120-plus years ago, B.H. Roberts was writing Mormon kitsch literature

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) During my vacation last week, I turned my attention to a novella, published around 1889, by the Mormon general authority, author, and intellectual B.H. Roberts. It’s called “Corianton: A Nephite Story” and it’s fascinating because it’s an early example of LDS kitsch literature, fiction that enhances the Scriptures or Mormon history. Today, Mormon kitsch literature is ubiquitous. Some of the major authors are Gerald Lund, who created “The Work and the Glory” series, and Chris Heimerdinger, who has written the “Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites” series. (When I use the word “kitsch,” it’s not an insult; it’s an acknowledgment that these are simple, faith-promoting tales that serve as support for either LDS Church history or Scriptures and are gobbled up as “spiritual nutrition” by many faithful members.)

B.H. Roberts’ “Corianton …” is a fascinating read for members who have a knowledge of “The Book of Mormon.” The protagonist is a rather minor character of LDS scripture, who is best known for being reproved by his father, Alma, for abandoning a religious mission to the Zoramites, a community of unbelievers. What leads Corianton to abandon his mission is his lust for a prostitute, with whom he takes off. In his letter to his son, Alma also answers questions Corianton has about doctrinal issues, including the resurrection and God’s judgment. Another major character in B.H. Roberts’ tale is Corianton’s brother, Shiblon, an even more obscure figure in “The Book of Mormon.”

The plot: Rather cleverly, Roberts’ starts his novella with the Book of Mormon’s “Korihor,” a charismatic agnostic who is led to Alma by church members who have arrested him — wrongly — for leading other church members into apostasy. Alma tells Korihor he is free, but invites a theological debate, which Korihor eagerly accepts. (In Roberts’ ┬ánovella, Korihor sort of resembles Bill Maher with muscles). Following the pace of the Book of Mormon’s text, Alma gets Korihor flustered until the skeptic finally demands a sign. Alma obliges, striking Korihor dumb. The skeptic flees and becomes a beggar.

In the novella, Corianton is an admirer of Korihor, and even visits him offering his support. In Roberts’ novella, which he clearly intended to use as a teaching tool for young adult church members, he has Corianton shocked/scared by Korihor’s fate. As a result, the skeptical son agrees to go on a mission to the Zoramites, a community hostile to a belief in Christ, joining his brothers and father.

Corianton proves to be a successful, charismatic missionary, so much so that he develops a lot of pride. As Roberts’s explains, the son of Alma still lacks conviction, or a testimony of Christ. In an interesting insertion, Corianton witnesses the pitiful Korihor’s death. In the Mormon scripture, he dies in the Zoramites’s city, “trod upon.”

Roberts’ rather chastely inserts some “sex” into his novel when Corianton meets a mysterious, very attractive woman, Joan, who claims to be the daughter of a prominent Zoramite of Nephite lineage. She lures the missionary to her home. Through flattery and gentle mockery, the attendees convince Corianton to be the guest of honor at a party. Corianton gets drunk, passes out, and may have had sex with a young servant girl. (Roberts is perhaps deliberately vague on this.) The party seems a rather drab affair, with lots of drinking, arguing, impotent lust and passing out. It sounds like a typical frat party; in this sense, Roberts may have been a bit of a prophet.

In any event, the next day an outraged, and very sorrowful, Shiblon, comes to pick up his brother. Shiblon is full of condemnation for Corianton’s hosts, with a few choice words for the woman his brother is infatuated over. Corianton, hung over and angry, encourages his hosts to beat up Shiblon, who is jailed but eventually escapes. As a result of Corianton’s carousing, the missionary effort to the Zoramites is ruined and the missionaries are laughingstocks in the manner of a “Weiner” or a “Spitzer,” or maybe a “Jim Bakker.” (This shows that Roberts’ understood the media even long ago, and the power of bad press and bad public relations.)

