Mormonism in the American Mind: Eight Forgotten Classics that You Should Read before they Disappear

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a rich and varied history as the subject of imaginative literature. Mormons have always been more interesting as a group than most other religious people—often for reasons that we are not proud of today. And a large portion of literary Mormonism reflects this—especially in the nineteenth century, when polygamy, blood atonement, and Danites provided the raw material for some of the most ridiculous, and most popular fiction ever written about a religious group.

But there were more than a few exceptions to this rule. The history of Mormonism in American literature is not a progression from one work of anti-Mormonism to another. There have been quite a few strong, entertaining novels that have offered nuanced, and even sympathetic portrayals of the Latter-day Saints. Here are eight of them written between 1853 and 1940, which, in my opinion, constitute something like a first tier of good novels about Mormons that nobody has ever heard of.

But if you want to read them, you had better hurry, as they are getting harder and harder to find—especially those that are old enough to have been out of print for decades, but new enough to still be protected by copyright. These are the books that are in danger of disappearing from our collective memory if we do not pay attention to them soon. This post is my attempt to do precisely that.

 

  1. The Mormoness; or, the Trials of Mary Maverick, by John Russell (1853)
    The first American novel about the Mormons is also one of the best. Russell, an Illinois journalist and educator, witnessed the persecution in Missouri and Illinois and generally sympathized with the Saints. The heroine of the novel, Mary Maverick, joins the Church when her husband is converted in Illinois. Though not initially a believer, Mary embraces her identity as “the Mormoness” when her husband and son are killed in a Haun’s Mill-like massacre–and at the end of the novel, she must find a way to forgive the killer. More a novella than a novel, it was originally published with another of Russell’s novellas, Claudine Lavalle, or, The First Convict, in a two-for-one omnibus edition of his work. It is virtually unavailable today; however (TW: vague, teasing promise ahead) this is about to change.
  2. Button’s Inn, by Albion Tourgée (1886)
    Albion Tourgée may well be the most interesting person ever to write about the Mormons. He was a judge, a committed abolitionist, and a well-known carpetbagger during the Reconstruction period. He was also the attorney who represented Homer Plessy before the Supreme Court in the famous (and disastrous) Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896. But Button’s Inn is not a political story; it is a ghost story, and a pretty good one, featuring a very compelling character who disappears mysteriously at the beginning of the novel and then returns, just as mysteriously, after spending much of his life as a Mormon apostle. Button’s Inn is now available for free on Google Books.
  3. The Mormon Prophet, by Lily Dougal (1899)
    After a half a century of fairly sensational, largely antagonistic fiction about Joseph Smith, Lily Dougal set out to write a balanced biographical novel about the Mormon prophet that was neither pro- or anti-Mormon–but that explained the personality traits that allowed him to build a successful religious movement. She was so successful in this attempt that the novel became a national bestseller and earned a glowing review in the New York Times by the Mormon general authority, B.H. Roberts. The Mormon Prophet is available as a free Kindle eBook and in a number of over-priced, but easy-to-find print on demand editions.
  4. The Chariot of Fire, by Bernard DeVoto (1926)
    Bernard DeVoto, the Utah-born historian and literary critic, wrote in 1938 that he would never try to make a novel out of the story of Joseph Smith and the Mormons because the story was too big to be told by a mere mortal. But he was kind of lying, as, twelve years earlier, he had written precisely such a novel.The Chariot of Fire tells the story of Ohio Boggs, a frontier prophet who builds a large religious following in Illinois and is killed by a mob threatened by his success. It is “about” Joseph Smith in much the same way that Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men is “about” Huey Long—both books use fictional names and settings to tell a story that is clearly modeled on a historical character. The Chariot of Fire is very difficult to find in paper but can be read for free online at the Hathi Trust.
  5. The Rocky Road to Jericho, by “Frank Chester Field” (1935)
