them will be burned into yours as you listen.

I have an aunt who is a worker in the Mesa Arizona Temple. She told me a story about a couple
who were baptized in Mexico. They were the parents of twelve children, who were all baptized at
the same time, if they were old enough. They
immediately set the goal of coming to the Mesa
Temple, and they saved their money and finally
were able to buy an airplane ticket that would
allow them to stay in Mesa for forty-eight hours.
All twelve of the children came so that they could
be sealed to their parents, after they were sealed to
each other, and the mother would have the opportunity of giving birth to their thirteenth child under
the covenant. But when they arrived in Mesa, the
mother went into premature labor and the baby
was born in the hospital that night. What could
they do? They had to leave on the plane the next
night. So the mother checked herself out of the
hospital and they went to the temple. My aunt
describes how the husband and wife knelt at the
altar and joined hands in that sacred way and were
sealed, and then, as is the proper way, their children came and placed their hands on top of their
parents hands [with emotion]twelve little hands
on top of the parents hands, and then my aunt had
the privilege of carrying that twenty-three-hourold baby in and placing the babys hand on top of
the pile. I cant go into the temple without that
uplifting image in my mind.
Our son Jordan came home from his mission
in Bolivia, and hed had the experience of being
transferred to a new location, which required him
to take a long bus ride alone. Well, things happened

AML Annual 2003

and the bus got in very late. It was 2:00 A.M. He

was tired and hungry. The town was dark. His new
companion had long ago stopped waiting for him.
There was no taxi and he had to walk to his new
apartment. And as he walked along those dark
streets with only a few lightbulbs here and there, he
saw a person walking toward him, and he was staggering because he was drunk. As he came even with
Jordan, he noticed his name tag, and he staggered
past, sort of waving his hand dismissively, and muttering two words: Joseph Smith. I couldnt help
remembering the promise of Moroni that Joseph
Smiths name would be had for good and evil
among all nations, kindreds, tongues and people.
We tend to overexpose the stories from Church
history we do tell but there are dozens of stories
that arent known at all. Heres one that Ive never
heard anyone tell. President Wilford Woodruff was
the oldest man to become president of the Church
at that point, and he lived through the end of plural marriage and the dedication of the Salt Lake
Temple, and statehood, and he reached his ninetieth birthday, and the brethren wanted to have a
birthday party for him. They held it in the Tabernacle. Theyd kept him in the temple all day, and as
they passed the Tabernacle, it was dark and silent.
They brought him in there and turned the lights
on full and there were 10,000 people in white.
Now, you know that the Tabernacle holds only
6,500 people, but they could get 10,000 in there
because these were little people. They were children.
Can you imagine that sceneall these children in
white? Its a wonder he didnt have a cardiac arrest.
They had a big sign: Glory to God and honor to
his prophet. They stood up and sang, not Happy
Birthday, but We Thank Thee, O God, for a
Prophet. And all the Apostles and General
Authorities were there. I know a lady who is now in
her nineties, and she was selected from her Sunday
School to give Wilford Woodruff a bouquet. And
with tears streaming down her face [with emotion], she said, And he kissed me right here
(touching cheek). That night President Woodruff
wrote in his diary about yearning in his youth to
live long enough that someone could tell him the
truths of salvation, that he might live to see a

prophet, and that day he had stood in the Tabernacle in the presence of 10,000 children. My head
was a fountain of tears, he wrote.
I just love this story. Its about President Heber
J. Grant. I cant remember if he ever saw his father;
his father died and he was born in the same week.
Jedediah M. Grant was a counselor to Brigham
Young who had worn himself out preaching to the
people, so Heber grew up without a father. Well, in
Salt Lake City at that time during the winter, there
was something the boys liked to do. They would
find a sleigh and crouch down on the back runner
and take a ride. The drivers didnt like that because
it threw off the balance of the sleigh but that was
part of the fun. When Heber was about six or
seven, he saw the boys doing this and wanted to try
it, so he found a sleigh and crouched down on the
back runner. The driver came out of the store and
got in and started up the team. It was pretty fun for
a while, but then Heber realized that he didnt
know how to get off. He was cold, and it was getting dark, and they were heading out of town. As a
little boy that age would do, he started to sob. The
driver heard the sound and stopped the sleigh and
came around to find him. He picked him off the
runner and handed him up to the passenger, who
happened to be Brigham Young. Brigham Young
took this little boy in his arms and asked him his
name; and when Heber said, Heber Jeddy Grant,
Brigham Young realized that this was the son of his
counselor. So he put him on his lap and [with emotion] wrapped a buffalo robe around them both
and warmed him in his arms, and theres just something about that scene that is part of me. There are
many great stories in Church history.
We had the privilege of presiding over the Missouri Mission, which has many Church history
sites in it. Our missionaries used to bribe the missionary couples who were guides at Liberty Jail to
let them sleep their last night in the mission on the
floor of that jail. All of the stones are original. The
back door of the jail isnt original but the hinges
arebig iron hinges. Mercy Fielding Thompson
and her sister, Mary Fielding Smith, had babies at
the same time. Mary was very sick. Hyrum didnt
see the baby, Joseph F. Smith, because he was in

