Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Dawning Of A Brighter Day - by Boyd Petersen

In 1982, Eugene England surveyed the history and current landscape of Mormon literary production in a seminal article published in BYU Studies entitled “The Dawning of a Brighter Day: Mormon Literature after 150 Years.” There England celebrated the flowering of Mormon “faithful realism”; the publication of Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert’s anthology of Mormon literature A Believing People; the creation of a course on Mormon literature at Brigham Young University; and the foundation of the Association for Mormon Letters in 1976. He saw these as signs that Mormon culture was not only producing but beginning to recognize a unique literary heritage.

Nevertheless, England saw with clear vision that much of work remained to be done. He acknowledged that no scholarly bibliography of Mormon literature had been produced. He also recognized that a unique Mormon literature not only required writers but criticism, and he lamented that little had been done.

Twenty seven years later, we have much to celebrate: Print-on-demand technology and the blogosphere have allowed Mormon literature to develop in ways England could never imagine. Mormon literature is being taught and Mormon literature courses are being introduced to college campuses, public and private, across the nation as Mormon Studies becomes a recognized academic discipline. And the Association for Mormon Letters continues to champion Mormon literature and criticism with its yearly meeting, awards, and literary journal Irreantum.

Indeed, many of the deficits sorely felt by England in 1982 are today beginning to be met: the Mormon literature database has become a first-rate bibliography of Mormon literature, criticism, and film. Works of literature and criticism are being published not only by Mormon studies publications like BYU Studies, Dialogue, and AML’s own Irreantum, but by blogs, especially A Motley Vision and Segullah. England would have been thrilled to see the 2007 publication of Terryl Givens’ People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture by Oxford University Press. And he would have been an enthusiastic supporter of the wonderful flowering of Mormon cinema and the seminal publication of an issue of BYU Studies that recounted the lost history of Mormon cinema.

As we look forward to the bright future the twenty-first century promises for Mormon literature, we at AML also want to look back. Specifically we want to recreate some of the early conversations that led to the creation of AML and revisit some of the features that made AML a community for those interested in Mormon literature. One of the features of AML that first attracted my attention was the regular electronically published columns on a variety of literary topics. Two of those columns ultimately led to books: a look at the humor of Mormon culture by Ed Snow’s Of Curious Workmanship: Musings on Things Mormon and a literary analysis of the Book of Mormon by Richard Dilworth Rust’s Feasting on the Word: The Literary Testimony of the Book of Mormon.

In a world where blogs are ubiquitous and our attention is constantly divided by many good things, we know launching another blog may seem redundant. However, I trust you will find on the AML blog (http://mormonletters.org/) a conversation that will stimulate great discussion and, hopefully, inspire great Mormon literature and criticism (perhaps even a few books!). To commemorate the bright future we see for Mormon literature and simultaneously remind us of our roots, we have titled the new blog after Eugene England’s 1982 essay.

England’s essay suggests that for Mormon authors to create great literature, they will have a “special respect for language and form” while at the same time draw upon the theological and historical realities of our unique Mormon heritage. England stresses that the themes available to the Mormon artist do not come from our trivial peculiarities, but rather from our unique theology and history. As England states, “I don’t mean irrigation and polygamy and Lamanite warriors but rather a certain epic consciousness and mythic identification with ancient peoples and processes: the theme of exile and return, of the fruitful journey into the wilderness; the pilgrim traveling the dark and misty way to the tree of salvation; the lonely quest for selfhood that leads to conversion and then to the paradox of community; the desert as crucible in which to make saints, not gold; the sacramental life that persists in spiritual experience and guileless charity despite physical and cultural deprivation; the fortunate fall from innocence and comfort into a lone and dreary world where opposition and tragic struggle can produce virtue and salvation.” These themes, argues England, would “nurture” the artist’s imagination “with the most challenging and liberating set of metaphysical possibilities and paradoxes.” Great Mormon literature can only come from Mormon artists who know their Mormon literary heritage, know the forms of their genre, and simultaneously take their craft and their faith seriously.

England cautioned against the Scylla of “didactic, apologetic, or sentimental writing” (“pious trash” as Flannery O’Connor called much of Catholic literature), even as he warned against the Charybdis of “sexual explicitness or sophomoric skepticism as faddish, but phony, symbols of intellectual and moral sophistication and freedom.” The Association of Mormon Letters has consistently attempted to promote these two ideals. While we have, at times, drifted too far to one side or the other, we are firmly committed to this radical middle. This is why I am happy to associate with this organization and am equally excited about our launching the new blog. I hope you will all find yourselves at home there as we attempt, in the words of Eugene England, to “bring to full flower a culture commensurate with our great religious and historical roots.”

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