Over at Slate, David Haglund wonders about the “great Mormon novel” and asks: “Where Is It?” I am not sure about greatness, but the first Mormon novel — The Book of Mormon — has already been written. One great novelist, Mark Twain, famously characterized it as “chloroform in print.” In an accompanying piece at Slate, Alan Wolfe assesses The Book of Mormon and finds it hard to agree with one scholar’s argument that it passes for decent literature.
I contend, however, that the “great” Mormon novel has already been written. Anyone who reads Fawn Brodie’s classic No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, cannot help but be amazed by the prophet and fascinated by his life. Although Brodie’s book is a work of history, it reads better than most novels. Truth surely is stranger than fiction. After finishing the book, I found myself admiring Smith for all sorts of strange reasons — he was so eccentric, imaginative, charismatic, peripatetic, and indefatigable that I wished for a time machine. A week with Smith would have been better than a year with almost anyone else.
This issue aside, Haglund’s search for the great Mormon novel suggests we may have to wait a long time:
Non-Mormon writers have depicted Mormon characters, but it’s difficult for them to get the details right—which is why Wallace Stegner thought the “Great Mormon Novel” would be written by someone who grew up in the church, left, then made it “part way” back to the fold. What’s more, the very fact of a great Mormon writer might make plain to those who doubt it that one can be intellectually serious and Mormon at the same time.
At least one observer has suggested that the absence of a great Mormon novel stems from the impossibility of doing just that. Jerry Earl Johnston, a columnist for the Deseret News—after relating Stegner’s thoughts about the Great Mormon Novel—declared that Mormons are too uncomfortable with ambiguity and imperfection to write great fiction.
Although the historian Brodie grew up in the LDS, she did not make it part way back to the fold. Why? Because she knew that one cannot be intellectually serious (or honest) and Mormon at the same time. This also explains why we will probably never see a Mormon philosopher.
Simon Critchley has started a new philosophy blog titled “The Stone” and his first post asks: “What Is a Philosopher?” Critchley makes several interesting observations and notes that philosophy is not for the timid — or those “who are too uncomfortable with ambiguity and imperfection” to write great philosophy:
From the ancient Greeks to Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, Hume and right up to the shameful lawsuit that prevented Bertrand Russell from teaching at the City College of New York in 1940 on the charge of sexual immorality and atheism, philosophy has repeatedly and persistently been identified with blasphemy against the gods, whichever gods they might be. Nothing is more common in the history of philosophy than the accusation of impiety. Because of their laughable otherworldliness and lack of respect for social convention, rank and privilege, philosophers refuse to honor the old gods and this makes them politically suspicious, even dangerous.
With these things in mind, we should not expect to see a Mormon philosopher anytime soon. In the meantime we will have to content ourselves with HBO’s “Big Love,” one of the best series to grace television in years.