What the Mormon Audience Wants: Telling Our Story with Stories

Liberty Jail. Mercy remembers that on 1 February

1839, they put Mary, who was still sick, in a wagon
bed and drove forty miles to the jail, with Mary
holding Joseph F., who was eleven weeks old. It was
very cold [with emotion], and she talks about her
feelings as the door closed on us. I nursed the darling babes. They stayed overnight and left the
next morning. She writes: As long as memory lasts,
I will remember the squeaking hinges as the door
closed on the noblest men on earth.
In Montana a very young couple settled down.
She was sixteen, he was about nineteen, they had
no family or church or social structure in the area.
Theyd married and decided to come live in Montana. He got a job at about $5 an hour, and she
found a job of her own. Then she had a baby and
couldnt work, but they loved each other and were
building a life together. Then one morning they
woke up, and the baby had died in the night. They
were just devastated. They buried the baby, and the
young husband took as much time off work as he
could to take care of his young wife, but he had to
go back to work. It was just hell for her. She went
into the living room and fell on her knees. She
wasnt religious, but she prayed: If there is a God
and if my baby is alive anywhere, will you please
send someone to tell me? Not ten minutes later,
the missionaries knocked on the door. The couple
were sealed in the temple and had several other
children who were sealed to them.
When my wife and I were in the Missouri Mission, we were living in the mission home, which
my wife pointed out was designed by a man. There
was a railing around the edge of the area that led
into the basement, a drop of about twelve feet to a
concrete floor and the stairs had a wrought-iron
railing with sharp points. The slats were about that
far [measuring with hands] apart; and my wife
pointed out that if a woman had designed it, the
slats would have been this far apart [measuring
with hands] so that a child couldnt slip through.
We entered the mission with five little children and
went home with eight, so my wife was very busy.
One evening we were doing something with the
children and we had a rug rat about eight months
old crawling aroundin fact, its the boy who

served his mission in Boliviaand my wife was

saying something when, right in the middle of the
sentence, without so much as taking a breath or
pausing to think, she screamed the babys name and
ran out of the room. I ran after her. Hed crawled
down the hall and gone through the opening. He
was actually in the air, falling, when she shot her
hand through the slats and caught him by the heel
with her thumb and forefinger. She held him while
I ran down below and lifted him down. Later that
day she tried to pick him up with her thumb and
forefinger, and she couldnt do it. She didnt have
enough strength in her hand [with emotion].
Harold B. Lee said that a mothers intuition was
the purest form of revelation.
A branch president told me about a woman in
his ward who was on drugs, on alcohol, had two
little boys, and wasnt married; and she came to
him and said, Im not Mormon but I want my
children to be blessed Mormon. The branch president couldnt think of a reason not to, but he
didnt want to do it at church so he told her to
come to his office on Wednesday night. And on
Wednesday night, here she showed up with her
two children. They had runny noses. Their hair
was messed up. It had been some time since theyd
had a bath. Their clothes were ragged. The branch
president got the strongest feeling that he was to
bless those children with the same blessing he
might give his own children, so he did: that they
would be raised in a strong LDS family, that
they would serve missions and be married in the
temple. His first thought when he took his hands
off their heads was Im so glad I didnt do this in
church. Nobody would believe I was inspired.
A couple of years later, he moved to another
state and was serving on the high council. After
the meeting, a woman who was well dressed and
refined came up to him and said she was very glad
to meet him because you blessed my children.
He looked at her and said, There must be some
mistake, Sister. I think I would remember you if Id
blessed your children. Then she explained that
they had six children and had adopted these two
little boys when, through a series of problems, their
mother wasnt able to care for them anymore and

