The Giant Joshua, Chapters Three and Four

By Andrew Hall

These chapters present a microcosm of several themes and conflicts found in the novel, including stirring depictions of the faith that led the pioneer Saints to make such enormous sacrifices in their mission of building a Zion society. Here too, we see some of the less appealing aspects of the colonizing generation—its fear and cruelty towards Native Americans, its child marriages, and the heartbreak that could result from plural marriage.

St. George pioneers and the tragic price of faith
Chapter Three opens with the Saints having just arrived in what would become St. George in 1861. Whipple provides a geographic description by having Apostle Erastus Snow, the real-life leader of the Cotton Mission, observe the valley from the Sugar Loaf, a high steep rock in the red cliffs to the north. At this point, he sees his people still living in their tents and wagons, but he will return often to that spot as the settlement grows, and the Sugar Loaf becomes a landmark for the town.

After the novel’s descriptions of the difficult trek south and now an arrival at a barren, dangerous land, any reader might be wondering why these people would agree to such a mission. Whipple answers this question with a magnificent section in which the young protagonist Clory (scolded by her husband and sent to sit alone in her wagon bed), listens to the conversation of the tired colonizers outside around the campfire. She hears Snow encouraging the pioneers to remember and recite their Latter-day Saint history—the sufferings, the injustices, the miracles, the examples of faith, the charisma and saintliness of the leaders.

As Clory listens to the stories, she recalls her own tragic background. When she was eight years old, her Philadelphia father converted and took her and her brother away from her unbelieving mother to join the trek of Latter-day Saints heading west. On the way he joined the Mormon Battalion and entrusted his children to Abijah MacIntyre, one of the missionaries who taught him. Clory’s father is killed after being discharged from the Battalion, and Clory and her brother (who dies tragically in Utah) are raised by Abijah and his wife Bathsheeba. At 16, at the urging of Brigham Young, Clory marries Abijah as his third wife, and joins him on the journey to settle St. George. While not pleased with her new husband, she comments, “Things ain’t stopped happenin’ to us by a long shot. But I thank God I’m right in the thick of it . . . Saints or Fools, in a hundred years from now it’s folks like us that’ll be fillin’ up the history books!” (p. 91).

Clory, who finds it difficult to remain reverent in church meetings, has her own personal conception of the Divine. “At such times she would sit very still, hands clasped in her lap, not moving, and close and hold her breath and wait for the Great Smile to come, the Door to creep open . . . and something so real and live and vast that it fitted all the splintered fragments into place . . .” (p. 83).

Sexuality in The Giant Joshua
While Whipple shows the miraculous experiences and spirituality which helps to drive these pioneers, material which would not be out of place in an inspirational novel, she also describes the physical and emotional trauma and heartache of the pioneer generation, especially as it applied to plural marriage. For a book about the Latter-day Saints published in 1941, the novel is relatively explicit, especially in these chapters. The content here, while far from graphic, probably explains why Elder John A. Widtsoe described it in an Improvement Era review as “straining for the lurid.”

Abijah and Clory were married just before leaving on the trek for St. George, and the marriage has not yet been consummated by the time they arrive in Dixie. Clory has often slipped and called Abijah “Uncle Abijah,” which annoys him. Abijah, frustrated by Clory’s childishness, is simultaneously sexually attracted to her. Clory’s thoughts, however, are directed toward young men closer to her own age—a gentile soldier she flirted with in Salt Lake City, and Abijah’s oldest son Freeborn, who is similarly attracted to Clory.

In Chapter Four, Abijah takes Clory on a wagon ride/picnic, where he shocks her by initiating their first sexual encounter. Whipple uses the incident to describe the mechanisms of power men had over women in the pioneer generation, mechanisms that were still largely in place in the mid-20th century when she wrote the novel. Whipple herself had been a victim of rape a few years earlier, at the hands of a stranger in a small-town boarding house where she lived.[1] It is not clear whether she saw any connection between the forced sexual initiation of a 19th-century teenaged wife with the rape that she herself had suffered. While she portrays Clory as shocked and upset by the encounter, she does not present it as “marital rape,” as I and most current readers would describe it. It functions in the story in a way similar to the rape of Scarlett by Rhett in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 bestseller Gone With the Wind and the 1939 movie of the same name.

