Vardis Fisher's Mormon Heritage Re-Examined:

A Critical Response to Leonard Arrington and Jon Haupt

Vardis Fisher, from the dustjacket of Rediscovering Vardis Fisher: Centennial Essays

Vardis Fisher

In the early 1970's Leonard Arrington and one of his graduate students, Jon Haupt, studied the question of Vardis Fisher's Mormon heritage and then presented a paper on the topic at the first meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters, subsequently published in BYU Studies (Autumn 1977). A few years later, Arrington and Davis Bitton referred to the article in The Mormon Experience, calling it "revisionist."[1] The implication that the article corrected an erroneous view of Fisher is inaccurate.

Arrington and Haupt set out "to establish three points: (1) Fisher was not an apostate . . . (2) Fisher's outlook on life and history was religious . . . definitely encompassing Latter-day Saint belief and practice. And (3) Fisher was a pioneer in applying modern psychology to the Mormon experience, both past and present, and in that sense . . . a Mormon literary prophet" (p. 28). Unfortunately, they establish none of these points in their essay.

Aside from some provocative genealogical research, the essay has little to offer the serious Fisher scholar. They have taken for their thesis not the nature and degree of Mormonism's influence on Vardis Fisher, a worthwhile question that still has received only scant attention, but the astonishing claim that Vardis Fisher was a covert sympathizer, supportive of the church and secretly pleased that his sister Irene was planning to do his temple work for him after his death.

The reader is told that Fisher mellowed with the passing years and finally came to accept his fellowship in the church, even though he never openly testified to his change of heart. Someone unfamiliar with Fisher's life and work might accept this assertion. However, anyone who has read much of that work is left baffled by the failure of their reading experience to coincide with the assertions of Arrington and Haupt.

The Arrington/Haupt essay has generated a great deal of controversy, including a vehement denunciation of the article and the church itself by Fisher's widow, Opal Laurel Holmes.[2] Readers unfamiliar with Fisher's work, uninformed about Mormonism, or familiar with Arrington's scholarly credentials might logically have assumed that truth, justice, and right probably lay on the scholars' side of the question rather than the strident widow's. Before I had read the article, I assumed that the question of Fisher's Mormon roots was "covered," if perhaps with some understandable bias on the part of Arrington and Haupt. It was with some surprise that I learned what is actually contained in their essay, and I have set out to correct the misconceptions it contains for two reasons — first, because the question of Mormon influences on Fisher is an important one, worthy of extended study, and their essay can be extremely misleading for the unwary scholar. Second, because Fisher, for all his prickly irascibility, was a dedicated scholar himself, and he is deserves a defense based on the facts.

I do not intend to denounce the Mormon church, Professor Arrington or Jon Haupt. It is unwise and unfair to presume that Professor Arrington was serving as a mouthpiece of the church, even though he is identified as Church Historian in a note to the article. Some of the issues surrounding the essay are not political but scholarly, and those issues deserve reasoned discussion. There are three sorts of scholarly problem in the essay. First, there is the approach used to gather information. This weakens both the biographical and the textual research, and a full understanding of the problem even threatens the credibility of the valuable genealogical data at the beginning of the essay. Second, there are logical errors in the use of that information; and third, there are the more basic assumptions and misinterpretations, as basic as the question of what it means to "be a Mormon," that generate some of the authors' most dubious conclusions. Let us begin with the problems in their approach to the biographical questions surrounding Fisher's Mormon background.

The authors contend, rather paradoxically, that Fisher's personal background was only "peripherally" Mormon, a contention they put forth in defiance of their own genealogical evidence to the contrary. The claim of "peripheral-ness" is supported solely by correspondence in 1976 between the authors and Fisher's surviving sibling, Irene. In the absence of confirming biographical evidence, it is extremely unwise to build a thesis around the claims of a sister who seems to have spent most of her life at philosophical odds with her famous brother. Fisher's widow, who was married to Fisher for the last thirty years of his life, is not cited as a source[3]. None of his three living sons, nor his nephew, nor his second wife, Margaret Trusler, is cited. None of his personal friends in the Hagerman area, nor his literary acquaintances — such as Wallace Stegner, John R. Milton, Frederick Manfred — are cited. Aside from Irene's memory, only textual references and genealogical data are cited in support of the claim that Fisher was (1) more committed to the Church than his ancestors ("with a tradition of being on the fringes"), and (2) secretly sympathetic to the Mormon people and their church.

What information might have been culled from supplemental biographical research? Ms. Holmes has stated in her press release that Fisher's "contempt for the Mormon hierarchy, the Mormon 'religion'. . . . and the Mormon way of life" was unmitigated, that both he and his immediate family were indeed only peripherally part of Mormon culture and that he was passionately anti-Mormon. These counterclaims may be overstated but unlike the assertions in the essay, they have the unmistakable ring of truth. The "Heritage" essay implies, specifically, that Fisher's influence resulted in the baptism of two of his three sons. According to Ms. Holmes, the eldest son was baptized through the intercession of Fisher's mother while the boy was living with Irene, and without Fisher's knowledge. Fisher's third son, also mentioned in the essay (but identified as his "second"), is also a Mormon, according to Ms. Holmes, but he joined the church two years after his father's death! If Ms. Holmes' facts are correct, they must cast some doubt upon the essay's suggestion that the Mormonism of two of Fisher's three sons is evidence of "the basic devotion to Mormonism of an indulgent father"(28).

