Scholars & Saints

Vardis Fisher and the Literature of Mormon Unbelief (feat. Michael Austin)

December 05, 2022 Stephen Betts Episode 27
Vardis Fisher and the Literature of Mormon Unbelief (feat. Michael Austin)
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Scholars & Saints
Vardis Fisher and the Literature of Mormon Unbelief (feat. Michael Austin)
Dec 05, 2022 Episode 27
Stephen Betts

Dr. Michael Austin joins me to discuss his recent book Vardis Fisher: A Mormon Novelist. Fisher was the first of the "Lost Generation" or "Golden Age" of Mormon novelists in the early twentieth century. While self-identified as an atheist, his work is suffused with the hues and textures of his Mormon upbringing in rural Idaho. Fisher's work challenges easy categorization of insider vs. outsider. Was Vardis Fisher a Mormon novelist? Join us to find out. 

Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Michael Austin joins me to discuss his recent book Vardis Fisher: A Mormon Novelist. Fisher was the first of the "Lost Generation" or "Golden Age" of Mormon novelists in the early twentieth century. While self-identified as an atheist, his work is suffused with the hues and textures of his Mormon upbringing in rural Idaho. Fisher's work challenges easy categorization of insider vs. outsider. Was Vardis Fisher a Mormon novelist? Join us to find out. 

Vardis Fisher & The Literature of Mormon Unbelief


“What I say in the book is he was a religious unbeliever, but Mormonism was the religion that he didn't believe in, and that has consequences because what you are primarily against can define you as much as what you are primarily for. And when you see Vardis Fisher rejecting religious ideas in some of his later novels, they are Mormon ideas that he is rejecting.”

—    Michael Austin


Stephen Betts: Welcome back to Scholars and Saints. I'm your host, Stephen Betts.

Stephen Betts: I'm joined today by Dr. Michael Austin, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost at the University of Evansville. Dr. Austin is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently the book we're discussing today, Vardis Fisher: A Mormon Novelist, published by the University of Illinois Press as part of the Introductions to Mormon Thought series. Thanks for joining me today, Mike. 

Michael Austin: No problem. Thank you for having me. 

Stephen Betts: Who is Vardis Fisher and why is he so important in early 20th century American literature and especially to Mormon literature? 

Michael Austin: So Vardis Fisher was a writer from Idaho. He was born in 1895, so at really what's we would call the tail end of the American Pioneer period. 

He's born on a very isolated farm out in Idaho where his closest neighbors are 10 miles away and he is educated in a sort of patchwork quilt of Mormon ward schools, and then Rigby High School, when it opens. He goes to the University of Utah, does very well there, becomes a professor, gets his PhD in literature from the University of Chicago, and then starts writing some books that are part of a much larger American movement, and that is the regional literature movement, literary regionalism.

This is something that happens in the twenties and thirties all across the country. By 1912, the lower 48 states are complete. Arizona's admitted into the Union in 1912 and whereas the United States used to be really the eastern seaboard and then the West and everything west of Philadelphia was just called “the West,” people are realizing that now that the country’s sort of organizing mission of Manifest Destiny is done. We have some discreet regions that most people don't know very much about ‘cause the population center is still in New York and Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and Virginia where it had always been.

So this is when you get people like Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson in the Midwest. It's when you get John Steinbeck in California, it's when you get William Faulkner in the South. It's where you get Vardis Fisher in Idaho and the Rocky Mountain West, which is one of these regions and it's the most recently developed region. Fisher is part of the last generation of pioneers. His father was sent into Idaho by Brigham Young in a party to colonize the Snake River Valley. And so, he's writing about this last generation of pioneers, his father and his uncle. He's writing very, very personal literature, very confessional literature. He was a friend of Thomas Wolfe when he was a professor in New York. They both taught at Washington Square University, which was sort of the second campus of New York University, and he's writing about these last pioneers pioneering dry-land farming techniques in Idaho and raising wheat and taming the desert. It's sort of a gritty, realistic, naturalistic kind of fiction. But for the 1920s and 1930s, these are the defining novels of that region of the world. That includes Utah and Idaho. And because those regions were settled by Mormons, Mormonism is an integral part of that regional identity. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah, so this is sort of pushing back against some of the prevailing trends in Latter-day Saint literature at the time, right? We had before that something called “Mormon Home Literature.” So, people like Nephi Anderson and others who are writing primarily for Latter-day Saints, and there's these kind of faith inspiring novels and things like that. But what we have with Vardis Fisher, really, you know, when we talk about the, “the Golden Age” of Mormon literature or the “Lost Generation”—you hear that term tossed around a lot—talking about people like Virginia Sorenson and others who we'll get into. He's actually really the first one.

