Book Review: Mr. Mustard Plaster and other Mormon Essays, by Mary Bradford
January 28, 2017
Mary Lythgoe Bradford. Mr. Mustard Plaster and Other Mormon Essays. Draper, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2015. 185 pp.
Reviewed by Joey Franklin
In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot writes that tradition “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.”1 This has always underscored for me the importance of knowing your literary tradition, of reading widely and deeply, and of exposing yourself to a variety of great voices. In many ways the work I did in graduate school was a clunky attempt to cultivate what Eliot calls “the historical sense,” an awareness of tradition that “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones” but with “the whole of the literature of Europe” and “the whole of the literature of his own country” in his mind as well.2 Tradition, to Eliot, was the deep well of Western literature. Studying the personal essay in school, tradition for me meant the work of the genre’s luminaries—Montaigne and Bacon, Hazlitt and Lamb, Woolf and Didion, Baldwin and White.
Tradition was not, decidedly, the cloistered Mormon culture of my youth. In fact, since my time as an English major at BYU, I’ve deliberately worked to be a writer who happens to be Mormon, and not, heaven forbid, a “Mormon Writer.” To focus one’s work on the cultural curiosities and provincial preoccupations of Mormondom seemed tantamount to insulating one self from the “real” artistic world. Writing about Mormonism would turn people off, shut out readers, and invite prejudice, misunderstanding, and maybe even downright scorn. Common advice given to me early on, usually from other writers who happen to be Mormon, was to keep my Mormonness out of my writing; focus on learning the literary tradition and leave my cultural tradition out of it.
The collection is divided into five sections and follows more or less the trajectory of Bradford’s life from her pastoral childhood in Salt Lake City to her student years at the University of Utah and its LDS Institute. She offers a glimpse of her life as a wide-eyed newlywed in Washington, DC, and she examines the perceived tensions inherent in being both a bishop’s wife and the editor of Dialogue. She invites us along on mission tours to the Philippines and Spain with her adult children, and she welcomes us into the small condo of her retired widowhood.
In “Yesterday the Ward House,” Bradford describes how the church building served as a hub of social and spiritual life growing up and laments the homey feeling that has gone away from contemporary chapels. “We call it The Church, and we are warned to keep our kids from tearing the phone off the wall,” she writes. “My children sit with folded arms learning ‘reverence’” (5). And she uses those quotation marks with a subtlety that invites us to consider our own de nitions of reverence. In “Marriage and Printmaking,” she writes about her work as editor at Dialogue in the early 1980s while her husband served as a bishop, and she calls attention to strains of anti-intellectualism in Mormon culture: “In the mind of some, piety and publishing don’t mix—especially independent, scholarly publishing in a church context. But our response was: They do too mix!” (36). And in “Seeding In,” Bradford analyzes the cultural dif culty of speaking openly about sexuality: “I don’t want my teenagers to think of sex as just a dangerous temptation, like drugs, instead of what it is, the motivating life force that enables us to be both different from each other and alike too” (41).
In one essay with a more academic flavor, Bradford offers a portrait of Virginia Sorensen, author of several novels and children’s books and winner of the 1957 Newbery Medal. Bradford believes Sorensen has been neglected by Mormon culture because of a “misunderstanding many Mormons share about the purpose of fiction” (21); that is, too many Mormons have difficulty stomaching the realities of good and evil in the world. “Fiction has always been about sinners and their struggles between good and evil,” writes Bradford. “Fiction writers must stand aside from that which most engages their personal lives, looking to a deeper engagement with their art” (21).
It is this vision of Mormonism that makes Bradford’s collection an essential read for young writers in the Mormon tradition who are gur- ing out what role their own faith will play in their work. Mr. Mustard Plaster is not written as a model for how every Mormon writer should engage their tradition. Instead, it reads as a reminder that authenticity depends a great deal on one’s willingness to engage with all aspects of one’s self, and that between the poles of sanctimony and cynicism, there is a hopeful place where art and faith can thrive, not in spite of, but because of each other.
As a personal essayist, a teacher, and a Mormon, I read Bradford’s work and the label “Mormon Writer” begins to feel less problematic. After all, the most successful essayists will always write from the core of Eliot’s literary tradition, but an essential part of that tradition is a candid analysis of the essayist’s life. If Bradford’s collection teaches us anything, it is that the line between one’s life and one’s culture is thin, if it exists at all. And a writer’s best hope for authenticity is to not only embrace one’s literary tradition but one’s cultural tradition as well.