John Milton's interviews with Fisher, published in 1970, contain very little on Mormonism. Essentially, Fisher confirms his genealogical roots and denies any commitment to the Church. He refers to Irene as "my dear, devout sister,"[4] in the context of his own statement that all his family is Mormon except himself and his nephew, and immediately before making a joke about the Mormons and Catholics who are "trying to save me" as a result of the publication of the Testament of Man. That characterization of Irene may not clearly be negative and ironic, but a similar characterization which Arrington and Haupt themselves cite, Fisher's reference to her as "pious enough for the whole tribe," surely is clear. Arrington and Haupt somehow contrive to hear in this comment "a touch of pleasure and need," but the original context clarifies Fisher's meaning: the remark follows immediately after Fisher's description of himself as an atheist.[5] Milton himself, who knew Fisher in the years before Fisher's death, mentioned that Fisher once told him "the Mormons forced him out when he was teaching in Salt Lake," a fact which Wallace Stegner, former student of Fisher at the University of Utah, recalls in a soon-to-be published series of interviews,[6] a fact Fisher himself dramatized in his autobiographical fiction. The only other information Milton recalled was that "Vardis once said he was the only member of his family who was not Mormon."[7]

Wallace Stegner's memories are almost as distant as Irene's, from when he was a student of Fisher's at the University of Utah in the 1920s. In addition to the recollections in the interview manuscript, he describes Fisher's attitude toward Mormonism in valuable detail in a letter I shall quote from with his permission. In it, he offers the summary judgment that Fisher "turned on Mormonism all the qualities it had bred into him," and adds "I am persuaded that he never was tempted to return to the faith of his childhood,"[8] a presumption which, again, Fisher confirmed in his fiction, as we shall see when we examine the Tetralogy.

Admittedly, the authors may not have been able to secure some of the material I am citing. Ms. Homes, for instance, might well have been unwilling to cooperate with them, at least to the extent that she did with me. It could also be that some of the information I have from her is unreliable; I have not attempted to corroborate it with the surviving Fishers. However, what she has said at least bears some resemblance to the picture of Fisher's attitude toward the church as he fictionalizes it, in the Tetralogy and Orphans in Gethsemane, and the corroborating memories of Stegner and Milton suggest that to stake a thesis on the unreviewed, uncorroborated testimony of one person, and she a sister as biased, surely, as Ms. Holmes might be in the other direction, is extremely unwise.

Before moving on to the textual problems, I would like to discuss the logical problems that exist in the biographical material the essay uses as a foundation. First, and absolutely crucial to the argument and my response, is the mare's nest that Fisher himself created by writing and then revising books so blatantly autobiographical as the Tetralogy and Orphans in Gethsemane. Arrington and Haupt seem to assume throughout that we can read "Fisher" for "Hunter" and they use the books as sources of biographical information, even though their own investigation of Fisher's genealogy casts some doubt on the reliability of such a one-to-one identification.[9] To some extent, I have made the same assumption (though like them I will only identify Fisher and Hunter when it serves my argument to do so). Until Professor George F. Day's biography of Fisher is published, the question of Fisher's relationship to Vridar Hunter and the nature and degree of his authorial irony and distance must remain problematical.

However, there is no question that a comparison of Fisher's genealogy with Hunter's casts some doubt on the conclusions Arrington and Haupt draw about Fisher's upbringing, conclusions further vitiated by their own illogic. The essay establishes that Fisher's father was a third-generation Mormon, from a family devout enough that Vardis' grandfather was named Joseph ("perhaps named for Joseph Smith," the authors suggest) and his grand-uncle, Oliver Cowdery Fisher.[10] Vardis' father was born in the Ogden Valley, and named "Joseph Oliver." Joe had a younger brother named "Alma Lehi."[11] When Fisher fictionalized all this, he chose to transform his grandfather Joseph, who had been in real life a Mormon and a bishop, into a wandering mountain man who crossed the plains alone, seduced a Mormon girl away from a polygamist bishop, married her, and moved on to Idaho. The actual pattern of settlement, described in Arrington and Haupt's essay, suggests that the Fishers were a part of Brigham Young's plan for populating the Mormon outlands, and Fisher confirms that assessment in his interviews with John Milton.[12] Here, then, we see Fisher taking pains to downplay Hunter's Mormon roots. Alma Lehi, Fisher's uncle, becomes "Dock Hunter" as he appears in the Antelope Hills novels. Rosie O'Rourke, the Mormon girl the fictional grandfather Joe steals from her bishop, is clearly and identifiably Mormon in the novels, and her lusty, reprobate family is the bane of her daughter-in-law, Vridar's fundamentalist mother. Rosie's children are, like her, bawdy, foul-mouthed, selfish, nasty, and cruel Hobbesian naturals.

