I spent way too much time on Saturday going through the Virginia Sorensen papers collection in BYU’s Special Collections. Sorensen was a novelist from the 1940’s, and a part of a movement now commonly known as Mormonism’s “Lost Generation.” While going through all of her correspondence before 1846, I came upon a couple of letters from Charles Kelly, a well-respected historian of his day but one who was not too friendly towards the Mormons. Best known in Mormon circles for his book Holy Murder, a work on Orrin Porter Rockwell, he was apparently not a fan of religion at all, feeling that the most common results of belief were negative extremes. To give a taste of his thoughts on Mormons, here is an excerpt from one of his letters to Sorensen.
I now have almost completed the complete story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, containing much original material never previously prinited. When this is published it will make Holy Murder look like a Sunday School leaflet…I have no more grudge against the Mormons than against any other religion, but their history, which I can dig up at first hand, is a dramatic story, and furnishes an excuse to cut loose at all religion. And they are still doing business, while many of the others have been forgotten.
While the collection does not contain Sorensen’s letters to Kelly, it appears that she was asking him advice on her upcoming novel, A Little Lower than The Angels. While Kelly does give her some worth-while advice, he also gave what he saw as a needed warning:
I don’t want to discourage you in any way, but it seems to be a fact that one who has been under the influence of the Mormon religion has a great handicap to overcome in trying to write on that subject. There are very few who are willing to burn all their bridges, or could if they wished. I think Vardis Fisher’s “Children of God” is a very good example of what I am trying to say, even though it happens to be a best seller. In my opinion it is a piece of faith-promoting literature, containing all the old boloney about persecution that was instilled into him as a child. He is still a good Mormon at heart, even though he has a grudge against Heber Grant. I hope you don’t fall into the same rut…
I wish you success, and hope you do a better job than Vardis Fisher.
There are interesting points that this letter brings up. First, it should be noted that Vardis Fisher’s book is not as “devotional” as Kelly seems to lead on. Children of God was the first major novel covering a large period of LDS history that was designed for a national audience. While he is sympathetic to Mormon leaders, he presents their history in a very humanistic way: Joseph’s angelic and supernatural experiences were brought on by staring at the sun until placed in a “trancelike state”; the gold plates were entirely made up in Joseph’s mind and he was left to develop a story to fool others; polygamy was a result of Mormon leaders’ carnal desires. Needless to say, the novel did not make a big splash among Mormon readers. But, on the other hand, regardless of these humanistic interpretations, it was still not able to appease this non-mormon historian.
Vardis Fisher himself seemed to be both aware and at ease with this tension created by these two contrasting interpretations. In the New York Times, he was quoted as saying,
I am fully aware that certain anti-Mormon writers today, as well as many others for whom Mormonism is an odious word, will find in this novel only another piece of Mormon propoganda. I am equally certain that most of the authorities of the mormon church today will find in it another damnable distoration of the truth. When a book falls between the two extremes of opinion, there the author should be content to leave it.
This approach to history became a distinctive feature for the novelists of this generation, a movement including authors like Fisher, Sorensen, Maureen Whipple, among others. All of them wrote novels that were rejected by faithful mormons, embraced by the nation in general, yet still seen as a little to sympathetic to the Mormon cause. Following this group of writers, and more likely a continuation on their same theme, came the historical works of Fawn Brodie and Juanita Brooks, though they were not seen as sympathetic as the novelists.
Writing in 1967, Samuel Taylor felt that these works just came too early to be appreciated by the Saints: “I recently re-read four book that caused an uproar 25 years ago [Fisher, Whipple, Brodie, and Sorensen] and I stand utterly amazed. I wondered if these books weren’t mainly the victims of bad timing.” He pondered “if they were published today…with a little luck they might find themselves upon the shelves at Deseret Book,” and even claimed that they read “like something the Improvement Era would love to serialize.” While this may be a little bit of an overstatement, there is definitely some truth behind his sentiments.
However, there is still definitely some tension when trying to write for both an LDS and non-LDS audience. Here is a paragraph from Richard Bushman’s On the Road with Joseph Smith where he reflects on the reception of his biography on the Mormon prophet, a paragraph which is remarkably similar to Fisher’s statement quoted above.
Even though I wrote for a diverse audience, as the reviews came in I realized, that I had not kept everyone with me. As was probably inevitable, readers who came to the book with their own strong notions of Smith found my account wanting. Those on the mormon side thought I failed to describe his noble character and supernatural gifts; non-Mormons said I painted too rosy a picture and failed to acknowledge the obvious fraud. At both ends of the spectrum, I lost readers.
As both a believing Mormon and one hoping to someday write for a national audience, I hope that there is a way to appeal to both sides. I don’t agree with Charles Kelly’s notion that LDS writers have a “handicap” when writing about their faith. I do agree with Bushman when he noted that as a practicing Mormon, “I believe enough to take Joseph Smith seriously.” But, does my “believing” approach automatically lower my possibilities of reaching a non-Mormon audience? And, does my “academic” approach automatically lower my possibilities of reaching the belivieving-Mormon audience? Is the difficulty of bridging these two camps a result of the writer’s approach, or is it because of the state of the different audiences?
I am a newbie to this historical stuff; I feel I do not have enough experience to offer an educated response beyond mere idealistic optimism. So, I am asking all of you readers: Is there a way to reach both audiences?
 Charles Kelly to Virginia Sorensen, February 12 1940, Sorensen Collection, BYU Special Collections. After a brief search, I could not find any books on Mountain Meadows by him. Perhaps the work just never came to fruition.
 It seems that Sorensen asked advice from many different individuals on different aspects of Church history, ranging from Joseph Fielding Smith to Dale Morgan.
 Charles Kelly to Virginia Sorensen, February 4 1940, Sorensen collection. Apparently, Sorensen calmed Kelly’s fear, because his next letter, after thanking her for her “enlightening letter,” said that he has “more faith in the possibilities of your story now. Apparently you have not been so indoctrinated as Fisher, and possibly your contacts with the Mormon religion have been more acute.” Kelly to Sorensen, February 12 1940. However, I find Sorensen’s book much more sympathetic to the Church than Fisher’s, but that may just be me.
 New York Times, October 20 1839.
 One writer wrote that Sorensen’s books, almost singlehandedly, dispelled the nasty rumors of “the Mormon menace.” Nina Brown Baker, “Virginia Sorensen,” Wilson Library Bulletin (January 1950): 330.
 Samuel Taylor, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2 (Summer 1967): 29-30.
 Richard Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary, 127.
 Ibid, 125.