Whipple presents Abijah as infatuated with Clory after their first sexual encounter, and he spends every night with her for weeks, to the amusement of the camp and the humiliation of Bathsheeba, the older first wife. Clory is also embarrassed, but comes to accept her situation, finding some enjoyment in the encounters, and aware of the power that Abijah’s attention gives her in the family.

Clory, subject to be seized any moment these days by breathless wonders and awakenings in the soft, young-girlish core of her, was thinking she wanted to be a good wife, if only he’d not be so scary and stern . . .  maybe she was bad for thinking anything so sacred might also be fun . . . but if only he’d play a little. (p. 102).

Whipple portrays Abijah as stern but, in many aspects, a good man. However, his attitudes toward women and sexuality are his worst attributes, and here they are greatly on display. Abijah senses Clory’s lack of real affection for him but remains infatuated. After Erastus Snow reproves Abijah for not treating his wives fairly, and for sexually overtaxing Clory, we are treated to this odious description of Abijah’s thoughts.

Abijah was like a small boy caught stealing apples, but stubborn too—he’d be damned if anybody ‘ud stop him as long as the apples were sweet to his palate! But . . . he nevertheless was wondering uneasily of anything he enjoyed so much as sleeping with Clory could be right. He resented women, anyway, because he thought in his heart they were the one means of keeping him from being absolutely pure. Women couldn’t quite belong to the Kingdom. He felt that Brother Brigham and he saw eye to eye in that. But since they seemed to be inevitable one might as well get what one could out of them, always remembering to keep them in their place. His favorite sermon was on the theory that behind every sin man ever committed you could find a woman . . . She was like a drug in his veins, and he hated her. (p. 102).

Folklore in The Giant Joshua
Finally, we should recognize Whipple’s remarkable use of southern Utah folklore in her writing, by quoting from the Mormon folklore scholar William Wilson’s “Folklore in The Giant Joshua.[2]

“Before Maurine Whipple became a novelist, she was a folklore collector. And partly because she was a folklore collector, she became a successful novelist . . .

“She loved to talk to the old people [of Dixie] and listened eagerly to their tales of pioneer times . . . Incorporating what she had learned into her novel, she created in the process one of the best collections of early Mormon and Western lore yet published, a work surpassed only by Austin and Alta Fife’s Saints of Sage and Saddle. The book contains scores of proverbs, superstitions, remarkable providences, folksongs, legends, and humorous anecdotes. It is equally rich in descriptions of material culture and particularly of folk practices—of games, of dances, of holiday celebrations, and of arts and crafts. It contains, for instance, over sixty references to foodways alone, thus providing us with a fairly clear picture of the daily fare of the impoverished Dixieites.

“But The Giant Joshua excels not just because Ms. Whipple scatters a substantial number of folklore items through its pages, but because she sets these items in context—that is the social milieu in which they exist and in which they function in the lives of those who possess them. All too many collections of folklore have provided pages of folklore texts but have left untouched the human beings who lie behind the texts. Thus when we have looked through, let us say, a list of folk beliefs and superstitions, we have found it easy to smile at whimsical-sounding cures like mare’s milk for whooping cough, at bacon fat wrapped around the neck for a sore throat, or at gargles of rough elm bark for the black canker. But when we are forced to look beyond such a list to actual mothers in The Giant Joshua and when we see them struggling to keep their children alive and turning desperately to these traditional remedies as their only hope, our smiles soon turn to tears . . . 

The Giant Joshua succeeds as a work of folklore because Ms. Whipple, as a novelist, had to surround that folklore with life. On the other hand, the life in the novel frequently rings true because it is based on folklore.”

Questions

–Clory’s marriage to the person who had essentially become her father seems strange to us in our time, beyond the fact of plural marriage. How does the novel so far color your feelings about plural marriage?

