Seeking ‘the Good, the Pure, the Elevating’: A Short History of Mormon Fiction, Part 2

“Seeking ‘the Good, the Pure, the Elevating’: A Short History of Mormon Fiction, Part 2,” Ensign, July 1981, 56

Seeking “the Good, the Pure, the Elevating”:

A Short History of Mormon Fiction, Part 2

(For part 1, see the June 1981 Ensign)

Into the Twentieth Century

Important to any study of twentieth century LDS literature is a group of LDS writers who made an effort to study the art of the novel and who generally were successful in composing some technically well-written though not always orthodox LDS novels. This group of writers has been called by Professor Edward A. Geary “Mormondom’s Lost Generation.”18 Their work comprises a regional literary movement which arose in the 1940s as young Latter-day Saints attempted to come to grips with their Mormon past and their Mormon present.

Like the “Lost Generation” writers of American literature—the F. Scott Fitzgeralds and Ernest Hemingways of the Jazz Age—these LDS writers, unable to take part in the heroic period of LDS history, shared a sense of what Professor Geary calls “cultural breakdown.” Growing up as they did in an era when the Mormon settlements of the Mountainwest were pulled between the safety of isolation and the dangers of accommodation, between provincialism and nationalism, the writers responded by leaving these communities and writing about their Mormon past as expatriates desiring to exorcise old emotions.

Many of their books reflect what now appears as a quaint, dated, incorrect vision of Mormonism as a dead-end religion which had seen its greatest days. Yet, while their novels reflect their personal discomforts with LDS doctrine and culture, they illustrate aspects of LDS life during and at the end of the settlement period—providing the reader is able to tolerate a sometimes negative and unorthodox view of the Church and its doctrines.

Three prominent writers in this group are Vardis Fisher, Virginia Sorensen, and Maurine Whipple. Fisher won the Harper Prize in 1939 for his Children of God: An American Epic, a big book which sweeps across Mormon history from Joseph Smith’s First Vision through the Manifesto of 1890. Among Virginia Sorensen’s several Mormon novels are A Little Lower Than the Angels (1942), about the Nauvoo period, On This Star (1946), which develops the tensions that arise between the province and the city, and her best novel, The Evening and the Morning (1949), about social worker Kate Alexander’s return to Sanpete Valley from Los Angeles and her attempts to sort out her feelings about her past. Sorensen has also written a book of short stories about her growing-up years in Manti, Utah, Where Nothing Is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood (1963), as well as a number of prize-winning non-Mormon children’s books. One of the best written novels from this group of writers is Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua (1941), a colorful but often soul-wrenching portrayal of life in St. George from its establishment until the end of the nineteenth century.

The writing of the “Lost Generation” novelists was a kind of exact reversal of Home Literature, as the authors attempted to persuade the readers that true happiness lies not in the sequestered valleys of the West but in the cultural capitals of the world. It is little wonder that many Latter-day Saints of the 1940s were made uncomfortable by these authors’ views of Mormonism and Utah culture and by the publication of these views through a sensation-hunting national press to a world-wide audience.19

The Current Scene

At the same time as the writers of the LDS “Lost Generation” were leaving the Mountainwest, a new generation of Latter-day Saints was returning from World War II and, later, the Korean Conflict, to proclaim a different message. Their experience in the wider world had taught them that if the world is to be saved from itself, what it needs is not the culture of the capitals but a large dose of the gospel of Jesus Christ. During the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, an upsurge in missionary effort likewise enabled great numbers of young LDS men and women to test their faith against the ways of the world, and they too returned home proclaiming that Mormonism works. Many of these young men and women sought to further their education at western universities. Among these schools Brigham Young University, in particular, responded by providing an English Department faculty who sought to stimulate student writers to create a new LDS literature which would weave the techniques and strengths of world literature on a framework of belief in and commitment to the principles of the restored Church. The result, in the 1970s and 1980s, is an era in LDS fiction which is, at present, primarily centered in writers who are graduates of Brigham Young University.

Also important to the rise of new LDS fiction is the interested audience for fiction provided by the present Church and Church-oriented periodicals. The Ensign, the New Era, and the Friend, all newly created or newly modified in 1971, have presented, though too infrequently, a number of examples of outstanding religious fiction. The New Era has been particularly responsive.

But it is in the unofficial Church-oriented journals where much of the new fiction has been published. These journals have sought to publish fiction by LDS writers and have made available the winning entries in BYU’s Virginia Hinckley Mayhew fiction contest and several other contests. The Association for Mormon Letters, founded in 1976, has also fostered fiction through sponsoring readings by LDS writers and by promoting LDS literary scholarship.

