(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) Terryl L. Givens’ “The Viper of the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy” (Oxford University Press) is perhaps the best work detailing how the evolution of an inexpensive press — and a consistent popular yen for scandal — led to a “golden age” in “anti-” books in religion, notably literature that attacked the Catholics and the Mormons. As Givens explains, the public taste was not geared to theological debates, so these literary attacks on Catholicism, and to an extent Mormonism, were political in nature. The faiths were cast as acting contrary to U.S. patriotism or various ideals. Both faiths were also guilty of crimes of the salacious sort, usually against women. “Danites,” the Mormon defense group that assisted Joseph Smith, were also features in many of the books, usually as a paramilitary group that assisted Brigham Young and other Mormons in murder, kidnapping, or activities against the U.S. government.
There is no end to the fascinating library of anti-Mormon literature — from long Victorian-type novels, to action serials, to detective works, to western novellas. Frankly, the output was ubiquitous. Givens provides a list of titles, “The Courage of Captain Plum,” “The Mormoness; or, the Trials of Mary Maverick,” “Elder Northfield’s Home, “The Mormon Prophet and His Harem” … and many, many more. It’s a fascinating genre, and the majority of these books can be accessed and read on the Internet. The term “Harem” is significant. In his book, Givens argues that “Orientalism,” the effort by Western persons to define Middle East or Asian culture — was a prominent feature in anti-Mormonism of the 19th century. For example, the word “harem” to describe Young or other polygamists, and the use of “Danites” to prop up the leader of the “harem.” In one novel, the antagonist is referred to as the “Attila of the Mormon Kingdom.” (While a polygamous lifestyle can be applied to Middle Eastern culture, as Givens notes, the analogy falls apart as life in Utah and within Mormon polygamy is studied. One example — divorce for a Mormon women in Utah was easy to achieve.)
Like the “sinister china-man” of nativist literature, Mormon men were alleged in many of the literature of having the mystic talents to mesmerize or hypnotize their victims, usually female, with an intense glare. Givens relates one piece of literature that allows the dastardly Mormon men to even hypnotize the fathers of the girls cast into polygamy.
The section in Givens’ book on the how the pseudoscience of phrenology factored into anti-Mormonism was fascinating primarily because it required a deliberate disassociation of the U.S. and British roots of most members of the young, 19th century Mormon faith. It’s an extension of “Orientalism,” applying a sinister tinge to the unpopular Utah-based religion.
A paper was presented at the New Orleans Academy of Sciences in 1861 titled, “Effects and Tendencies of Mormon Polygamy in the Territory of Utah.” In Givens’ book, we read the findings of U.S. Army assistant surgeon Roberts Bartholow, who argues that a “new race” is being created in Utah.
Bartholow writes: “… there is, nevertheless, and expression of countenance and style of feature, which may be styled the Mormon expression and style; an expression compounded of sensuality, cunning, suspicion, and a smirking self-conceit. The yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage; the greenish-colored eyes; the thick protuberant lips; the low forehead; the light, yellowish hair, and the lank, angular person, constitute an appearance so characteristic of the new race, the production of the polygamy, as to distinguish them at a glance. …”
Such pseudoscience dissipated somewhat after the railroad linked Utah with the rest of the nation, and visitors to Salt Lake City failed to see the “differences” that Bartholow noted. Depictions of Mormon countenances were left to satires, such as Mark Twain’s riffs on Mormon women in “Roughing It,” or to Oscar Wilde, who as Givens notes, said of Mormons, “They are … very, very ugly.”
Yet, the condescension and bigotry that allowed phrenology a place at the table in anti-Mormonism is not completely gone. Later in “Vipers …,” Givens notes with contempt this claim by acclaimed Harold Bloom, who Givens writes, had “learned to tell the difference between certain Mormons and most Gentiles at first sight.” Bloom, Givens adds, noted “something organized about the expressions on many Mormon faces as they go by in the street.”
Givens’ book is well worth reading for those interested in the cultural perceptions of Mormonism as well as the growth of the press, as well as books and novels, in the 19th century. It can be purchased here. Even as technological changes moved much of the propaganda and exploitation press to other venues — film, the Internet, cable TV “reality” series and documentaries — what makes these “exposes” of Catholicism, Mormonism, or any other currently unpopular “-isms” is the public’s fascination with that which is considered criminal, anti-social or at odds with American values. The arguments, be they religious or some other topic, are less important than the “sizzle” which sells the steak, which allows the consumer to be properly outraged, titilated or most important, allowed to feel superior to a subject and persons they know virtually nothing about.
In “Viper …,” Givens quotes Catholic sociologist Thomas F. O’Dea’s wry observation that “‘The Book of Mormon’ has not been universally considered by its critics as one of those books that must be read in order to have an opinion of it.”