–How do you find Whipple’s depictions of sexuality? Do you think they successfully advance the ideas of the novel? Do you find them “lurid”? Elder Widtsoe’s review was mixed, with positive comments about her portrayal of characters and history with criticisms of her depiction of plural marriage and the “lurid” comment. Do you think his review is fair?

–What lifestyle and folklore details of the chapters stood out as interesting views into pioneer life?

_____________________________________________________________________

Notes:

[1] Veda Tebbs Hale. “Swell Suffering”: A Biography of Maurine Whipple. Greg Kofford Books, 2011, p. 90.

[2] William Wilson. “Folklore in The Giant Joshua”. Association for Mormon Letters Proceedings, 1978-1979, p. 57-64.


Maurine check-in
Maurine submitted a synopsis and the first two chapters to Houghton-Mifflin in January 1938. She was awarded a writer’s fellowship and a book contract in May 1938. She spent the next months engaging in research on the pioneer period and doing publicity (including a trip to Boston). She also shared her time and new-found money with her poverty-stricken family. As a result, she was not able to produce any more chapters for a year. Concerned, her editor Ferris Greenslet arranged for her to live at the Yaddo Artist Colony, near Saratoga, New York, in June-August 1939. Although she complained about the infantilizing rules and isolation of the colony, she was able to produce three more chapters there, and several others later that Autumn.

After sending Chapter Three to Greenslet in July, he wrote, “Paul and I [are] all steamed up over Chapter Three . . . You have ripened during [the] fallow year. [The] flashback of Mormon history best ever writing . . . This is sincere as hell . . . The imagistic resume of Mormon history is such hot stuff as it stands that there would be no earthly reason to break it up and spread it through other chapters . . . I honestly think the writing is better and the imagination shown more powerful and convincing than in Chapters One and Two.”

Real-life models for the protagonists
Maurine’s maternal grandparents, Cornelia Agatha Lenzi McAllister (1844–1920) and John D. T. McAllister (1827-1910) are undoubtedly the main models Maurine used for her protagonists, Clorinda (Clory) Agatha Lenzi MacIntyre and Abijah MacIntyre. John D. T. McAllister has some renown as one of the great missionaries and pioneers, teaching in Europe and the Eastern United States, traveling back and forth over the plains several times to help bring companies to Utah, writing The Handcart Song, and serving as a stake president and temple president. In later posts we will talk in more detail about the similarities and differences between the fictional characters and their real-life models, as well as other figures (in particular Jane T. Bleak and James G. Bleak). For now, here is an essay Maurine wrote about her grandmother in the mid-1920s, probably as a college English assignment.

Comments

  1. Andrew H. says:

    It looks like the last line got cut off. It should read: In later posts we will talk in more detail about the similarities and differences between the fictional characters and their real-life models, as well as other figures (in particular Jane T. Bleak and James G. Bleak). For now, here is an essay Maurine wrote about her grandmother in the mid-1920s, probably as a college English assignment. https://maurinewhipple.blogspot.com/2020/08/grandmother-cornelia-agatha-lenzi.html

  2. Michael Austin says:

    Andrew–this part has now been added to the main body of the post.

  3. keepapitchinin says:

    (Dang it. I wrote a long and impassioned complaint about Whipple’s juxtaposition of Mormon religious practice against ‘Sheba’s superstition and Paiute pagan practices — her treating them as equivalents, and her surprise that TGJ wasn’t embraced by the Mormons of her day when their beliefs were disrespected in such blatant ways, even apart from her unrelievedly awful depiction of the men and women who entered plural marriage — but your system swallowed it up saying I hadn’t filled out required fields. Don’t know whether it’s worth recreating. But know that at least one reader is trying to take part in your book club.)

  4. keepapitchinin says:

    I decided to try to recreate my comment, and hope you don’t hate it.

    I have never read The Giant Joshua before, and I’m doing my best to give it a fair read. I am not surprised that Mormons of circa 1940 did not embrace it as The Great Mormon Novel, and I’m surprised that Maurine Whipple was surprised. With any self-awareness, she should have expected such an unsympathetic portrayal of Mormonism – which she reduces wholly to polygamy and the urge to build a city in the desert for no particular reason other than that Brigham Young told them to.

