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Saturday, April 30, 2022

Michael Austin, Vardis Fisher, and the Death of the Mormo-American

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Michael Austin, a fellow blogger and old friend, wrote an essay nearly 30 years ago that accomplished what most of us intellectual scribblers can only aspire towards: putting into a words a framework for understanding a problem or question which endures, even if the problem or question does not. This is definitely the case for Michael's "The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time." Most of the specific examples and engagements in that essay are probably inextricable from the intellectual debates of American Mormonism during the 1980s and 1990s, but his general observations--that "embedded in the assertion that there is such a thing as 'Mormon literature' is the claim that we, as Mormons, and particularly as American Mormons, represent a cultural entity whose traditions, heritage, and experience deserve to be considered a vital part of the American mosaic," and "we are [not just] Mormons, but...are "Mormo-Americans"--remain provocative and vital. In fact, the deepest importance of his latest book cannot, I think, be fully appreciated without them.

Michael obviously wasn't the first to look at the American citizens and others who had built a distinct social world along the Mormon Corridor of Idaho-Utah-Arizona and more from the late 19th-century into the middle of the 20th; sociologists, historians, and political scientists have long done the same, and continue to do so. But Michael was, to my knowledge anyway, the first to connect the language of ethnography to that of literary (self-)presentation. In other words, if we want to understand how we talk about and write about ourselves, whether for internal audiences or external ones, we have to keep in mind the fact that American Mormonism, by the first part of the 20th century, had essentially become an ethnicity, a people with a situated particularity, and that whatever one did with or against the cultural or religious or political implications or associations of that particularity, its positioning was paramount. (Keep in mind that "was.") As Michael put it, "since Mormonism--like Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, or existentialism--contains its own philosophical assumptions and values, it does not matter what we ultimately write about but who we write as."

The aim of Michael's wonderful short book Vardis Fisher: A Mormon Novelist is to reveal that "as" in Fisher. He shows how this a talented, hard-working, arrogant, and obsessive writer--an intelligent, opinionated, selfish, sometimes cruel but also guilt-wracked man, a hard-bitten survivor of a desperately poor Mormon settlement in southeastern Idaho at the turn of the 20th-century--expressed himself through his inherited ethnic particularity, despite his own insistence of having rejected it entirely. In the book, Michael (drawing upon earlier work he's done) succinctly weaves together Fisher's biography, a literary analysis of many of Fisher's published works, a portrait of American publishing in the first half of the 20th century, and--in my opinion, most importantly--a vivid, however partial, picture of what it meant to be a marginal hanger-on in the Mormon ethnic world during arguably its most flourishing and tightest phase (say the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s), as Fisher most definitely was. It makes for informative, insightful reading, something that I'd encourage anyone at all curious about American Mormonism to check out, even if their interest in mid-century American literature is zero. I say this because, ultimately, I see this as at least as much a work of cultural and religious exploration as a work of literary critique. Michael's concluding observation--"Vardis Fisher was a religious unbeliever...but Mormonism was the religion that he didn't believe in"--may not be an entirely original formulation, but I couldn't help but feel it indirectly putting its finger on something essential.

That essential thing is the assumption about Mormonness which enabled Michael to formulate a way to cut through and re-frame arguments about Mormon literature ("faithful" vs. "faithless," etc.) decades ago. It is the assumption that one can--and that someone like Fisher did--express a Mormon identity without actually believing or advocating for any of it, meaning that it has, surrounding and accompanying and attending to its truth claims about the universe and sin and God and salvation, an embodied, communal, historically and spatially particular worldview. Again, there are many ways in which many who read this blog post would consider that an old and banal observation: in our lives, or in the lives of those we know or work with or love, the labels "cultural Mormon" or "DNA Mormon" or "raised Mormon," etc., get employed all the time. But Michael's patient work with Fisher presents the argument that, for at least Fisher and those of the social worlds he lived in and moved through, his claim about "who we write as" was (again, a "was") stronger than merely talking about the assorted quotidian practices and preferences inherited by those who were raised in a Mormon family or attended a Mormon university or whatever. Fisher's "Mormo-Americanness," his gestalt, was an active, morally shaping constant in his literary expressions. Through Vridar Hunter, the fictional protagonist of Fisher's "Antelope" novels and stories, he articulates what could be labeled a fiercely individualistic, Mormo-American way of being an Idahoan; more broadly and abstractly, through the shifting protagonists of his sprawling Testament of Man series that Fisher obsessively worked on through the final two decades of his life, he articulates a defiantly self-aggrandizing, Mormo-American vision of the whole human race, complete with secular prophets (always male), constantly searching for an ever-evolving truth.

Do I find these implicit ways and visions of how to be in the world appealing? No; actually they mostly strike me as somewhat monomaniacal and stupid (though I trust Michael's judgment that the specific plots which advance them often make for good reading). So why did I finish Vardis Fisher and feel both fulfilled and kind of sad? Because I realized that that worldview, that particularity, which became arguably monomaniacal and stupid in Fisher's hands, was nonetheless one that I knew in my bones. And it's also one that, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, began to die. It has had many killers: the consequences of post-WWII missionary work, which slowly but surely loosened the Americanness of Mormonism; the rise of church correlation and centralization, which slowly but surely eliminated the spaces within our institutionalized faith for diverse cultural expressions; the technological and economic developments which gave rise to broad cultural conflicts, ones that American Mormonism, being centered in the politically conservative American west, slowly but surely positioned itself alongside evangelical Christianity regarding; and many more. But all together they bring us to point where, for all sorts of reasons--many of them eminently defensible!--the Americanness, even the literal "Mormon"-ness, of this ethnicity, this identity, that at one time structured the cultural and social world(s) of so many of our families and communities, is officially discouraged, sometimes even formally condemned.

