This document is the notes for an essay. If these notes are not appearing in the lower half of a framed presentation, click here to access the entire essay.
Presented at 1983 meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters by Mick McAllister. Please cite by author and URL as well as title if quoted.
Citational Data: If you wish to refer to this article, use the following citational data
Mick McAllister. "Vardis Fisher's Mormon Heritage Re-Examined: A Critical Response". At Wanderer's Well http://www.dancingbadger.com/vfmormonf.htm (November, 2001).
Summary: Essentially a response to Leonard Arrington's appropriation of Fisher as a Mormon sympathizer in the BYU Studies essay cited, my paper argues that Fisher's Children of God provides a delicately balanced history of the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I propose a careful examination of Fisher's Mormon roots and their influence on the branching tree of his fiction and thought.
November, 2001: The history of this essay is an essay in itself. In 1982, I was one of the few Fisher scholars who had not managed to earn the wrath of his widow, Opal Laurel Holmes. John R. Milton had all but ceased to write about Fisher. Ms. Holmes had a million-dollar law suit pending against him for some imagined libel of her husband in a set of interviews Milton had done in the mid-sixties. George F. Day had completed his biography of Fisher, but rumor had it that he was unwilling to risk having her turn on him after he found a publisher, and the book remained unpublished, some years after her death.
A member of her inner circle, I was living in Salt Lake at the time. Opal approached me about refuting the article under discussion, an essay written by one of Mormon historian Leonard Arrington's students and blessed with Arrington's "co-authorship." I read the essay, and I was amazed at the outrageousness of their argument, which was effectively that Fisher was a lifelong sympathizer with the Church. I agreed to write the counterpiece Opal wanted, and I managed to get my paper on the program of the same body that had heard the Arrington/Haupt essay some years before, the Association for Mormon Letters (in fact, Arrington, a gracious gentleman, was in my audience when I presented the paper).
I consulted with Opal throughout the writing process and sent her a final draft a month or so before the paper was to be given. The evening before the conference, she called me. She had read the paper, and she "forbade" me to present it. Why? Because I said in it "that Vardis was a Mormon." No reasoning made any difference. Fisher was never a Mormon, she insisted. I presented the paper, and a local liberal Mormon journal asked for permission to publish it. A month later, Opal found out and called them, and they "lost" the manuscript. This sounds like a paranoid fantasy, but it has a happy ending.
Some six months later, I was in Logan, Utah, to present another Fisher paper, Children of God: Vardis Fisher's Objective Epic," at the 1983 meeting of the Utah Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters. Opal learned of this and flew herself and two scholar friends down from Boise in a private plane so they could challenge me if I spoke that which was not. One of the scholars, Jim Maguire, at Boise State University, has been my closest academic friend since long before this happened, and he expressed some bafflement as to what they were supposed to do. But the upshot was, my paper toed the party line, if quite accidentally, and Opal, who had cavalierly quashed a publication for me, "forgave" me and invited herself to my motel room, where she promptly got drunk with her champions and my wife, in a carnival of love and joy.
For ease of documentation, I will refer to Fisher's own work parenthetically in my text, using the abbreviations indicated in the bibliography, with a few necessary exceptions.
1. The Mormon Experience (New York: Random House, 1979), p. 385, n. 71. The paragraph the authors devote to Fisher (p. 330) does nothing to improve Professor Arrington's credentials as a reader of Fisher's work. The eight lines of text contain five basic errors of fact: the four Vridar Hunter novels are identified as a series entitled "Tetralogy," with publication dates of 1932-34, rather than 1932-36; the reference to the Testament of Man leaves the impression that Testament of Man is a book title, and the publication dates are given as 1947-60 rather than the correct 1943-60. Finally, Children of God is referred to as "The Children of God." Such bibliographical untidiness does not inspire confidence.
2. "Vardis Fisher Was Not a Mormon," press release reprinted by Ms. Holmes in editions of Mountain Man, Dark Bridwell, and Sonnets to an Imaginary Madonna.