Michael Austin: He is the first one. And it's interesting, and I just want to point out the fact that that period of Mormon literature is called both “the Golden Age” and “the Lost Generation,” each of which represents a different perspective. [1] From the perspective of Utah Mormon culture, Vardis Fisher and Virginia Sorenson were “lost.” From the perspective of New York publishers, this was the Golden Age. The Home Literature movement, Nephi Anderson and Josephine Spencer and Alfred Osmond and there were a few more. That's something that mainly occurs in the Church’s periodicals. I mean, most of these novels are serialized in The Contributor or The Juvenile Instructor or the, The Woman’s Exponent. And then they're kind of bound at the author's cost into books by Deseret News Press. Highly unlikely that Vardis Fisher ever heard of any of that. He would not have been in a position to encounter that for a while. He's at the University of Chicago. He's writing for Doubleday, he's writing for Harper's. He's writing for the major New York publishers, and he's telling the regional stories to the rest of America, which is what most of the other important writers are doing. At the same time, there's an amazing confluence. Fisher's first novel is 1928. That is also the first of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha novels. You know, Steinbeck's first novel is 1929. America wants to know about its parts. It has all of these regions, which really had all been this muddled mass of Westness for so long, and now it wants to read the stories of each of these regions and it wants to get a sense of their regional identities. So Vardis Fisher is swept up in this same movement and I think probably gets a lot of attention by the New York publishers just because he checks the box. You know, Sinclair Lewis: Minnesota; Sherwood Anderson: Ohio; John Steinbeck: California; Vardis Fisher: Idaho. 


Was Vardis Fisher a Mormon?

Stephen Betts: I mean, the other thing you point out and we'll get into this in a little while. He's not kind of swept up into this, you know, sentimentalism that you sort of see in some areas of American literature at this time. But he's very gritty, very realistic, very much this, yeah, Steinbeck, Faulkner kind of mode of writing. And of course, his greatest financial success at the end of the 1930s is very much in this mode, but it's also writing about Latter-day Saints. He’s writing about Latter-day Saint history, which we're gonna get into. But it, you know, it seems like the major labor of this book is really in a number of ways to reclaim Vardis Fisher as a Mormon novelist, specifically as a Mormon novelist.

And that is coming at this from two different aspects that I can see, which is one, you have people like Leonard Arrington, famous Mormon historian who's saying things like, you know, Vardis Fisher never really renounced his Mormonism. You know, he’s still engaged as the Latter-day Saint at this time [i.e., in his later years]. And then you have on the other side, you know, [Fisher’s] wife Opal Laurel Holmes, who says very famously, and you quote this numerous times in the book, “Vardis Fisher was not a Mormon.” So, talk a little bit about what does it mean to you to say that Vardis Fisher was a Mormon novelist? 

Michael Austin: There are multiple definitions of “Mormon” that are going on when we talk about Vardis Fisher. In some sense, Arrington was right. In some some sense, Opal Laurel Holmes was right, and it all depends on how you define your terms. If you look at sort of the accounting definition, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Vardis Fisher was baptized when he was 20 and he never formally removed his name, nor was he ever formally excommunicated. So as a clear matter of accounting, he was always a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was not for more than a couple of months or maybe a year at the most, a believing practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was an atheist. He was a very, very vocal atheist.

What I say in the book is he was a religious unbeliever, but Mormonism was the religion that he didn't believe in, and that has consequences because what you are primarily against can define you as much as what you are primarily for. And when you see Vardis Fisher rejecting religious ideas in some of his later novels, they are Mormon ideas that he is rejecting. When he talks about prophets in his historical novels, he probably doesn't even realize that he's talking about Joseph Smith. That model of a prophet, sort of a religious leader more than the kind of bug-eating guy, stands out in front of the temple and condemns everybody. So, he has these ideas of religion and those ideas were formed by Mormonism, and when he rejects them, he rejects them in a different way than a Jewish atheist or in a Episcopalian atheist would reject religion.

