Faithful Transgressions In The American West: Six Twentieth-Century Mormon Women's Autobiographical Acts

Faithful Transgressions In The American West: Six Twentieth-Century Mormon Women's Autobiographical Acts

by Laura Bush

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The central issue Bush finds in these works is how their authors have dealt with the authority of Mormon Church leaders. As she puts it in her preface, "I use the phrase 'faithful transgression' to describe moments in the texts when each writer, explicitly or implicitly, commits herself in writing to trust her own ideas and authority over official religious


The central issue Bush finds in these works is how their authors have dealt with the authority of Mormon Church leaders. As she puts it in her preface, "I use the phrase 'faithful transgression' to describe moments in the texts when each writer, explicitly or implicitly, commits herself in writing to trust her own ideas and authority over official religious authority while also conceiving of and depicting herself to be a 'faithful' member of the Church." Bush recognizes her book as her own act of faithful transgression. Writing it involved wrestling, she states, "with my own deeply ingrained religious beliefs and my equally compelling education in feminist theories that mean to liberate and empower women."

Faithful Transgressions examines a remarkable group of authors and their highly readable and entertaining books. In producing the first significant book-length study of Mormon women's autobiographical writing, Bush rides a wave of memoir publishing and academic interest in autobiography and other life narratives. As she elucidates these works in relation to the religious tradition that played a major role in shaping them, she not only positions them in relation to feminist theory and current work on women's life writings but ties them to the long literary tradition of spiritual autobiography.

Editorial Reviews

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Faithful Transgressions in the American West is a resonant literary concept, with provocative implications for any reader or writer of autobiography... Bush models an impressive ability to read historical texts closely and carefully, identifying tone, rhetorical strategies, the use of imagery, and the creation of selves'skills that would benefit any historican or reader of history. —Lavina Fielding Anderson

Lucidly written and cogently argued, Bush's important and ground-breaking study helpfully contributes to rethinking the practice of both women's and western life narrative. Its central concept of "faithful transgression" investigates the inscription of gendered roles in Mormon tradition and the interventional work of women's writing within that tradition. —Julia Watson

I've read a number of manuscripts on Mormon women's writing in the past few years, and this is definitely the best one. It should be appealing to a general audience and to scholars. —Melody Graulich

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Utah State University Press
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Faithful Transgressions in the American West

Six Twentieth-Century Mormon Women's Autobiographical Acts
By Laura L. Bush

Utah State University Press

Copyright © 2004 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-551-9

Chapter One

Narrating Optimism, Faith, and Divine Intervention We'll find the place which God for us prepared, Far away in the West, Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid; There the Saints will be blessed. We'll make the air with music ring, Shout praises to our God and King; Above the rest these words we'll tell All is well! All is well! -William Clayton, "Come, Come, Ye Saints"

The much-loved Mormon hymn "Come, Come, Ye Saints," written in 1846 by English-born American William Clayton and sung by nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint men, women, and children during their pioneer trek west, captures the optimistic tone of Mary Ann Hafen's Recollections of a Handcart Pioneer of 1860: A Woman's Life on the Mormon Frontier. The song's hopeful refrain ("All is well! All is well!") reflects Hafen's attitude as she writes about the challenges that her newly converted family face when they emigrate from Switzerland to North America. The life story that she constructs about her subsequent experience as an industrious pioneer and polygamous wife, sent by Brigham Young to settle Santa Clara, Utah, and then Bunkerville, Nevada, fits well within the tradition of Mormon spiritual autobiography. She faithfully follows the tradition's major conventions by testifying of God's existence and interventions, offering brief explanations of and defenses for various Mormon doctrines. By sharing her life story using the plural pronoun "we" with much greater frequency than the singular pronoun "I," she also exhibits the communal nature of her life experience and her expectation for multiple audiences inside and outside the church.

As an autobiographer, Hafen writes about her own personal struggles on the western frontier; but also, as an eyewitness and participant ethnographer/historian, she writes about her Mormon community's daily life as well. In fact, she works to establish credibility with readers by providing specific detail about numerous aspects of her own and other Latter-day Saints' pioneer experience: their food, clothing, housing, customs, and industry. Most Mormon autobiographers tend to view themselves as historians. Hafen, Tanner, Brooks, Martin, Williams, and Barber all write individual history with a sense of the larger family, community, and national history impinging on their lives. Hafen's life writing is especially interested in documenting Mormons' pioneer experience colonizing the western frontier. She records their process of making adobe houses, softening water using cottonwood ashes, making soap from yucca, weaving and dying homemade cloth, boiling candy, preserving fruit, cutting and preparing alfalfa or "lucern" to feed cows, and making raisins from grapes. Each ethnographic detail shows Hafen watching herself and her community make history. Juanita Brooks, her granddaughter, will follow suit in the mid-twentieth century, although in comparison to Hafen, Brooks develops many more stories about her individual experience than her grandmother does in this autobiographical act.