    Will pass by polygamy for this comment, and look only at how Whipple’s use of folklore makes her entire people look as ignorant, superstitious, bigoted, and foolish as the entirely unlikeable ’Sheba, who so far is her main vehicle for dumping folklore into the novel (I haven’t finished it yet). Her folk sayings aren’t clever or funny or even comprehensible – they are often used to show disdain for other characters. They are irrational and unexplained and have no basis in folk wisdom that anybody would want to repeat them. Worse, they are treated as fully the equivalent of scriptural aphorisms and are sometimes presented in such a way as to bring authentic Mormon practice into contempt. In the scene, for example, where the men give a priesthood blessing to restore a fallen ox – a respectful and believable and sympathetic depiction of such a blessing, along comes ’Sheba in the same scene, spouting her folkloric foolishness, and hunting up an ax stowed in a wagon where a woman is struggling with a difficult labor. ‘Sheba seizes the ax and declares that its presence in the wagon is the reason for the woman’s pain. Just as the blessing is apparently successful in raising the ox, removal of the ax is apparently successful in the safe delivery of the newborn. As written by Whipple, there is no difference between silly superstition and silly Mormon religious belief. (Something similar happens a couple of chapters later, where Mormon fasting and prayer for rain is juxtaposed with Paiute singing and dancing for rain.) These juxtapositions of folklore and religion seem deliberate – she is too good a writer to have accidentally and repeatedly structured her narrative this way – so her use of folklore contributes to my growing sense of her contempt for Mormonism. How could she have been genuinely surprised that her work wasn’t embraced?

    I’m baffled by admiration for the historical reminiscing you cite as explaining “why these people would agree to such a mission.” To me, it is no explanation of “why,” and paints the people as stupidly continuing to make the same foolish chooses expecting a different outcome. There is no “why,” no hint as to what drew anyone to Mormonism or what sustained them through the recited struggles. It is a long litany of “they were mean to us here,” “they were mean to us there,” “they were mean to us everywhere.” But no clue is given as to why they stuck with it. No clue is given as to why they want to build a city in the desert, except that Brigham Young sent them there for cotton and indigo – but why do they care what Brigham Young told them to do? He is as foolish and unlikable a character as anyone in the novel, not someone I would cross the street to oblige.

    I don’t get it. She can write – her collection of incomplete sentences creating the kaleidoscope of sounds and sights and smells and movements in a dance swept me right up. I continue to look at those scenes and wonder how she did it, although I’m finding that she returns to that trick so often that their charm is wearing thing. But she can write. Still, these are all 100% unlikeable characters (so far the only sympathetic character I’ve seen is John D. Lee’s starved and dirty little girl who talks to Clory despite knowing her father would “whup” her if he saw her doing so), who wear the labels of Mormons but who do not act or believe or feel or act like the Mormons I know. In many ways, the characters remind me of the dime novel Mormons Mike Austin published a couple of years ago – the story hangs together in a weird sort of way, the scenery is familiar and the labels are Mormon, but the story would be far more acceptable if all the Mormon labels were replaced by made-up words describing a fictional set of people in a fictional location.

    I probably won’t comment on further posts; I don’t want to be the perpetual wet blanket. But if Maurine Whipple was honestly surprised at Mormon rejection of The Giant Joshua outside its literary admirers, then she wasn’t as bright as I’d like to give her credit for being.

    (Am not changing the signature from keepapitchinin to Ardis E. Parshall because I don’t want to trigger whatever it was that caused my first comment to be rejected. But of course I am taking full responsibility as Ardis for the content of this comment.)

  5. keepapitchinin says:

    * “same foolish chooses” = “same foolish choices”
    * “wearing thing” = “wearing thin”

    … and whatever other proofreading fails remain

  6. keepapitchinin says:

    Oh, my stars and garters! (There’s a bit of folk saying for you.) I’ve just reached the part where huge footprints (the big toe is 6-inches long) appear in some mud. Apostle Erastus Snow concludes that these footprints in the mud signal; — naturally, of course, what else could they be? — a visit from the Three Nephites. The whole episode is played for laughs with the intent of mocking that bit of Mormon folklore. That is not a fair representation of the usual Three Nephites story, and has no purpose except to show the apostle and the entire high council as gullible rubes. Regardless of what you think of Three Nephite folklore, this is an unpleasant use of it.

