“Present-day readers, writers, and critics of Mormon literature and members of the Association for Mormon Letters are part of what amounts to the first generation of critics of a nascent Mormon literature. We are likewise weaving and identifying–privileging–and scrutizining this aborning Mormon literature to trace a ‘[larger] web of [deeper] significance,’ which–if truly Mormon–is being woven out of the stuff of Mormonism and spun across a Mormon world view interlaced with Mormon essences, those often ethereal but real, ineffable but inevitable spiritual analogues and correspondences that convey Mormon realities, and without a sense of which no literature could be essentially Mormon. Such is at least part of the responsibility of the Mormon critic.”
–Richard Cracroft, 1992
Yesterday I received news that Richard Cracroft, a pioneer in Mormon literary criticism, died at the age of 76. During his long career as an English professor at Brigham Young University, he served as department head, dean of the College of Humanities, director of the American Studies program and Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature, and editor of Literature and Belief. In other contexts, he served as president for the Association for Mormon Letters and the mission president for the Switzerland Zurich Mission.
As a critic and one of Mormon literary studies’ Nine Old Men, he is best known for his essay “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature,” which encourages Mormon writers to preserve the living, spiritual “essences” of Mormonism in their writing. He is also known for his collaboration with Neal E. Lambert on the anthologies A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints (1974) and 22 Young Mormon Writers (1975), and for his monthly “Book Nook” column in BYU Magazine, which raised greater awareness about lesser known works of Mormon literature from publishers like Signature, Zarahemla, and Parables.
Sadly, I never knew Professor Cracroft personally—although I believe he gave my dad a C in freshman composition. His writing first came to my attention about a decade ago in a BYU religion class for English majors taught by David Paxman. At the time, I was still trying to reconcile the two most powerful influences on my life, literature and the gospel, which always seemed incompatible until I read “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice” for a class assignment. The essay introduced me to what seemed like a voice in the wilderness—a faithful Saint who saw no problem with alluding to Prufrock and Corianton in the same paragraph. As I got to know his writing more—his essays “Rendering the Ineffable Effable” or “Nephi, Seer of Modern Times,” for example—I learned that the literature and the gospel are hardly warring factions, but branches on the same tree. Rather than incompatible, they were complimentary.
So my place in the universe became less troublesome because of Richard Cracroft. His writing—and his life—showed that one could read complex, challenging texts—texts that some might deem “inappropriate” or “immoral”—and still maintain the Spirit, serve in the Church, and be an exemplar Latter-day Saint. In my heart, it was always something that I knew was possible and wanted to believe, but still something I was unsure of until I found a role model in Richard Cracroft.
Of course, I’ve had my issues with Cracroft’s criticism. Often, when I quote him in an essay or a blog post, I do so to argue with and contradict his ideas. (Bruce Jorgensen, it seems, also had the same problem!) Last month, for example, as I read through “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice” again, I bristled at his notion of a Mormon essence, which goes against most of my own notions about Mormon identities and experiences. I also found myself disagreeing with his assessment of Nephi Anderson’s The Story of Chester Lawrence, a novel I enjoyed, which Cracroft dismissed as one of Anderson’s weaker works. But this was not a new experience for me: I’ve often found myself disliking books that Cracroft actively endorsed—The Work and the Glory, On the Road to Heaven—and liking books he didn’t—Harvest, The Backslider. Even so, I have to credit Cracroft for his opinions. I’d rather have someone to disagree with over this or that Mormon novel or poem than no one at all. And we have agreed on some, like John St. John and The Death of a Disco Dancer.
For me, Cracroft’s greatest legacy is his staunch advocacy for Mormon literature, which he carried on until the day he died. Through him—his essays, his speeches, his “Book Nook”—countless people, including me, have become aware of the joy and richness of “Mormon literature.” I can honestly say that I would not be where I am today, doing what I do, were it not for the words of Richard Cracroft, a man I’ve never met. My best hope is that he is now receiving—perhaps in the great libraries and reading rooms of Spirit Paradise—a warm welcome from the Mormon men and women of letters who have gone before.
May his example continue to guide us in our efforts here.