Guest Post, Lisa Tait, Thinking Generationally

By October 22, 2013

As part of our monthly series Childhood, Children, and Youth, we are very pleased to have a post from Lisa Tait. She has recently joined the staff at the LDS Church History Library as a Historian and Writer, working on projects to expand the Church history web site. She has a PhD in American Literature from the University of Houston and researches late nineteenth/early twentieth century Mormon history, focusing on periodicals, women writers, and generational dynamics. She also serves on the executive committee of the Mormon Women’s History Initiative. In her spare time (which amounts to about ten minutes every other Saturday), she thinks about how much she would enjoy doing some hiking with her dog.

I am going to start with a few opening observations, by way of theory, and then present a case study.

My interest is not so much on childhood or youth specifically as it is on generational dynamics. The classic study on this subject is sociologist Karl Mannheim?s ?The Problem of Generations.? Mannheim observes: ?Different generations live at the same time. But since experienced time is the only real time, they must all in fact be living in qualitatively quite different subjective eras?. Every moment of time is therefore in reality more than a point-like event?it is a temporal volume having more than one dimension, because it is always experienced by several generations at various stages of development.?[1] Another study builds on Mannheim?s ideas to assert that history must be viewed in terms of ?generational constellations??that is, the ?lineup of living generations ordered by phase of life.?[2]  Any given historical moment will be characterized by a particular lineup of generations, and members of those generations will therefore experience, participate in, and react to those events according to their position on that generational spectrum.

In my work, I have tried to develop a habit of what I call ?thinking generationally,? considering historical sources and events from the generationally-situated position of the participants. This approach yields a few basic insights?most of which are obvious enough but still merit deliberate consideration. First, the memories of one generation are not the memories of another. As Mannheim puts it, there is a difference between ?appropriated memories? and ?personally acquired? memories: ?I only really possess those ?memories? which I have created directly for myself, only that ?knowledge? I have personally gained in real situations.?[3]  Second, quoting myself here (though I?m sure someone else has said it better), the radical break of one generation becomes a baseline for the next. One generation breaks with the world, leaves Babylon, and gathers to Zion; their children are born into Zion and the outside world is just a theory to them (and then the railroad comes and brings the outside world in, so the third generation faces a new situation altogether). Third, gender and generation are tightly interconnected because of the role parents?especially mothers?play in socializing children and modeling gender norms. Those norms may be thoroughly imbibed by the children, or they may become the baseline against which those kids rebel later on. In the nineteenth-century, where I spend most of my time, the mother-daughter bond was thought to be especially important and intense.

These insights and many others could be elaborated and contested further, but I offer them by way of suggestive starting points.

Now for the case study.

In a lovely memoir of her childhood in late nineteenth-century West Jordan, Utah, Juliaetta Bateman Jensen recounts a fascinating story that offers a richly layered look at childhood and generational dynamics in a particular setting. Jensen was born in 1878, so this incident probably happened sometime around 1884. She published the memoir in 1948 when she was seventy years old.

Once when I was a very young child, about six years of age, Mother took me to a meeting with her. I think it was a Relief Society Conference. As I recall it, some noted woman, perhaps Eliza R. Snow, was present. It had been whispered about that she might speak in tongues, and everyone sat in expectation. It meant something very mysterious to me. When the conference had proceeded to the appropriate place, the visitor arose and began speaking in a peculiar language, with a strange half-singing voice. She walked leisurely down the aisle, pointing to certain women and men, as if she were giving to them a message. When she had finished she walked impressively back to the pulpit, and asked if anyone in the audience had received the interpretation. The air was tense, one could hear the clock tick. No one moved. It seemed that minutes passed. Then to my horror, my own dear mother arose to her feet. She was very pale, tears were in her eyes, her lips moved, but no distinct words came, only a queer gurgling in her throat. She was trembling and her lips were very moist. She was struggling hard to bring forth chokingly the message she thought she had received, but she could not. After a few seconds, which seemed ages to me, she sat down. I buried my face in her ample skirts and sobbed because I feared she would die. She did not touch me to comfort me, to still my fears, nor did she speak a word to me then or ever after to explain what had happened to her. My lovely mother, always so quiet and self-possessed, had gone through this terrible ordeal, and she would never tell me what lay in the bottom of her heart, joy or humiliation?

The Speaker in Tongues gave the interpretation herself. I did not hear it. (163)

On one level, this narrative is simply a child?s story. We experience it through the eyes of a little girl who adores her mother, does not fully understand what is going on around her, and reacts in a perhaps predictable, childish way to what she perceives as a ?terrible ordeal.? The child reacts with fear and uncertainty, and the mother does not act to reassure her or explain what is going on. If we think about this scene from that perspective, we get a glimpse of how children imbibe the spiritual practices of their elders, and it is a reminder that those practices may not be experienced as normal or intelligible at first. It is a glimpse of what communities are up against in trying to reproduce themselves.