    Stop me before I comment again.

  7. Andrew H. says:

    Ardis unchained!
    I totally get it, Maurine was heavily invested in her Mormon heritage, but she liked being funny, and happily indulged in mocking piety and gullibility. Adding up the whole book, however, I see her as coming out as much more positive towards the humanity and general good sense of her characters (well, besides the shrew Bathsheba) than you did.

    I liked how you point out that she frequently pairs a recognizably Mormon “spiritual experience” with a foolish-looking folk practices. Bert Wilson recognized that back in 1978 as well, but he thought it helped to heighten the tension on the question of whether God was really looking after his children or not.
    “Throughout the novel miraculous, faith-promoting stories, told in high seriousness, are followed again and again by other stories which discredit them. For example, Abijah administers to the sick ox pulling the wagon in which the pregnant Betsy Tuckett is located. The ox recovers, but the baby is born before the train reaches its intended destination. Following a severe drought, Erastus Snow prays for rain; the rain comes, but in such abundance that it floods out most of the crops. When Abijah, in spite of contrary counsel, decides to bring out ore from a mine he has discovered, a Nephite appears to him and causes him to forget where the mine is located. But a few days later his own son Free and Gottlieb Uttley devise a Nephite hoax which tends to make fun of the entire Nephite tradition. When Millenium Tuckett is the first child stricken by the plague, Erastus Snow promises he will recover; he does, but then Snow’s own child is the first to die. Abijah, full of testimony, blesses Clory before she delivers her son James, and the delivery goes well. A short time later, full of the same testimony, he blesses Willie before she delivers her daughter Temple. But Willie dies.
    This conflict between faith and doubt in the legends is the same one Clory struggles with all her life as she is pulled one day toward faith and a desire to conform and the next toward disbelief and an urge to be free. The conflict is never resolved and we are left wondering whether God is really in His heaven or whether we are subject only to the bludgeonings of chance. Resolved or not, the conflict adds dramatic tension to the novel–and the legends heighten that tension by providing a resonant background for the conflict.”
    William A. Wilson. “Folklore in The Giant Joshua”
    (I found a html version of the Wilson paper, easier to use than the pdf I linked to in the OP)
    https://web.archive.org/web/20120803094842/http://mldb.byu.edu:80/AMLProceedings/WILSON.HTM

  8. I read the article Maurine wrote about her grandmother in the mid-1920s given in the first comment. Loved it! Tender.

  9. I know Maurine left the church. Did she ever return and become active again?

  10. Andrew H. says:

    Maurine never officially left the Church, although she certainly had issues with it, especially the male leadership. She thought J. Reuben Clark and others of his generation had made it a more bureaucratic and less inspired organization. She liked to attend the weekday Relief Society meetings, but not as much the Sunday meetings. She wrote a devotional Easter Pageant, with Book of Mormon scenes, for the St. George community in the 1960s that came close to being produced twice. She went through the St. George Temple to get her endowments for the first time in her last years, in 1990 or so. I will be doing in a post in a couple of weeks about the relationship between Maurine and the Church leadership, including some new information that hasn’t been published before.

  11. Bob Crockett says:

    Loved the book but the conclusion petered out as if a different person wrote the ending.

  12. .

    Her research shows in how much the world feels real and lived-in. It’s a true place and a true people she has created.

    Andrew—will the Easter pageant be part of the book?

  13. Andrew H. says:

    No, the Easter pageant won’t be in the book. There are a lot of pieces we won’t include that are still valuable, I will be putting them up on a Blogger website I’ve created (I’m open to design ideas). Here is a link to the Easter pageant. https://maurinewhipple.blogspot.com/2020/08/candles-of-lord-original-pageant-1963.html