Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region

Title: Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region
Author: Ethan R. Yorgason

Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Genre: Nonfiction Year
Published: 2003
Number of Pages: 262
Binding: Paperback
ISBN10: 0-252-02853-8
Price: $25.00

Reviewed by Lisa Torcasso Downing for the Association for Mormon Letters

As I read Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region, one fact nagged at me.  Author Ethan R.  Yorgason earned in Ph.D.  in Geography from the University of Illinois, while I received an MA in English from Texas A&M-Commerce.  I was clearly mindful of the fact that I don’t possess the credentials to review this book within its arena of scholarship, and yet I was attracted to the text because of how I might use its premise to inform my own work as a fiction writer.  As such, this review will include a brief sketch of major points, followed by my assessment of the text’s value as a research tool for members of the Association for Mormon Letters who are writers seeking to inform their work with the historical.

If, like me, you’ve ever wondered how Mormons went from being what I consider sexual renegades (think polygamy) to the stalwart keepers of Victorian mores; or how Mormons vaulted off communalism, flew right over socialism as if it didn’t exist, and landed solidly in market-driven capitalism; or how the culture actively harvested suffrage, only to shuck the notion of women in the work place, then Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region may be for you.  Yorgason considers the trajectory of these issues during the years 1880 to 1920, identifying them as the four decades which transformed the Mormon culture from its early, frontier form into a more modern and Americanized form.  His interest, however, seems less in explaining what caused these shifting perspectives as in tracking when changes began to manifest, be it in public discourse or home literature.  The book is not overly-long and is divided into five chapters, though both the Introduction and Afterword beg to be read for their candid insight into both topic and author.

Throughout the text, Yorgason’s interest centers on what he calls the Mormon--Non-Mormon debate, identifying the mutual push and pull of each population’s self-interest as the formative power of regional identity.  He spends little to no time considering other possible formative factors, including oppositional factors within the culture itself, but admits this as a reasonable limitation.

In chapter 1, "The Region as the Unit of Analysis," Yorgason justifies and explains regional theory as used in the field of geography today.  He argues that place is defined less by its physical location as by the societal interplay of those who live in that place.  Hence the Mormon culture region of 1880-1920 is not considered Utah, but rather the places where Mormon culture dominates.  Interestingly, Yorgason points out that "regions are like conversations" (20) and that region (think society) alters through and because of that conversation.  The chapter was easy for this layman to comprehend and effectively established the boundaries for the remaining text.

As an LDS woman, I particularly appreciated Chapter 2, "Moderating Feminist Imaginations," for the succinct way it encapsulated the societal development and regression of Mormon women during 1880-1920.  In it, Yorgason does an exemplary job showcasing the unique feminist arguments made in the Mormon culture region, where Mormon women argued in favor of the woman’s right to vote in order to support the polygamous way of life, an idea which seems counter-intuitive to today’s feminist.  Mormon women argued that, in polygamy, women had more independence from their husbands than women in monogamous marriages, a situation they felt clearly demonstrated that their gender could successfully manage the world without the constant aid or advice of men.  Yorgason also follows the official and unofficial statements made by the male church hierarchy, not flinching when official support for women’s rights wanes post-polygamy.  His scope is vast--too vast to fully delineate in one brief paragraph--but basically he touts the opportunities of regional Mormon feminism (34-72) and marks the path that leads to the eventual, if not inevitable, loss of what he calls Mormon feminism’s radical side (48-72).  He saves a well-reasoned explanation of how LDS woman successfully compartmentalized their submission to a religious patriarchy from their quest for political independence.  He writes in response to those who question whether or not Mormon women of this era were "true" feminists: "One of the main lessons history teaches is that people usually operate with multiple, not wholly compatible identities and loyalties.  Most of the time, people function without needing to subordinate one identity to another.  In some cases, however, people are forced to choose one over others.  The identity subordinated depends on the situation as much as on the strength of the identity.  In such cases, it is not altogether fair to question the reality of that subordinated identity." (73)

Chapter 3, "Privatizing Mormon Communitarianism," marks the shifting approach to financial independence in the post-United Order era.  Yorgason writes: "The major turn-of-the century change was not that Mormons suddenly became capitalists.  Many church members had already successfully embraced such principles.  Rather, the key transformation was further acceptance of capitalist cultural logic" (127).  To demonstrate this shift to capitalist cultural logic, Yorgason begins by highlighting the Mormon attraction to self-sufficiency as a religious tenet, if not explicit doctrine.  He then notes that the affirmation to be self-sufficient changes as Non-Mormons push capitalism over communitarianism and provide more and more wage-earning jobs for LDS youth, converts and women.  He establishes that Mormon loyalty to church and family made the inclusion of loyalty to company nearly second nature.  As the 20th century bloomed, the young men were increasingly reminded "of the LDS scriptural assertion that women and children have claim on men for maintenance" ( 85).  Bearing that admonition as social pressure, Mormons began to accept the idea of wage-earning jobs, even if offered by Non-Mormons, as preferential to farming because the stability of income allowed them to follow God’s will by providing for their families.

