My paper examines the ethics of representing Mormons in serious American fiction, viewed through two primary texts, Bayard Taylor's nineteenth-century dramatic poem The Prophet and Maureen Whipple's epic novel The Giant Joshua. I also briefly examine Walter Kirn's short stories “Planetarium” and “Whole Other Bodies.” Using Werner Sollors' and Matthew Frye Jacobson's writings on ethnicity as foundational, I argue in that Mormonism constitutes an ethnicity, which designation accentuates the ethical demands of those who represent the group. I also use W.J.T. Mitchell's theories of representation as the basis of my arguments of the ethics of representing ethnicity. As ethical theorists, Emmanuel Levinas and Edward Said inform the theoretical framework of my project, and I place their theories both in opposition to and harmony with each other in terms of what it means to be truly “Other” and the responsibility of those who view, represent, project, or accept otherness as essential to being. I also borrow from Wayne C. Booth, particularly in his practical application of ethics theory. I employ Terryl Givens, Michael Austin, Bruce Jorgensen, and Gideon Burton to help bring the theory into the field of Mormon studies. In applying all these theorists to Taylor and Whipple I examine Taylor's exoticizing, “Othering” Mormons, creating an “Oriental” version of the rise of Mormonism, parallel to some of his Middle Eastern travel writing. Taylor also makes the remarkable ethical step of being the first non-Mormon to “take Mormons seriously” in literary fiction. I demonstrate how his use of classical literary forms and themes moves the ethical treatment of Mormons forward in an unprecedented way. Maureen Whipple relies on some of the sensational, romantic tropes in common use, but overall she also moves forward ethical representation of Mormons in serious literature, being the best-received of “Mormondom's Lost Generation” of literary writers. In conclusion I argue that these texts, along with the more problematic Kirn stories, help create a positive ethical climate for Mormon representation.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Williams, Terrol Roark, "Taking Mormons Seriously: Ethics of Representing Latter-day Saints in American Fiction" (2007). Theses and Dissertations. 1159.
Mormonism, ethics, representation, Bayard Taylor, Maureen Whipple, Walter Kirn, Emmanuel Levinas, Edward Said, Wayne C. Booth, Orientalism, alterity, ethnicity, American literature, culture, polygamy, Werner Sollors, W.J.T. Mitchell, Joseph Smith, Mormon history, Latter-day Saints, The Prophet, The Giant Joshua, Whole Other Bodies, Planetarium, multiculturalism, race