    Frank Chester Field is one of several pseudonyms that the popular Western writer, Frank Robertson, used when writing the sorts of books that he didn’t usually write. Robertson, who grew up in Idaho and converted to Mormonism with his family when he was twelve years old, was the first Mormon writer to achieve a national reputation, although it was mostly in a type of genre fiction that did not get a lot of respect at the time. The Rocky Road to Jericho is much more serious faire than his other 150 or so hardback novels. It is one of the first epic stories of the Mormon migration, with a strong, and somewhat troubling account of the violence of the Mormon Reformation of the 1850s.
  6. Poplars across the Moon, by “Lee Neville” (1936)
    If I had to pick one book about Mormonism that nobody reads and everybody should it would be Poplars Across the Moon, written by Salt Lake City resident and noted young-adult novelist Lela Horne Richard, who used the pseudonym “Lee Neville” to avoid confusion with her other works. The novel traces the life of two orphaned girls adopted by loving and supportive Mormon parents, Tula and Jens Kruso, who raise them in the Church that they love. The older girl, Kristina, has what we would now call a “faith transition” and leaves the Church to become (as the author was) an Episcopalian. The younger girl, Karen, remains a faithful Mormon out of love and respect for her adoptive parents. Poplars across the Moon presents both girls’ choices as legitimate and does an exceptional job showing how both of them survive, and thrive, at the crossroads of religious faith and familial duty.
  7. The Joppa Door, by Hope Williams Sykes (1937)
    Hope Williams Sykes was known primarily as a chronicler of the lives of the Russian-German, or “Volga German” immigrants to the Western United States. Her first book, Second Hoeing (1935) is still considered the most important American novel about this immigrant population. Her follow-up, The Joppa Door, is the story of Katharina Thiel, a girl from a German Pietist family who immigrates to Palestine in the 1850s, marries a Volga German who becomes a Mormon, and then immigrates to Zion to live with the Saints. The story is based on the life of an unnamed woman that Sykes knew and interviewed in Colorado. Its purpose is neither to support nor condemn the Mormons, but to demonstrate how one woman constructed a good and beautiful life in two environments (Palestine and Utah) that were forced on her by the religious decisions of her father and her husband.
  8. Glory Spent, by Jean Maw Woodman (1940)
    This is the only novel by Jean Maw Woodman, who grew up in Provo, where her father taught at the BYU, but spent most of her life outside of the Church in New York City. Glory Spent is a semi-autobiographical novel covering three generations of Mormons: Hans Sorensen, who joined the Church in Denmark and suffered through the anti-polygamy persecutions of the 1880s; his daughter Grethe, who has a comfortable life in Utah, where she enjoys strong social connections to the Church, even though she is not really a believer; and her daughter, Marian, who finds the Church oppressive but does not see any options in her life other than marrying a returned missionary and settling into orthodoxy. Like Poplars across the Moon, Glory Spent does a good job of dramatizing the conflicts that arise when a religion one does not believe in is inextricably mixed with a loving family and a pervasive social environment.

Comments

  1. Wow, I’ve never heard of any of these. I think I’ll pick up “Poplars” as it sounds quite intriguing.

  2. Wow! Some serious treasures here. Thanks Mike!

  3. My first reaction was “wow” and then I turn to comments and see I’m not alone and not first. Thank you. This is a great service to all.

  4. This should be a class–or at least a book club reading list. Great stuff, Mike!

  5. Kent Larsen says:

    Fascinating. Half of them don’t appear on Goodreads!!

  6. You might not believe this, Mike, but I read The Mormoness within the past month. What are the odds?

    Well worth reading, IMO.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Outstanding contribution!

  8. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    What about Virginia Sorensen?

  9. maustin66 says:

    Mary, she’s one that people have mainly heard of. I was looking deep beneath the covers, so to speak.

  10. All of these sound interesting. Adding to the book pile. Thanks Michael.

  11. Great job, Mike. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never heard of any of these books.

  12. Though not as obscure as the ones you mentioned, I have always been fond of Fitzgerald’s 1955 classic, “Papa Married a Mormon.”

