Constance Rourke and the Comic in Mormonism

By March 19, 2008

Graduate school provides rare opportunities to find obscure references to Mormonism in texts one would otherwise never think to look at.  These sources often provide interesting insights, usually alongside flawed analysis.  Constance Rourke’s American Humor: A Study of the National Character is one such source.

Constance Rourke’s American Humor is an examination of American mythic figures and the folklore associated with them.  It emphasizes humorous characters such as the yankee, the backwoodsman, and the minstrel.  It examines imitations, plays, theatricals, and writings in American culture.  Rourke painted a picture of nineteenth-century America in an original and refreshing way.  In the process, she occasionally included religious movements or figures to further her study.  In some instances Rourke’s desire to evidence the ubiquity of the humorous character in America culture leads to a misinterpretation of religion or religious belief.  As Rourke became convinced that humor is related to nearly every aspect of the American character, she perhaps found humor where it was not.  Yet, at the same time, this notion informed Rourke to illuminate situations which otherwise remained dark.

At the end of the fourth chapter Rourke discussed “revivalists…millennium-seekers…believers in cults,” and their use of drama and theatre.  Included in this analysis were the Mormons.  She briefly examined their theatrical experience in Nauvoo, Illinois and later in Salt Lake City.  While discussing the “latent humor” she found in nineteenth-century cults, Rourke explained, “Brigham Young could thunder an assertion of his power one moment and the next with a twinkle declare that he was a prophet, as if he considered the title comic.”  Here, Rourke seemed to misinterpret the Mormon definition of “prophet.”  Both Young, and his predecessor Joseph Smith, both believed a prophet made thunderous assertions, indeed it was that which set Mormonism apart from many religions in nineteenth-century America.  Thus, in her attempt to place Mormonism in the theatrical culture, which is apt, she aimed too broadly in claiming that, “Even in the most ponderous of these assertions there was something lighthearted.”  Yet, when discussing Mormon theatre itself, her observations concerning its comic nature were correct.[1]

Rourke saw definite comic purpose in Mormon theatre, especially after the Latter-day Saints had traversed the plains, settling in Salt Lake City and surrounding areas.  Not long after the Saints settled, they began performing theatricals, which more often than not were comic, not tragic.  Rourke explained that Young “made a firm rule against tragedy, saying that his people had known tragedy enough.”  Mormonism, with the rest of society, found relief from “oppressive circumstances” in comedy.  Thus, Rourke’s attempt to create a potpourri of American comedy both fails and succeeds.[2]

Rourke did not propose to describe religious traditions, but instead argued that humor is crucial to an understanding of the American character, and in this sense she succeeded.  While her inclusive study, which was at times not inclusive enough,[3] led her to misrepresent certain aspects of American culture, overall Rourke’s analysis is unique and indeed important.  She created her subject, and in some sense, created her own methodology.  Rourke’s work cannot be dismissed, but it is difficult to examine and conceptualize in any meaningful way.  Perhaps her focus on the comic and her obvious exclusion of the tragic helps explain this difficulty.  As evidenced in the themes of nineteenth-century writers, religious sentiment was often based in tragedy, and thus its absence in Rourke’s discussion may have contributed to her disinterest in religion when writing American Humor.

Rourke’s analysis of Mormon theatre is interesting.  My own great-great-great grandfather was an actor in Salt Lake City, and later in Brigham City.  He helped start the Mechanic’s Dramatic Association after the Utah War.  Most of his roles were comic.  His son also became an actor, and he too played primarily comic characters.

Needless to say, somewhat obscure texts (even in such a field as American Studies) can provide interesting insight into how Mormonism is used and depicted.

[1] Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of the National Character (New York: The New York Review of Books, 2004), 110-113.
[2] Ibid, 113-114.
[3] For example, Rourke failed to include Native Americans and African Americans in her discussion, as did other Americanists in their studies.


Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Jordan. Do you know how her work compares with Moore’s Tanner Lecture and his section on the SL theater in Selling God?

    Comment by David G. — March 19, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

  2. Interesting review, Jordan. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — March 19, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  3. David, I do not know about the comparison. I would wager they are quite different, as Rourke’s work was not necessarily historical and it was first published in 1931. I wonder if Moore cites Rourke.

    Comment by Jordan W. — March 19, 2008 @ 1:45 pm


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