And then there's also a cultural definition. “Mormon,” especially now that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appears to have given up the term “Mormon,” it becomes available for a much larger cultural movement that describes something that really started to take shape in the 1930s: a culture region. Donald Meinig, a very famous geographer, talks about the Mormon cultural region that emerges after the Mormons and the non-Mormons in Utah figure out that they're gonna have to live together and that they do share a common culture.[2] And most of the literature of any note, and this is true of almost every culture, most of the literature of any culture is produced by people who are barely in or barely out of the circle. That defines the culture. That's where most of the interesting stuff happens. So Vardis Fisher is, I would say, barely inside that circle in a cultural sense. Bernard Devoto and Wallace Stegner are barely outside. You know, Devoto had a Mormon mother and a Catholic father. He grew up in Utah and he is a direct contemporary of Vardis Fisher. And Fisher actually was very, very nervous about DeVoto's influence on the Harper Prize when he was going up for that, because Devoto really knew what he was talking about. When you get a thing called Mormon literature, the people who are most important are pretty much never going to be at the center of the culture writing institutional propaganda. And they're not going to be people in New York or England who really don't know anything about Mormons. And that's who had produced most of the literature for the first hundred years. The two most famous novels of the 19th century that had Mormons in them are A Study on Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle and then in the early 20th century, it Zane Gray's Riders of the Purple Sage. And these are people who really don't understand the culture. So it's people who live in the area who aren't Mormon, but who understand the culture like Bernard Devoto and Wallace Stegner. And then it's people who are inside the culture but have rejected much of it, like Vardis Fisher and Virginia Sorenson. That's who's going to produce the literature that is going to endure. That's where all the interesting questions are. They're at those margins. 


The Lost Generation & The Golden Age

Stephen Betts: So, set the context for us a little bit. We've mentioned some of these names like Virginia Sorenson. Who are some of these other writers of the Lost Generation, the Golden Age that are his contemporaries coming out of this Mormon culture region, and you say they have the most interesting questions. What kind of questions are they working through in their literature? 

Michael Austin: So, I'd mentioned Bernard Devoto and Wallace Stegner. Devoto wrote a novel about Joseph Smith, but not really about Joseph Smith called The Chariot of Fire where he takes Joseph Smith's story and fictionalizes it. And of course, Stegner wrote Mormon Country and Gathering to Zion. Virginia Sorenson who is part of a Provo clan—the Eggertsens— who are Mormon, kind of on the fringes. And she is a Mormon. She marries in the temple. She eventually gets divorced. Marries Alec Waugh, famous British novelist. Becomes an Anglican and still though has that Mormon cultural element and writes six or seven novels about Mormonism.

You have Maureen Whipple who wrote The Giant Joshua, and really very little else in her lifetime, though Andrew Hall and several other people have recently published a collection of her unpublished stories and novels that were fairly significant.[3] Sam Taylor. Samuel Taylor is the grandson of John Taylor, the son of John W. Taylor, who was the apostle excommunicated for continuing to practice polygamy. He starts out writing a bunch of short stories for national journals. He moves to California. He writes a story that becomes The Absentminded Professor, the Disney movie. He writes a number of history books about his family. He writes Nightfall in Nauvoo, which is a really a fantastic novel about the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo. He writes a serialized set of stories in Colliers called “Mysterious Way,” which becomes a novel, Heaven Knows Why, which is a hilarious, really probably the first great Mormon comic novel. 

Another guy named Paul Bailey is writing at this time. He moves to California, founds his own press, and republishes a lot of scholarly manuscripts, and then writes novels like For This My Glory, which was fairly big inside the church. And then For Time and All Eternity, which was ignored by the church, but became a National Book Club selection. Then you've got Richard Scowcroft. He wrote a number of of novels, several of them about Mormons, probably most notably Children of the Covenant. Then he went to California and became a, you know, a very, very well respected, creative writing professor at Stanford Ardyth Kennelly, another woman who wrote a number of very popular novels, serialized novels, book club selections.

So, this is the set of writers that are called either “the Lost Generation” by people at BYU who are writing from the perspective of the center or “the Golden Age,” which is people outside looking at what their impact was because they're the ones who had national audiences in national magazines and the national publishers. And Vardis Fisher was the first of these. He broke the ground in both realistic, contemporary fiction and in historical fiction. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah, so let's talk about his most famous novel Children of God. This is published in 1939 and he calls it his “Mormon novel” repeatedly. This is how he's pitching it to publishers and he says he's been sort of working on this for years. To him, it's sort of his mature thought at that point for himself. Of course, later he's going to think very differently about it, and he's going to define himself in terms of a different series, but Children of God awarded a major literary prize, the Harper Prize, and it's really the biggest literary prize imaginable at this time. And like you said, it puts him on the map really, literarily. How does the nation respond? How does the Church respond? Tell us more about that.