3. An ironic omission, since this is the one thing in their argument that she happens to agree with. Ms. Holmes, who had some trouble distinguishing her friends from her enemies, denounced this paper, which I wrote at her request, because I make the "false" claim that Fisher's background was Mormon at all.
4. Three West (Vermillion: Dakota Press, 1970), p. 3.
5. Stanley Kunitz and Howard Haycroft, Twentieth Century Authors (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1942), p. 459. It is also pertinent to consider the portrait of Vridar Hunter's sister in Orphans in Gethsemane. In the latter part of the book (GC, p. 511) "Diana" is referred to as a "fanatical" Mormon "who spent endless hours on genealogy so that she could have those in her family lines 'sealed' who died long ago" in contrast to "her free-thinking heretical brothers." The parallel to Fisher's (and Irene's) public utterances and biography cannot be dismissed.
6. Conversations with Wallace Stegner on Western History and Literature, ed. Richard Etulain. Susequently published by the University of Utah Press in October 1983. See also GC, p. 37.
7. Personal correspondence, August 24, 1982. See Three West, p. 3.
8. Personal correspondence, September 18, 1982.
9. Tim Woodward's biography of Fisher, Tiger on the Road (Caldwell:Caxton, 1989), falls into this trap as well, mixing data from Fisher's "autobiographical" fiction with reportorial fact indiscriminately.
10. Cowdery was an earlier follower of Joseph Smith, one of the three trusted friends to whom he showed the actual gold plates of the Book of Mormon. He was also excommunicated, in 1838, for accusing Smith of adultery.
11. Two prominent figures from the Book of Mormon with pseudo-Hebraic names.
12. "It was the habit with Brigham Young to send settlers out in all directions from the Salt Lake Valley. . . . My father and one of his brothers were two of a small colony sent to the Upper Snake River Valley" (Three West, p. 3). A moment before, Fisher says, "Some of [my people]the important ones, those closest to me in backgroundcame across the plains with Brigham Young."
13. In "My Biblical Heritage" (TW, pp. 160-66), Fisher corroborates this description of his experience: "The Bible developed in me a pathological sense of sin" (P. 164). In the last few chapters of In Tragic Life, Vridar is driven almost insane by guilt over his masturbation.
14. Telephone interview with Opal Laurel Holmes; Holmes press release.
15. However, this material could have been fruitfully supplemented by recourse to Milton's Three West, with its forty-five pages of interviews with Fisher. Milton's interviews are not cited.
16. Western Writers Series # 1 (Boise: Boise State College, 1972).
17. Vardis Fisher TUSAS # 76 (New Haven: College and University Press, 1965), p. 105.
18. Both Chatterton (p. 18) and Flora (p. 107) explain that "dark" refers to the entire family. Nowhere in the novel does Fisher suggest the exclusive application of the epithet to Charlie; it applies with at least equal force to his son Jed.
19. I have to agree with Joseph Flora that the revision of the Tetralogy is more a matter of style and characterization than of "mellowing." See his comparative discussion in Vardis Fisher, pp. 65-72. A precise one-to-one comparison of the passages cited in Arrington and Haupt would take up an inordinate amount of space; readers may make their own comparisons. In this case, the quotations from pp. 65 & 66 of In Tragic Life, Fisher made two changes I consider stylistic: "his flesh" became "certain parts of his body," and "cherishing women. . . miracles" became "to cherish women as the holiest of all God's creations." A much more significant change is the addition, in the same scene, not only of the reference to hating his mother, but to wishing, in response to her teachings, "that he had been born without intestines and anus, for certainly nothing in the world, her face told him, not even adultery or murder, was as sinful as that part of a person's body (FPFH, p. 42).
20. Fisher's use of "no more" certainly implies that Hunter, at least, was Mormon up to that moment.
21. "Readers generally found No Villain Need Be inferior to the other three novels of the tetralogy. It seemed to than not only too full of talk but looser in structure" (Flora, p. 29).
