Book Review: The Mormon Image in Literature, Dime Mormon Novels, edited and introduced by Michael Austin and Ardis E. Parshall.
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
Eagle Plume was written in 1870. Imagine what Parley P Pratt’s death and the Mountain Meadows Massacre did in 1857 to promote the ideas of Mormons slaughtering wagon trains and stealing married women from their husbands. In the case of PPP’s death, many Gentiles felt the man who killed him was justified for his stealing his wife. The novels often show such disdain for Mormons that killing one was not only justifiable, but a laudable thing to do.
What’s interesting, is you can also suppose that because the Mormons-are-bad-guys trope was used for 30 or more years, is that these particular books were very successful. Presumably, you wouldn’t keep writing about the same group of bad guys if it didn’t sell.
Your comment about being a missionary in New York facing this prejudice might help explain why the church not only had little comparative missionary success in the eastern USA, but also why we looked far beyond our shores as well.
That sentence about the Indians is one of the worst written sentences I’ve ever read. It’s written as if the author is trying very hard to show he’s a real writer and not peddling junk fiction of the worst kind.
If I recall correctly, Smoot only got his Senate seat because a supermajority was required to deny it to him, and his opponents did not quite get the necessary supermajority.
Accuracy was not required. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Tarzan novel had tigers in Africa, for example.
Eagle Plume focuses mostly on the Dacotah (Dakotah or Lakotah Sioux) Indians in Wyoming and Utah, instead of the Plains.
As for junk fiction, yellow journalism was at its heyday in that period. Of course it is having a new heyday now, but is called the 24 hour fake news cycle.
I have known some who joined the Church because of reading or seeing anti-Mormon information including tracts and the current musical ‘The Book of Mormon’. They look beyond the negative stereotypes and see the shining truth. Years ago I heard a talk by a member of the Church missionary committee. He said that when the Church receives publicity of any kind there is an increase in requests for missionaries. Some have deliberately requested visits by missionaries with the intent to mock but end up as converts.
The Book of Mormon has Israelites and horses in America, so Tigers in Africa doesn’t seem so far fetched.