The result of all of this is that in contemporary Mormon letters, the short story has become a more common form of fiction than the novel. Douglas H. Thayer, Donald R. Marshall, Eileen Gibbons Kump, and Bela Petsco have all published collections of their short stories during the past few years. In addition, such writers as Bruce W. Jorgensen, Dian Saderup, and Larry Morris have joined other LDS writers in publishing outstanding short stories.

Douglas H. Thayer’s Under the Cottonwoods (1977) is a solid contribution. Unlike the work of the “Lost Generation” writers, which moves from Mormon values and perspectives to those of the world—Thayer’s short stories move from worldly perspectives to those of the Church. Thayer is interested in the Latter-day Saints as individuals who struggle with problems that center in their religious lives.

In “The Clinic,” for example, Thayer describes the alienation and guilt of an LDS Viet Nam veteran who returns to Provo. Racked by grief at the effect of war on himself and his former missionary companions, Steve has lost his moorings. He is treated at a Provo clinic for a skin infection, clearly symbolic of his spiritual disease. A kindly doctor tells him, speaking of Steve’s rash but more of his spiritual illness, “It’s one of those things you’re going to have to learn to live with. One way or another we all have something.”20 At the end of the story, however, a subtle, symbolic hint in a brief encounter with a local girl suggests hope for Steve’s eventual spiritual—and physical—recovery.

All of Thayer’s stories deal with such inner conflict in individual Latter-day Saints. The title story, “Under the Cottonwoods,” depicts Paul, a dentist on a visit to his home town of Provo, reflecting without understanding on the hollowness of his life, though he has been exemplary in everything he has undertaken. Similarly, Jared, in “Zarahemla,” longs for the past, a longing focused in the decision to sell the old family homestead in the southern Utah town of Zarahemla. He sells, but sets the money aside to send his sons, and later his wife and himself, on missions for the Church. Throughout the collection, Thayer muses that modern life has somehow cheapened our existence, made life “more standardized, less authentic.”21 His stories probe whether this generation can measure up as well as the earlier generations to living the old truths, to overcoming the old problems. Thayer skillfully suggests, though very subtly, that they shall meet the challenge.

A very different kind of short story collection is Donald R. Marshall’s TheRummage Sale (1972), about common people who usually just happen to be rural Mormons. More varied in tone and mood than Thayer’s collection, The Rummage Sale ranges from some of the funniest pieces in LDS fiction to some of the most poignant. The funniest of Marshall’s stories may well be “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You,”22 a story comprised wholly of letters between Elder Calbert Dunkley and Floydene Wallup Of Mink Creek, Idaho. Floydene, acting on a suggestion from a missionary relative that she write Elder Dunkley, gets a very tentative response, but whips herself into an emotional frenzy and passionately moves from “Yours truley” endings to “Love ya,” and “Yours forever more my darling,” while righteous and aloof Elder Dunkley suffers through her “cookie-like things” and her mushy letters with a never-varying, “May the Lord bless you.”

A much different story, “The Sound of Drums,” concerns Owen Goulding’s visit to his hometown of Heber, Utah. Estranged from his rural Utah roots by his adopted eastern ways, his new Ph.D. in art, and his worldly pride, Owen is embarrassed at the provinciality of his family and hometown. On the other hand, the reader is embarrassed, finally, in realizing that Owen is, after all of his cultivation, only a snob, insensitive to the rich quality of human life that comprises his family.

Perhaps Marshall’s finest story is “The Week-End,” about Thalia Beale’s lonely but memorable stay at Carmel-By-The-Sea on a trip which she took soon after the death of her mother. One of the best stories in LDS literature, “The Week-End” is not so much an LDS short story as it is a poignant, human story of unfulfilled hopes and unrelieved loneliness.

Marshall published in 1977 a companion volume of twelve more stories entitled Frost in the Orchard. These stories continue to examine the lives of people who, though often Latter-day Saints living in the Mountainwest, are above all people who have difficulty coping with life. One of these stories, “Christmas Snows, Christmas Winds,” has been made into a motion picture and has been shown a number of times on television. In addition, Dr. Marshall has written a musical score and script for a play based on The Rummage Sale, which has been performed in Salt Lake City before enthusiastic audiences.

A more recent collection of LDS short stories is Bread & Milk and Other Stories (1979), by Eileen Gibbons Kump. The stories in this slim volume all deal with Amy Taylor—as a child, as a teenager, as a small-town queen of the May, as a young lady making the decision about a husband, as a mother in her first pregnancy, as a mother of a young family, as a wife, as a grandmother, and as a great-grandmother on her final day of life. The title of her collection comes from Amy’s comment, made during her first pregnancy, that “having babies [is] everyday, like bread and milk. … It is the pattern of life in a world made out of joy and pains.” The pattern of the stories is similarly varied. “The Willows,” about eight-year-old Amy, is an outstanding story of growth and insight, and “Say-so or Sense” humorously relates how Amy learns to live with some decisions made by a priesthood leader which alter her plans for her new house. Kump’s uncluttered style provides a refreshing treat as she urges that life is a series of little miracles, a continual revelation of more sorrow and more happiness, but after all, pleasant and worth the living.