On the mother's side — Temperance Thornton Fisher, who becomes Prudence Bratton Hunter in the fiction — other problems arise. Temperance's father was an early convert, a Nauvoo resident, who took endowments in 1843 but joined the Strangites after Joseph Smith's death. However, the family came to Utah after Strang's death and then moved to Idaho. Even though Temperance was baptized at ten and, by Irene's testimony, some of her brothers and sisters "grew up to be church members," these facts suggest to the authors only "peripheral" involvement with the church. Yet it is "apostate" Prudence, not Joe, who tells Vridar at the end of In Tragic Life that he "must" accept his mission.

Arrington and Haupt insist that Fisher's background was only marginally Mormon — often in defiance of the facts. They mention that Fisher's father read to his children from the Mormon homilies known as the Doctrine & Covenants, that Fisher attended Mormon ward (parochial) schools in Annis and Rigby, and then they discount these influences, as if to underscore their implicit point, that young Vardis was more devout than his own family (p. 32). The genealogical evidence is, at the very least, ambiguous. Certainly to an interested non-Mormon this young man, get of two charter-families of the church, educated in church schools, exposed to "the D&C" throughout his youth, sent to live with his actively Mormon grandparents for part of his schooling, seems more than "on the fringes of Mormon culture," and one must wonder what the Mormon Fishers themselves would think of such a characterization of them. It seems more reasonable to describe Fisher as the product of a fairly typical frontier Mormon upbringing. On this single point of agreement, regarding Fisher's "lack" of Mormon background, both the scholars and Ms. Holmes happen to be wrong.

Since it is the purpose of the authors to demonstrate Fisher's empathy for the Mormon "outlook on life and history," their insistence on his marginal exposure to Mormonism seems at first a bit baffling. Their intentions become clear when we reach the breathtaking speculations on page 32. Here, in one paragraph, Arrington and Haupt make logical leaps that still leave this reader dizzy. In order to underscore a personal, chosen relationship to the LDS Church, they have downplayed the cultural influence. Now they move on to what are supposed to be Fisher's personal views. Clearly relying on Fisher's own characterization of "Vridar Hunter," they begin by describing the adolescent Fisher as "haunted by a sense of sin and guilt."[13]

They point out that Fisher had himself baptized at the age of twenty. Then we are told with no corroborating evidence, that "probably on Vardis' urgings" Joe and Temperance took the children to Salt Lake to be sealed to them. Since the crucial question so far has been just how orthodox the family was, that "probably" effectively destroys the whole point for providing this piece of information. If it was at Fisher's urging, that proves something; but if it was not, that supports precisely the opposite argument. The reader is urged to accept still a further speculation, that Fisher's adolescent "religious rejuvenation" (from a fallen condition we are, again, left to presume) "must have left a lasting impact." Of course it must. But what kind of impact? Ms. Holmes suggests an impact rather different than that surmised by the Mormon scholars: that subsequent to his baptism Fisher read the Book of Mormon in his newborn fervor but was appalled by its "preposterousness." Thus he began abandoning his childhood religion immediately after committing to it.[14] "A lasting impact" is an ambiguous thing. I was saved a half-dozen times as a teenager, and the lasting impact of that succession of redemptions, rebaptisms, and reaffirmations surely contributed to my own antipathy for organized religion, an antipathy my high-school exposure to Fisher's Testament of Man shaped, vivified, and confirmed.

Speculated evidence plays a central role in the Arrington/Haupt thesis regarding Fisher's relationship to the church. In addition to the unsupported surmises already cited above, there are others. Some involve reading between the lines of Fisher's public animosity toward Mormonism: "an undertone to all Fisher's outrages bespeaks an attachment," they tell us, supporting that statement with an anonymous [!] bit of marginalia from the University of Utah library that they seem to imply was probably written by Fisher himself. Others are simply generalizations supported by still more generalizations: "as he grew older he came to a greater harmony with his background. He was able to look at Mormon values and appreciate them," they assert. It would be helpful in understanding this particular generalization if the authors had supported it with some specific textual evidence, however limited. They don't.

Arrington and Haupt do not ignore the fact that Fisher's public utterances suggested a negative attitude toward the Mormon church. But their attempt to balance that fact with evidence of more positive feelings fails: both because the point is pushed too far and because the method of proof is invalid. They call Fisher's modus operandi "obscuring his relationship to the religion he had voluntarily espoused," and cite his sister's judgment (p. 28, n. 6) that Fisher's reason for not "wanting to be considered an active Latter-day Saint" was that, as she put it, "he did not wish anything he did or said to reflect with discredit on the church or his parents." Were this dictum, unsupported by Fisher's own confirmation, true, it would be an odd life indeed that Fisher led. Did he want to avoid discrediting church and family, there was a radical failure on Fisher's part to apply that inhibition to his writing and public utterances. Consider, for instance, the disjunction between this alleged concern and Fisher's remark, cited in the "Heritage" essay, that if he were to rewrite Children of God, he would "show Joseph Smith as a scheming fraud." Discredit indeed. It is similarly disjunct with Vridar's fictional confrontation with his mother in the early 1950s (GC, p. 487).