Children of God: Vardis Fisher’s “Mormon novel”

Michael Austin: So, Children of God is Fisher's ninth novel. It wasn't his first novel. It's the first novel of his that most people have heard of. He wrote a number of regional, realistic contemporary fiction novels that were extremely well reviewed, but virtually unread. So, the critics loved him. He got front page reviews in The New York Times and other major venues. The books did not sell particularly well. Children of God, because he had a strong reputation with New York publishers. There was actually a competition for Children of God. It's like Vardis Fisher is finally gonna write about something that people want to know about, but it's not the first Mormon migration novel. There were a dozen or so of them published in the 1930s. But they were never insider perspectives. They tended to be either romanticized, “Look at how wonderful these noble Mormons are,” or vilified, “You know? Here are these Danite, polygamous, avenging angels killing people on wagon trains across the plains.”

So, Fisher writes really the first popular, realistic historical fiction about the Mormon migration. At a time when that's something that is very interesting to people. Mormons are just starting to emerge from their cocoon, and you're starting to see Mormons in the public now in the 1930s, whereas they've really been hibernating in Utah for two generations before that. It is a novel that portrays Joseph Smith and Brigham Young as flawed, but generally positive characters. Brigham Young is portrayed as a marvelous organizer, a powerful leader, you know, a guy who occasionally has his enemies killed, but most of the people he had killed probably deserved it, Fisher would've thought.

But he does have Brigham doing a lot of violent things. He takes a lot of facts from Bill Hickman's memoir, Brigham's Destroying Angel, which was kind of popular at the time. And Joseph Smith is portrayed as kind of a dreamer who doesn't really understand the consequences of his ideas. But he's a poet. He's genuinely likable. He has an interesting vision of the afterlife and an interesting idea about the possibility of community. And so, these characters do about what they did historically. I mean, there is some question about some of his sources, but largely what he presents is historically accurate.

And then after Brigham Young's death, the third chapter of the book deals with a completely fictional family, the McBrides, who endure all of the polygamy persecutions. And then when the church ends polygamy and ends the United Order, they decide the truth is gone from the world and they go down to Mexico to be polygamists. And then it sort of ends with this sense that Mormonism was a noble effort to do something new and powerful and in the end it got co-opted and became just another Protestant denomination without any interesting ideas left. 

Stephen Betts: This, I think illustrates part of his mindset, not just about religion, but almost in general. And you see this later on in Testament of Man, which is what he spends his last 20 years of his life writing, this need to take opposite things and put them together and synthesize them. It's a really interesting tendency, primarily because it's very Mormon, right? Joseph Smith is very famous for this quote where he talks about proving contraries—opposition in all things, and this is a very Mormon tendency. But the other thing you have here is this is not an advantageous time to be saying nice things about Mormon fundamentalists, right? 

Michael Austin: And that's what I think most people have missed about a church's response because Yeah, you're exactly right. John Widtsoe wrote a review that was pretty negative and criticized him for his, his portrayals of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, you know, and Widtsoe was the editor of The Improvement Era, and he has a book review column. He reviews half a dozen or so little capsule reviews every month. This was a longer review and he submits it to the First Presidency. And with no reason given that I could find, they just say “No.” And so, they spike the review and it doesn't run, and the church gives this book the silent treatment. They do not say a word about it. They pretend that it doesn't exist. And I don't think that that is because of its portrayals of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Those portrayals were so common that I can't imagine them being upset about them because they're actually much better than most of the portrayals of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young that you had seen before Children of God.

However, if the Church would've said anything about it they would've called attention right at the time when they're having maximum trouble with fundamentalists. You know, this is right before one of the members of the twelve apostles, Richard Lyman is excommunicated for essentially having a second wife. So, you have the hugely controversial Mormon fundamentalism at this time and the Church, I'm pretty sure was, was not going to give any publicity to a book that came to their conclusion, which is that the Church was interesting under Brigham Young and Joseph Smith and now it's just one more common denomination. Yeah. I think that third chapter or the third section of it is what got the review spiked. 