AML Annual 2003

[with emotion] just the week before they had taken

them to the temple and had these children sealed
to them. So all of the promises of that branch presidents blessing had come to pass.
Melvin J. Ballard was the grandfather of
M. Russell Ballard, and this is a story Ive never
seen in print; but I told this story in front of Elder
Ballard, and he said it was right. Melvin J. Ballard
was president of the Northwestern State Mission,
and he got a telegram from two missionaries saying
there was a serious problemI dont know what
kind. He sent back a telegram saying that hed meet
them at 8:00 or 8:15 P.M. at the train station in
their little town on Friday and take care of it. Well,
at 8:15, the missionaries arrived at the station, and
the stationmaster asked what they were there for.
They said they were there to meet their mission
president when the train came through at 8:30,
and he said, No, youre not. The train comes
through but it doesnt stop. They said, Well,
is it all right if we wait? The stationmaster said,
Dumb Mormons. Sure. So they waited.
Meanwhile, on the train, the conductor came
by and asked President Ballard where he was going,
and President Ballard said such-and-such a town.
The conductor said, Oh, no youre not. You can


get off at a town twenty miles on this side of it or

thirty miles on the other side but the only thing
were going to do at that town is go through it at
sixty miles an hour. President Ballard asked if
there wasnt something he could do because the
meeting was very important, and the conductor
assured him that it was impossible to stop, even for
a minute. He came through the car two or three
more times and chided President Ballard for not
planning ahead better.
Now at that time, when a freight train and a
passenger train were using the same track, the passenger train always had priority, so the freight train
would pull over to the siding and give the right-ofway to the passenger train. But this particular night,
the freight train was one car too long to fit on the
siding, so the passenger train had to pull over to
the side. And you guessed it: the siding was located
in this little town. So at 8:30 P.M. President Ballard
stepped off the train and [with emotion] into the
waiting arms of his missionaries. The conductor
asked, Who are you anyway? And I want to leave
President Ballards answer to him with you as a
challenge to you: I am a servant of the Lord about
my Fathers business, and I say this in the name of
Jesus Christ, amen.

Walking the Tightrope: Mormon Audiences

A Panel

[Editors note: The panelists did not have prepared

statements, and the material below is reconstructed
from my notes, with each panelist and the moderator being asked to respond to and complete the
reconstruction. Richard H. Cracroft, who had
planned to be on the panel, became ill, and his place
was taken by Chris Bigelow and Terry Jeffress.]

yler Moulton, moderator, is acquisitions editor of Covenant Communications, Inc., and a

member of the AML Board.
Chris Bigelow, a former editor with the Ensign,
edits Irreantum and is an associate editor of The
Sugar Beet.
Terry Jeffress, a technical writer in Murray, Utah,
maintains the AML website.
Marilyn Arnold, a nationally recognized Willa
Cather scholar, is the author of many books and
articles on Cather and other American writers and
also does presentations on Cather around the state
for the Utah Humanities Council. She has also
published on Mormon topics. In addition to her
four Mormon novels, she is the author and editor
of Sweet Is the Work and Pure Love.
Jerry Johnston has been with the Deseret News
for twenty-five years where he is currently a religious writer and columnist. He has twice won the
national Wilbur Award for religious columns.
Margaret Blair Young is a writer and teacher of
creative writing at BYU. She has published a number of novels and short stories. Forthcoming are the
third volume in the series Standing on the Promises
about Black Mormon pioneers, coauthored with

Darius Gray, and tentatively titled Come to the

Welcome Table (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Winter
2003) and a second novel, Heresies of Nature (Salt
Lake City: Signature, July 2002).
Tyler Moulton: The title assigned to this panel,
which becomes our first question, is: Are Mormon
audiences naive or are they making choices?
Chris Bigelow: I think that the Mormon audience is both protective and oversensitive and that it
wont change soon. I dont like terms like Generation X, but I guess thats what Im a member of.
I want to see my generation changing and also
changing some of the prevailing attitudes.
Terry Jeffress: I think the Mormon audience
needs to be educated. I dont think that the problems lie with the Mormon audience per se but
rather with the great mass media audience in
which its submerged. All of the Mormons are
going to see Cinderella 5 and Peter Pan Returns or
whatever remake is grossing millions at the mall
this week. The Mormon audience is the same as
the worlds audience. National mass media has
been around for a long time and is quite sophisticated technically. I think that the Mormon audience is used to that kind of sophistication and gets
impatient with Mormon artists when they dont
provide it. So theres a quality issue. Can Gods Army
really compete in terms of the quality issue, regardless of what you say about the theme?
Marilyn Arnold: Not long ago, I interviewed
twelve students who were finalists for Sterling
Scholarships in English. I asked each one of them,

