Thursday, March 25, 2010

Polygamy Was Better than Monotony

In writing Polygamy Was Better than Monotony, Paul Dayton Bailey presents a delightful remembrance of living on the ragged edge of polygamous Utah – but also presents a conundrum as he condemns the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for being “vital, pugnacious, earth-shaking,” and a “unique breed” and at the same time condemning the church and its members for being too strait laced and too inflexible to those who don’t “toe the line.”

Still, it’s refreshing to read a book written by a lapsed Mormon that avoids the two cliché-ridden pitfalls that typically strike at those attempting to write about the faith: The strait-laced Molly Mormon approach that, as he points out, avoids the controversy and only writes that which is edifying; and the hey I used to be a Mormon and boy am I ever glad to have escaped that horrible, mind-bending cult approach that shows more venom than is absolutely necessary. Also refreshing is that bailey has the truth in him enough to blame his and his family's foibles more on their own behavior than on the church -- a favorite four-lane highway of the typical jack Mormon writer.

Part of me wonders, however, if Bailey might be more pleased with the church of today. He died in 1987 during the tenure of Ezra Taft Benson as president of the church. He was pugnacious in his day, but likely not as pugnacious as Bailey would have had him be. Today’s leaders are probably also not as pugnacious, but there is increased tolerance among the “authorities” for unorthodoxy, especially when it comes to exposing such things as the Mountain Meadows Massacre and other sell-savory aspects of early Mormon history.

Here’s what Bailey writes:
The Church – no longer poor and persecuted – is run by men whose years are far past the three-score-and-ten. Instead of being a vital, pugnacious, earth-shaking movement – it seems not to be interested in only one thing – to be well thought of. So, don’t mention polygamy; ignore Mountains Meadows, Danites, and militarism. If you are a Mormon writer – do it according to approved pattern – keep your mouth shut on the controversial isaues – pay close attention to keeping one’s mortal estate.

I am proud of my Mormon heritage. I love it with inordinate passion. My grandparents were tremendous characters. They willingly went to prison for their beliefs. Instead of courting Gentiles, and groveling for their approval, they had guts and conviction enough to spit in their eyes, and to deliver them forthwith to the buffetings of Satan. They know they were a peculiar and special breed; that they were chosen before the world was formed.
I have to wonder, though, would Bailey’s jack Mormonism (as his affiliation with the church must be described) would be augmented by the church today, as its pugnaciousness continues into areas that perhaps he might not approve. (He’s already critical of a church that granted a divorce between his mother and father, and erroneously assumes that this divorce makes his father risk hellfire.) Surely he’d have something to say about the pugnaciousness of the church in taking the stand it has on California’s Proposition 8, though he might have grudging admiration for how the church and church members have weathered the storm of hatred that emerged after that proposition, banning gay marriage, was approved.

As I read the book, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that Bailey, while not antagonistic towards Mormon culture, is only nonantagonistic because of his immersion in that culture, while avoiding immersion in the gospel. In other words, he’s a Mormon by culture, not by faith. Read this:
The rents and patches are there because of me, my flounderings, and my continued and unorthodox toilings. I have found that whenever I too snugly tighten my cloak, it becomes a strait-jacket. . . . By wearing the cloak a bit loose, by opening it to the wind and the storms, I have frayed its edges, and have weather-spotted it a little more than it should be. But it is a good cloak, and I am proud of it.
Yes, he admits, he’s gone astray. But being the big-minded cultural Mormon he is, his astrayness is OK because it makes his cultural Mormonism that much better. While I myself have been known to wear my cloak a bit loose as well, I’m not foolish enough to think that keeping core aspects as tight as I can bear. That tightness, that unwillingness to bend – which his beloved Grandfather Forbes displayed as he first served jail time for being in a polygamous relationship, then fled to Colorado and New Mexico to avoid capture by federal authorities – might be the true store of the pugnaciousness that Bailey claims is missing from the church today. But that’s just me.

I heartily recommend the book, however. It is probably the most honest treatment of polygamy, and life in polygamous families, that I’ve ever read. It’s also an admirable human portrait of a man – his father, Eli Bailey – living his religion despite his faults (he was married in the Salt Lake Temple but parked his cigarette on a temple stone for retrieval after the ceremony).

It's also odd to see the Lincoln Sugar Factory play a small part in a novel. I attended elementary school next to the factory where Bailey's father worked for a time as a foreman -- the school was called Stinkin' Lincoln because of its proximity to the factory and for the belching smoke that rose out of its single brick smokestack on most days.

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