Confirmation of the Arrington/Haupt thesis might be sought in Fisher's non-fiction. The bulk of his essays, occasional publications in newspapers, reside in various collections but cannot be conveniently researched as yet, because they have not been published in collected form, so we are left with the material that Arrington and Haupt have relied upon, Fisher's fiction and the essays collected in 1963.[15] Although the current deconstructionist fashion posits the critic's right to make the text mean whatever he wants it to, Arrington and Haupt make critical assertions about the meaning of Fisher's that seem tenuous at best. To conserve space and time, I will not respond to each of their readings in detail but focus my energy on the most significant, those involving the Tetralogy and Orphans in Gethsemane. First, however, I want to raise some brief questions about Arrington and Haupt's interpretations of Toilers of the Hills and Dark Bridwell.

Arrington and Haupt devote nearly two pages to discussing Toilers of the Hills, but when all is said and done, their discussion boils down to a simple admission: "Mormonism is never mentioned in Toilers" (p. 35). Indeed, if it is not, then what is proved by the mere fact that Fisher "does not dismiss these people and their religion as unsophisticated products of the frontier"? There are many other things that are not in the book, like elephants not in the yard. We have been told that Fisher's early work "represents an attempt to understand his own experience and the Mormon experience," yet his first book, Sonnets to an Imaginary Madonna (which they mention but do not discuss) contains no mention of Mormonism; his first novel, Toilers of the Hills contains no mention of Mormonism, and, as we shall see, Mormonism is "never mentioned" (p. 36) in Dark Bridwell.

Lacking actual references to Mormonism, the authors cite instead Fisher's belief in the "dignity of the individual" — scarcely an exclusive doctrine of Mormonism. There's not much else to work with, though. Wayne Chatterton, in his Vardis Fisher: The Frontier and Regional Works,[16] makes no reference to religion in his discussion of Toilers of the Hills, and Joseph M. Flora (in his Twayne Series study of Fisher) has nothing to say about frontier religion in the seven pages devoted to Toilers of the Hills, though he does quote the hero of the novel, Dock Hunter, to the effect that if he were God, he'd have done a better job of creating Idaho.[17] Arrington and Haupt would have us believe that they have isolated an important theme of the book — "Frontier religion gave [the characters] answers." But they cite no instances of religion answering anything, and Flora's quotation from the novel seems to suggest more questions than answers. However, Arrington and Haupt leave their most pertinent critical dicta unsupported by evidence and move on to Dark Bridwell.

The relevance of Dark Bridwell to the essay's thesis is murky at best. Mormonism is barely even peripheral to the plot and never mentioned in so many words. The discussion of the book is rather orthodox, aside from the initial erroneous assumption that "Dark" is Charlie Bridwell's nickname,[18] until we come to their final paragraph, where we learn that the book is a parable, "the story of Adam and Eve." Again, we are given no textual support for this assertion, which is hardly a critical truism, since neither Chatterton nor Flora mentions it, and Adam and Eve, if present, are hardly exclusive topics of Mormon theology. Arrington and Haupt simply go on to describe — quite legitimately — Fisher's theme of grace versus works, a theme as universal as Aesop's ants and grasshoppers. Charlie Bridwell's joyous, unambitiousus, brutal existence is antithetical to what I understand to be Mormon ethics, but it is no more particularly anti-Mormon than it is anti-Aesop. Charlie himself identifies his antithesis as human foolishness, not a specific religion. Arrington and Haupt conclude their discussion of Dark Bridwell with a strange non sequitur, quoting a Fisher poem on a pioneer farmer (a "Mormon" farmer, they explain; it seems that Fisher had neglected to mention the man's religion in the poem); and we are left to discover for ourselves how this novel, arguably Fisher's masterpiece, is illustrative of his Mormon heritage or of that heritage's effects on Fisher's ideas.

Arrington and Haupt's discussion of the Vridar Hunter Tetralogy covers about five pages of their text and is essentially accurate in its picture of Fisher's autobiographical attempt to deal with the psychological devastation his brutal frontier upbringing and fundamentalist religion had visited upon him. In fact, if this section of the essay were isolated it could be used equally well to demonstrate precisely the reverse of the thesis espoused in the essay. In the Tetralogy, Vridar traces to religion, to the opiate deceptions, to the sadism, self-delusions and arrogant assumptions of election, much of the stimuli that left him, after thirty years of life, a schizoid, psychotic child, desperate to find a father, a pathetic orphan in his own culturally-constructed Gethsemane. When Fisher returned to this material decades later, after a voyage of self-discovery that took him through the whole evolution of the human species and resulted in the massive Testament of Man series, he reconstructed it around his new sense of the human condition, its sources and meaning. According to Arrington and Haupt, Orphans in Gethsemane is unambiguous proof that as he grew older, Fisher "came to a greater harmony with his background. He was able to look at Mormon values and appreciate them." But let them say it in their own words:

