Book Review: Dime Novel Mormons

Book Review: The Mormon Image in Literature, Dime Mormon Novels, edited and introduced by Michael Austin and Ardis E. Parshall.

Dime Novel Mormons

In the Harry Potter books and films, Harry and Dumbledore go from being heroes to evil villains, due to the continuous assault by the Daily Prophet, the major newspaper around. For most witches, Harry and Dumbledore are insane cranks, claiming Voldemort had returned. One can see the frustration in Harry’s face as many friends doubt him, even hating him. Imagine the uphill battle he fought against the wrong perceptions while trying to fight the Dark Lord.

So it was in the late 1800s and early 1900s for Mormon missionaries.Stories flourished about the evil Mormons living in seclusion in Salt Lake City. Mormons were known for lustful polygamy, murderous Danites, and general evilness. As noted in their introduction about early Mormon novels, Austin and Parshall note: “each featuring handsome heroes, villainous Mormon elders, and chaste young women who are kidnapped and taken to Salt Lake City as polygamous brides.” In these novels, “the lecherous Mormons are defeated, the chaste young women are rescued, and the hero gets the girl.”

Perhaps the most famous novel regarding early Mormons was Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. A few years ago, I’d heard about how this book ran roughshod over Mormonism, and so read it out of curiosity. My review of it is here. This was written in 1912, long after many other novels had been written in the Dime Novel genre.

Before Riders of the Purple Sage,dime novels were in their heyday. These were very inexpensive novels of about 50,000 words, printed on cheap newsprint, with no cover. They literally cost about a dime, making such novels very affordable to the average person. Writers worked feverishly to publish one or two a week, and some novels could sell half a million copies. Being made of such cheap materials, these novels were not designed to survive more than a few years, much less a century or more. Fortunately, Michael Austin and Ardis Parshall have worked hard to find surviving copies that deal heavily with Mormon themes and preserved the texts. Many of the novels were so brittle and fragile that to save the texts meant destroying the cheap paper they were printed on. With some novels damaged, Austin and Parshall had to determine words that may have been lost on the ragged edges of some dime novels. The results are excellent.

In this volume that continues the Greg Kofford Books’ series, The Mormon Image in Literature, we find four gems among dime novels that focus on how late 19th century Americans viewed Mormons. The four novels are:

Eagle Plume, the White Avenger, A Tale of the Mormon Trail
The Doomed Dozen, or Dolores, the Danite’s Daughter. A Romance of Border Trails and Mormon Mysteries.
Frank Merriwell Among the Mormons; or, the Lost Tribe of Israel
The Bradys Among the Mormons; or, Secret Work in Salt Lake City

The tropes are familiar to those who’ve read Zane Grey’s anti-Mormon novel: evil Mormons, even more evil Danites, and a girl needing rescued from the evil Mormons. Still, the stories are engaging and interesting, always with a twist in the plot. For example, in Dolores, the Danite’s Daughter, her wagon train is wiped out by Danites dressed like Indians. However, she is rescued by two white men (one being Buffalo Bill Cody), dressed like Indians.

While many of today’s films have good and bad guys that float in the gray area of good and bad, these novels are clearly black and white. Good guys wear white hats. They are handsome and rugged, while the evil Mormons are described quite the opposite.

In Eagle Plume, Indians are seen as the noble savages of early writings:

“By the river’s bank, gazing upon the turbid and swollen waters, stood two chiefs. One, by the richness of his attire, the wolf tails attached to his leggins, a mark of distinction only allowed to great braves, it was evident was a chief of note; and the eagle plumes thickly braided in his long, dark locks, as well as the look of dignity and pride upon his thoroughly Indian face, confirmed this supposition.”

Meanwhile, Mormon Danites are described thus:

“The emigrants were busy preparing supper. Apart from the rest, and seated by themselves, were some seven men, all fully armed with rifles, knives and revolvers. Seven stout, muscular men were they, and of the seven, all but one bore the stamp of ruffian visibly imprinted on their faces.”

So, why would today’s Mormons want to preserve writings that show us to be just a shade nicer than Stalin? First, it helps us understand the perceptions of the average American towards Mormons a century ago. Imagine being a missionary in New York, trying to share the gospel with people who were convinced you only wanted to carry off pretty young girls to be the wives of the Prophet, or worse, one of the Danites. Second, it helps us understand the tensions between Salt Lake City and the rest of America. The Smoot hearings were big news in the early 20th century, with the Mormon Prophet, Joseph F. Smith, testifying. Americans were so concerned about Mormons, even 14 years after the Manifesto ending polygamy, that Reed Smoot went through three years of hearings prior to being seated in the Senate.

Because of Mormon inspired fiction, like that found in these four dime novels, we have a better understanding of the struggles and strains in the collision of the two worlds of Mormons and Gentiles We have Michael Austin, Ardis E. Parshall, and Greg Kofford Books to thank for this great gift to our Mormon heritage.  A great treasure is preserved for us to read and ponder.

Available March 21, 2017 from Greg Kofford Books and Amazon

Review: Dime Novel Mormons

Ardis Parshall and Michael (Mike) Austin give us Dime Novel Mormonsa new delight in The Mormon Image in Literature series, published by Greg Kofford Books.

