God and Mammon in the Mormon Historical Novel

n46844Sacred history, like sacred scripture, has great power to legitimate non-sacred opinions. This is why pretty much everybody in the Christian world quotes the Bible to support whatever they happen to believe. And in the United States, it is why the voluminous writings of the Founding Fathers have been prooftexted and cherry picked down to skeletal bullet points capable of supporting just about anything. This has a lot to do with the way our species thinks: we tend not to use reason to arrive at positions, but to defend positions arrived at in completely unreasonable ways.

The history of Mormonism, too, is a sacred record that can be used to legitimate just about any flavor of Kool-Aid one cares to drink. This is especially true of the Mormon migration and the early pioneer era. In this remarkable history, we see examples of self-reliance, socialism, rebellion, patriotism, liberty, tyranny, selfishness, sacrifice, peace, and senseless violence. We see, in other words, whatever we most want to see, and we can count on the power of confirmation bias to pick out whatever will make us have to do less changing.

This is not a new phenomenon. Even as these events were happening, people were interpolating them into a variety of ideological narratives. And in the 1930s, when Mormon historical fiction became a thing, the events of Mormon history were invoked in ten separate historical novels (none published in Utah or to a primarily Mormon audience) dealing with the Mormon trek across the plains [1]. The three of them that I outline below—all by Mormons of one stripe or another—represent as diverse an ideological spectrum as could be found anywhere in the United States of America at the time. If you don’t want to read about them all, just skip to the last paragraph for the big rhetorical finish.

 

Jeremiah Stokes, The Soul’s Fire. Los Angeles, Suttonhouse, 1936.
The first of these novels is The Soul’s Fire by Jeremiah Stokes, a Salt Lake City attorney and implacable foe of communism and everything like it. A generation before Joseph McCarthy or John Birch, anti-Communism in the United States was more of a mom-and-pop operation, involving self-published, mimeographed books and freedom-loving semi-secret societies. Stokes published a number of “books” (typewritten and photocopied) with titles like The Communists’ Plot to Purge American Patriots from Congress and Americans’ Castle of Freedom: Under Bolshevik Fire on Our Home Front. But he was also a devout Latter-day Saint, whose book Modern Miracles was published by the Deseret News Press in 1935 and provided a whole generation of Latter-day Saints with special stories for Sacrament Meeting talks.

The Soul’s Fire is easily the most sanitized treatment of Mormon history in the 1930s. Stokes’ Mormons are strict monogamists who deplore violence and love America. They do not practice polygamy, nor do they experiment with communalism. Rather, they serve as a great example of what can happen to decent people when the government has too much power. And on his way to certain death in Carthage Jail, Stokes’ version of Joseph Smith offers a truncated version of the “White Horse Prophecy” that was also the subject of the author’s first home made book.

This is the loveliest place and these are the best people under the heavens . . . but little do they know the trials that await them. Under the scourge of persecution they will be driven to the Rocky Mountains. But, great as their sorrows will be, they shall not perish, for there they will become a happy and a mighty people. And it shall come to pass. In the course of events, that the Constitution of this nation shall hang upon a single thread. When that critical juncture shall come, my people will step forth and help to save it. It was inspired of God and shall not be destroyed. (161)

George Dixon Snell, Root, Hog, and Die. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1936
The second novel, also from 1936, is George Dixon Snell’s Root, Hog, and Die [2]. But Snell was a very different kind of Mormon than Jeremiah Stokes was, and his Mormon history supports a very different political argument. For Snell, polygamy was a sideshow cooked up by Joseph Smith to satisfy his lusts. What was really important about early Mormonism was its collective spirit—the United Order, which was definitely a form of socialism and could have even been a primitive form of communism. Snell read a lot of Marx.

There were no more helpful, no less selfish men in America than in that brotherhood of early Mormons. To be sure even the richest of them had little enough, and as a whole they were needy members of the working class. But they shared whatever they had impartially. It was a form of communism, this spirit of group solidarity, and no man encouraged it more than Brigham Young in the last days of Nauvoo and on the track to this valley. . . . Brigham Young distributed the land impartially; there was a common store of all wealth; every man had as much property as his neighbor. This was one facet of fine idealism, apart from every religious dogma that we may deplore now (381).

Vardis Fisher, Children of God. New York: Harpers, 1939
The Harper Prize-winning, national bestselling Children of God was one of the most important novels about Mormonism to come out of the 20th century. And boy is it a long novel: about seven hundred pages divided into three parts about, respectively, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the post-manifesto LDS Church.

