The few studies of Mormon home literature that have been published to date dismiss it as inferior artistry, an embarrassing if necessary step in the progression towards true Mormon literature. These studies are inadequate, however, because they divorce the texts from their context, holding them up to standards that did not exist for their original audience. Jane Tompkins' theory of texts as cultural work provides a more satisfactory way of looking at these narratives.
Home literature is thoroughly enmeshed in the cultural discourse of its day. Beneath the surface, these didactic stories about young Mormons finding love with their foreordained mates performed important cultural work by helping Mormons to think about their personal and collective identities, by co-opting mainstream fictional forms and giving them safe expression, and by reconceptualizing marriage in the wake of polygamy's demise. The stories of Susa Young Gates illustrate these functions well. Gates was a prominent youth leader and prolific home author during the 1890s. Her stories extend and enact Mormon cultural discourse of the time and point up the connections between Mormon fiction and mainstream models.
The last decade of the nineteenth century marked the beginning of Mormonism's transition from an isolated separatist movement to a thoroughly assimilated and modem mainstream religion. As Mormons shifted away from the defining practices of polygamy, communal economics, and ecclesiastical dominance of politics, they sought for new ways to define themselves that would retain their sense of distinctness from a world they still viewed as sinful. The result was new emphasis on formerly dormant or relatively unemphasized practices such as the Word of Wisdom and the law of tithing. This emphasis shows up in the story "Donald's Boy" which repeatedly focuses on the necessity for Mormon youth to shun the corruptions of the world.
"Seven Times," which ran in the 1893-94 volume of the Young Woman's Journal, shows Gates's debt to mainstream fiction in its extensive adoption of popular conventions, reworking such devices as the heroine's development, the divine child, the lecherous villain, and the sick bed ordeal into a Mormon conversion narrative. As in popular American fiction, the role of the narrator is central to the didactic intentions of the story. The narrator becomes the dominant personality of the text as she both creates and controls the emotion necessary to the formal and ideological demands of the narrative. Gates claimed to consider popular didactic fiction inconsequential, but her own comments and her wholesale use of its conventions suggests that her relationship with these novels was much more complex than she acknowledged.
"John Stevens' Courtship" is Gates's most popular and ambitious work. Its setting in the early years of Mormon settlement in Utah at the time of the first large-scale influx of "outsiders" into Mormon society constructs an idealized view of early Mormon culture that contrasts with the diminished faithfulness Gates perceived in her day. Gates's artistic ambitions show up most clearly in her intense descriptions of her characters. These character descriptions draw on popular conventions to inscribe idealized gender constructs that interacted with Mormon ideology to remain in force in Mormon society long after they had faded elsewhere. Finally, Gates's emphasis on the idea of a foreordained mate replaces polygamy as the essential doctrine of marriage, an important shift in post-Manifesto Mormondom.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Tait, Lisa Olsen, "Mormon Culture Meets Popular Fiction: Susa Young Gates and the Cultural Work of Home Literature" (1998). Theses and Dissertations. 5160.
American fiction, Mormon authors, History, criticism, 19th century, Susa Young Gates, 1856-1933, Mormons in literature, Mormons, Intellectual life