In Tragic Life, by Vardis Fisher [antique paperback edition]
We can be certain of this because the last volume in his Testament of Man series, Orphans in Gethsemane, is a restructuring and rewriting of the Tetralogy — with a mellower look back at his childhood and young manhood, analogous in some respects to the maturation of Plato. The change is not as pronounced as the difference between Plato's Republic of his young years [sic] and his Laws of the later years, but it is nonetheless noticeable and significant. Orphans in Gethsemane is an insightful, intelligent, powerful, and moving autobiographical novel of a person of Mormon upbringing, even if its author was only on the fringes of Latter-day Saint culture (p. 46).

It might be inferred from this characterization of Orphans in Gethsemane that some of the savage anti-Mormon invective of the Tetralogy disappeared in the "mellowing" process. Such is not precisely the case. The essayists cite sixteen references to the texts of the Tetralogy; a comparison to parallel passages in Orphans is illuminating. On pages 65-66 of In Tragic Life, Vridar's mother gives him a lecture on the evil of nakedness and on talking back to one's elders; Arrington and Haupt's two quotations from the passage suffered only stylistic revision as Fisher reworked them,[19] although the later text adds that the boy responded to his mother's pious admonitions by "hating her." The "Mormon gate" remains (FPFH, p. 69), as does the doubt about baptism (p. 271). The description of ward services remains, roughly a page and a half, with one significant deletion, a reference to the sermon as often being a "thundering denunciation of joy in life" (p. 271). Unchanged are the musings on congregational hypocrisy and smug complacency, unchanged the summary judgment that the church had nothing to offer him: "He left the church after a few weeks and never returned" (p. 272). What is changed and mellowed in those final pages, the essayists leave unidentified, relying on us to find it self-evident.

The first volume of the Tetralogy concludes with Vridar rejecting a call to a mission, and Fisher revised that section considerably. He added that the mission call was a direct result of the bishop learning he had quit attending church. He dropped Vridar's discussion with his parents, and the list of reasons to go or not, and moved directly to the real issue haunting Vridar, fear of masturbation-induced madness. Here, finally, we hit a significant change. When he talks with his teacher, Turner, in the earlier version, they discuss his intention to go on a mission (ITL, p. 460). In the "mellowed" later version the mission is dismissed as something he "considered" (FPFH, p. 278). After that conversation in the revised text, Vridar reaches a conclusion that surely has great bearing on the implication that Fisher had mellowed toward the church, a conclusion added in the revision of In Tragic Life: "he knew that he was a Mormon no more" (p. 281).[20]

But to continue examining the references to the Tetralogy: The passage describing "Wasatch College" remains (p. 314), and the quotation on Vridar's idealization of his sweetheart is unchanged (p. 354). Neloa is still seduced by a Mormon missionary (p. 366), and Vridar is still berated by the college president for making jokes about "babies and sugar beets" (GC, p. 51), still driven from "Wasatch College" by Mormons (GC, p. 37). In We Are Betrayed, Hunter heaps contempt on his mother and her "smug halfwitted Christian piety"; in Orphans, the only significant addition to the scene is that he concludes that he is "done with it" (FPFH, p. 531). He still comments on Neloa's "silly Mormonism" (p. 554). Only in No Villain Need Be is there substantial revision of text, and again the revision is primarily stylistic.[21] The passage on "daughters of Mormons" is greatly compressed, although the words which Arrington and Haupt quote remain (GC, p. 70) and the references to Mormons are neither diminished nor softened.[2] The passages from pages 174 and 190 are totally revised, but neither revision suggests mellowing: one posited some basic decency in everyone, and the other described Hunter's idealistic motive for returning to Salt Lake (GC, pp. 89 & 96). Finally, the quotation Arrington and Haupt condense from the last few pages of No Villain Need Be underwent extensive revision, but clearly the tone and point of view are unchanged (p. 119).

In sum, Orphans in Gethsemane is neither more nor less "mellow" than the Tetralogy, and the hundreds of pages added to bring the story up to date in 1960 show no mellowing of the author either. The revision of the text did not involve removing Professor Yupp, the pious Mormon slumlord (FPFH, p. 290), the derogatory description of Brigham Young's statue (p. 415), references to "pompous Mormons" (cf. p. 581), or the confrontation with the young Mormon missionaries who come to Hunter's Chicago apartment to save him.[23] The last few chapters of the first volume contain Hunter's scornful debate on religion with his parents (p. 616-18), and Hunter's Mormon colleagues at Wasatch are still subjects of satire in the second volume (GC, pp. 57 ff.), the joke about the president of the church thinking he's a "little tin God" remains (p. 65 f.); as well as the vicious satirical poem about a polygamous boar (p. 40). Fisher does not spare us his father's certainty that Mormons would rule the Rockies by 1940 (p. 177, 391), the look of "shame and horror" on his mother's face after she and Joe performed the secret temple rites (p. 195), nor Joe's assurance that he would get a planet or that Neloa's real problem was that she was dark and therefore of a cursed race (p. 198); nor Joe's fear in his last year of life "that he might not get above the third heaven, where, in his belief, no women would be" (p. 391). All three ideas are Mormon, and each of them a bit less than flattering to a church that blandly promotes melagomania, racism, and misogyny.

