Tending the Garden
Eugene England,
Lavina Fielding Anderson, editors

Chapter 1.
Mormon Storytellers
Dale L. Morgan

[p.3]Even three years ago [1939], it would have seemed that the columns of the Rocky Mountain Review could be occupied to better advantage than by an article on this subject. The whole Mormon story, one of the richest, most variously faceted, and altogether extraordinary American history affords, awaited discovery like another Comstock Lode. Placer miners down the gulch had panned day wages from these riches, but the lode itself was inviolate, shrouded in sage and sand and piñon. The Mormon lode differed from the Comstock, however, in that everybody could see the proportions of the wealth, and it was not ignorance of its existence but the lack of a technology to mine it which prevented its exploitation. A prospector’s eye and the drunken aberrations of an Old Virginny might suffice to open the Comstock, but the writing of an adequate Mormon novel required a glowing vision, an integrity of purpose, and above all a technical equipment which, in 1939, was nowhere in evidence. Three years ago, the Mormon riches were untouched and therefore inexhaustible.

In the autumn of 1942, however, we can number nine novels that have proceeded from the presses since Children of God, in 1939, ushered in the new dispensation. These nine novels represent the individual response of an astonishing variety of authors to an anomalous literary vacuum, and will have their weight in all further writing on the Mormon theme—if not as a direct impact upon the literary, consciousness of individual novelists, then as a limiting factor in the [p.4]willingness of publishers to accept books written out of the Mormon experience.

Some attention must be directed to Mormon fiction published before the fall of 1939. To the turn of the century, one hunts almost in vain for fiction concerned with Mormons. This is not altogether surprising. The violence of Mormon group relations was not conducive to the encouragement of fiction. For their part, quite aside from the fact that their society was notably a frontier culture for which fiction, under any circumstances, constituted a luxury expensive and suspect, the Mormons had more pressing uses for the literary talent of the church. Polemical writing, aside from its social utility, had also an affirmative value in advancing a man’s stature in the priesthood. Polemical writing and the expounding of the gospel, as compared to the writing of fiction, brought greater social rewards and answers to a greater social need. Under these circumstances, it would be extraordinary if any Mormon writer to 1900 had produced a novel of distinction. Edward W. Tullidge, who may possibly have been capable of portraying Mormon society, chose to occupy himself with heavy historical plays at such times as he concerned himself with other than journalism and expository history. There were a few other native writers who now and then tried their hands at playwriting, the drama enjoying a certain social acceptance in Utah, but Mormon literature remained barren.

Mormon materials fared hardly better in non-Mormon hands. Except, perhaps, for Lily Dougall’s The Mormon Prophet (London: Grant Richards, 1899), a novel centering upon Joseph Smith’s life which is chiefly important (to history, not to literature) for its psychological explanation of Smith’s puzzling character, there is not a single work of fiction dealing with the Mormons worth anyone’s attention. Joaquin Miller’s The Danires in the Sierras, published in its final form in 1881 (Chicago: Janson, McClurg, and Co.), vaguely incorporates Mormon materials, but is worthless from any point of view. Most non-Mormons who felt impelled to write about the Mormons did so out of an urge to attack the hydra-headed monster, and fiction was just another instrumentality; the anonymous [Rosetta Luce Gilchrist] and typical Apples of Sodom (Cleveland: William W. Williams, 1883) frankly closes with the pious hope that the book “may serve as a drop to overflow the bucket of popular prejudice against polygamy.”

[p.5]The quarter century after 1900 did hardly better by the Mormons, although the assimilation of the Mormons by American society, following upon the Woodruff Manifesto and the granting of statehood to Utah, permitted a more stimulating contact of artists with Mormon experience on the American frontier. That there was no important Mormon novel written is, in part, of course an accident of time and place. Another Mark Twain could have been born in Utah. But he wasn’t. Books about the Mormons, during this quarter century, were pedestrian endeavors.

Alfred H. Henry’s By Order of the Prophet (Chicago: Fleming A. Ravell, 1902) somewhat anticipates Susan Ertz’s The Proselyte (New York: D. Appleton, 1933), written thirty-one years later; but this is not a novel of distinction, or even of much interest. Harry Leon Wilson published in 1903 The Lions of the Lord (Boston: Lothrop Publishing Company), but this was what today we would call “slick fiction,” stock characters expertly manipulated in a never-never land. In 1909 Susa Young Gates published John Stevens’ Courtship, a romance of the “Echo Canyon War” serving much the same purpose as the autobiographical narratives of the “Faith-Promoting Series” written nearly a generation earlier. Pierre Benoit’s Le Lac Salé, published in France in 1921 and printed the next year by Knopf in English translation as Salt Lake, A Romance, is by long odds the most astonishing production of the period. This novel of intrigue about the Utah or Echo Canyon War reads like greased lightning (in pleasant contrast to most other novels here mentioned) but Benoit’s conception of Utah as a more singular Graustark1 is almost absurd. Salt Lake, like The Lions of the Lord, has nothing to do with the realities of Mormon life; it is a projection of the writer’s interior fantasy into the Mormon environment.

