Book Review: “Dime Novel Mormons”

[Yes, this is the 3rd review M* has done of this book. You should read the review anyway.]

When I was a kid, I read a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories that was mostly unabridged, and I have been hooked on Holmes ever since.  However, there was one small bit of abridgment that I overlooked at the time (looking back at the book – my mom still has it – there was a footnote mentioning this) where the “Mormon” parts of A Study in Scarlet were taken out, with the reasoning that those chapters didn’t deal with Holmes.

Fast forward a decade and a half (give or take a few years), and I’m on a mission for the LDS (Mormon) church.  When out looking for people to teach, suddenly everyone is asking us about The Avenging Angel and Danites, saying things like “you guys have one whacked out history, dudes!”  The one time I broke mission rules (I was a pretty strait-laced, rule keeping guy, which often caused massive amounts of conflicts with my companions, especially since the president would deliberately give me slacker, disobedient companions so I could “whip them into shape” – ugh, not fun; anyway back to the review . . .) was watching that movie, just so I could see what everyone was talking about.

Why do I mention these? Well, we can see the literary cousins and ancestors of these portrayals – Dangerous Danites murdering apostates with impunity, Secret Rites in spooky caverns, Lustful Men forcing nubile women to be their polygamist wives – in the tales contained in this wonderful, interesting, and above all fun collection Dime Novel Mormons (edited by Michael Austin and Ardis E. Parshall).

When I finally did read the “Mormon” sections of A Study in Scarlet and watch The Avenging Angel (with Charlton Heston as Brigham Young!), my initial reactions were “how dare they portray Mormons in these ways!” – but after some thought, my second reaction was “these tales are quite entertaining, and if the villains weren’t Mormons but some other secretive cult (real or imagined), I would probably love them.”

The four “dime novels” in this collection are entertaining and historically valuable portrayals of how Mormons appeared in late 19th and early 20th century popular literature.  A concise and entertaining introduction from the editors discusses the history and impact of dime novels and their portrayals of Mormons, as well as how these 4 specific novels fit in the overall milieu.

Yes, the portrayals of Mormons bare only the most tenuous connection to reality and actual Mormon history/practice, but if you can overlook that, they are amazingly fun and entertaining.  The prose is occasionally clunky (but overall very competent, even highly literate in places) but the tales move quickly with cliffhangers and twists in all the right places.

I can watch movies and TV shows with Americans as the bad guys, or men, or college instructors, or whatever other “tribes” I may belong to, so I figure I can do the same with these texts.  Since these stereotypes still exist today (as seen in quite a bit of pop culture), often existing side by side with other Mormon stereotypes (such as in the episode of Supergirl where Cat Grant states something like “someone that nice is either a superhero or a Mormon”), it’s useful to see these clichéd portrayals in their early forms, just to see how much (and how little) has actually changed.

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About Ivan Wolfe

Ivan Wolfe teaches rhetoric at Arizona State University. He has a PhD in English from the University of Texas - Austin, and a BA and MA in English (with minors in Classical Greek, Music, and Philosophy) from BYU. He has several credits on various Christmas albums aimed at the LDS market, several essays in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series, and various book reviews in academic and popular venues. He also competes in Scottish Highland Games and mud run/obstacle course races, and he can deadlit over double his bodyweight (his last PR was over 500 pounds). He is currently married to Lisa Renee Wolfe. He has six kids and four stepkids.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: “Dime Novel Mormons”

  1. That Sherlock Holmes collection sounds like the same one I checked out from the school library in sixth grade. I noticed at the time the publisher’s note that A Study in Scarlet had been edited to omit prejudiced Mormon stereotypes found in the original.

  2. Fun redux – with three reviews, it seems M* really likes this particular book!

    When you talked about the edited Sherlock compendium, I thought you meant your Mom had edited it, like how my Mom edited the commercial world for us. Barbies had underwear (either created with permanent marker or fingernail polish) and the book of fairy tales had several “redacted” sections, including entire pages ripped out.

    I mention the Barbies, but when I was young we didn’t even get Barbies. Instead my mother crafted a baby-sized doll with embroidered facial features and hair crafted from a fox fur collar of a coat that was being discarded. Mom called it a Bobby doll. I loved my Bobby doll, and it was so fun to dress it up in the baby cloths as my various siblings grew up to be older than 3 months of age.

    Nostalgia for the mother who told us half-bloods that we were hybrids, and hybrids are better. Nostalgia for the mother who never held us back (hey, if pregnant mothers can forget important details of childbirth, I can forget non-glowing aspects of any real childhood).

    Mother loved books, and came from a long line of people who taught English, loved reading, and adored stories. So Mother knew that we create our world, and therefore we should act to ensure our world is to our liking, rather than merely accepting the world others thrust on us.

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