It is also on p. 391, well into the new material, that Fisher describes what must go down as the least "mellow" detail in the book. Joe is dying of cancer, an especially ugly kind that is eating his face: "His deepest grief in his last years came from the fact that he was not allowed to do his temple work; the sight and smell of him were too much, the Mormon officials shut him out." Somewhere in that damning fact, no doubt, is "an undertone" that "bespeaks an attachment." The list goes on, encompassing Vridar's refusal to return to the church once his father's death makes him, as his mother insists, "head of the family" (p. 487), and the irony in Vridar's brother being given a Mormon funeral ("Little Marion cared whether he was buried or burned." p. 504).

I spoke early in my paper of the large errors of logic which vitiate the essay as much as any errors of biography and unsubstantiated interpretations of text. I would like to conclude by discussing the most important one in some detail. Like Professor Flora half a decade before them, Arrington and Haupt quote a summary judgment of Fisher's from his essay "My Biblical Heritage."[24] Like Flora, they find in it Fisher's willingness to "celebrate his forebears" (although Flora will not go so far as to invite us to "read Mormon for Hebrew" and thus recognize Fisher's "peace with his Judeo-Christian/Mormon heritage"). Setting aside for a moment their startling presumption that a statement about Hebrews is a statement about Mormons, I want to point out that Fisher's willingness to acknowledge some good in the Bible, and his recognition of praiseworthy qualities in the ancient Hebrews, do not demonstrate any endorsement of any religion. Arrington and Haupt have confused three categories that Vardis Fisher himself kept clear and distinct in his scholarship and writing: a people, a culture, and a religion.

Many readers have pointed to Fisher's praise for the Mormon pioneers as the most positive aspect of Children of God. Stegner has said that Fisher "couldn't help admiring the individual and collective toughness of the Mormon people," and that Fisher's sympathy for the Mormon pioneers springs from a general "respect for guts and toughness and stamina."[25] This same respect led Fisher to celebrate the heroic women of the Donner Party, who sacrificed themselves, quite literally and knowingly, to save their children, to celebrate the Maccabees in The Island of the Innocent even though he is clearly and emphatically on the intellectual side of their Hellene adversaries and sees their struggle as one of the most crucial struggles over ideas in the entire history of the West — a struggle that mankind lost.[26] It is the same kind of respect that Stegner so clearly feels for his own Mormon pioneers setting out from Far West in The Gathering of Zion.

But Fisher's admiration for a people, specifically those pioneers, is particular, not general; it implies no endorsement of the people's whole history, nor is it to be read as a wholehearted, unqualified endorsement of the whole belief system that inspired them. As Stegner puts it, "He didn't think the block teachers had anything to tell him." Arrington and Haupt themselves offer, unintentionally, the evidence that refutes their implication that Fisher identified Mormons and Jews, when they quote a famous passage thirty pages from the final scene of Children of God ("Would the Mormons, like the Jews, become a wandering and outcast people; or would they mix with the gentiles until their church was only another abomination in the sight of God?" CG, p. 739). The novel does not leave that terrible question unanswered. Fisher's respect goes south to Mexico with the polygamous McBrides, and when they look back at the beautiful achievement that Salt Lake City was in the desert wilderness, and a child asks if Nauvoo was more beautiful, patriarch Moroni McBride, who has been with the church since its foundation, offers his grim judgment: "There, the temple stood above the homes" (768). For Fisher, if I may rephrase the essayists' conclusion,[27] the Mormon attempt was a failure.

Does Fisher's admiration for the ancient Hebrews amount to making him "Judeo-Christian"? Arrington and Haupt would have us think so, for they say, "There is no doubt that Fisher's religion was Judeo-Christian; seven of the twelve Testament of Man novels dealt with Hebrews and Christians," a statement so misleading that it demands examination. The logic is bad enough, rather like assuming any doctor who studies AIDS is gay. But let's look at how those seven books depict Hebrews and Christians.

The first "Hebrew" novel, The Divine Passion, is about polygamy and the institution of anti-feminine monotheism. These prehistoric Hebrews are lecherous savages and "Abraham" (called Adom) spends most of the novel, when he is not busy with self-aggrandisement, trying to steal his own son's wife. The village priest (Rabi) conducts child sacrifices and has "first night" privileges with brides. The village prophet is a dirty cripple (literally) who hates women, and eventually castrates himself to "save the Sun."