AML Annual 2003

What have you been reading in the past year, in

addition to school assignments? Who is your
favorite author? Two respondents named the
same writer as their favoritea writer of popular
romance novels. And these students were nominated in English! It was a faith-demoting experience, to say the least. My sense of the market is that
theres not much room for me and the kinds of
things I write.
But every now and then, I see a more hopeful
sign. A month ago I did a three-week seminar in
St. George on Eudora Weltys The Golden Apples.
It was a public series, merely announced in the
paper. Well, it was a pleasant surprise when fifty
people between ages twenty-five and eighty-five
showed up. For three weeks we tangled with what
is a rather difficult book. I was amazed and impressed
with the groups interest and insights. We had a
fine time together; but how do I let that audience
and their counterparts know that Im writing novels for them?
Jerry Johnston: Several years ago I interviewed
Wallace Stegner. I asked him about the great Mormon novelwho would write it. Maybe you, he
said. I told him I didnt have the scope or range. He
said, You dont need scope or range. You just need
to get it right. Ive thought about that comment
many, many times, and the image that comes to
me is of the teetertotter. On one end is the expectations of many in the Church that Mormon literature will be a literature of purity, and there are
many writers who produce a consciously, carefully
groomed literature of purity. On the other end of
the teetertotter are writers like Brian Evenson, Levi
Petersen, and Michael Quinn, trying to balance
the other side. So we have two groups of writers.
I see the first as wanting to preach and the other as
wanting to shock. But we have to get beyond
motives as writers. We have to be concerned about
being in the middleof just getting it right.
Margaret Young: Although I agree with the
point Jerrys making, I also have to say that, as a
mother, Im sensitive to writers motives and also to
their effects. Ive stopped to see what one of my
children is playing on the computer or what theyre
reading, and Ive announced firmly, This is an

LDS home, and that does not belong here. So I do

feel strongly about the effects of some kinds of literature. Thats one of my fears as a parent.
But putting parental fears aside, I understand
the profound need for seeking out the best books.
My husband is a voracious reader, and I asked him
once where his passion for literature came from.
He said that it probably came from his mother.
Every evening around the dinner table, she would
tell the children about whatever book she was reading, discussing themes, character, and plot. He says
he can still remember her descriptions of The Agony
and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. I often ask my students which books (outside of the scriptures) have
changed their lives. Ive rarely had a student name
a Mormon book. The Brothers Karamazov changed
me, and I want my children to become acquainted
wiht Alyosha, Dmitri, and Ivan.
Tyler: If were going to discuss the LDS audience, we first need to clearly identify it. Who is our
audience? There are 11 million Mormons. Are we
writing for all of them? Are we writing just for
those on the Wasatch Front?
Terry: Well, I think were pretty clearly writing for English-speaking Mormons, most of us,
although Id hope that wed see that changing.
With and, though,
any English-speaking Mormon anywhere in the
world can log on and see whats being published in
Salt Lake City. So potentially, theres a big Mormon audience that could be buying books from
anywhere. Thats our first audience, in my opinion.
But the real audience is the reading audiencethe
people who actually buy and read books.
Margaret: Id add, or the people who want to
be readers. I translate C. S. Lewis all the time for
my Spanish-speaking Institute class. I know that
Cory Maxwell said that translated books are expensive to produce, but I think there will be more all
the time.
Jerry: We belong to a populist church in which
a real defining attitude is the willingness to submit
to higher authority. So I think theres some real
resistance when writers want the Mormon audience to connect with them on a philosophical or