There are, however, two books out of this second period that may be read with interest and pleasure, a pair of juvenile adventure novels by Walter Nichols, Trust a Boy and The Measure of a Boy. While these books, published in 1923 and 1925 respectively (both New York: Macmillan), have no pretensions as literature, as a picture of boy life near and upon Great Salt Lake in the 1880s they are unique, and possessed of considerable charm.

Bernard DeVoto’s The Chariot of Fire (New York: Macmillan, 1926) announced the imminent assault of responsible artists upon [p.6]the Mormon story. This novel, which was followed in two years by DeVoto’s novels of a West in which the Mormons were conspicuous by their absence, used the Mormon story by complete conversion; essentially, The Chariot of Fire is a study of a phenomenon: frontier religion. It drew upon Mormon materials sufficiently that members of the church heartily disliked it as a caricature of Mormon beginnings, but it did not come directly to grips with what writers were now beginning to see as “the Mormon epic.”

In 1928 Vardis Fisher, with Toilers of the Hills (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.), published his first novel, an account of farm life in the Snake River country which only incidentally was concerned with Mormon society but which was important as marking the first realistic use of native materials by a native artist. In subsequent books, primarily his autobiographical tetralogy, Fisher occupied himself to some extent with contemporary, Mormon society, but he was engaged in exorcism; and Mormonism and the Mormon environment were only incidental in that.

Norton S. Parker’s Hell and Hallelujah! (New York: Diad Press, 1931), laid principally in Nauvoo during the strenuous years 1844-46, inaugurated in modern Mormon fiction a kind of novel that h as since been seen with increasing frequency. The exterior violence of Mormon history has much to attract tale-tellers; history itself is already an involute plot, and it is only necessary to lash the chief characters to the mast and let them run before the wind. The Rocky Road to Jericho (New York: Hillman-Curt, Inc., 1935), by Frank Chester Field (Frank C. Robertson), has many points of similarity to Parker’s novel, as have also Jeremiah Stokes’s The Soul’s Fire (Los Angeles: Suttonhouse, 1936)—one of the few novels of orthodox Mormon viewpoint—and several of the new crop, though Robertson’s book exhibits a greater earnestness in trying to resolve the contradictions of Mormon history than is expected of this type of work.

In popular consciousness, Susan Ertz with The Proselyte (1933) was first to discover the Mormons. More weight has attached to The Proselyte than it deserves on its merits as a novel, primarily because Ertz was already known as a writer of distinction. Although Ertz brought sympathy and discernment to her theme, and was first to exemplify the dignity and integrity of Mormon social life, her novel peers out upon Mormonism from the shuttered window of an English [p.7]parlor. It misconceives the vigorous Mormon story at vital points, its detail sometimes falls strange on the ear, and altogether it gives somewhat the effect of having been written at the tea table.

Rather more significant than The Proselyte were George Snell’s 1934 The Great Adam and 1936 Root, Hog and Die (both Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers). The former, concerned with the rise and fall of a banker in a small town of southern Idaho, is, despite the impression it gives of the arbitrary imposition of a classical pattern, a novel rather more richly conceived and well-rounded than the book which followed it. Root, Hog and Die, a realistic picture of Mormon life over three generations, is an exciting exploration into the possibilities of the Mormon theme, but it seems more the outline of the story Snell wanted to write than the story itself. More important than the actual achievement, in the case of either novel, was Snell’s evident consciousness of the literary potentialities of a life to which he is native.

Although I have not attempted a complete catalogue of writing by and about the Mormons to 1939, the authors and books mentioned represent most of what could be called significant in this writing, and this catalogue roughly indicates the status of Mormon fiction in 1939. A very few novels, distinguished for one reason or another, stood out in a wasteland, and none of these novels was possessed of such force and individuality as to inhibit any writer from making any use he chose of Mormon materials. It is important now to consider the change in this state of affairs produced by the nine novels already mentioned.

