The Atlantic Bookshelf: Conclusion
A wrap up of book reviews from Edward Weeks
A PRIZE book is never read with the same open-mindedness that we extend to the best of the newcomers; since it has received a premium we expect to derive from it a premium satisfaction; since it received its award from the hands of a Blue Ribbon Jury we are instantly put on our mettle to test, if not wholly to disapprove of, their judgment. Having noted this peculiar aggressiveness on the part of other readers and critics, I should be less than honest if I did not remind you of it before I scrutinize the Harper Prize Novel of 1939, Children of God, by Vardis Fisher.
‘The story of the Mormons,’ writes Bernard De Voto in the Saturday Review of Literature, ‘ is one of the great stories of American history. It has everything: mobbing and martyrdom, lust and murder and the vision of eternal life, tenderness and brutality and the deepest faith, frenzy and despair and prophecy, the drive Westward that is the basic experience of the American race, humble folk, adventurers, criminals, traitors, villains, great men, men drunk on cruelty, men drunk on Godhead, great bravery, great suffering, great betrayal, insanity, starvation, massacre — all perfumed with heaven and high-lighted by the fires of hell.’
That is a good piece of prose, and if Vardis Fisher’s style were as good as Mr. DeVoto’s I should be better prepared to like his Children of God. This story of Mormonism, from the early visions of Joseph Smith in 1820 to the conservative reaction of 1890, is by intent a wide, panoramic picture of emotional and often brutal American life. As such it will be differently interpreted by two sets of readers. Those who know the history of the Latter-day Saints will naturally translate into Mr. Fisher’s pages the color and knowledge of the source material which they already possess. Whereas readers like myself, who have only the most elementary knowledge of the subject, must ask rather more of the novelist: we question not the accuracy of his source material, but rather the degree of skill with which that source material has been heated and fused into the semblance of life.
If the accounts of American revivals are to be trusted, the life that kindled the religious heat wave of the nineteenth century was both very hot and very turbulent. And surely in that fire Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was a flaming brand. But in Mr. Fisher’s pages Joseph simply doesn’t flame. I don’t feel his heat, his power, his inspiration. This Joseph to me seems an obdurate faker, with a stubborn capacity for giving and receiving pain.
Admittedly the faulty vision may be mine, but if so I am equally myopic about Brigham Young, Oliver Cowdery, and Sidney Rigdon. These men all made converts in their day. ‘Three hundred followers.’ writes Mr. Fisher, ‘sprang to their feet and packed their belongings as if God Himself had thundered the message from heaven.’ Maybe so. But it is not enough to tell it. We must be made to see and feel how they did it and that I doubt if this novel accomplishes. The scope of the book and number of its people have produced an objectivity scaling down the figures until what you see is a squirming mass of energy but little individuality.
The energy is there, sure enough. It shows in the rough-and-tumble vernacular, excellent for all its repetition: it invigorates the minor characters; best of all, it bursts out with great vividness in the mob scenes — the court trial of Joseph, the tar-and-feathering, the raids on the Mormon communities, the trials and triumphs of the way to Utah. Were the energy which finds such sure expression in this conflict and violence equally amenable to tenderness and laughter, this book would be once again as meaningful.