A very different book is Béla Petsco’s Nothing Very Important and Other Stories (1979), which traces, in independent but tenuously related short stories, and in a manner similar to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the unusual missionary experiences of Elder Mihaly Agyar, an LDS missionary in Southern California. Petsco’s book underscores the continuing interest among LDS writers in attempting to capture, in fiction, the essence of a mission. Numerous stories written at BYU focus on this theme, and Gladys Clark Farmer’s Elders and Sisters (1979) is a serious and largely successful attempt to capture the LDS missionary experience for both elders and lady missionaries.

But while the increased number of LDS-centered periodicals has permitted short fiction to prosper, the novel, longer, more difficult to publish, and more expensive to purchase, seems less prosperous. Family memoirs, usually quasi-novels, continue to sell, including Rodello Hunter’s A House of Many Rooms: A Family Memoir (1965), which was reprinted in Reader’s Digest, and John D. Fitzgerald’s Papa Married a Mormon (1955), by the author of the Great Brain books.

Another LDS novel which has only recently been reprinted is Octave Frederick Ursenbach’s The Quest (1945), the account of the long search by Jewish Rabbi Homer Ben Arden for religious truth. Homer is gradually led through all of the world’s major religions to embrace Mormonism. Like Otto Shrag’s The Locusts (1943), The Quest is a mid-twentieth century return to Nephi Anderson’s technique of combining a good story with vigorous preaching of gospel truths.

More sophisticated attempts to combine, subtly yet positively, both fiction and faith are found in Claire Noall’s two good novels, Intimate Disciple (1957), about Willard Richards, and Surely the Night (1972), about an LDS midwife who becomes a doctor. Also of interest are Gordon Allred’s Valley of Tomorrow (1966), Glena Wood’s The Jawbone of an Ass (1970), and Emma Lou Thayne’s Never Past the Gate (1975). Space permits only mention of Jonreed Lauritzen’s skillful novel, The Everlasting Fire (1962) and Haldor Laxness’s Paradise Reclaimed (1962), the latter an unusual novel by a non-Mormon about his relatives—nineteenth-century converts to the Church from Iceland who, unable to adjust to the dry western lands of Utah, return to their homeland.23

Two recent LDS novels, however, deserve attention: Herbert Harker’s Turn Again Home (1977), a generally well-written novel which explores the question why Jared Roseman’s father Alma mysteriously disappeared from their Canada home on his seventy-seventh birthday, and Marilyn McMeen Brown’s The Earthkeepers (1979), a fine story of the founding of Provo. Both novels tap into the sweeping saga of Mormon history. The accomplishment of these two authors holds out promise of other novels dealing as sensitively as these with the LDS experience.

But while there remains a rich field for plowing by future LDS novelists, most of the novel-writing energy being expended at present is by novelists intent on reaching modern LDS youth. A number of LDS writers have used the novel to keep the Home Literature tradition alive, a means whereby the young Latter-day Saint can be entertained while being taught the principles of the gospel. The popularity of juvenile fiction is seen in the sales of such novels as Shirley Sealy’s Beyond This Moment (1977) and its several successors; in Susan Evans McCloud’s Where the Heart Leads (1979); and in Blaine M. Yorgason’s successful Charlie’s Monument (1976) and The Windwalker (1979), now a motion picture.

These authors have recently been joined by Professor Dean Hughes, whose two novels, Under the Same Stars (1979) and As Wide as the River (1980), are well-written fictional treatments of the Missouri period of LDS Church history as experienced by Huck Finn-like Mormon boys. Publication of Hughes’s novels by Deseret Book Company may bode well for the future of a 1980s-style Home Literature in the Church. These novels join other such juvenile works as Elsie C. Carroll’s Pioneer Bobby (1947), Olive Woolley Burt’s Wind Before the Dawn (1964), and Jayhawker Johnny (1966), as well as several earlier works by Howard Roscoe Driggs, among which Ben, The Wagon Boy (1944) seems to be the most enduring.

Looking Ahead

As Henry James once said, “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.”24 LDS history is yet a comparatively short one, and LDS literature and thus LDS fiction, slow aborning, is yet sparse. Looking back, Latter-day Saint writers and readers can see a slowly evolving acceptance for fiction, particularly of Home Literature, a fiction which attempts at once to free the spirit to soar while keeping one foot fixed in eternal truth. Looking forward, it seems safe to predict that acceptance of such literature will continue, will even flourish.

