One hundred and fifty years ago, the Mormons, those peculiar polygamists in the mountains, were foil for toilers in wit and satire. Mark Twain’s portrayal of Brigham Young, polygamists, the Book of Mormon and Mormon wives is archived forever in the classic novel, “Roughing It.” Twain deserves his fame. In a non-digital world, he was more popular than Jon Stewart, Bill Maher or Dennis Miller combined. And Mormons were ready comic foil. In the winter 1974 BYU Studies, then-BYU professor Richard H. Cracroft wrote, “Mormonism and its ‘peculiar institutions,’ … were excellent targets for reform and expose, as well as all types of humor.”
As mentioned, Twain gets the credit today for being the “Mormon expert” of the late-middle 19th century, but truth is, there was another humorist of Twain’s era who knew the Mormons far better than Twain. As Cracroft points out in his article, “Distorting Polygamy for Fun and Profit: Artemus Ward and Mark Twain Among the Mormons,” the almost forgotten lecturer/writer humorist, Ward, owed his life to a polygamist Mormon doctor and the nursing of plural Relief Society wives after he contracted a form of typhoid fever while visiting Salt Lake City in 1864.
Ward, an acclaimed lecturer who preferred talking to writing, effusively thanked the Saints after recovering. In a letter to Twain, Ward wrote “the saints have been wonderfully kind to me. I could not have been better or more tenderly nursed at home. God bless them all.”
That gratitude, though, didn’t stop Ward as describing Mormonism as “Petticoatism and plunder” a few months later during a tour of lectures on Mormonism. The temptation to ridicule, demonize and find humor in a culture that most Americans loathed was too great for ward, who like any comedian, needed fresh material.
Ward, whose real name was Charles Farrer Browne, was a frail man who eventually succumbed to tuberculosis in 1867 at the young age of 33. His early death, followed by Twain’s, or Samuel Clemens’, long life, is likely the reason he is unknown today.
In the BYU Studies article, Cracroft points out that Twain’s well-known anecdotes about life with the Mormons were written a decade or so after he had visited Salt Lake City. In fact, Cracroft relates that before he wrote chapters about Mormon life, Twain asked his brother for anecdotes of that time, “for I remember next to nothing about the matter,” Twain said to his brother, Orion.
Now, writing is s skill, and there’s no shortage of great writers who put others’ memories on page, Boswell and Rick Bragg come to mind … but Twain’s very witty accounts of The Book of Mormon and the generosity of Mormon men marrying many homely Mormon women owe a lot to Twain’s careful reading of Ward’s accounts among the Utahns. I am not excusing Twain of plagiarism, although perhaps more than a little journalistic license was practiced.
“Roughing It” remains a great book, but more of us should read the book that inspired Twain’s chapters, “Artemus Ward (his) travels among the Mormons.” Published in 1865, it’s available to read for free at Google Books. Don’t expect the early Mormons to be treated with any respect; the religion was still too strange at the end of the Civil War, but it still remains a fascinating read. Read it here
This post was published in Currents, the Standard-Examiner’s digital-only section on politics and culture. It was accompanied by an original cartoon from the Standard’s Cal Grondahl. For more information on Currents, call 801-625-4400.