I’ve been head down in other things, but when I’ve come up for air, it’s been refreshing to contemplate the forgotten art of “books” that could be purchased for mere pennies. “Dime novels,” as they were called even when even less expensive, were sweeping adventures. They were something like comic books without pictures, making reading accessible to everyone. They were the Instagram of their day.

Not all dime novels featured Mormons. In fact, Ardis and Mike indicate the number of dime novels that included Mormons as characters probably made up less than 0.1% of all dime novels published. However these dime novels presented Mormonism to those who had no other concept of Mormons and their beliefs and practices.

The tropes we see in the dime novels included in this volume were repeated in other, more prestigious, forms of entertainment.

  • Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, features malevolent Mormons abducting a fair maiden who then dies of despair. Continue reading

175 Years of Awesome!

This coming week is 17/3/17, the 175th anniversary of the formation of Relief Society.

Throughout the world local Relief Societies are holding celebrations, often focused on service, though I’ve been to some parties where belly laughs were the fare of the night.

Whatever the women in these celebrations will do, it is a celebration of womanhood and sisterhood.

For this anniversary, I will be at the Women’s Retreat in Nauvoo participating in two days of great activity, along with re-enactments of Relief Society’s founding at the Red Brick Store.

The formal Relief Society organization went into hiatus as a formal Church-wide organization between 1844 and 1880. However even during that hiatus, the sisterhood formed in Nauvoo continued to bring women together to do good and strengthen one another.

Membership in Relief Society, during 1842, could be seen as virtue signaling, but it was a time when signaling was desperately needed. There were those in the community participating in gross iniquity, because they had been pressured into believing it was acceptable. These individuals needed to be rescued, and the Relief Society rose to the task.

On March 25 I will be reprising a bit of Relief Society celebration, celebrating in brief conversations with my Stake sisters the life of Jane Nyman. She was the first to act as a proxy in providing a deceased relative the ordinance of baptism. It was her anguish over the matter that had prompted Joseph Smith’s revelation that proxy baptism was the way in which salvation (as decreed by the Bible) could be offered to all mankind. Yet her daughters, and possibly she herself, became embroiled in the illicit intercourse scandal of 1841-1842. When she attempted to join Relief Society in Nauvoo, she was refused because of her association with or involvement in illicit intercourse. Yet the Relief Society did provide Jane needed support because she was a widow, even though refusing her formal membership.

Yet charity would cover knowledge of many of these sins. Even those instances that would be published in newspapers in 1844 were largely dropped from collective memory. Not that those who had lived through the terrible events of 1841-1842 had forgotten, but because they valued one another as children of God. No matter what sins had been committed, repentance could wipe the slate clean.

After arriving in Utah, Jane Nyman was selected to serve as Relief Society President in her congregation in Beaver. She who had been refused entry during a time of heresy had repented, and was now fully acceptable to lead her sisters in doing good.

While it isn’t directly related to Relief Society, I am delighted by William W. Phelps. He is rightly honored as one of the stalwarts of the initial Mormon movement. Yet he was excommunicated twice. The first excommunication was related to his betrayal of Joseph Smith in Missouri. At that time he briefly believed it was right that Joseph die. But in 1840 Phelps begged to be allowed to return to fellowship in the Mormon faith.

In 1850 Phelps again found himself on the wrong side of the prophet, this time for entering into plural marriage without proper authorization while serving a mission to England. But Phelps accepted the correction and moved forward in faith.

So as I celebrate the 175th anniversary of Relief Society, I will celebrate the charity that sees all as children of God, willing to help and support independent of whether the child of God in question is “worthy,” seeing all as able to someday receive all that the Father hath.

Elder Oaks’ recent talk was NOT about climate change or Trump

Elder Oaks gave a commencement address at BYU-Hawaii on Feb. 25, 2017.  The title of the talk was:  “Push Back Against the World.”

The anti-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune’s headline was “Mormon leader Dallin Oaks points to ‘aggressive’ Trump, climate change as ‘big worries’.”

I am going to shock you, I know, but guess what:  the talk was not about Trump or climate change.  Not even remotely.

I have seen this talk celebrated throughout the liberal Mormon on-line world.  At last, an apostle who is willing to accept the reality of climate change and who hates Trump!  “Hurrah!”

Except that was not the subject of the talk.  Keep on dreaming, liberal Mormons, but if you actually read the entire talk it is pretty standard social conservative fare.  And there is even a paragraph that will certainly disappoint the left (if they are paying attention):

We hear much about cleaning up the physical environment—air, water, and other essentials that are being polluted in a way that is poisoning the physical environment for all of us. We may choose to join in such efforts. But we who are responsible to push back against the world should be at least equally concerned about forces that are poisoning the moral environment. I refer to such moral pollutions as pornography. I also refer to language that pollutes public communications with profanity, vulgarity, and morally degrading coarseness. Push back against these kinds of pollutions also.

I am going to ask readers to read the entire talk.  I will be going through some key points of the talk, but it would be helpful for readers to read it themselves.  Done?  Ok, let’s move on.

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