In fact, the future of LDS fiction will probably be closely linked with Home Literature, for the LDS writer and the LDS reader share an abiding faith and hope in eternal principle, in the possibility of billions of happy endings. Thus we will have more faith-promoting fiction. And we probably will have still more fiction dealing with LDS history and with characters in the Book of Mormon and the Bible. But, above all, we will have more fiction about Latter-day Saints endowed with real, human problems, problems which can be overcome as well as problems which can defeat and destroy. The effect of the gospel in the lives of such characters afford great fictional possibilities.

But the message of Mormon fiction, while inevitably moral, as is most fiction, need not be painfully blatant. Many of the sweetest messages of life are subtle, and the important messages of truth which LDS fiction will be charged to carry can be aimed at readers schooled in reading well-crafted fiction, at readers who rejoice in the elevating message as subtly suggested through skillful character development, dialogue, setting, symbolism, metaphor, and language. Well-written literature challenges the reader to read to understand—not simply to dismiss—to prove the message, dark or light, and to ponder the implications of his or her new insights. Good fiction thus calls for good readers.

The faith of the Latter-day Saints, regardless of individual literary sophistication, will continue to urge us to seek, in Nephi Anderson’s words, “The good, the pure, the elevating.” Our faith makes a difference in our vision, for the Latter-day Saint writer and reader works—and reads—on the assumption that man, a child of God hard at work on becoming a man or woman of God, is engaged in a serious yet joyful drama, the outcome of which shapes his or her eternal well-being.

The Latter-day Saint, charged to see all things as spiritual, will therefore insist upon a literature which celebrates that drama, a literature which celebrates men and women who learn—through trial and error—the good and great and eternal values. Thus, the Latter-day Saint will continue to believe that literature should celebrate, directly or indirectly, the Creator and Source of such values and wisdom, particularly in a world where those values are increasingly threatened by Satanic forces. Thus, it seems that, however sophisticated the techniques, the aims of Home Literature will continue with us. It seems difficult to forecast or conceive of an LDS literature which does not focus on these aims.

At the heart of such literature will lie the examination, in fiction, of the quest for faith, of the tension inherent in being in the world yet not of the world. It is not a new dilemma, of course. But, daily, the dilemma is renewed in the lives of all faithful men and women, and thus the old tensions continue to provide a springboard to significant new moral fiction. As a creative religion, the restored gospel will teach writers—and readers—to find new and fresh and inspiring yet technically sophisticated ways to create a fiction which will measure up to the great dilemmas of human experience and to the grand message of the Restoration.

No doubt, we will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. But such literary greatness will be achieved only by great souls. Our religion is capable of cultivating those great souls; and it shall.


  1. See Edward A. Geary, “Mormondom’s Lost Generation: The Novelists of the 1940’s,” BYU Studies, 18 (Fall, 1977), 89–98.

  2. Some other novels which emerged from the 1940s, in order of publication, are: Jean Woodman, Glory Spent (1940); Paul Bailey, For This My Glory (1941); Lorene Pearson, The Harvest Waits (1941)—one of the best of this group; Paul Bailey, Song Everlasting (1946); and Helen Cortez Stafford, Sweet Love Remembered (1947). To this list we might also add George Snell’s Root, Hog and Die (1936). In addition, novels of this period which deal with Mormon history and the Mormon people, though their authors may not be LDS, are: Susan Ertz, The Proselyte (1933); Elinor Pryor, And Never Yield (1941); Ardyth Kennelly, The Peaceable Kingdom (1949) and its companion volume, Up Home (1955).

  3. Douglas H. Thayer, Under the Cottonwoods (Provo: Frankson Books, 1977), p. 69.

  4. Ibid., p. 127.

  5. Donald R. Marshall, The Rummage Sale (Provo: Heirloom Publication, 1972), pp. 54–74.

  6. Other novels which have received national attention and which focus somewhat on Mormon themes are less well known among the Mormons, perhaps with good reason. Some of these novels are by authors with LDS backgrounds; others are by non-LDS authors who have carefully (or not so carefully) studied Mormon history and traditions. Here is a partial list of works which center in Mormon subjects: Robert Lund’s The Odyssey of Thaddeus Baxter: A Novel (1957), Amelia Bean’s The Fancher Train (1958), Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent (1959), Richard Wormsers’ Battalion of Saints (1961), Douglas Kent Hall’s On the Way to the Sky (1972), and Elisabeth Macdonald’s Watch for the Morning (1978); all deal with Mormons and Mormon themes in such a way as to make some Mormons long for a strong revival of the Home Literature period.

  7. Henry James, Hawthorne (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1963), p. 2; 1st edition, 1879.