Josephine Spencer: If Mormon Literature Wants a Future, It Has to Get a Past

If you want a future, darlin’,
Why don’t you get a past?

–Cole Porter, “Let’s Misbehave”

The last BCC Press book of 2020 is here, just in time. Years in the making, Josephine Spencer: Her Collected Works, Volume One–edited by Ardis Parshall and Yours Truly. is the second offering in our new Classics of Mormon Literature series, joining A Craving for Beauty: The Collected Writings of Maurine Whipple, which we published in November. These are the first; there will be more. In the coming year, look for a critical edition of Orson F. Witney’s Elias: Epic of the Ages and a collection of works surrounding B.H. Roberts’ Corianton. And we’re just getting started.

The governing principle of the Classics series is that, as Cole Porter wrote (and countless crooners have sung), if we want a futre in Mormon literature, we have got to get a past. We have to do a better job of recognizing that there is a tradition of literature in the Mormon community. Traditions are important to those who want to build on them. They are also important for those who want to break from them. And they are especially important for those, like me, who want to study and write about them. So, these books are necessary acts of reclamation. We are reclaiming our culture and our literary tradition before we forget about them forever.

Josephine Spencer was probably the best-known and most read Mormon writer of her generation. During the 1890s, her poems and stories appeared in roughly half of the monthly issues of The Contributor and the Young Women’s Journal, with regular appearances in the Juvenile Instructor, the Women’s Exponent, and the Sat Lake City newspapers as well. Yet she is known today primarily as the author of The Senator from Utah and other Stories of the Wasatch (1895), a thin volume that collects seven of the hundred or so stories that she published in her lifetime.

The Senator from Utah is an intensely partisan book. Spencer was a member of the Populist Party, a supporter of unions and the government ownership of industries, and a devotee of many of the progressive causes of the not-quite-progressive era of the 1890s. This seems strange to us now, but it was not at all out of the ordinary for the Mormons of Deseret. The first time it voted in a presidential election, Utah supported the Populist/Democrat William Jennings Bryan with 83% of the popular vote over Republican William McKinley, who got only 17%.

But most of Spencer’s writings aren’t political. They range across the whole spectrum of the day’s fictional genres. Her first published story is a “lost city” adventure story and a homage to H. Ryder Haggard, whom she adored. The last story in this volume is a vaguely supernatural tale that was published in an Eastern magazine specializing in fantasy and horror. In between, she wrote romances, coming-of-age tales, a spy story set in the Revolutionary War, and a post-manifesto polygamy drama about a man compelled to testify against his brother. And then there is Spencer’s poetry, which also runs the gamut from odes to the beauty of the Wasatch to Mormon historical epics to a brief and jaunty verse about the coming proletariat revolution.

When we first started working on this project, we planned a thin volume that reprinted The Senator from Utah and any other little stories or poems we could find. When we finally stopped looking, we had more than a thousand typeset pages, nearly a hundred short stories–including five serialized sequences that function more as novels–and more than a hundred poems. Unable to fit this all into a volume that would not injure people if it fell on them, we decided to break it into two volumes. Here is the first one.

Below, you can find the introduction and table of contents for the first volume, followed by Spencer’s most famous story, “The Senator from Utah,” the title story of the only collection of her work published until today.

Comments

  1. Christopher says:

    Can you please bundle Corianton with a DVD release of Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love?

  2. Yay! I’m very excited to see this, having read A LOT of Spencer’s work in the course of my research (though unfortunately not recently). Please, please, please, though, tell me that your book doesn’t perpetuate the abomination of the wrong title for the Young WOMAN’S Journal. We should probably talk about Susa Young Gates, Ellen Jakeman, and Sophy Valentine.

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