Letter to Jarvis Thurston
May 24, 1943
Dear Mr. Thurston:
I have long intended to thank you for your understanding and uniformly generous reviews of my stuff and defense of me generally in Ogden. I am once more in debt to you now for an excellent and unquestionably over-kind review of my new book [The Year of Decision: 1846]. But what finally pricks me out of amiable intention into action is not that review but a clipping which I take to be from Frank Francis' column in which he quotes you. I gather that frank had said something about me in his column previously but, if he did, my clipping bureau missed it. Well, you bring up the question of those two early articles of mine and I'm in a mood to make a statement about them. I make it to you, to show you how I feel and think about them today, for your private information. If at any time you care to quote any part, or all, of what I say, you have my full permission to do so. But I am not interested in your doing so: I am making an explanation to a man whom I recognize as a supporter of mine in my home town.
Many years have passed since I would have attempted any justification whatever of those two articles. They were ignorant, brash, prejudiced, malicious, and, what is worst of all, irresponsible. They were absolutely in the Mercury mood of illegitimate and dishonest attack. They represented the only occasions in my career when I yielded to that mood. I have spent practically all my literary life attacking other manifestations of that mood, and I have always regarded my yielding to it on those occasions as an offense which can be neither justified nor palliated.
There was, and doubtless remains, much in the life and culture of Utah which could be legitimately criticized. Some of the things I said in those articles made points which would have been legitimate criticism if I had said them fairly and objectively -- and if the entire mood and atmosphere of the articles had not been atrociously offensive. It was, and doubtless remains, thoroughly possible to oppose some of the tendencies and manifestations of civilization in Utah on reasonable, empirical grounds. But that consideration is irrelevant, since my criticism and opposition were embodied in a lot of prejudice, irresponsible humor, and a general yanking out of shirttails and setting them on fire.
I cannot now remember whether I realized as much when I was writing. Certainly I realized it soon afterward. I believe that everything I have written about Utah and the Mormon Church ever since has been fair-minded and objective. I go farther than that: I think that everything I have written about them since those articles has been informed by a basic sympathy. But again, that does not matter...except that very little I have since written about them has been taken into account by the people who go on denouncing me.
Why did I write them, and write them as I did? Well, for one thing I was a young buck, intoxicated with the newly achieved privilege of publication, full of wild and yeasty irreverence, and obviously gifted at burlesque and extravaganza. (That last, I may say parenthetically, is an embarrassing, occasionally dangerous gift. It has recurrently thrown me throughout my career and even now sometimes prods me into writing passages which react against the serious intention of my work. We have been told that a sense of humor is fatal to a career in politics. It is a handicap to any career in literature and an extremely serious handicap to a career in social criticism. It has joined with a habit of using concrete words to keep my stature in contemporary letters considerably smaller than it would have been if I had expressed myself solemnly and abstractly. In beautiful letters, the light touch is dangerous.) For another thing, I was, if a cocky young fool, also an over-sensitive young fool -- and I had, or thought I had, been widely snooted and derided in Utah for presuming to desire a career as a writer. Ogden, Utah generally, is a far more sophisticated, far more cultivated society now than it was when I was growing up there. In my adolescence I was certainly the only person in the state, male or female, who aspired to such a career. The fact that such an ambition is now fairly common there and is treated as a matter of course is a sign, not that I was wrong and the attitude toward me right, but that the local culture has progressed in thirty-odd years. At any rate, I was widely treated as a fool on the one hand, for it must be foolish of me to suppose that I could ever be a writer, and as a kind of pansy on the other hand, for obviously only the epicene would aspire to a career so obviously trivial and even sissy as that of writer. I was, I repeat, widely snooted and derided on just those grounds. Now unquestionably I exaggerated this, but unquestionably also it existed. The attitude was not, at that time, confined to Utah; it was characteristic of provincial America everywhere although I think it was more evident in Utah than in most places, for Utah was nearer than most places to the pioneer society in which literary activity has always been considered foolish and sissy. I resented it violently -- much more than I should have resented it if I had been older, wiser, more cultivated myself, or more sophisticated. So I reacted against it when I came to write those articles. In some degree they were acts of self-vindication, in some degree acts of revenge.
Later on, I deeply regretted having written them. I do not regret them now. I conceive that the damage they did to Utah was nil -- was wholly non-existent. (In all those years of the Mercury's slam-bang, indiscriminate derision of American life, was any attack on any community written that is now remembered in the community attacked, save only mine? I doubt it. An antiquarian, a historian of that period, I am familiar with most of those attacks and as I go about the country I inquire about them. I never find anyone except antiquarians and historians who remembers them. And most of those people do not remember them at first hand but have encountered them in research.) They did Utah no harm and they did me much good. For one thing they succeeded in rousing a historian's conscience in me, so that I have never again written anything without knowing what I was talking about. But what is much more important, they have enabled me to understand that period, the youth and young manhood of my own generation, as I should never have been able to understand it if I had not both written and repented them. They were absolutely and altogether of my literary generation. The revolt against the home town and the dishonest attack on it are type-specimens, absolute stigmata, of the period. My own career in letters has been in absolute opposition to the main literary current of my time. From my second novel on to my present book and the one now in manuscript, I have set myself to oppose the ideas, concepts, theories, sentiments, and superstitions of the official literature of the United States between the two wars. If I have any significance as a writer, it derives entirely from that fact. And that fact in turn rests, intellectually, on two realizations: my realization of what I had done in writing those articles and my realization of what Van Wyck Brooks had done in evolving and elaborating his system of thinking about American culture. I could not have understood my literary generation, and certainly could not have taken a stand in opposition to it, without either experience.
