U.S. Intellectual History Blog

My Adventures with Utah

Ben Lomond Utah[Things have been, I think, a little bleak recently on the academic politics front. I offer this more autobiographical/historiographical reflection as a little more lighthearted fare.]

It is easy to feel forgotten in Utah.

That is the story one gets from the first few chapters of a great biography I am currently reading: The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard DeVoto, written by the novelist (and DeVoto’s longtime friend) Wallace Stegner. After a couple of establishing shot paragraphs, Stegner launches into DeVoto’s story at a desperate point: “In the late summer of 1920, in one half of a nondescript duplex house at 2561 Monroe Avenue, one of Ogden’s most gifted sons was undergoing a nervous breakdown.”

2561 Monroe Avenue—since rechristened Monroe Boulevard—is now underneath an elementary school, and sits across from a pharmacy and a laundromat, and cater-corner to a Mexican chicken shack that is called El Pollo Rico but which I always remember as Los Pollos Hermanos. It is about 6 minutes away from my house.

DeVoto, it is true, was not especially happy anywhere. Stegner’s title—which is a play off the name of the editor’s column in Harper’s, held previously by William Dean Howells and more recently by Thomas Frank—is an apt one; DeVoto had a back that prickled as soon as it leaned back into any surface. So it is probably unfair to judge Utah based on his experience, even if he is one of its most famous native children. (But just one of three great historians to hail from Ogden: the other two are Fawn Brodie and Daniel Walker Howe.)

But feeling forgotten is far more endemic here than nervous breakdowns, and perhaps that is not a contradiction—Utah is, after all, consistently ranked as one of the happiest states. When I was reading for my oral exams, I ran across this remarkable passage—this was before I moved to Utah, before I knew I’d ever have any firsthand experience of the state—from Jared Farmer’s excellent On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape. It has returned to me often:

By being typical and exceptional at the same time, Utah offers a valuable perspective on the United States. The religious element is of course distinctive, yet the main story of Utah’s formation—settlers colonizing Indian land, organizing a territory, dispossessing natives, and achieving statehood—could not be more American. Even so, the Great Basin, the Mormons’ region of settlement, remains outside the purview of mainstream American history. This relationship is best explained by geographic metaphors. The Great Basin is that large piece of North America that has no outlet to the sea. Its runoff flows inward, where it pools and evaporates. So it is with Utah history. Because of the LDS stronghold in Utah, and because of the LDS emphasis on history, the state sustains a steady flow of scholarship. However, the water lacks proper turbidity. It’s unnaturally pure because so many historians have filtered out non-Mormons and native peoples. Because of provincialism, scholars of Utah rarely push beyond the rim of their basin. They write for an audience of Mormons. History pools at their feet; their stream never reaches the ocean. Meanwhile, in the seaboard cities where opinion generally takes shape, most U.S. historians ignore Utah history and Mormon history. In their coast-to-coast historical surveys, scholars may occasionally glance down, may even notice a curious patch of blue—an inland sea of history. Yet whether through prejudice or indifference, they rarely descend for a closer look. They should. The Great Basin is the perfect place to be disorientated and reoriented. (14)

I have not been able to spend as much time reading Mormon history as I wanted to while living here, but I feel that Farmer’s assessment is both too harsh and too hopeful. There are any number of Mormon historians now who are churning up the waters of Great Basin history, and in some ways Farmer’s book, which was published in 2009, feels like it belongs to a considerably different era, one in which books like Farmer’s were exceedingly rare.[1]

Utah itself is changing considerably. I went to a very well-attended Pride parade in downtown Salt Lake City yesterday morning; almost the first group to walk past was a cluster of Boy and Girl Scouts, and the largest group I saw was Mormons Building Bridges. It looked to me like the Boy Scouts participating were not doing so in an official capacity (i.e., with the sponsorship of their council) and Mormons Building Bridges is by no means an official LDS group, but given the history of the LDS Church and BSA on LGBT issues, the presence of anyone openly affiliated with these groups was both meaningful and significant.

But even if, both socially and historiographically, Utah is seeing great changes, Farmer’s last bit about the Great Basin being “the perfect place to be disorientated and reoriented” reads to me too much like jacket copy, and not like a lived or earned insight. Thousands of non-Utahns experience my chunk of Utah each winter; they come for the skiing—we have, I am told by the state’s license plates, the Best Snow on Earth. I don’t know if you get “disorientated and reoriented” by skiing. I suppose if you take a tumble you do; enough medevac helicopters fly into the canyon to make me believe that something goes on out there. But in the more intellectual or spiritual sense that I think Farmer means, I’m just not sure that the disorientation/reorientation sequence is the case for very many folks.

