Mormon Literature as a Window to Mormon Memory

By November 5, 2007

As explored elsewhere, novel reading/writing did not have a major stronghold in 19th century Mormonism. This sentiment changed with Orson Whitney’s call for “home literature” around the turn of the 20th century, novels became more common both for past-time reading as well as a career in writing. These were often didactic tales teaching morals with a simple plot, usually with the intention of building faith. Very characteristic of the neo-classicism era, they found historical accuracy not as important in their tales as the message gleaned from them. A modern-day example of this type of literature is The Work and the Glory series.

However, Mormon novels did not gain respect outside of Utah until the 1940’s, when a handful of authors dared to write historical fiction from a not-too-glamorized point of view. Two of these books, Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower than the Angels and Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, explore the practice of polygamy in the early Church. While Sorensen focuses on the Nauvoo time period, Whipple sets her story in the settling of St. George. While a case can be made that neither denied the faith in their masterpieces, it is safe to say that they offered a very humanistic approach to controversial topics.

So, my question is, what role does historical fiction play in understanding how Mormons view the past? A vast majority of members would prefer Gerald Lund’s stories over Sorensen and Whipple, but does the fact that the latter’s books were written say something about our community? And, perhaps more importantly, how does literature help shape our outlook on the past? Even though it is obvious that the books are fiction, would they structure how a person would view the time period that the story is set in?

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. Terryl Givens once described the novel as an instrument of power. By it, an author can shape the views of his/her readers. Examples of this are anti-slavery novels and anti-polygamy novels. I think you’re right Ben that, given the widespread popularity of these church history novels, these authors do shape how many Mormons view their past. The question for me is not so much if these authors get a few details wrong, but whether or not they present distinct and alternative narratives of our past from other popular sources of memory, such as speeches by church leaders, institute manuals, or the thin histories the church sponsors.

    Comment by David Grua — November 5, 2007 @ 2:37 pm

  2. A novel, for most, is the only window to the past that is readily available that promises not to be “boring”. It puts you right there with the people, thinking what they thought and going through their lives for what ever bit of time the author deems. If the author did their job, you are emotionally involved in the story. The facts that are presented seem to be true. The major facts seem to line up with what was learned while growing up or studying at a University in a different field besides History. So when little facts, or what seem to be facts because of the presentation, are stated they are taken to be a truth. “This is a novel based on such-and-such history, these characters lives must be what it was like for the people back then,” we sometimes in our own way think. We also tend to believe that the author knows exactly what they are talking about, even though that might not be the case. So, yes I do believe people are swayed by novels. We tend to think and view the past as the author has laid it out and painted the picture for us. If the author had some very rosy glasses on we come away with a rosy view. If they were taking a dark twist on the history we might come away with some negative feelings. We come away with a view through the author’s eyes because we were there inside the story feeling the emotions written for us to feel. I wouldn’t be too surprised if within the next twenty years, possibly ten, when we are a bit further removed to see a novel about someone we currently despise that puts us into his shoes in such a way that everyone will say “poor guy”. We view the past as it is presented to us to view; it doesn’t matter if it is Mormon, American, or whatever-you-will.

    Comment by Catherine — November 6, 2007 @ 2:15 am

  3. I don’t know how many readers it attracts in this age, but a book such as The Giant Joshua, with its depiction, however accurate and representative, of everyday life in pioneer Utah, can breathe life into an era and people that previously may have been more distant, abstract, or academic subjects for the reader.

    What were the people like? What did they do each day? What conditions did they live under? What did they believe? What role did folklore, including folk practices, play in their lives? How did families function under the Principle? How did the wives relate to one another and how did husbands relate to their wives? What influence did the practice have on their lives and characters?

    I recall Lund’s depiction of Joseph Smith relating his first vision to a potential convert in 1827 using the words of the 1838 account. How does a passage such as this influence a reader’s understanding of church history? Do readers get the impression, for instance, that Joseph typically talked about his visions with potential converts in 1827 or that he described them in 1827 using the narrative found in the 1838 account?

    Comment by Justin — November 6, 2007 @ 9:26 am

  4. Justin: interesting observations. I completely agree that it breathes new life into the past. While I have read several books on the polygamy raids during the 1880’s, it never really came to life to me until I read the fictional account in Giant Joshua.

    I think the Lund example is also very critical. It seems that to make Joseph the “hero” of the story that many authors want to, they desire to impose his later understanding on his current life.

    I am somewhat new when it comes to Mormon Literature. I have read many of the classics and many of the critiques, but even more are left untouched. While The Work and the Glory may make history sound too sanitized and simplistic, A Little Lower than the Angels makes the practice of polygamy a little to sketchy (IMHO). Does anyone know a text which has a better balance?

    Comment by Ben — November 6, 2007 @ 10:08 am

  5. Not surprisingly, given the book’s particular portrayal of life under the Principle, I know several people who, after reading The Giant Joshua, developed some visceral distaste toward plural marriage. Previously, I think, their feelings were more amorphous and undeveloped.

    Comment by Justin — November 6, 2007 @ 10:26 am


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