Always moving from the general to the particular, Hafen usually puts her individual life story into context by describing experiences of the group. She then highlights her unique experience. Her discussion of the development of cotton production in southern Utah (what Mormons referred to as "Dixie") offers a good example of how she moves from the general to the specific. The shift is often signaled by her changing from third- to first-person pronouns and from passive to active sentence constructions. To illustrate, she writes,

One of President Young's objects in sending the people to settle southern Utah had been that they might raise cotton there. Cotton seed was brought to Santa Clara and planted. Then a cotton gin was brought in.... We had not yet planted cotton for ourselves. But we children were permitted to glean those partly opened bolls that were left after the neighbors had done with their fields. We gathered several sackfulls [sic]. By the firelight in the evenings we shelled out the cotton. We dried it further in the sun. And then I traded mine to a peddler for calico. How well I remember that first new dress. I thought it very beautiful. It was yellow with little red and blue flowers. As we had no sewing machine, I made the dress by hand with my aunt's help. I was then twelve years old. In the six years that I had been in America I had never had an honest-to-goodness new dress. Everything I wore was made from mother's old dresses. So this new calico dress made me feel like a queen.

This general to specific technique demonstrates Hafen's desire to write as a historian of Mormon experience while also securing her own place in Mormon history. In general, she uses the first-person singular pronoun "I" only when describing an experience or character trait unique to her. More often, she uses the first-person plural pronoun "we." Recalling the important moment when she and other Mormons ended their long pioneer journey, for instance, she says:

At last, when we reached the top of Emigration Canyon, overlooking Salt Lake, on that September day, 1860, the whole company stopped to look down through the valley.... We all gave thanks to God for helping us safely over the Plains and mountains to our destination. When we arrived in the city we were welcomed by the people who came out carrying baskets of fruit and other kinds of good things to eat. Even though we could not understand their language, they made us feel that we were among friends.

Hafen's use of "we," "us," and "ours" de-emphasizes her experience as an individual and, instead, valorizes the experience and feelings of the group-both Mormon pioneers and her own family.

Early Mormons especially viewed themselves as history makers and writers. Many of them were immigrants who came to America creating and defining a new American religious tradition that began with the story of Mormons' flight west, where the LDS hymn "Come, Come, Ye Saints" promised them they would "find the place which God for us prepared, far away in the West." Hafen conforms to the convention of Mormon autobiography when she provides precise historical details, beginning with her predictable first sentence: "I was born May 5, 1854, in the valley of Rotenback, about three miles from the city of Bern, Switzerland. I was the second child of my parents, Samuel Stucki and Magdalena Stettler Stucki". This traditional beginning is vital to a Mormon grandmother since she connects with her ancestors and posterity in this life and the next through her genealogy, frequently recorded in her personal history. Later, twentieth-century Mormon women autobiographers such as Brooks, Martin, Williams, and Barber will break from strict adherence to this first-page genealogy convention, but the majority of Mormon autobiographers pay close attention to such personal and historical detail. Accuracy serves to validate and authorize the accounts of their own, their families', and their Mormon communities' lives.

In Hafen's case, readers may rightly wonder how much of the style and content is her own and how much is her son Roy's or her granddaughter Juanita's, both professional historians. In her foreword, she explains, "My son, Roy, his wife, Ann, and my granddaughter, Juanita, have assisted with the writing by asking me questions to bring out more information and details. Roy has attended to the publication. I hereby acknowledge and greatly appreciate their help". Both she and Tanner had sons who were university educated and who promoted their mothers' stories, bringing the two women's autobiographies to formal publication. Regardless of a family's influence at various stages of the writing and publication process, however, Hafen's autobiography should be viewed as a work in which she was an active participant. Her carefully crafted story means to entertain. She also purposely constructs an argument that intends to persuade both insider and outsider audiences of her thesis that God has been actively involved in her life. Furthermore, she provides significant evidence to support her narrative's overall contention that obedience, faith, and optimism will yield ultimate happiness.

Although Hafen scrupulously records the exact journey of her family's overseas travel to reach America, southern Utah, and Nevada, for the majority of her life, this Mormon mother is not mobile until after her children are grown. Frontier living ties Hafen to her farm and family. She doesn't even return to Salt Lake City where she was married until forty-five years later. Her life experience as a Mormon plural wife in the American West is not about striking out alone for the territory but about being sustained within two groups-her family and her Mormon community. She views her writing task as recording the colonization of a land new to Mormons who sought refuge from religious persecution and a place they could call "Zion." Readily accepting her role as wife, mother, and caretaker of the home, she also becomes her children's primary wage earner and provider, a role traditionally reserved for men in Victorian ideology. Without explicitly addressing the enormity of managing both homemaker and provider roles simultaneously, her autobiography indirectly demonstrates the challenges she faces and the successes she achieves while negotiating this double burden.