Utah is either a holiday or a holy land, depending on your reason for coming here, and neither makes for a strong sense of orientation (dis- or re-); neither seeks—rather both eschew—the rest of the world as a reference point. If you’re here, as I am, for a different reason altogether, I’m not wholly sure what the feeling is, but it is not one of being mapped in relation to the rest of the States. Out here what I don’t feel is distance, like Utah is just a certain number of finite miles from other places. Farmer calls it provincialism but that’s a weak word for a strong condition; provinces have metropoles, and why should Zion (or Snowbasin) need a metropole?

Yet Utah must surely be the only axis mundi with a chip on its shoulder about not being covered enough in the New York Times. And, on the other hand, at times Utah appears to want to blend in or to carry a double identity—as if Utah is the Clark Kent to Deseret’s Superman. Indeed, I’ve often wondered why Brigham Young chose such a prosaic name for Salt Lake City, rather than drawing on any scriptural antecedent or inspiration. That blandness at the very heart of Mormonism contrasts strongly today with what is a fairly well-known trend toward idiosyncratic naming and spelling practices for children among Utah Mormons. (This is a highly entertaining video regarding that subject.) There’s a sort of oscillation—which often attaches to prominent Mormons like Mitt Romney—between wanting to appear wholly distinctive and wanting to fade into the mainstream.

In that regard, I read a Christopher Lasch essay today—it’s collected in his 1973 The World of Nations but was originally published in the New York Review of Books in January 1967—in which he made a strong case for the continuity of the LDS Church and the history of American Protestantism. He didn’t mean that positively. “In the history of Anglo-American society, the Mormons are so clearly a pathological symptom that a historian could not address himself [sic] to the Mormons, it would seem, without asking himself what kind of society could have produced them.” Moreover, Lasch believed that the LDS Church hierarchy had made a sort of craven accommodation with modernity, allowing the Church to retreat solely to matters of interior conscience and communal therapy; he nettled at the way that the Church held on to its “absurd theology” while jettisoning its vision of remaking a society on a unique, utopian model, “leaving the monstrosity of a church which is fundamentalist in most respects but which has nevertheless come to share the central feature of religious liberalism, the comforting illusion that religion is an affair of the spirit alone having nothing to do with the rest of life. From posing a challenge to the American way of life Mormonism has become a defense of its most reactionary aspects.”

What is so interesting about Lasch’s essay—if you have an interest in Lasch, it’s a valuable one to read, containing the seeds of quite a bit of his later thought—is that the intolerance he displays is quite peculiar: in contrast to the kind of exoticism (even orientalism) which has long pervaded most anti-Mormon discourse, Lasch insisted both that Mormonism could only have been a product of nineteenth-century American Protestantism and that it has only gotten more American and more Protestant over time. The problem for Lasch is that the LDS Church kept what to him were the weirdest and worst parts of its original incarnation (its “absurd theology”) while grafting on the worst and most typical part of new-style religion.

But even if you don’t share Lasch’s particular feelings about the developing role of religion over time (or his arrogance regarding Mormonism), the dialectic he identifies—the seemingly random interweaving of extravagantly distinctive elements with almost equally extravagant blandness—is a fairly consistent pattern in Utah’s history and one that, in its contradictoriness, is often easier for outsiders to ignore than to understand.

One last note that to me seems to sum up a great deal: Utahns, especially Mormons, have a sort of jokingly legendary passion for Jell-o—green Jell-o, to be precise. On the one hand, what could be more banal—Jell-o is, what, the mayonnaise of desserts?—but to fetishize it? What is that? Utah’s junior Senator, Mike Lee, has a weekly open house for constituents where green Jell-o is served; it is, as he says, the “official state snack,” elevated to that distinction by an act of the state legislature.

What in the world does one do with a place like this?

[1] The book also treats a significantly different part of the state: it is about Utah County, which is the home of BYU and the Provo-Orem metropolitan area. For reference, Weber County, which is where Ogden’s located, is about 54% LDS (or Mormon); Salt Lake County is 51%; but Utah County is 82%. (source)

One Thought on this Post

  1. I really enjoyed reading this piece. I have to also say that it has me thinking about the importance of place in intellectual history–how different parts of the United States relate to each other, for example. Being a Southern historian I have to consider this all the time, but your take on Utah and Mormonism is fascinating.

    I also know I need to check out that Christopher Lasch essay. It sounds like a fascinating piece.

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