Stephen Betts: I mean the, the conclusion that Vardis Fisher comes to is also another sort of Mormon conclusion of what makes Mormonism interesting is, you know, communitarianism and polygamy and that kind of thing. And it wasn't just that, it was interesting because it was unusual. It seems like it was interesting because it was something not just novel, but productive. It was, you know, it was creative. And he says, well, now they're just another Protestant denomination. When for everyone else that's a good thing!

Michael Austin: Right. And he said that directly in an article not long after he published Children of God, Mormons started out both interesting and vital and they ended up just one more, one more bunch of Protestants. And that was probably what most Mormons wanted people to think at the time. You know, most Mormons wanted people to think we're just Protestants. You know? We're just like everybody else, we're normal. We're not weird. Now, they were still pretty weird in 1939. But they were really aggressively trying to, to present a normal face, and they were fighting polygamists in their own ranks. I mean, this is when J. Reuben Clark was going through parking lots of polygamist meetings and taking down license plates where they were trying to root out this fundamentalist element. And so yeah,  Fisher siding with the fundamentalists did not do him any good. Now, the Community of Christ, which was at the time the Re-organized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, did issue a strong statement against Children of God saying in effect, “How dare you portray Joseph Smith as a polygamist? That was a Brighamite innovation.” Well, that was not something the Church would've objected to at the time. So, a number of scholars of Vardis Fisher in the 20th century took that statement as the Church's position, and it was a church's position, but the Church's position was absolute silence after Children of God.


Brigham Young movie

Stephen Betts: There's a movie that's made about Brigham Young, the filmmakers purchased the film rights to his book, right? 

Michael Austin: So, the movie is, I believe, Fox. They hired a screenwriter named Louis Bromfield, who was a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist, to produce a script about Brigham Young so that they could do a movie. And that was before anybody had ever heard of Vardis Fisher's novel. So, the script was in development. Louis Bromfield, turns out, was one of the judges of the Harper Prize in 1939. So, he read this book after he'd already been commissioned to write a script, and he went to the studio and said, “Hey, I just read this book. It's about Brigham Young and if we produce this movie, this guy's gonna sue me.” And so they bought the movie rights simply to avoid a lawsuit. Had nothing to do with them actually wanting to make a movie out of, out of Children of God. So John Widtsoe was sent to meet with the studio executives. They came out, they met with the First Presidency at the time, so they met with Heber J. Grant and Widtsoe was the point person. And this is the only reason we have the review he wrote of Vardis Fisher's book because he sent it to the film directors and it ended up in the archives at UCLA. Otherwise I would never have known about that review and what happened to it. But they're actually in that archive. You can see memos from the studio heads saying, “We need the Mormons to like this. Make sure there's nothing from Children of God in this movie. So it ends up that they go through the script and de-Vardis Fisherize it completely so that they can't be accused of having used that book at all.

And yet, you know, he got paid $5,000 for the movie rights, which was, you know, about a hundred thousand dollars at the time. And that plus the royalties from the book allowed him to build his house in Hagerman, Idaho, where he lived for the rest of his life. So he did very well with the movie rights, but the movie, the ultimate movie, aggressively avoided Children of God. So the movie Brigham Young did become a reasonable hit. It had Vincent Price as Joseph Smith and Tyrone Powers as Brigham Young, and Tyrone Powers actually, as a result of that movie, converted and became a Mormon. 


The Magnum Opus: Testament of Man

Stephen Betts: So after Children of God, I mean, this is really a pivot point in his career because up to this point he's written the Antelope tetralogy. After this though, he, he pivots. And in, in really interesting ways. I think you point out that this, this kind of reveals again, reasons why we might want to categorize him as a Mormon novelist. As a Mormon thinker, because of the ways that he deals with themes about what it means to be human, what it means to be religious. What myth does, I mean, all of these different features, but specifically there are a couple of features that I hope you'll talk about. Number one, how Testament of Man, which is the name of this series, is a kind of third testament to the Bible, to the Old and New Testaments, and then his treatment of prophets and prophecy and their relation to his sort of literary alter ego Vridar Hunter who appears in these earlier novels.

