Literary historians can learn many things by poking around in the pre-history of Deseret Books—the oldest official publishing arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though Deseret has historically published doctrinal books and curricular materials, it has, in each of its incarnations, published just enough fiction to make life interesting.
The precursor to Deseret Books, George Q. Cannon & Sons, published what was arguably the first full-length Mormon novel in 1893: Mr. Durant of Salt Lake City, a series of dialogues between a Mormon missionary and various interlocutors that was written by Ben E. Rich and distributed throughout the Southern States Mission of which he was president.
When the LDS Church purchased Cannon & Sons, the new Deseret News Press soon entered the market for Mormon fiction with novels like Susa Young Gates’ mawkishly sentimental John Stevens Courtship (1909), Alfred Osmond’s mawkishly sentimental Married Sweethearts: a Romance of the Rockies (1928), and Nephi Anderson’s surprisingly mature and not mawkishly sentimental Dorian (1921—recently published here in an outstanding new critical edition), which suggested among other things that a “fallen” woman could have great moral worth. In the early days, Deseret was full of surprises.
None of this, however, prepared me for the most strange and wonderful work of fiction that Deseret Book has ever published. I refer, of course, to Bernard Molohon’s 1933 novel Hell’s Belle, one of the most vivid pro-contraception and pro-pre-marital sex novels published west of the Mississippi in the first half of the 20th century.
The book begins with the protagonist, Nan Armstrong, arguing with her parents about the merits of contraception. Nan’s father has just preached a strong sermon against the practice, and Nan feels that she cannot support her father’s view:
“You’ll think I’m going to hell and everything else, but I didn’t get the idea at school. I’ve thought it out myself from studying living examples. I can’t agree with Dad. I think birth control would be a good thing in many cases. I don’t think it is murder or anything like it, carried out as doctors and scientists prescribe. It’s human, that’s all. Look at the chances children in small families have compared to us.” (p.16)
Nan’s life soon becomes a test-case for her theories, when she takes a break from her boyfriend Flea and starts dating an older man named Skippy. In a passage that I am pretty sure must be the most explicit love scene ever to pass through the Deseret News printing presses, Skippy and Nan engage in precisely the sort of activity whose effects contraception was designed to minimize. (I am reproducing the whole page here because it is quite long and because I am far too moral a person to type words like this into my computer, though I have provided helpful underlinings of the really
good awful and immoral stuff):
But Skippy and Nan don’t last. He is terrified at the prospects of fatherhood, and she grows to hate him with the same passion that she once, um, didn’t hate him with. But he is a stand-up guy, which, in 1933 meant that he scraped together a hundred bucks and asked around until he found a doctor willing to work on the wrong side of the abortion laws. The doctor, though, refuses to perform the procedure and, instead, delivers the author’s final verdict on the question of contraception:
“Please don’t, no matter what you do, inflict any physical harm upon yourself. . . . No matter how you look upon my suggestion never, under any circumstances, even so much as take medicine. It is all harmful. You will be the one to suffer. I myself am a firm believer in birth control, as every enlightened American is. Harm can never come to a person who uses the sensible findings of science for the betterment of mankind.” (pp. 80-81)
Yes, this is real. No, I am not writing satire. And no, I don’t have the foggiest idea how a book like this managed to get published by Deseret News Press in 1933, when even mainstream publishing houses refused to handle material this hot. I strongly suspect that it was taken on as a contract job and never really looked at too carefully. None of the characters have any connection to Mormonism or Utah, and most of the action happens in Yellowstone National Park. One of the reasons I am posting it here is to see if any readers know more of the story than I do and might help me figure it out.
But until such a thing happens, I will go to sleep tonight with an extra smirk on my face and an off-color song in my heart, secure in the knowledge that the same mainstream Mormon press that published The Not Even Once Club did, in fact, even once. For one brief and shining moment during the depths of the Great Depression, the official publishing arm of the LDS Church, for reasons I can only guess at, was a purveyor of edgy, dark, politically progressive smut.