Chapter 4: "Re-presenting America" demonstrates the very different ways Non-Mormons and Mormons viewed what it meant to be an American and marks the eventual merging of ideas by 1920.  In 1880, non-Mormons accused Mormons of being unpatriotic, arguing, essentially, that they could not have two masters; the Mormon fidelity to church authority precluded fidelity to country.  Consequently: "Mormons responded, almost incomprehensibly to many non-Mormons, that they were the true patriots.  Mormons felt that their struggles to live their religion in a hostile environment and establish a good, decent society made them more loyal to the principles of the nation than many non-Mormons were." (131) Yorgason admits that Mormons did more of the changing on this issue, partly because the church needed to be perceived as nationally loyal in order to survive.  But non-Mormons were motivated by the idea of statehood.  They actively began to de-emphasize differences between themselves and the Mormons and to showcase the establishment of the Utah territory as an important part of American progress.

When Mormon polygamy was ended in 1890, so ended the church’s own political party.  By 1896, Mormon politics more clearly mirrored the mainstream; the territory became a state, but only after Mormons and non-Mormons moved toward one another.  After statehood was achieved, many old fears remained.  Yorgason points out that some non-Mormons may have used the Smoot hearings (1904-1907) to incite national fear that the Mormons "would revert to their nineteenth-century practices" (168), but "Smoot’s lawyers presented witness after witness, both regional Mormons and non-Mormons, who claimed that the vast majority of Mormons were no longer politically influenced by the church.  Instead, Mormons had become loyal Democrats or Republicans" (159).  Compromise won out and the region gained a more unified national identity.

In Chapter 5: "A New Type of Home," Yorgason notes that, in 1880, both Mormons and non-Mormons battled one another over politics and ideology in order to "protect the virtue of their own home" (174).  But there are many types of "home." Certainly, by 1920, the Mormon family and home came to more closely resemble the non-Mormon homes of both the region and the United States.  But so did the regional home.  The church’s political power now more closely resembled the power of other protestant churches and, with the cessation of polygamy, gender roles soon became more Americanized.  But Americanization of the Utah region, Yorgason asserts, did not extinguish its uniqueness.  The region remained predominantly a Mormon home, a Zion with a complicated history, and the non-Mormons living there seemed relegated to "regional boosterism" (182).

Mormon and non-Mormon homes, be they familial or geographic, may have seemed much alike by 1920, but "clannishness" (183) remained.  "But both sides, by and large, determined not to let .  .  .differences come in the way of regional cooperation and peace" (183).  In other words, a parallel sense of home seemed to have been established as cooperation replaced contention, as compromise took root.  As I reflect, "parallelism" is, in fact, the term that best defines the organization of Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region.  Yorgason attacks each issue in his chapters, essentially (but not perfectly) moving from 1880 through 1920, so that each topic is received, as it were, running on a parallel track when, of course, only one track existed.

At times, these several tracks were difficult for me to envision as a unified whole.  I often found myself longing for a timeline, ala D.  Michael Quinn in both his Mormon Hierarchy books.  I have, through the years, reverted back to Quinn’s timelines for easy reference, a thing I can’t see myself doing with Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region.  It is not designed so that a person could easily look, for instance, at the years 1885 to 1890 and discover with ease how women’s suffrage, communalism, and the Mormon/American image intersect.  Yorgason’s text may be exemplary in its field, but as a ready reference for the fiction writer, it lags.

Of course, it is unfair to judge a text according to a standard it did not set out to achieve.  And I certainly am not attempting to dissuade any writer/researcher from investigating this text; I found it to be very effective in giving me an overarching sense of the era.  But if a writer is looking for specific events to include in plotting, or for insight into the cause and effect behind how the transformations were made within the Mormon culture region, then this text may not be the best choice.

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