Michael Austin: Right. So yeah, he writes, his early novels are very confessional. He turns himself into Vridar, and actually, I believe he wanted us to pronounce that “Fredder,” but it's V R I D A R, Vridar Hunter. And then his, his wife Leona, he turns into “Neola” and he tells a version of his story as the tetralogy. So those are those four novels in the Antelope series. So it's In Tragic Life (1932), Passions Spin the Plot (1934), We Are Betrayed (1935) and No Villain Need Be (1936). All of those are taken from a sonnet by George Meredith, the subject of his doctoral dissertation about Meredith’s failed marriage. And so, in these novels, he traces his life, his marriage to Leona slash Neola and her suicide and all of the things that affected his life. And he then wrote Children of God (1939) thinking this could be the novel that launches him into the American mainstream, which it in fact does. It becomes the number two bestseller in the country right behind John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. And then he decides he wants to tell the story of all of humanity. He decides it wasn't enough that he sold the story of Vridar and Leona/Neola. He wanted to tell the psychosexual history of humankind. So, he plots this grand, epic series of novels that he calls The Testament of Man. And it is specifically and explicitly, he designs this as a humanistic testament to parallel the Old Testament and a New Testament. And this is gonna tell the truth. And he reads thousands of books on anthropology and sociology and archaeology and does an enormous amount of research. The problem is he's in Idaho and the books, by the time he gets them, are already out of date. So he's reading things that are already 50 years old and imagining that he's on the cutting edge and he really isn't.

But he creates this series of novels, Darkness and the Deep (1943) is the first. It's about neolithic hunter gatherers, and all they say is “Ugh uh,” but he shows the thoughts going through their mind. The next volume is the war between the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnon. Then he starts writing about the development of the Israelite religion. So he sort of has naturalistic versions of Genesis and Exodus. Then he writes about Solomon. He does one of them about the Maccabean Revolt. Two of them are about Jesus. And then the later ones are about the Catholic Church ending with My Holy Satan (1958), a novel about the Catholic Inquisition, and then the 12th and final novel in the series, he just rewrites the tetralogy. This 900-page novel called Orphans in Gethsemane (1960). And the whole thing is meant to be the humanistic history of what the Bible says it's about. But what it's really about is what Fisher is going to show us. 

Stephen Betts: So he's doing sort of rewritten Bible in this humanistic vein. But you also point out this is not far off from the structure of the Book of Mormon either, which of course he's very steeped in as a child, right? Very much is the only book he reads. So say more about that, that claim that you make the book.

Michael Austin: Well, the idea of “another testament” of the Bible really that's the motivating idea of the Book of Mormon.[4] It's an expansion of the canon with its third testament. And the Book of Mormon tells the story of the history that it relates maps onto the Bible in that a part of it is from what we would call Old Testament times. Part of it is from New Testament times and it becomes this “third testament” that tells the story from another perspective. And that's exactly what Fisher is doing with Testament of Man. The perspective he's trying to tell the story from is that of modern social science. And so he naturalizes everything, but he still deals very much with the idea of the prophet from the third book through the sixth book. So [in volumes] 3, 4, 5, and 6, The prophet is a major antagonist. The figure, the person who founds a new religion and starts saying that sex is bad and starts saying that women are evil. The prophet is the one who declares these new religious ideas, which for Fisher are, are disastrous. One of the main points he makes in this book, and this is something that has yet to receive the renaissance that it probably deserves, is that this Israelite line of thought that led to Christianity and then Mormonism erases the Divine Feminine, and this is why he calls the last book Orphans in Gethsemane, because science has taken away God, and religion took away the Mother God, and then he feels therefore lonely, like an orphan in Gethsemane. So in two of the novels, the third and fourth novel, and that is Imitations of Eve (1946) and Adam and the Serpent (1947), the society in these novels is matriarchal. You know, the women are in charge and the men are subservient.

And this was an idea that came out in the early 20th century. Some anthropological literature. That idea, this idea has been debunked. It was debunked by the time that Fisher started writing about it. But he incorporates this in any way. And then what his prophets do over time is take this sort of natural feminine-based religion and turn it into the Judeo-Christian religion, which quashes any idea of the feminine divine. And he sees that as a bad thing. 

Stephen Betts: And you point out that there are these kind of Vridar characters, these prophets over time, or these kind of, they're kind of resonant with the Vridar character that gets rewritten in the 12th book, right? So, what can we pull out as much as we can, psychologize, I mean, what do we see of, of Vardis Fisher in this Vridar alter ego? 

Michael Austin: So every book has a Vridar character in it. This is an alienated intellectual who thinks deeper thoughts than most people, is more sensitive than most people. In some of the novels, this character becomes the hero because he's smart, and in a lot of the novels he's squashed because he's weak. And the Vridar character as the novel goes, does worse and worse and worse. So in the early novels, the Vridar character is the one who advances humanity from its hunter gatherer past into something more substantial. But by the end, the prophets and the religious organizations squash the Vridar character, and this character becomes impotent in the world that he lives. And this is all religion's fault as he presents it, not specifically religion: this is patriarchal, Judeo-Christian Mormon religion. I mean, he sees that all as one continuum. 

