Thoughts on the Definition of Mormon Literature

Note: This is part of a work in progress. I welcome your thoughts on it.

“As with most critical projects,” writes Michael Austin, “the success of Mormon literary criticism rises or falls with our definitions—and, in particular, our definition of “Mormon Literature” (136). Yet, Mormon literary criticism proceeds—in a manner of speaking—without a clear notion of what makes certain texts “Mormon.” Austin, to be sure, has suggested that we keep the definition as open as possible; indeed, in his foundational essay “The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time,” he orders “Mormon” texts into five categories that range from the narrow—“Books by Mormons Written to Primarily Mormon Audiences”—to the ecumenical—“Books by Mainstream Authors (not about Mormons)” (137, 142). The implication, of course, is that all text are potentially Mormon depending on what the critic does with them—a gesture that takes the responsibility for producing Mormon literature off the shoulders of the artist and places it squarely on those of his or her interpreter. As a critic myself, I find this line of thinking attractive because it elevates me to the status of creator. At the same time, however, I worry that it is too broad, too generous, and even too presumptuous. Not only does it take some of the shine off of texts deliberately written as Mormon literature by writers who deliberately identify themselves as authors of Mormon literature, but it also seems to authorize a kind of project of textual colonization. Hawthorne, true enough, mentions the Mormon prophet in The Blithedale Romance, but would he want his book labeled “Mormon” even if such labeling were accompanied by persuasive justification?

To some extent, of course, all literary criticism smacks of colonialism; yet, I don’t think much is gained when we seize any text that comes our way and call it “Mormon literature”—even if we feel we have “good” reasons for doing so. In an age when “I’m a Mormon” has become a not only a statement of personal identity, but also a rally cry of cultural affiliation, I would like “Mormon” to mean something, to be more than an arbitrary label. Of course, I am not willing to argue, as Richard H. Cracroft does in his 1992 essay “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature,” that “real” Mormon literature exudes a kind of Mormon essence—some “ethereal but real, ineffable but inevitable spiritual analogues and correspondences that convey Mormon realities.” But I am willing to grant that Mormon literature has something unique about it, something that separates it from other literatures, even though that “something” might prove endlessly slippery. One might follow Candadai Seshachari in thinking of the “something” not as a “Mormon essence,” but as “Mormon experience.” Indeed, in his 1978 essay “Insight from the Outside: From a Commentator’s Note Pad,” Seshachari argues that it is precisely through their “unique experience” as Mormons that Mormon writers “probe and define the complexities of the human condition.” “This experience,” he suggests,

defines [their] being. If one takes away from [them] the memory of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the tragedy and the heroism of the exodus of [their] ancestors, as well as the everyday details that made Zion happen, it is like blotting out the story of Christ from a Christian’s consciousness, or like rooting out the fact of slavery from the racial memory of the American black. (90-91)

“Mormonness,” therefore, is not something one is born with, but rather something one inherits and somehow uses to understand the world. In a sense, then, Mormon literature is a product of this inheritance, an expression of its effect on the artists who choose not to bury it in the sand. Such a perspective, I think, reins in the definition without doing away with the slipperiness that may turn out to be the lifeblood of future Mormon literature studies. After all, while it may exclude works like The Blithedale Romance from the Mormon literary canon, it greets with open arms texts like Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist and Therese Doucet’s A Lost Argument, two novels that draw upon the broad Mormon experience while rejecting, in a sense, its more mainstream manifestations.

Admittedly, what I have presented above is nothing too original. Debates over the definition of Mormon literature have been going on since the days of Orson F. Whitney, if not longer, and will likely continue—unfortunately—until the millennium arrives to set all of us straight on the matter. I say “unfortunately” because I think Mormon literature scholars like Austin, Cracroft, and Seshachari have given the rest of us enough light and knowledge on the subject to allow us to proceed comfortably with the weightier matters of Mormon literature studies, which cannot happen as long as we allow ourselves to get caught up in repetitious debates over definitions. Indeed, if the existing scholarship on Mormon literature has taught us anything, it is that the boundaries between Mormon and non-Mormon literature are not distinct, but hazy, ambiguous, and contestable. They are, in other words, like most of the boundaries we encounter in life, and their failure to formulate neatly is something Mormon literature scholars will have to learn to live with, if not warmly embrace, if they want the field to go anywhere

Works Cited
Austin, Michael. “The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought28.4(1995): 131-145. Print.
Cracroft, Richard H. “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature.” Sunstone (July 1993): 51-57. Print.
Seshachari, Candadai. “Insight from the Outside: From a Commentator’s Note Pad.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 11.2 (1978): 90-92. Print.


4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Definition of Mormon Literature”

  1. OK, I think the question I'd want to ask you (or Michael Austin) is “What do you want to *do* with your definition of Mormon literature?”

    I.e., do you want to study the influence Mormon upbringing has on a writer's work? (If so, you need to limit yourself to writers with who had a Mormon upbringing.) Do you want to take a theme of Mormon interest and study it across the literary spectrum? (If so, you need a wider definition.)

    I don't necessarily disagree with Austin's approach, but I'd be curious to see what kind of literary criticism he would produce with such a broad definition of Mormon literature.

  2. I think defining Mormon literature is useful mostly as a way to determine the scope and boundaries of Mormon literary studies. Austin, for example, seems to suggest that Mormon literature can really be anything that can in some way be understood from a Mormon perspective. That seems a little broad to me. I like thinking that Mormon literature is literature that comes out of or addresses Mormon experience, which keeps things broad, but does not presume that something like a Hawthorne novel is “Mormon literature.” Personally, though, I prefer to privilege works that come out of Mormon experience that address Mormon experience. These works are more interesting to me than, say, works by Mormons that do not address Mormonism directly. That said, if someone else wants to study something like a Walter Kirn novel that's not about Mormonism as Mormon literature, I have no problem with that. I just probably won't be participating much in that conversation. At least not for the time being.

    So, we need something of a definition in order to differentiate our literary and critical project with others.

    I also think it's important that we assert that Mormon literature is different from mainstream literature in ways similar to other ethnic literatures that also claim difference. I think we should recognize that the “conversations” happening in Mormon fiction are often different from those happening in other literary texts–even though they may be similar in form and style.

    What is that difference? I think it's Mormonism and the Mormon experience in all its variations.

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