  13. FarSide – You hit on a personal favorite of mine. You may want to check out this website and face book group if you have a hobby interest in the stories. Did you read any of his other books?

    http://www.findingfitzgerald.com

    https://www.facebook.com/GreatBrain

  14. I have not, Cat, but I would like to. What would you recommend?

  15. FarSide – This is my favorite past time. Books by John Dennis Fitzgerald. The next two are really hard to find Mamma’s Boarding House and Uncle Will and Fitzgerald Curse. In the 1970’s John began publishing a young adult series based on his brother Tom called The Great Brain Series. There are 8 books total. 7 were published in his life time, and number was published posthumously. They all have the Utah flavor, same characters, different points of view. Good luck hunting for them. If you do find one, it’s worth the read.

  16. Thanks, Cat. I found Mamma’s Boarding House on Alibris Used Books for 15 bucks. They had Uncle Will, too, but the cheapest copy was about $200, so I passed on that one. Can’t wait for Mamma’s Boarding House to arrive. Hopefully, it will arrive before I leave next Thursday for a short vacation.

  17. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Just misses the cutoff, as it was published in 1948, but Heaven Knows Why!, by Samuel Taylor was nicely set in the period that you reference. Dr. Cracroft printed off some bootlegs for a BYU writing class, which is how I have my copy, but I understand that the paperback came out in 1994. Highly recommended.

  18. FarSide – I hope you enjoy it. I really love these books.

  19. Just to clarify, I think that _Papa Married a Mormon_, _Heaven Knows Why_, and the novels of Virginia Sorensen are wonderful and should be read frequently in the Church. Reading John D. Fitzgerald’s _Great Brain_ books in Elementary School was a transformational experience for me–it was the first time that I had ever been able to bring my school life (I read them during reading time in our homeroom class) and my Church life together. It was the first time that I ever saw my own heritage reflected back to me in a secular venue. The same thing happened in high school with _Papa Married a Mormon_ and _Mama’s Boarding House_ and in college with the novels of Virginia Sorensen. And Sam Taylor is just really funny.

    The reason that I used 1940 as a cutoff for this article (and several more that will be coming in the future) is that previous reclamation projects by Mormon scholars have generally begun in 1941, with Whipple’s _Giant Joshua_. Sam Weller’s Western Epics reprinted _The Giant Joshua_ and _Papa Married a Mormon_. Signature Books reprinted three of Virginia Sorensen’s books (_A Little Lower than the Angels_, _The Morning and the Evening_, and _Where Nothing Is Long Ago_), and Aspen reprinted _Heaven Knows Why_. These books have been rediscovered fairly recently and published in large enough print runs that they are now easily available in used book stores and on Amazon at affordable prices.

    This is not the case with the books in the original post, and books before 1940 generally. These are books that have pretty much fallen out of our cultural memory, which I think is a tragedy. So my emphasis on them is designed to help push them up to the same level that books by Sorensen, Whipple, Taylor, and Fitzgerald already are.

  20. Fairchild says:

    Wow, I have a copy of “The Joppa Door” sitting on my shelf. It was given to us by my in-laws as they consider it family history (historical fiction based on a family member). I have read it and it is fascinating.

  21. Fairchild, I would love to hear anything that you know about the person whose life was the model for _The Joppa Door_. I have been looking, quite in vain, for this information.

  22. Thanks, Cat! My first reaction was, “What? No ‘Papa Married a Mormon’ or Great Brain books?!?” I grew up on John D. and his brothers. :)

  23. On the flip side, let’s all skip Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage” and Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet.” :)

  24. Steve Pregman says:

    Thankfully someone mentioned Papa Married a Mormon. If you like Twain give this a read. It is full of charm and like many of the titles above doesn’t really force the reader to a side.

    Also worthy is A Child of he Sea or Life Among the Mormons. It has only a small portion devoted to the Stangites but it is very much alive in its history as the author was a witness.