Dear “Ask Mormon Girl”:
I ran across this article, “The Great Mormon Novel: Where is it?” about Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist. The article really struck me because I’m a graduate student studying literature, and I often feel like an outsider–socially, politically, and intellectually–around my peers at church. Either I belong to a ward where higher education is viewed with suspicion (being a less “worthy” pursuit than “real” jobs), or I belong to a well-educated ward where I am the lone humanities student amongst aspiring lawyers, physicians, and those studying business. The Slate article references a slightly older article in Dialogue that I have read many times and continue to enjoy. So, to quote the Rectors, “will we ever see the day prophesied by John Taylor, when ‘Zion shall be far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind?’” And “can we, and this is the heart of the dilemma, humbly ask the Spirit to guide us beyond our safe and certified, conventional selves?”
Nick from the STL
Oh, Nick. I do know where you’re coming from. Yes, it’s true that AMG makes her living as a literature professor. I do know the loneliness of which you speak, though I do try not to worry too much about it. And I try not to worry too much about this totally-made-up concept of the “Great Mormon Novel” that seems to come up every time a Mormon novelist writes a pretty good novel and then seemingly only for the self-defeating purposes of finding our literature once again failing to be “Great.”
Take, for example, the reception of Brady Udall’s Lonely Polygamist. I loved the book. And I’ve cheered the terrific reviews Brady’s been getting in newspapers across the country. But what’s this we hear from the small land of Mormon-on-Mormon literary criticism: self-conscious grumbling of the “we’re not yet great” variety and internecine bickering about whether Brady Udall is “faithful” enough for his book to count as a “Mormon” novel. And it’s our internal bickering about other people’s piety that makes the news in the New York Times Book Review. What a pity.
There’s a line from the end of The Lonely Polygamist wherein Golden Richards (having survived a major crisis of faith in his own ability to be a decent husband and father to so many wives and children) finds that “his heart is spacious enough to accommodate them all.” If more of our Mormon-on-Mormon literary critics had as much heart as Golden Richards, I’m sure they’d stop waiting for the “One Mighty and Strong” Novel and find a lot more in our literature (all of it—even the really good books written by other than perfectly orthodox Mormons) to celebrate and love.
But, Nick, you know what really struck me when I read that Slate article? Not just our tendency to use the fabricated concept of the “Great Mormon Novel” to find ourselves inadequate, but the total absence of women! Why haven’t we produced Miltons, Shakespeares, and (heaven help us) Phillip Roths? Maybe the true marker of our culture’s arrival will be when we start worrying about where our Emily Dickinsons and Toni Morrisons are, not to mention our Isabel Allendes.
So enough with this Great Mormon Novel business! Cheeky soul that I am, I’m ready to take pity on the small land of Mormon-on-Mormon literary criticism and settle this once and for all by declaring that the Great Mormon Novel arrived years ago and (surprise) it was not actually a novel. It was, of course, Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge. Hallejullah! Now, let’s move on.
Nick, let’s get to the cry of loneliness at the heart of your query: the loneliness of the bookish Mormon. I read an article a few weeks ago in the New York Times by author Michael Chabon, written in the wake of Israel’s attack on the Gaza flotilla. In his essay, the amazing Chabon (who crafts sentences that leave me slackjawed in awe) reflects on the idea subscribed to among Jews that a superior intelligence or canniness—a yiddishe kop, as the saying goes—has enabled Jewish survival across the centuries. And this, Chabon finds, is “utter nonsense,” because “Jews are stupid in roughly the same proportion as all the world’s people — but . . . from an early age we have been trained, implicitly and explicitly, to ignore [stupid Jews]. A stupid Jew is like a hole in the pocket of your pants, there every time you put them on, always forgotten until the instant your quarters run clattering across the floor.”
If Jews are stereotyped and stereotype themselves for their intelligence, then the stereotype about Mormons goes that we’re all conservative, insular, and intellectually uncurious, but pretty good at working for the CIA and making money. And that, Nick, defines the role of us bookish types in Mormon culture (as lonely as we may be): we break the stereotypes. And by breaking the stereotypes, we prove that Mormonism is not a single-minded cult (as the opponents of the faith like to crow) but an actual living human culture after all. A culture that, yes, is capable of producing some truly good art. If we can just stop freaking out about it.
Now, readers, I’ve had my turn. It’s your turn to weigh in. Great Mormon Novel. Mormon Shakespeares. Mormon Miltons. Stereotypes and self-judgment. Discuss.
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