Mortified by how he destroyed the missionary effort, and embarrassed to learn that the girl he has the hots for turned out to be a high-class hooker, Corianton “resolves” to leave his new friends. However, his “repentance” is dwarfed by his lust, and after a few sweet words by Isabel, the prostitute — who tells him she wants to go away and live a righteous life with him — Corianton takes off with her for some serious sex.

After a couple of days fornicating in a palatial home, Corianton asks Isabel to go off with him to a more plain existence. She refuses, throws herself to a wealthy patron, and has Corianton beaten and expelled back to his country. In an interesting fictional take, she tartly informs a defeated, stunned Corianton that she was motivated to betray him due to her anger over the death of Korihor, whom she had admired.

There is a doctrine in Mormonism called “godly sorrow,” that means that there needs to be a sufficient amount of regret and sorrow before true repentance is achieved. In this Mormon “potboiler” novella, which was originally published as a fictional series in an LDS publication (serializations for novels prior to publication was common in the 19th century) it’s clear that Roberts wants to draw Korihor’s fate (in the novel he is driven insane after being struck dumb) as an analogy to Corianton. After being beaten and thrown back into the lands of his brethren, Roberts writes: “Left more dead than alive by his hard journey and merciless beating, Corianton lay in a stupor for some time. Regaining consciousness he wandered, he knew not whither, but at last came to one of the chief towns of the people of Ammon; where a large number of the outcast Zoramites had been given a resting place. In passing through the streets he was recognized by some of them, and the news of his return soon spread throughout the city.”

Soon after our novella ends, with Corianton forgiven for his sins and being deceived by a “wanton” woman. He reforms and becomes a missionary with a legitimate testimony.

It’s a fun novel to read, far more interesting as an historical curio, an example of very early Mormon kitsch literature. There’s a second act to Roberts’ tale, though. The novella was adapted into a play, and no doubt entertained many LDS patrons in Utah theaters. What’s even more interesting, though, is a film adaptation of “Corianton: A Nephite Tale,” was made in 1931. It was titled, “Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love,” and apparently was a big flop, overwrought, melodramatic and extremely forced in its preaching. (I have not seen the film, although I want to and will make it a personal goal to view.)

The film, thought lost, was revived when a 16-millimeter print was donated to BYU’s library. A few years ago, it had a couple of screenings. Here is a kind but frank review from the Deseret News. An excellent overview of the novella, play and film by Keepapitchinin’s Ardis E. Parshall — with far more information than this post — is here. (It includes the nugget of information that the play made it to Broadway, but only because it was self-financed). Finally, Wikipedia has a small mention of the film here. One more mention is here.

If you want to read Roberts’ kitschy faith-promoter, and I recommend it, get it for free on your Kindle or go here.

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7 Responses to 120-plus years ago, B.H. Roberts was writing Mormon kitsch literature

  1. Steve says:

    Typo: “Soon after our novella ends, with Corianton forgiven for his sons”

    And you’ve got Weiner and Spitzer but no Vitter (he seems the most natural fit here)? I guess you know your audience.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      Glad to see you are keeping an eye on the conservative media bias. My bias was reaching into the past few weeks. While we’re at it, though, we can include Sanford as well.

      • Steve says:

        Don’t forget the idiot mayor of San Diego (I can’t even remember his name). Kinda sad how easy it is to come up with these guys.

  2. JJ Feinauer says:

    Isn’t his name Chris Heimerdinger?

  3. Bob Becker says:

    Mr. Roberts was also prophetic in forecasting Soap Opera, which his tale very much resembles….

    • Doug Gibson says:

      That’s a good point, Bob. When I have time, likely well into the future, it would be interesting to study the serialized novels of the 19th century that were of a soap opera type. We have the penny westerns (Buffalo Bill …) that pre-date the westerns, action silents of the early 2oth century.

  4. Pingback: This Week in Mormon Literature, Oct. 1, 2013 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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