Review: Dorian

Dorian by Nephi Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading a lot of Mormon Literature lately. Just in the past few months I have finished Doug Thayer’s The Tree House, Todd Robert Petersen’s Rift, Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon, and now, his Dorian. I plan to make my way through the curriculum for a 15-week course on the Mormon novel, as suggested by Scott Hales at A Motley Vision. (I’ve expanded it to 17 weeks to capture a couple more recent works, but let’s be honest here, I’m not completing the required reading in a matter of weeks. Too slow.) As a writer of Mormon-themed fiction, I have a vested interest in learning what has been done before in Mormon letters. Accordingly, I want to pay my respects to past and current Mormon writers by reading their works (at least the major ones), so that I know upon whose shoulders I stand in this endeavor. The writer holding up the lot of us is Nephi Anderson, despite his faults. Mormon Literature begins with him. But this post is less a homage to Anderson’s virtues as a writer as much as it is a recommendation to read his last novel, Dorian, published in 1921, two years before his death. (If you are interested in an excellent summary of Anderson’s work, in general, then read Scott Hales’s post about it here.)

Dorian is the coming-of-age story of Dorian Trent, a young Mormon man growing up in a rural Utah town during the early twentieth century, when industrialization was reaching the countryside, the automobile was just becoming more popular, and the “motion picture show” was the new attraction in the city. Dorian learns about love, life, and the role his religion may play as a complement to his life’s goal of acquiring worldly scientific knowledge. He wants to become the scientist who is able, at last, to reconcile science and religion. Although Anderson only hints at the way to do this through the conversational musings of Dorian’s Uncle Zed, an autodidact and country sage, that Anderson puts forth the hope of such harmony against the backdrop of Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution becoming more widely known and accepted, not to mention the other scientific developments during this period, is remarkable considering that the same tension exists between religion and science today, nearly a hundred years later. (But Dorian’s faith and spirit lives on. Mormon writer and biologist, Steven L. Peck, may, in fact, be channeling him.)

But the novel is not all about harmonizing religion and science; rather, the main story line tracks Dorian’s growth as a young man who learns to get outside himself and recognize his soul mate. He learns to love and to forgive. His greatest fault is his being oblivious to the intentions of the two women who love him most. He only just becomes aware of his feelings for the first, Mildred, when she falls ill and dies. He mourns her for a period before he realizes he loves Carlia, too, but his irregular visits to her house sends the unfortunate message that he does not care for her as much as she thought. She then becomes involved with the dishonorable Mr. Lamont who drives an automobile, smokes, and swears (Stereotypical bad boy?). Their relationship leads her to become estranged from her parents, her community, and Dorian. She even runs away, but not with Mr. Lamont, for she begins to fear him at some point. Dorian sets out to find her and bring her back into their lives. (I’m intentionally being somewhat vague, as I don’t want to spoil everything.)

To understand better what Nephi Anderson accomplishes with Dorian, I’m going to compare my experience of it to that of reading his first novel, Added Upon. That novel is perhaps Anderson’s most popular work, but I don’t count it his best. The scope of pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal existence is too grand for a novel of a hundred pages or so. The characters are not developed fully, besides having different names in each estate, and the structure of the work is like the skipping of a stone across a pond, jumps and ripples. It’s difficult to tell whether this was intentional or simply amateurish. Maybe it was intentional in some way. Anderson may have been emphasizing the key moments in each of his main character’s lives that directly relate to their eternal reward. I applaud Anderson for trying. It’s ambitious, and maybe if he’d given himself a broader canvas (more pages), it might have been a more satisfying read. Ah, well, it’s worth a look. (“Fail again, fail better,” says Samuel Beckett.)

With Dorian, though, Anderson foreshadows the Faithful Realism of Doug Thayer and others. Mormonism is in the background more than in his earlier works, and certainly more than in Added Upon. Passages that you might call didactic or proselytizing are craftily placed in conversations between Dorian and Uncle Zed. Otherwise, Anderson is tracing the lives of characters who just happen to be Mormon. Dorian is structured well, too. Dorian’s saving Carlia physically from the canal at the beginning of the novel foreshadows his saving her spiritually at the end. Even Mr. Lamont’s death in a rushing river, his washing away, seems to hint at Carlia’s “sin” being swept away. Each chapter builds upon the next with few leaps of logic and circumstance. Dorian is drawn well as a character who changes by overcoming his shyness and obliviousness, but who is heroic in his capacity to serve others and to forgive. He is intelligent, hard working, righteous, practical, and open to learning. Uncle Zed is that model scriptorian in every ward who seems to know everything about the Gospel. His conversations with Dorian and others cover Science and Religion, God, sin, death, and service (“The higher must reach down and bring up the lower.”). One of my favorite quotes comes from Mrs. Trent, Dorian’s mother, when Uncle Zed is waxing eloquent about God and asks the guests assembled what they think of his arguments. She says, “Please pass the pickles.” There is intertextuality, too, in this work. Uncle Zed and Dorian obsess over Henry Drummond’s Natural Law in the Spiritual World, which turns out to be a real, published work. Dorian and Uncle Zed also take on questions like “Why are there classes among members of our Church?” (There isn’t, or isn’t supposed to be.) “Why does the world have so much learning and yet can never seem to get at the ultimate truth?” Finally, this is the earliest work of Mormon literature I know of that presents a young man who hangs a poster of a woman he likes on his bedroom wall. In this case, Lorna Doone, who is evidently a main character in a romance novel by R. D. Blackmore. Since two suitors fight over her, I wonder if it’s not an early reference in Dorian to Dorian’s and Mr. Lamont’s contest over Carlia?

There is much to like in Dorian, but I gave it four stars because Anderson’s writing style just doesn’t reach the heights of other literary authors who were his contemporaries. It just doesn’t compare. His prose is simple and straightforward, having few rhetorical flourishes. It has nothing on that of Henry James, say, or even Mark Twain. But no matter, for Mormon Literature, if he’s not our touchstone, he’s our cornerstone, and Mormon letters have only gotten better since.

If you’ve read Dorian, what do you think of it?

Photo Credit: “Mormon Row,” Carolyn, Flickr

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Author: Michael Andrew Ellis

I write literary fiction at the confluence of Mormonism, Hmong culture, and the human condition. Here on my blog I write about Mormon arts and letters, Hmong history and culture, classic and contemporary literature, existentialism, and my journey as a writer.

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