Walking the Tightrope: Mormon Audiences

literary level. It looks a little like pride. They dont

see life as a literary problem, but as a spiritual one.
Gene England spent his life trying to teach, write,
and lecture his way beyond that schism. But at the
ceremony where he received a lifetime achievement
award from the AML, he said he knew hed never
be able to blend the two. And that was okay, he
said. Hed made peace with it.
Marilyn: In his essay Sweetness and Light,
Matthew Arnold argued that writers of literature
must be apostles of equality. Leo Tolstoy made a
similar observation in What Is Art when he asserted
that truly great literature can be comprehended by
virtually everyone. Flannery OConnor experienced some of the same frustraton that Mormon
writers experience. It was her sense of humor that
saved her. She said that the motto of the Catholic
press should be: We guarantee to corrupt nothing
but your taste. OConnor went on to tell of a letter she received from a little old lady in California
who said that when the tired reader got home at
night, she wanted to read something that lifted her
heart. One little old lady who wanted her heart
lifted wouldnt be so bad, OConnor said, but all
readers are tired. You multiply her by 250,000 and
what you get is a book club. Annie Dillard is more
optimistic. She says that people who dont like literature dont read.
Terry: I wonder if the Mormons who like to
read are shopping at Barnes and Noble instead of
Deseret Book? If they like a particular genre, they
probably know where to find what they like. Mormons who like adventure novels arent looking at
the LDS fiction shelves.
Chris: One of the best ways of getting the Mormon audience is to get the national audience reading it first so that the Mormons cant wait to see
what the world is saying about such-and-such.
Didnt we see this during the Olympics? Its a way
of tricking the Mormon audience into reading.
Tyler: So back to our assigned question: Is the
Mormon audience naive or discerning? What kind
of choices are they making?
Terry: Well, as I said, are they shopping at Barnes
and Noble or at Deseret Book? Which bookstore

is supplying their needs? Im assuming that everyone at AML is here because theyre interested in
Mormon fiction, and thats what were talking about.
Do they need hype or do they need information?
And which are they getting? I think Mormon readers are not naive. I think theyre well educated, but
Im not sure they always have the information they
need to make decisions. Writers like Orson Scott
Card have found ways to reach that larger audience.
Margaret: People talk about Orson Scott Card
as if he were some kind of lucky genius, but they
dont always give him credit for how hard he works
at his craft. I remember seeing his room when he
was still living at home upstairs above the garage.
He had shelves of Writers Guide. He was studying
the market very intelligently. He had a fertile
mind, and he kept fertilizing it. That kind of fertilization is vital for a growing writer.
I worry about some of what I see come through
CES in the official manuals. Rarely is a non-Mormon
or a nonGeneral Authority quoted. Often, General Authorities are quoted quoting other General
Authorities. Such practices can produce a sort of
inbreeding where even dangerous folklore can be
perpetuated. My experience with this is specifically
with racial issues, such as those we deal with in
Standing on the Promises. Far too often, I see the
foundations of the folklore about certain spirits
lack of valiancy in the preexistence to the curse of
Cain alluded or directly quoted even in current
manuals. At the Martin Luther King home, which
is preserved as a museum, I was so surprised to see
the evidence of how he was influenced by Gandhi.
Jerry: Stephen Robisons Believing Christ will
sell a million copies. We need to find what the culture is reading and write about those things. We
cant redirect things, only anticipate them.
Marilyn: Readers who want literary fiction
dont shop in the Deseret Book novel section. They
have a stereotypical idea about so-called Mormon
novels and avoid them like the plague. Ive had
people say to me, Hows your little Mormon novel
doing? Since I dont see myself as a writer of little
Mormon novels, I have some difficulty responding civilly to questions like that. Chaim Potok,

AML Annual 2003

Walker Percy, and Alice Walker are legitimate in

writing about their culture from their tradition,
but we arent yet.
Terry: Its a larger problem than that. Reading
isnt a legitimate activity because were supposed to
be working or serving or spending time with our
families. That attitude is really out there. I had a
Young Women leader tell my daughter that if
theyre assigned something to read at school, thats
okay, but otherwise just read the scriptures. So it
ends up being okay to read General Authorities or
the scriptures, or Bible commentaries, or the
Church magazines, but not fiction.
Marilyn: I know exactly what you mean. My
dad was an avid reader of Church books and historical books because he regarded them as true.
But he wouldnt read fiction. He thought it was
inferior because it was not true.
Tyler: Does the Mormon audience have different expectations of a Mormon writer than a nonMormon writer?
Marilyn (laughing): Yes, lower expectations.
Jerry: Well, actually theres a double standard
on the part of Mormon audiences. Deseret News
readers will accept Dear Abby when shes writing
about transvestites and homosexual husbands; but
if Lee Benson picks up one of those topics, then
hes in trouble.
Marilyn: John Gardner reminds us that writers
are responsible for the moral content of their fiction. My mother read every book Willa Cather
wrote and loved them. Cather handled some difficulteven uglysubjects, but never in an ugly,
offensive way. I think thats our challenge.
Terry: I think that the Mormon audience has
the same expectation of Mormon writers as it does
of the national market, but the national market has
had two hundred years experience of learning how
to do what theyre doing. I think the Mormon
audience is expecting the same level of expertise
and feels somewhat let down by Mormon fiction.
As a hopeful note, I saw a teenage girl reading one
of Dean Hughess novels while we were waiting for
our appointments with the bishop after sacrament
meeting. Weve got a bit of catching up to do.





