Back When Deseret Book Was Edgy

Belle

 

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):

Hells Belle-The Good Stuff_Page_5

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.

Comments

  1. I can’t believe Skippy is the bad guy and Flea is the good guy. Although I do love some RHCP.

  2. Just to clarify, Flea is the Catholic boyfriend that her parents hate. Skippy is a good Protestant seducer.

  3. This goes hand in hand with the Hollywood spectacular of the time Corianton, with music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This pre-rating movie has a couple of racy stills featured in the Book of Mormon: A Biography by Paul Gutjahr, Princeton, 2012. Too bad we didn’t get a movie of Hell’s Belle. There is little left to the imagination.

  4. This is amazing, and I view Flea as the one from the RHCPs.

  5. The best thing I’ve ever read on this here website.

  6. Give it away, give it away, give it away now…..

  7. I need a cigarette…

  8. Sordid reader says:

    “Deseret! Oh God! Deseret! You’re… killing me!”

  9. Must. get. a. copy. of. this. book.

  10. A Happy Hubby says:

    Here is what I think is going on. Michael somehow ran across 3 or 4 copies of this book in a used book store and was looking for a way to make a buck. So he creates this whole story about the book being steamy and even types up an old looking page to look like he photocopied it. Then he will list the copies on ebay, each under a different user, and start a bidding war.

    That to me sounds much more plausible that Deseret every publishing such a book. In thinking of Occam’s razor, I will side with my version.

    If I am wrong, I expect to see Deseret creating an essay to explain (buried deep on the website though) this and a FAIRDeseret.org web site be created to explain this.

  11. Dual loving, had me a blast. Dual loving, happens so fast.

    What’s worse than eternal damnation? Eternal PARENTAL damnation!

  12. I love that the “good parts” are underlined by hand. I’ll bet the spine of the book is broken at that page too.

  13. Smiling all the day now. Truly the Good Old Days.

  14. I read the, um, passage provided under the impression that the protagonist and her family were Mormon, and her claim that “the code she had been reared under did not believe in dual love” set off all my mental klaxons. Addressing that grievous error was to have been the meat of my comment, except my basis for it was wrong. (Of course, protestant christians of the time would be against dual love in all its forms.)

    But seriously — Skippy? Flea? They sound more like puppies than dueling love interests.

  15. 1) The original version of “Corianton” was published in 1889 serially — well before Ben Rich’s “Mr Durant of Salt Lake City.” Also Emmeline B. Wells’ autobiographical novel “Hephzibah” was published serially in 1889/1890. While I can’t say I’ve done a thorough search, I believe there are several other novels published serially before 1893.

    2) The Deseret News Press isn’t exactly the same as Deseret Book. It was as much as printer as it was a publisher, and as a printer it would print whatever an author wished — often putting its own name as the publisher even though it did no editorial work. As publisher the press would simply fill whatever sales orders came for the title. While I don’t know for sure, I suspect Hell’s Belle was “published” in this way, and I’m convinced that Alfred Osmond’s “Married Sweethearts” was also published in this same manner.