It's not total, of course; it's just about impossible to truly, finally, kill off a cultural or ethnic identity. Perhaps as long as Steven Peck is writing novels, or Jerusha and Jared Hess are making movies, some kind of Mormo-American perspective will remain. Or maybe the ecclesiastical and socio-economic squelching of the institutional supports for Mormo-Americanness will just in turn allow for some social space for other Mormon ethnicities to express themselves in writing or music or art (keep on the look-out for Mormo-Mexican or Mormo-Maori literature, perhaps). But for all that, as a white male 1960s-born American Mormon, even one who fervently agrees with no less an authority than Orson Scott Card that Mormon church basketball was a horror that has been justly nuked from orbit (or from the Church Office Building), and even as one who recognizes that dumping Boy Scouts of America was a move the church probably should have made decades ago, I finished Michael's fine book, and felt the loss. Vardis Fisher was clearly a bit of a jerk. But that talented jerk was our jerk, and we can know it, even if he denied it. And that sense of belonging, limited or perverse or ridiculously out-of-date as it may be, nonetheless, I think, ennobled both Fisher and the Mormo-American world he was part of. Thank you, Michael, for helping me see that.


Scott Abbott said...

Your thoughts on Michael’s book make me smile (“Mormonism is the religion he didn’t believe in”) and say “me too.” They also make my mind shift to a contemporary writer many of whose works manifest that idea and reveal, perhaps, that a Mormon cultural or ethnic identity, different from the earlier identity you and Michael attribute to Vardis Fisher but very much Mormon-American, is still with us: Brian Evenson. He dedicates his novel “Father of Lies” to “the stiff men in dark suits, well pressed and ready for burial” and explores the potential for abuse in religious hierarchies … in this case the “Corporation of the Blood of the Lamb.” His novel “The Open Curtain” weaves a newspaper report of a 1902 murder involving Brigham Young’s grandson and blood sacrifice rites into the troubled life of a young Utah Valley man who is “inspired” by the violence he experiences in the temple. The novel “Immobility” is set on the BYU campus after an apocalypse and involves a dangerous trek to the granite vaults in a canyon. A character named Mahonri sits “on the floor reading the Scriptures to himself, half-aloud.” And “Last Days” sends a detective of solve a murder inside a religious cult in which one rises in the hierarchy according to the number of amputations…the highest of the high lies as a helpless abstracted torso. A couple of the chapters in my “Dwelling in the Promised Land as a Stranger” think about the value for Mormonism of an outsider like Brian. What is he telling us about ourselves that we might not understand without his help? Anyone thinking about the current “Under the Banner of Heaven” would do well to do that thinking in the context of Brian’s work.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for the comments, Scott. I've never read any Evenson, so I can't speak to the identities he taps into. But the examples you mention--"the stiff men in dark suits," the temple ceremony, etc.--make me think first about the ecclesiastical church, the church of a set of particular hierarchical teachings and decisions, rather than the lived church of Utah and Idaho and the rest of the Mormon corridor. The latter existed alongside the leveling forces of capitalism and American modernity, but nonetheless created a social world and worldview particular to itself; the former is, to my view, more a cultic, organizational form that is parasitic upon and hidden within American modernity, not an alternative to or pluralistic complement to it. But maybe that distinction doesn't hold up? I don't know, but I feel as though there is an important distinction in there, somewhere.

Scott Abbott said...

That feels right to me, at least I think it does, especially in the Idaho/Utah life of Fisher's time. And your note about my examples leave me feeling there may be an important distinction.
It leaves me asking, however: What exactly is the "lived church"? Doesn't the current experience of the church in Arizona and Utah and Idaho, as well as in Princeton and Nashville...where I spent a good 12 years of my life...get molded by top-down decisions and policies and pronouncements and other forces that create a particular social and worldview? The Proclamation on the Family, for instance. The swerve to the political right.
Is the basic question: Who are we? Isn't identity the issue here? And don't we have a peculiar identity at the moment? And is it possible that Brian taps into that from his outsider/insider position?
In any case, I loved your post and will read Michael's book now because of it. Wasn't quite sure before your thoughts.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Is the basic question: Who are we? Isn't identity the issue here? And don't we have a peculiar identity at the moment?

Yes, Scott, I'd say that's exactly right; the "identity" which the institutional church wants Mormons like me (except we're not even supposed to call ourselves that any longer) to embrace is one that, despite the top-down cultural-war-inflection which the Proclamation's political serve loves to trumpet about itself ("we're being persecuted!"), has, in my judgment, no real "perculiarity" at all, because it's no longer connected to a place or a people who inhabit said places. And that has real (and I think mostly negative) consequences for everyone who both lives in those places, and those from outside the Mormon Corridor who defined themselves in contradistinction to it. Like I said in my post, I have hopes that other Mormo-Identities will emerge elsewhere...but for us Americans, for now, it's mostly just a hurriedly baptized Trumpism, and that sucks.

Scott Abbott said...

that makes good (and sad) sense. an identity that is no identity other than a lack of identity. just ordered Mike's book. thanks again for the post and these responses