So much for my part. Let me add what I believe to be true about the reception of those articles in Utah and their subsequent reputation there.
We cannot imagine those articles being written today: the world has changed too much. Mutatis mutandis, granting the idioms and sentiments of this later time, if the equivalent of those articles were to be published today, they would, I think, cause considerably less stir and offense in Utah. The state has grown more sophisticated, it has come to understand more what intellectual and literary discussion are, it has become at least a little more tolerant. More people are accustomed to the play and interchange and expression of ideas. Ideas are more likely to be received as ideas, not epithets, not insults, not imputations of dishonor. The booster state of mind, which in the West of the 1920s was the equivalent of the vigilante state of mind in earlier days, has lapsed considerably. If I or someone else were to say the same things today, in today's idioms, there would be a lot less fuss.
And yet it is true, I think, that Utah, and especially the Mormon culture, is extremely sensitive and intolerant to criticism and even to difference of opinion in which there is no criticism whatever. That is probably true of the West in general, as distinguished from other sections, even the South, but it is more true of Utah and the Mormons than of the rest of the West. I have been, not surprised, but exceedingly interested to see the old patterns repeated in the comments I get, in correspondence mostly, about my current book. There can be no question whatever that that book contains the most sympathetic treatment of the Mormons ever published by a Gentile. Any dispassionate mind need only compare it with, say, Linn or Werner. It is packed full of the most flagrant and even fulsome praise of the Mormons, condemnation of their oppressors, admiration of their achievements, sympathy with their suffering, patient exposition of their point of view. Yet I receive a steady stream of vilification on the old, familiar grounds (you're a liar, you're a mobocrat, you're a homosexual, you're a publicity seeker, you're a cheap sensationalist, you're a defiler of the prophet and an author of filthy pornography, etc.), the Deseret Book Company holds up its order until it determines whether the book is sanitary or should be burnt by the public hangman (and how it made up its mind I haven't bothered to investigate), and somebody to me unknown sends my publisher a copy of a radio script which discusses the book purely in terms of those two old articles, as if there were nothing else in it. Except for you, nobody in the state reviews the book. Except for three or four people, and they friends of mine mostly, everyone who writes to me damns me for having blasphemed the religion of which, it is repeatedly pointed out, my mother was a communicant.
Now in the first place I think it is true, as you say in Frank Francis' column, that most of these people who are so sore at me have not read the articles. They know my name as that of a son of a bitch who once wrote a lot of damned lies about Utah, and that relieves them of any obligation to know either what those damned lies were or what the present book is. But in the second place, it is lugubriously true that the orthodox Mormon mind cannot tolerate any objective treatment of Mormon history whatever. All treatment of the Mormons must completely accept the Mormon doctrinal, metaphysical, and supernatural assumptions. If it does not accept them, then it is ipso facto prejudiced, unjust, and libelous. All Mormon actions have always been pure and sanitary; all criticism of them has always been evil and mendacious. Who is not for them is against them. That is why the fact that I have presented the Mormons to the readers of American history more sympathetically and with a more careful exposition of their relationships to their time than anyone had done before me goes without recognition in the abuse heaped on me. It is enough that I do not accept the Mormon assumptions. This is what I have sometimes called the Mormon inferiority complex. Something of the sort is, of course, part of all religious orthodoxy. Yet it is perfectly possible for any writer to handle any other religion in America objectively and to be answered objectively in turn. It is not possible of the Mormons, and that is further evidence of their cultural lag.
All this makes no difference to me. I have no desire for Mormon praise and no need of Mormon approval. Neither do I desire the people of my home town to pay me any respect whatever. It certainly matters nothing to them that I have become a writer and, as one, have frequently written about the West. I should rather have them friendly toward me than otherwise, but I have become so thoroughly a part of a different society that I am fundamentally indifferent. I dislike it when I get a letter of fulsome praise from some Ogdenite who has seen my name in the papers and is impressed by the publicity without giving a damn for the work and, most likely, without having read it. To the same degree, I dislike it when I get a letter full of equally ignorant abuse. I should like to know that there are a few people in Utah who like me, without reference to my work, and a few who like my work, without reference to me. And I should like those who dislike my work to dislike it with reference to the work itself, not with reference to idiocies I committed long ago, which they may know, besides, only by hearsay.
When one is young and idiotic there may be some ambition to be known as a final authority, an important writer, a man of distinction and publicity or even fame. It doesn't last: one matures. One comes to understand that what counts is the honesty and thoroughness of the work. I should find it hard to state exactly what my ambition as a mature man is. It would run something like this: to do good work, to do work in which I may take some satisfaction and my friends some pleasure; at the utmost, as Frost once said of Robinson, to put something on the record that will not easily be dislodged.
All this doubtless sounds vague and inconclusive. Some weeks ago I came down with a streptococcus infection, the most serious illness I can remember having had, and my mind has lacked teeth ever since. I began with some notion of expressing my thanks to you and my feeling that you read me with much more understanding and sympathy than most writers get from most readers, and that in a very warming way you are a friend of mine.