I should begin by listing these specifically: They are Vardis Fisher’s Children of God: An American Epic (New York: Harper Bros. 1939), Jean Woodman’s Glory Spent (New York: Carrick & Evans, 1940), Paul Bailey’s For This My Glory (Los Angeles: Lyman House, 1940), Rhoda Nelson’s This Is Freedom (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1940), Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941), Lorene Pearson’s The Harvest Waits (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1941), Hoffman Birney’s Ann Carmeny (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1941), Elinor Pryor’s And Never Yield (New York: Macmillan, 1942), and Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower than the Angels (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942). Of these novels, the first, fifth, sixth, and ninth may be regarded, for various reasons, as [p.8]important. This Is Freedom is a treatment of the Mormon theme for adolescent readers, and not strictly of a kind with the others here mentioned; while Ann Carmeny, a tale of glittering derring—do in the Salt Lake basin in 1860, is more particularly of the genus of historical novels of adventure currently in vogue.

Fisher’s novel, because most ambitious, is most important among these nine books. Subtitled “An American Epic,” Children of God endeavored to swallow the Mormon story whole. Although the degree of success that attended the effort is illustrated by the fact that the book was the Harper Prize novel in its year, that it sold well, and that it attracted a considerable measure of critical acclaim, Children of God is by no means a front-rank novel. Fisher has reached directly into Mormon history for the majority of his characters, and his Joseph Smith, Emma Smith, Lyman Wight, and Brigham Young, for example, are warm with life within the limitations of his intention. The panoplied movement of Mormon history itself was sufficient to give this novel a magnificent color and direction, granted an initial success in the recreation of the book’s basic historical characters. Children of God was not, however, the successful epic it aimed to be.

Although he adopted orthodox Mormon views for the greater part of his novel, Fisher’s sympathy and understanding were something less than wholehearted, and this limitation emerges in the impact of the book as a whole. Perhaps a kind of lifelessness about the novel is a consequence of the fact that Fisher clothed the bones of history with Mormon flesh of the kind he knew in the Snake River Valley. Dock Hunter and his tribe are the legitimate offspring of the Mormons who saw glories in the sky and praised God for a latter-day prophet, but Dock Hunter is the product of the interaction of Mormon society with the desert environment; in peopling his pageant with a congregation of Dock Hunters, Fisher achieved a flavor of the frontier but lost qualities of personal fulfillment and deep spirituality that were profoundly important in the inception and growth of Mormonism.

With all its merits, and it should be understood that they are many, Children of God does not emerge as a finally important treatment of the Mormon story as an epic in itself, history, immediately invaded by fiction. There is still room for such a novel. But Children of God will remain as a formidable barrier in its field to anything [p.9]except a really front-rank novel. To that extent limitations have been imposed upon exploitation of the Mormon literary wealth.

Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua derives its strength from its warm humanity and from Whipple’s delighted absorption in the sensual splendor of Clory MacIntyre’s world. Nowhere in Fisher’s book, despite his greater technical competence, is there a comparable abundance of life; perhaps this reflects the greater nearness of Whipple to the people of whom she writes and the exactitude of her frame of reference. In the magnitude of its intention and the extent of its accomplishment, The Giant Joshua has claims to be considered the best of the Mormon novels so far published, though its character as a first novel is clearly evidenced in a technical incapacity; the book, structurally, seems to run in circles; it is repetitious and its feeling for romance sometimes flounders in sentimentality.

A novel of the type of The Giant Joshua tends to be a law unto itself. Any writer on the Mormon theme whose book overflows with life may be assured a hearing, for such a novel is richly rewarding to the reader who would find in fiction a renewed and deepened apprehension of his or her own life and all human living. Mormonism and Mormon materials theoretically need not intervene upon this function of literature. Practically speaking, however, writing is hardly to be divorced from its social context, and anyone, writing out of the Mormon theme, who can feel so deeply and write so eloquently will probably have something to say that will be of interest and importance first of all to the people in Mormon country. Apart from such considerations, Whipple’s novel must be said to have laid these restrictions upon use of Mormon materials: On the romantic plane, it got very nearly all that is to be gotten out of the problems of matured polygamy (especially from the woman’s viewpoint) and of warfare with the desert by the Mormon community. Additionally, the abundance of Whipple’s local color, which gives her novel at times a lushness almost overwhelming, will require of new Mormon writing that it stand upon its feet without the props and crutches of quaintness and mere novelty of background.