Eric Samuelson [speaking from the audience]:

I live in a Provo ward but its full of people who are
not from Utah. Theyre from Guatemala, Samoa,
Chicago. What are they reading? And what can
they be persuaded to read? Ive very frequently
handed a copy of The Backslider to somebody and
said, I really liked this book, and I think youd
enjoy it too. Theyre willing to give it a try because
they trust me. Thats part of marketing too. I know
that Ill read something if someone I trust recommends it.
Sharlee Glen [speaking from the audience]: If we
want a literate audience, I think well have to raise
it up, and that starts with writing for children.
Major Mormon publishers are just not very welcoming to writers of young adult fiction right now.
They want a moral message combined with athletic excellence. Could we talk about what publishers could do?
Jerry: Were talking about the ideal, but the
reality is that theres a lot of provincialism in Mormon publishing and writing. We dont have enough
leverage to redirect it. Thats why I say we need to
get out in front of where the audience is going.
Margaret: My thirteen-year-old daughter has
two posters in her room: In-Sync and Jesus. Thats
a broad span to cover. We bring our kids up on
C. S. Lewis and Shakespeare, and we dont water it
down. When our kids were ten and eight, they put
together a version of The Taming of the Shrew, and
they were using the Riverside edition to do it.
Terry: Were not raising a generation of readers.
Sharlee: I disagree. I think theres a sophisticated
generation of readers. Theres a lot of emphasis in
the schools about reading, lots of presentations
on the Newbery winners, lots of great ideas. Its the
publishers who arent serious.
Tyler: Well, speaking as the representative of a
publisher, Id say theyre trying to respond to the
market; and one of the characteristics of the market is that they want inoffensive literature. I think
publishers are trying to find out what works. I agree
with Terry that theyre trying to compete with high

Walking the Tightrope: Mormon Audiences

quality from the national market. But additionally,

theyre competing against the high volume of national
publishers. Since childrens books already address
our market quite well and national publishers can
produce books at a lower cost because of the numbers they print, it becomes very difficult to compete in that arena. But its beginning to happen.
Harlow Clark [speaking from the audience]: Is
there a double standard for Mormon writers?
Orson Scott Card writes graphic sex and violence
but Ive never heard anyone talk about him the way
they talk about Brian Evenson.
Margaret: Well, Scott isnt teaching at BYU and
hes not writing from inside Mormonism either.
Jacob Profitt [speaking from the audience]: Weve
talked a lot about marketing, but how do we overcome our writerliness to meet that market?
Margaret: I dont. I cant. Im more concerned
with my sentences than I am with my characters. If
I take care of my sentences, my characters take care
of themselves. My sister-in-law is a nonreader, but
for her, Gerald Lund is epiphanal. I dont think
she understands Church history very well, and she

probably thinks the Steed family really exists; but

somehow, shes invited into that fictional world.
But I must confess that the worst writing experience I ever had was when I agreed to do a Christmas story for Deseret Book. Ive never felt so boxed
in in my life. The kind of self-editing I found myself
doing was deadly.
Jerry: You cant write about anything you dont
feel passionate about. Youve got to respect the
genre and write whats in your heart. If you think
you can set all that aside and just knock off a
potboiler, you lose your power. The emotional
barometer falls. Writing is hard enough to do
wholeheartedly, let alone faking it.
Margaret: Lest we get pessimistic, compare
where we are now with where weve been. In the
1960s, Mormon fiction consisted of Doug Thayer
and some really silly romances. We still have
Dougwho is a great writerand we still have the
silly romances, but were getting more and more
remarkable writers. Thats the legacy of Gene
England: high-quality Mormon literature. He never
gave up and we cant either.


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