Even more interesting is the generational constellation. The Speaker in Tongues (perhaps Eliza R. Snow) represents the ?old people? of the community, those still steeped in and comfortable with the spiritual practices of the founding era. The mother is perhaps a generation younger than the Speaker. It seems likely that she has witnessed the phenomenon of speaking in tongues before. We have no way of knowing if she has ever participated successfully, but she seems to be less confident and less skilled at the practice, even if she is no less a believer in it. For the little girl, of course, it is all new and somewhat frightening. Moreover?and I think this is significant?as  an adult narrating the experience, Juliaetta still treats it as something strange and unusual. There is no indication (here or in the rest of her memoir) that this practice ever became a regular part of her religious experience, and it is presented as something of an anomaly.

Thinking generationally about this scene opens up insights and questions about how change takes place over time. We know that such charismatic gifts were on the wane by the turn of the century. Are we seeing, in this scene, a snapshot of that process in motion? If so, it suggests that the demise may have taken place along generational lines. What had happened to make something that was once considered a joyous and even expected manifestation of spirituality something that now seems to have become a source of anxiety and bewilderment?not only to the child but to her mother? The fact that she was a young child at the time does explain much of her reaction; however, the fact that as an adult she still narrates the experience as anomalous suggests that it was never fully integrated into her world view, despite the fact that she was a lifelong active member of the Church. In this respect, she is perhaps representative of her generation. We might wonder, as well, about the perspective of the Speaker in Tongues. Is she trying to resist the fading of this practice, modeling it for others in hopes it will not be lost? What about the mother? With her daughter, we wonder if this was a moment of ?joy or humiliation? and whether she ever tried again. She seems to occupy a halfway position between the Speaker?s confident display and the child?s frightened reaction.  In this respect, does she, too, represent her generation?

[1] Karl Mannheim, ?The Problem of Generations,? Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. Paul Kecskemeti (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952), 283. It has been a few years since I did a literature search on generational theory (especially in historical scholarship), but when I did, I was surprised at how little there was (though I think it is often implicit). I welcome suggestions if anyone is aware of more recent sources.

[2] William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations: The History of America?s Future, 1584 to 2069. (New York: William Morrow, 1991), 31. This book (and Howe?s subsequent work) has received more attention for its contemporary application and supposed predictive model than for its exhaustive and (I thought) impressive study of historical sources to identify generational cohorts and patterns.

[3] Mannheim, 296.

Article filed under Cultural History Gender Miscellaneous Women's History


  1. This is really great, Lisa; and I think quite important. Thank you. I’ve seen some similar evidence that by the second quarter of the twentieth century, some women viewed the healing rituals as somewhat old-fashioned. The extended shift away from corporeal anointing across Mormon liturgy is perhaps illustrative of the dynamics.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 22, 2013 @ 11:06 am

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Lisa. “Thinking generationally” has important things to say about identity and time. Seems like something that could be translated into work with religious studies as well as history.

    Comment by J Stuart — October 22, 2013 @ 11:25 am

  3. You make some very smart suggestions toward the end: “The fact that she was a young child at the time does explain much of her reaction; however, the fact that as an adult she still narrates the experience as anomalous suggests that it was never fully integrated into her world view, despite the fact that she was a lifelong active member of the Church.”

    I have been grappling with this issue of analysis as I read life sketches and biographies written by members of members of the church, as they reflect on their youth. I think your methodology of incorporating generations will be especially helpful as I go back and reread my sources. Great piece.

    Comment by NatalieR — October 22, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

  4. This is great, Lisa. You’re right that Mannheim’s generational theory hasn’t quite caught on, at least among historians. Sociologists, however, have done more work with his ideas. See Howard Schuman and Jacqueline Scott, “Generations and Collective Memories,” American Sociological Review 54 (1989): 359-81; Howard Schuman and Amy D. Corning, “Collective Knowledge of Public Events: The Soviet Era from the Great Purge to Glasnost,” American Journal of Sociology 105 (2000): 913-56.

    That is a great excerpt and you provide great analysis of the potential generational elements of it.

    Comment by David G. — October 22, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

  5. Thanks, folks, for the comments, and David G. especially for the sources. I will definitely check those out. I welcome other suggestions and insights, too.

    Comment by LisaT — October 22, 2013 @ 9:01 pm

  6. Very fascinating post. I like the point of “thinking generationally,” which is often what I try to do in my work but I never quite recognized it in the ways that you describe and illustrate. For instance, I look at oral histories of Navajos often collected when they are adults. Like this Ms. Jensen, the interviewees will often describe childhood experiences and their interactions with their family and community as a child/youth (which I focus on). I often wonder how do I interpret this oral histories of adults looking back on their past as children. I also try to trace the changes over time in relation to generations, so I really appreciate the great insights of your work- “think generationally.”

    Comment by Farina — October 23, 2013 @ 5:05 pm


Recent Comments

Armand Mauss on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman.…”

Roger T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Since I work in Mormon studies, I tend to read a lot. It's impossible to keep up with everything being published, but over the past…”

Jeff T on Q&A with Taylor Petrey,: “Thanks, Taylor!”

Jeff T on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J!”

Jeff T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks, Matt!”

Jeff T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks, Jana! My experience with Armand, too, has been that of generosity and genuine care for Mormon Studies as a broad and inclusive field. And…”