Like many Mormon spiritual autobiographers before her, Hafen recounts the history of her family and Mormon pioneer community to inculcate family values and leave readers with a definitive witness of God and His gospel. Weaving numerous anecdotes together to form a compact, one-hundred-page autobiography, she works to prove that God has offset the hardships of her life with positive outcomes and that He has always buoyed her up with comforting blessings, dreams, and visions. Using concise historical detail about her late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century experiences, Hafen writes a more faithful than transgressive autobiography. However, the faith-promoting story that this Mormon woman writer weaves threatens to unravel when she discloses troublesome details about the circumstances of her second plural marriage.

In general, she organizes her text inductively and reserves her most explicit thesis statement for the concluding pages of her text. Accumulating numerous anecdotal examples of hardships overcome and small miracles or visionary dreams received, she offers her most explicit teaching moment at the end of her autobiography. Characteristic of Mormon talks or personal testimonies offered by church members in Sunday Sacrament Meetings, this inductive writing pattern builds toward her autobiography's major theme. "I have tried to acknowledge the hand of the Lord in all things," she declares. "Trials and difficulties of all kinds often turn out for our own good in the long run. The Lord knows better than we do what is best for us and we should humbly bow to his will". Situated at the end of her life story, this thematic idea, with its thesis-like quality, controls the major content and shape of Hafen's entire autobiography, providing evidence for the text's utilitarian purpose-a literary convention in both spiritual and, later, secular American women's autobiographies. Margo Culley traces the utilitarianism of many American women's autobiographies back to the influence of the Puritans, who exhibited "ambivalence about the first person singular." Puritans reconciled their discomfort with the self-indulgence of autobiography by publicly sharing individual conversion narratives meant to strengthen members within a congregation. "Thus, the individual autobiographical act was ultimately an act of community building". Latter-day Saint spiritual autobiographies such as Hafen's parallel these Puritan motives and traditions. With modesty, Hafen mentions in the foreword of her autobiography, "If the sketch is of some interest and if any of the incidents give encouragement to my dear ones I shall be very happy and feel fully repaid for the effort".

Structuring Stories to Promote Faith

Characteristic of Mormon autobiography, which Latter-day Saints write in order to preserve what Mormons refer to as "faith-promoting" stories, Hafen's pattern of presenting some past distress with a positive outcome or lesson learned begins at the outset when she describes herself at six years old, emigrating in 1860 with German-speaking family members from Bern, Switzerland, to the Utah territory. "For weeks we were on the Atlantic Ocean," she writes. "As we children played around, sometimes we stood and watched the cooks kill chickens by wringing their necks. This seemed horrible to me. But after all I remember how good the chicken bones tasted that we picked up after the sailors had thrown them away". This determination to emphasize the good, even when incidents bother her, continues throughout the account of her life. After a "great storm" on the sea, for instance, she admits, "We were so frightened that we did not go to bed but stayed in a group about the Elders praying for safety." With restrained drama, she reports that the captain himself cried out, "We are lost!" Despite the captain's fear, however, Hafen claims her group "did not give up hope." Relying on God's protection and exercising faith, she writes, "We had been promised a safe voyage. Next morning the sun came up bright and clear. We all gave thanks to God for our deliverance. The ship was repaired and we had pleasant sailing the rest of the way". Hafen's pattern of presenting "storms" in life followed by "pleasant sailing" becomes her most predictable storytelling strategy as she attempts to control readers' response to the difficulties of her life.

Describing conditions during the pioneer trek west, when Mormons used moderate-sized handcarts that required them to abandon many beloved possessions, Hafen writes, "The first night out the mosquitoes gave us a hearty welcome". Besides pesky insects, she acknowledges that they had "many other difficulties" but always focuses the story of their arduous journey on the positive. She recalls her mother's swollen feet, for example, reporting that the painful condition eventually prevented her mother from wearing shoes for a time. "She would get so discouraged and down-hearted," recalls Hafen, "but father never lost courage. He would always cheer her up by telling her that we were going to Zion, that the Lord would take care of us, and that better times were coming". Hafen's autobiographical account clearly reenforces her father's attitude of trusting in God amid tribulation. She briefly records occasional complaints surrounding a past trial, but, like her father, she prefers to point readers toward future prospects, insisting on any event's bright outcome. Following up her tribulations with some mitigating blessing or lesson learned accentuates God's constancy in Hafen's life. With each anecdote, she implies that those reading her autobiography who follow her example will also be blessed. No negative event, no trial, she argues through example, will go unredeemed or unrewarded if her readers will bide their time, lovingly follow God's laws, and exhibit patience as she has.

Hafen repeatedly expresses admiration for her father's self-sufficiency, physical strength, financial acuity, and skill as a farmer and a carpenter. She writes, "I was so glad that father was a carpenter; he could make us so many nice things [like a spinning wheel] that others did not have". She recounts several episodes when Samuel Stucki overcomes hardships or when he is hurt but later healed. One incident occurs when a hill where he was helping to build a canal for water collapses on him. Hafen says that she remembers seeing her father's "bruised" and "injured" body. She writes, "[I]t seemed impossible for him to live, but through the blessing of God and the administration of the Elders he was gradually healed and able again to provide for his family".


Excerpted from Faithful Transgressions in the American West by Laura L. Bush Copyright © 2004 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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