Lorene Pearson’s The Harvest Waits is radically dissimilar in point of view and choice of materials to any other among the Mormon novels. Although “realism” has been employed to a greater or lesser extent in half a dozen of the novels about the Mormons, Pearson’s [p.10]book most nearly approaches the classical ideal. Her realism is a cumulative effect of her detached and broken viewpoint, of her deliberate emphasis, and of her choice of subject matter and detail. It cannot be said that Pearson’s novel of the struggles of Mormons to live together during and after the period of the United Order is altogether successful, but it is perhaps the most thought-provoking of any of the Mormon novels. The Harvest Waits attempts to come to grips with its people without the marching and countermarching of mobs and armies, the passage of glittering personalities, and all the lovely violences. This novel does not suggest itself for best-sellerdom, and it is probable that neither author nor publisher had any illusions upon this score; but its solidity, its quality of detail, its dignity, and its unexcited earnestness are rare qualities in a Mormon novel. Writers projecting Mormon novels would do well to review Pearson’s book for the wide bases of its approach to a Mormon community and its ease of manner in the utilization of distinctive Mormon detail, though also, negatively, they may find instruction in observing its defects in its confusing progression of viewpoint, its insistent ellipses, and its determined repression of emotion at times when sustained emotion is not only valid but essential to the book. The Harvest Waits is a constructive performance that need not be inhibitory in further writing on the Mormon theme.

The fourth of the new novels that I have called significant is Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower than the Angels. Sorensen’s excellent novel of life in Nauvoo exhibits several fundamental differences from its fellows. The growth of a society and the relationships of people, one with another, in this developing society, occupy her less than the age-old questions that are always new: on what terms a man and a woman may live together, what they can possess of life, and what life can do to their possession of each other. Although it would be misleading to say that the Mormon background and the events of Mormon history woven into the fabric of this novel are inessential to its development, it seems clear that Sorensen could have adapted her characters to, and worked out their problems in, another environment. Whipple’s characters, by contrast, are clearly the direct product of their time and environment; Abijah and Sheba and Clorinda MacIntyre, in the very stuff of their life, are inseparable from the Mormon frontier. We shall probably see more books of the general [p.11]type of A Little Lower than the Angels. I would guess, however, that such novels are likely to be important to Mormon fiction primarily for their contributions to technique.

Attention must be directed, finally, to the other novels that have appeared since 1939. Jean Woodman’s Glory Spent must be praised for the honesty of its intention, and Woodman remains the only writer who has had the courage or the insight to attempt a depiction of Mormon society as it is today. Unfortunately, Glory Spent is primarily an essay in ideas, and the novel, as a work of fiction, is something less than adequate. Glory Spent has, for this discussion, the importance that it has brought into the open Mormonism’s problems in a modern world; it relieves other authors of the responsibility of stating those problems for the record and imposes upon them the responsibility of creating from this matedhal a deep humanity, a richly felt life. There is no question of the need for a good novel of contemporary Mormonism, and Woodman must be commended for her discernment of the need, whatever is said of her book itself.

Comment was made earlier on a type of adventure novel that has appeared in the Mormon fiction. Paul Bailey’s For This My Glory is one of the more unfortunate efforts in this field; the novel is harnessed to various Mormon experiences of violent interests—the Missouri and Illinois persecutions, the march of the Mormon Battalion, the discover), of gold, the Utah War, the “polyg hunts”—and this flow of events, rather than the characters concerned, gives the book such interest as it commands. Elinor Pryor’s And Never Yield has certain points of similarity, but it is written in the tradition of Anthony Adverse, a now familiar kind of pageantry. Pryor’s book, once more to adopt the viewpoint of this discussion, is chiefly important because it makes further inroads upon Mormon history conceived as an epic. Nelson’s book, and Hoffman Birney’s Ann Carmeny, may here be regarded as primarily important because their bulk weighs in the possible exhaustion of the Mormon theme.

The broad outlines of what has been accomplished with Mormon materials should be fairy clear. A long period in which novelists more or less neglected the Mormon story has ended with a series of novels which, with varying success, has attempted to translate this story into a fiction of integrity and depth. It will be observed that the ambition to write on the epic plane has forcefully influenced the majority of [p.12]these books. It is inevitable that the Mormon story should commend itself first of all as an epic, for it possesses historical continuity, spectacular violence, cross-grained social texture, and tragic content. Epics, however, feed voraciously upon their own being, and the measure of preoccupation with the Mormon theme that we have seen in the last three years establishes a probability that Mormon fiction will now be given over to writers less opportunistic and more serious in their purpose.


[p.12]1. An imaginary country in the novel Graustark (1901) by George B. McCutcheon, an American novelist; the term, though no longer used, by the 1940s meant an imaginary land of high romance or a highly romantic piece of writing.—Editors.