The next novel, The Valley of Vision, depicts the era of David and Solomon so unflatteringly that, according to Fisher, his Jewish New York publisher refused to publish it.[28] The conflict is between Solomon's attempt to turn Israel into an educated, civilized country and the resistance he encounters from the illiterate, militantly anti-intellectual, egocentric, anti-feminine, puritanical faction led by the prophet Ahijah.[29]

Next, The Island of the Innocent shows the Jews dying for the right of self-determination, resisting the Hellene attempt to liberate them from the obsessive, collective insanity of Levitical law. Fisher spends enormous amounts of time in the novel examining the minutiae of that law and expounding upon the crippling of the human spirit that law and tradition imposed on its people.[30]

The last "Jewish" novel is called Jesus Came Again, and there Fisher imagines the only "historical Jesus" he can accept,[31] a soft-hearted young rabbi at war with himself because he wants to practice Pharisaic righteousness but he loves mankind too much. He is summarily executed because his followers, a motley gang of illiterates, childish adults and clinical neurotics,[23] spread the rumor that he is the messiah.

The books on the Christian tradition are as unrelievedly negative as the books about Jewish history. The first, and least artistic of the series, A Goat for Azazel, is casebook comparative religion — marred as fiction by the towering shadows of Carpenter, Cumont, and Reinach, Fraser and the Higher Critics, a museum tour of Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, the Dionysian Mystery cult, etc. Its thesis is one familiar to Fisher's readers: religion is insane, otherworldly religions are an enemy to knowledge and progress, but belief in principles glorifies people of good will, and the willingness to die for a belief — whatever the belief — is a form of greatness. Fisher's rationalist Damon dies in a riot during the execution of Ignatius in Rome; Fisher pointedly refused to have him convert to the Christian religion, after having spent most of his life studying this new religion.[33]

In Peace Like a River, Fisher returns to the ascendant anti-human, anti-life, woman-hating tradition he had previously identified with the Levitical obsession with law, examining the Desert Fathers and the Council of Nicaea, at which, he tells us, the Christian church decided whether people would be damned eternally for believing that Jesus' substance was "like" God's rather than "the same as" God's.[34] The images in the novel that must stay with the reader forever are pictures of "saints" living like catatonic animals in self-made doorless prisons and heroes of righteousness defeating the Devil by standing on one leg in the burning sun, heavy rocks tied to their genitals. Like The Mothers, Peace Like a River is a "feminist" novel. It depicts the feminine values rejected by the Desert Fathers as the truly human, life-affirming perspective.

Aside from Orphans in Gethsemane, Fisher devotes only one novel to the last fifteen hundred years of Western history, My Holy Satan, set in thirteenth-century France nearly a thousand years after Peace Like a River. The three main characters are a Jewish doctor who is trying to avoid execution for sorcery when he heals Christians, for murder when he doesn't, and secretly believes in bathing; a young serf who is eventually imprisoned for his attempts to study science; and a parish priest who "sanctifies" women by copulating with them (like one of the "saints" in Peace Like a River). The priest eventually seduces and murders the serf's intended wife, a twelve-year-old epileptic who sees angels during her seizures. If I say that Fisher's primary scholarly source is Lea's History of the Inquisition, and that it was in Fisher's notes to this novel where I first learned of blessed St. Francis' belief that books were a sinful temptation (p. 280) and discoverd philosophical St. Thomas Aquinas' view that that one joy of salvation would be witnessing the tortures of the damned (p. 263), and was told that neither of these saints spoke against the Church's extermination of one hundred thousand Albigensian heretics (p. 267), then perhaps I need say no more about Fisher's attitude toward "his" Judeo-Christian tradition.[35] Arrington and Haupt summarize the Testament of Man thus: "He had remembered and absorbed the deep meanings conveyed to him as he read that monumental heritage of Judeo-Christian civilization, the Bible." Knowing Fisher's frightfully sardonic humor, I can imagine him enjoying the colossal irony of that accurate but so misleading summary.

It is true that Fisher did not see the Judeo-Christian tradition as unmitigably evil; that he acknowledged, in both his fiction and in his essays (and more positively than Vridar Hunter, who makes similar concessions in Orphans in Gethsemane), that parts of the Bible were great moral statements, that the central myth of Christianity is a "golden nimbus of love and compassion" (TW, p. 77). He also said that "the Bible has cost more than any other thing created by the mind and conscience of men" (p. 166), and when in "My Bible Heritage" he speaks of the greatness of that book, he systematicly links every good in the Bible with an unspeakable evil we must weigh against it, then asks, "Who would undo the evil it has done if he must also forsake the good?" It may be true — it remains undemonstrated — that Fisher's attitude toward Mormonism as a religion is also complex, though he left no public utterance that suggested any such thing, even if we "read 'Mormon' for 'Hebrew'."

The Arrington and Haupt essay proves very little that needed proof. The question of whether Fisher was a Mormon, on the level that they prove their thesis, is no more controversial than the question of whether James Joyce and Martin Luther were Catholics, or whether Brigham Young was a Methodist. If by "Mormon" we mean someone baptized into the church, the answer simply lies in records to be consulted. Fisher was a Mormon in that limited sense. He was a Mormon in another sense, however, one worthy of study and discussion. We can learn a great deal, for example, by investigating how Luther's mind and life were shaped by his Catholicism, how Joyce's values and aesthetics grew from, and perhaps away from, his.