Stephen Betts: I can't remember, is it in the original tetralogy or the rewritten version where Vridar talks about how he converts to Mormonism and then he talks to this high school teacher of his who convinces him that religion is all a sham and that you should, you know, basically just pursue pleasure. He's very introspective this character about how he has felt since a very young age that he's called as a prophet, called to do some great work for humanity and that you point out that seems to have a really, I mean, strong resonance with what Vardis Fisher thinks of himself.

Michael Austin: Fisher believed that he was a prophet. His mother told him this. He was born with a caul just like Joseph Smith. So he grows up thinking he's going to be a prophet someday. And this Vridar has the same experience even after he gives up religion. He still in the later parts of, and this is in the original tetralogy, sees himself as a prophet from a secular viewpoint. His job is to announce the truth and disrupt the. And create a new worldview. And this is very pronounced in the tetralogy. It subdued a little bit in Orphans in Gethsemane. He doesn't hit the prophet key nearly as hard in the newer versions. 

Stephen Betts: Which might make sense coming at the end of what is very clearly a sort of prophetically framed testament, right? I mean, at that point you don't have to hit it as hard if you've been doing it for 11 books. 

Michael Austin: Right, right. He's much more subtle about it and makes his break with Mormonism much less profound. I mean, in the original tetralogy, there's this, “I am Mormon, no more” kind of speech and it becomes much less pronounced in Orphans in Gethsemane.

Stephen Betts: So Mike, you say at the end of the book that with Children of God, he begins a kind of genealogy of ideas, really trying to understand himself in its own past. And then with Testament, he completes this genealogy really kind of demonstrating that the absence of religion is just as important as the presence of religion in literature and thought. Say more about that.

Michael Austin: From the beginning, he's trying to understand himself through his writing, and this is what confessional writers do. His friendship with Thomas Woolf was really decisive here. Woolf did the same thing with the Look Homeward Angel, and You Can’t Go Home Again and some of these novels about the South. So Fisher in the tetralogy is trying to write himself. He concludes that he doesn't do a very good job of it in the tetralogy. He has to go back further. So Children of God is one step on that. Going back further, and then with Darkness and the Deep, he goes all the way back to original Hobbit-like ancestors, and he tries to trace what he calls his “orphan status.” And that is the lack of an ability to believe in God. You know, Fisher is sort of one of those atheists where he doesn't believe in God, but he's mad at God for not existing. You know, he wants to have something that he can believe in. And so it becomes social science. It becomes all of these anthropology and sociology books that he's reading, and he holds to the idea that this is the truth, capital T, a very Mormon view of truth that he adapts to these social scientific works that are, many of the ideas are later debunked, but he's tracing what happens to his ability to believe in God, and he blames this on really what, what a feminist would call today, the patriarchy. The patriarchal religion robbed him of his Mother, and then it made it impossible for him to believe in his Father. And that's the situation he sees himself. And he really sees it as a tragedy. He sees the non-existence of God, I think as a tragedy one that he has to do his best with. But my sense is he much preferred if God did exist. 

Stephen Betts: That's Michael Austin talking about his recent book, Vardis Fisher: A Mormon Novelist. Thanks for joining me today, Mike. 

Michael Austin: Well, thank you very much.

Stephen Betts: Thanks for listening to Scholars and Saints. This podcast is made possible by the Mormon Studies Program at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit Music for this episode is used by permission of the artist Ben Howington. The track name is “Wayfaring Stranger.”

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[1] The term Lost Generation has a separate, more well-known meaning outside of Mormon literature for contemporaries of Fisher such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, and others. While often used more generally to refer to the generation of youth who had endured World War I, in A Moveable Feast Hemingway attributed this phrase to art patron Gertrude Stein with seemingly specific reference to the writers of that period. Hemingway used this phrase as an epigram in The Sun Also Rises.
[2] See also Ethan R. Yorgason, Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010).
[3] See Veda Hale, Andrew Hall, and Lynne Larson, eds. A Craving for Beauty: The Collected Writings of Maurine Whipple (BCC Press, 2022).
[4] Since 1982, the official subtitle of The Book of Mormon has been “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”