Like Stokes and Snell, Fisher saw the early Mormon experiments with communalism as a political allegory. And predictably, Fisher—who a committed libertarian and a secularist—found himself at odds with both Stokes’ theocratic Constitutionalism and Snell’s liberal socialism. Brigham Young becomes the mouthpiece for Fisher’s own political vision-one that avoids both the leveling impulse of socialism and the cruelty of laissez-faire capitalism:

Through it all, awake and asleep, Brigham was impelled by a great vision. He felt that this journey fed from the eager and searching millenniums in the remote background of human striving: it was more than desperate flight from enemies: it was a pilgrimage toward freedom, toward a fuller and richer destiny for the entire human race. In all that struggle for perfection and peace that had been the heritage of humanity for centuries. He was fighting for a society that would be charitable and righteous and free. (427)

Speaking of Brigham Young, Fisher writes, “He believed in personal initiative and competitive practice; but he also believed in collective community enterprises. He was aware of the wide range in human intelligence, talent, and ambition: there could never be a utopian society in which everyone could share equally; but there could be an order in which none needed to starve.” Fisher ultimately concludes that what Brigham built was “the most remarkable social integration that had ever been achieved in the history of humankind” (587-88).

 

Big Rhetorical Finish
Though all three authors came from similar conservative Mormon families, it would be difficult to find three more different political or religious positions than those they ultimately adopted. Jeremiah Stokes was an ultra-Mormon super-patriot whose anti-communist activities led to charges of pro-Nazi sympathies during World War II. George Dixon Snell was an atheist and pretty much a hippie. And Vardis Fisher–arguably the most important writer to come from the Mormon tradition in the 20th century–was a cranky agnostic libertarian who hated, more or less equally, religion, nationalism, hippies, and Marx.

That these three writers could take the exact same historical events and wrap them into their very different political narratives tells us some important things about both the nature of Mormonism and the legitimating power of stories. And, if nothing else, it should convince us that, because history stubbornly refuses to interpret itself, it is up to us to decide what our history means and how it should shape our future.


[1] Here they are in order: Norton S. Parker. Hell and Hallelujah (New York; The Dial Press, 1931); George B. Rodney, The Mormon Trail (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1933); Susan Ertz. The Proselyte (New York: D. Appleton, 1933); Frank Chester Field The Rocky Road to Jericho (New York: Hillman-Curl, 1935); Sidney Bell, Wives of the Prophet (New York: Macaulay, 1936); George Dixon Snell, Root, Hog, and Die (Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1936); Jeremiah Stokes, The Soul’s Fire (Los Angeles: Suttonhouse, 1936); Hope Williams Sykes, The Joppa Door (New York: Putnam, 1937); Vardis Fisher, Children of God (New York: Harpers, 1939);  Paul Dayton Bailey, For This My Glory (Los Angeles: Lyman House, 1940).

[2] What kind of name for a novel or anything else is “Root, Hog, and Die”? Glad you asked. The title Root, Hog, and Die puns on the common 19th century expression “Root, Hog, or Die,” which was supposedly once said to a hog being turned loose in the wild to either fend for itself or starve to death. It gradually came to stand for self-reliance and became a common answer to requests for economic assistance, as in: “hey brother, can you spare a dime?” “Forget it bub–root, hog, or die.” By recasting the expression as “Root, Hog, AND Die,” Snell turns the expression into a fatalistic joke, something like, “work hard and fend for yourself and you will still die because the system is stacked against you.” The ironic effect of the substitution of “and” for “or” can be seen by making the same substitution in more current set phrases, as in “publish and perish” or “shape up and ship out.” “Root, Hog, and Die” is also the name of a 1945 Woodie Guthrie song about the Sacco and Vanzetti Trial.

Comments

  1. J. Stapley says:

    The only one I’ve read at least part of is Ertz’s The Proselyte, which I found quite sympathetic. I apparently didn’t read enough to gather what her main point was. But that shouldn’t detract from how convincing your post is. It seems to me that your conclusion is the primary antidote to fundamentalism.

  2. Jason K. says:

    I really enjoy learning from you about the history of Mormon lit. In another lifetime I’ll read more of this stuff.

  3. Thanks for this. I don’t know anything to warrant a comment, but I do think your political narrative point is important, and should be of interest beyond the circle of people likely to pick up an article about Mormon historical novels.

  4. I’ve been speechless since reading this last night. Wonderful, wonderful.

  5. I’m with Ardis — thank you for this.

  6. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Having read these books for my MA in literature, I am thrilled to read your take on them. More power to you. powerful Michael!

  7. Very nice. I will admit that Children of God is the only one of these that I have had any familiarity with. I will have to keep my eyes open for some of the rest of these. And point well taken, about confirmation bias. Everyone I know is guilty of it but me.

  8. Root, Hog, and Die has got to be the winner here. Even if there’s nothing behind the title, dude.