To what extent did Vardis Fisher's sense of what he was doing and what mattered spring from the religious influences of his youth? As Wallace Stegner said, Fisher "turned on Mormonism all the qualities it had bred into him." What were those qualities? The study of that question must await two preliminaries: publication of a thorough biography of Fisher's life [36] and the availability of Fisher's occasional papers, specifically newspaper columns he wrote during the latter years of his life. To what extent do Fisher's books reflect his Mormon upbringing; what portions of the philosophy, the world view of Mormonism stayed with him even as he grew beyond fidelity to a religion? In "My Biblical Heritage," some aspects of Fisher's religious position are clear and concise: "I haven't the faith to know [God]" (p. 164).

Rather than indulge in scholarship by wishful fiat absent demonstrable fact, rather than suggest that negative evidence for a thesis can be accounted for by Fisher's "deceptiveness," or claim that ambiguous evidence is clearly positive when positive evidence is simply non-existent, a student of Fisher's work and the Mormon influences upon it can make a contribution to literary scholarship by illuminating for all readers the relationship between Mormonism and Fisher's attitudes toward reason, revelation, evolution, original sin, grace and works, Judaism, and a host of other ideas that clearly owe some debt, have some foundation, in the religion of his forebears. "Religion," a Jewish friend tells Vridar, "is like smallpox; it leaves scars." It is naive to assume that an act of repudiation disconnects the apostate's mind and soul from the religion he rejects, and equally naive to pretend that the absence of a formal act of repudiation may be read as an endorsement of the religion the apostate chooses to ignore, treating it as beneath repudiation. Of course Vardis Fisher was a Mormon, but the question which Arrington and Haupt leave unanswered is, I'm afraid, "So what?"

Was Fisher anti-Mormon? Jesus Christ gave us a definition of "adversary" which some find appealing: "Whoever is not for me is against me." If Fisher were forced to state his position as a "vote," there is no question that he would identify himself as anti- rather than pro-religion, and therefore anti-Mormon. But he would be uncomfortable, I think, with such simple-minded thinking. In preparing this paper, I reread most of the texts referred to for the second or third time, including all of the Testament of Man, the Thomas Wolfe essays, and the Milton interviews. Based on that reading, I think Fisher's position might be summarized thus: Religion is an institution based upon and appealing to the noblest of our impulses and sentiments. But there is no institution — not even patriotism — better suited to the manipulation and exploitation of our best, our most noble and humane impulses by scoundrels pursuing their own personal and collective ends.

Fisher opposed all religions — Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Communism, Nazism, and the Great Society — to the degree that they encourage us to avoid adulthood. He defined religion as the enskyment of any charismatic patriarchy appealing to the "orphan," the betrayed, abandoned, and lonely child who resides in the recesses of each human soul, and he devoted the latter half of his life to making his readers see the accuracy of that definition and exhorting them to reconstruct their lives accordingly. He loved Hosea and Isaiah and the mythic Jesus for their compassion and for having provided us a model of lovingkindness, not because he longed for a heavenly reward.

— Mick McAllister

Works by Vardis Fisher Referred to in the Text

The Vridar Hunter Tetralogy:

In Tragic Life (Caldwell: Caxton Printers, 1932) [ITL].

Passions Spin the Plot (Caldwell: Caxton Printers, 1934).

We Are Betrayed (Caldwell: Caxton Printers, 1935).

No Villain Need Be (Caldwell: Caxton Printers, 1936).

The Testament of Man:

N.B.: The Testament was published in the limited hardcover editions listed below; the books are extremely rare and difficult to obtain. My citations of texts are to the paperback reprints issued by Pyramid Publications during the decade of the 1960s, unless otherwise indicated.

Darkness and the Deep (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1943).

The Golden Rooms (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1944).

Intimations of Eve (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1946).

Adam and the Serpent (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1947).

The Divine Passion (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1948).

The Valley of Vision (New York: Abelard Press, 1951).

The Island of the Innocent (New York: Abelard Press, 1952).

Jesus Came Again (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1956).

A Goat for Azazel (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1956).

Peace Like a River (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1957). Reprinted by Pyramid as The Passion Within.

My Holy Satan (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1958.

Orphans in Gethsemane (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1960). Reprinted by Pyramid in two volumes:

Volume I, For Passion, For Heaven [FPFH].

Volume II, The Great Confession [GC].

Other Works Cited:

Toilers of the Hills (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928).

Dark Bridwell (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1931).

Children of God: An American Epic (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1939) [CG].

Sonnets to an Imaginary Madonna (New York: Harold Vinal, 1927).

God or Caesar? The Writing of Fiction for Beginners (Caldwell: Caxton Printers, 1953).

Thomas Wolfe as I Knew Him and Other Essays (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1963) [TW].

Essays on Western American Literature Top Book Reviews [mainly]

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