22. For example, Fisher revised a long confrontation with a self-serving colleague, one Roger Merwyn, religious affiliation unstated, making the man "Abraham Moses Smith," heir to "fifty Mormon years" of top-dogging, whose mottos are "sell yourself" and "keep your mouth shut" (GC, p. 94).
23. After they leave, Hunter says to his wife, "I thought you must be cooking cabbage. I know now that I smelled their minds" (FPFH p. 609).
24. In their citation of Fisher's "My Biblical Heritage," the essayists refer to it as having been "written in 1963." This is the year of its publication in Fisher's essay collection. The essay was originally published in 1953 (TW, p. 160) in The American Zionist. Thus, Fisher first wrote the essay explicitly for a Jewish audience, and from precisely the middle of the Testament of Man project, not at some mellow retrospective three years after completing it.
25. Stegner corres., Sept. 18, 1982.
26. Fisher returns to this point many times. "The war of the Maccabees against Jews who would Hellenize Israel and against Syria was the most fateful turning point in history for the Western World. Wnat if the followers of the Prophets had lost that war? In that case there could never have developed what is called Christianity. To say the world would be worse off if it had not developed is to make habit, tradition, and self-protective assumptions the supreme law of the mind" (TW, p. 68). "The extremely bitter struggle between Jews who wanted to hellenize Israel and those who wanted to preserve it in racial and religious isolation. . . was of transcendent importance" (p. 75). "The Maccabean struggle was the most important struggle in the history of Western civilization" (p. 114). See also The Island of the Innocent (New York: Abelard Press, 1952), pp. 405, 425 (Fisher's notes are not included in the paperback text of this volume of the Testament).
27. "For the Mormon attempt, Fisher had profound respect" (p. 45).
28. A novelist who tells the truth about Solomon, Fisher writes in his "Comments on His Testament of Man Series" (TW, p. 75), "can expect to be ignored or smeared." See also God or Caesar?, p. 258.
29. In God or Caesar? Fisher quotes the Times review of the book with some glee. The reviewer called the book "a pedantic, prurient diatribe," and Fisher's Solomon "a sort of Sammy Glick with chin whiskers" (p. 257). In his reply to the review (p. 258), Fisher objects to being accused of supporting Ahijah "when [my sympathy] is so clearly with Solomon." He also mentions that "one eminent Jewish publisher rejected the book as an 'infamous diatribe.'"
30. See pp. 134-40 for an example. He also spends some space praising the Jews for their courage, conviction, and greatness of spirit (190), and his Greek protagonist attacks the Hellenic faction for their betrayal of true Hellenism, for being as narrow and righteous in their own cause as the Jews they despise. The book concludes with the Jewish mystic Amiel busily evading the realities around him by escaping into a vision of the Messiah. In The Valley of Vision, Fisher sums up the period covered by these two novels thus: "The struggle from Solomon to the Maccabees seems to have been one between the majority who wanted to mate and mix in human fellowship, and the prophets and their followers who strove for the dogma of a chosen and exclusive people and the sole God who should belong solely to Israel" (p. 318). In the notes to The Island of the Innocent, Fisher makes his own views clear, paraphrasing his remarks on the Maccabees quoted above (pp. 405-6).
31. Not Jesus of Nazareth, he tells us in the notes to Jesus Came Again, p. 272.
32. See Fisher's notes on "the Age" (p. 249), "Miracles" (p. 276), and "Mystics" (p. 278) on the psychological climate of the period.
33. In Orphans in Gethsemane he recounts Hunter's contempt for the publisher who asks him to "Christianize" the ending of A Goat for Aazazel (GC, p. 495).
34. Peace Like a River, p. 259 of the Pyramid Books edition (reprinted as The Passion Within). Fisher is referring to the Arian heresy.
35. Near the end of Orphans in Gethsemane, Vridar, having finished writing My Holy Satan, compares the Christian Middle Ages to Nazi Germany and the Stalinist pogroms (GC, p. 563).
36. A good source of biographical information is Tim Woodward's Tiger in the Road (Caxton, 1999). Unfortunately Woodward, a Boise journalist, relies heavily on the Tetralogy as a source of biographical "fact."