A generation ago, the older and dingier parts of our big cities contained, along with Chinese laundries, Greek restaurants, flophouses, pawnshops, and fifteen-cent movie barns, a fair sprinkling—sometimes a solid row—of huge, dirty, dusky, wonderful secondhand bookstores, where the bemused and besmudged investigator with a week's allowance in his pocket, prowling in dark cellars and rickety galleries, would not be surprised to run across a little library in Burmese or Tagalog or a fair collection of well-marked Classics, or a shelf of Icelandic or Persian—sold for a song by the wives and spinster daughters of defunct missionaries and professors. In those days this little globe of earth seemed as vast and mysterious as outer space does today, and here in these grimy literary douanes lay unclaimed baggage from distant times and places, to be had for little more than the pains of carrying it away.
In most of these gloomy suqs a large and conspicuous area of wall space on the main floor was set aside and designated as the Mormon reservation—meaning, of course, anti-Mormon. These books are all gone today—they are now collectors' items fetching ridiculous prices. But in their day they made up a formidable corpus and unique genre of American letters. The pretentious bindings, screaming double titles, lurid engravings, hysterical italics, and rampant exclamation points invited the reader into a world of horror, mystery, and human perversity that put the imaginations of Jules Verne and Sir Rider Haggard to shame. The literary style was as stilted, artificial, and extravagant as the illustrations, both being produced by and for a naive and uncritical generation.
Read today, these books seem as dated as gas-lighting. But don't be fooled—they are still being produced! The same books which a hundred years ago were nothing but rehashes of earlier rehashes are being warmed over at this very hour. Nothing new has been added to the Mormological library (Mormo being Greek for monster); all the long years of zealous research have failed to produce a single significant item to add to the wild tales of the busy gossips of Palmyra and Montrose; nothing has been found to confirm, but a great deal to discredit, their stories and those of their imaginative successors. For over a hundred years specialists in Mormon atrocities have done nothing but borrow from each other.
As the three mirrors of a kaleidoscope, by reflecting only a few bits of broken glass or scraps of paper, produce endless but strangely monotonous and tiring varieties of design, so the producers of anti-Mormon epics (to say nothing of American literature in general) seem incapable of anything but endlessly repeating each other. "A" picks up a story from "B" and hands it on to "C," from whom it progresses through the hands of "D," "E," "F," etc., whose combined authority ultimately convinces "I," "J," and "K" that they must be telling the truth. So one of these last becomes assigned reading for the students or even the congregation of Drs. "O" and "P," and so on. Thus Mr. Irving Wallace will take some grisly tale from the pages of Mrs. Ann Eliza Webb Dee Young Denning, who has got the story from her friend Mrs. Stenhouse, who got it from the terrible Bill Hickman, whose book was written by a rather sordid hack writer named Beadle, who confirms his frightful charges by appealing to Judge Harding, who got his best Mormon stories from his cousin Pomeroy Tucker, who is beholden to J. C. Bennett for his insights. And every one of these people steps before the public as a firsthand authority on the Mormons, bandying the old threadbare tales about with the skill and assurance of one who really knows.
In such a Sea of Story the thing the student misses most is a genuine original source. Where are the pristine and primary documents that will liberate us from the old vicious cycle of repetition and speculation? Mrs. Brodie and her cohorts thought they had discovered such, but their Tuttles, A. W. Bentons, and the Purples will not stand investigation. And now comes Mr. Irving Wallace who thinks he has a firsthand informant in Ann Eliza Young. In this he has been beguiled apparently by the recent work of Mrs. Woodward, through whose efforts it would seem Ann Eliza has achieved new fame and glory as one of the Representative Women of the West on the pages of Life Magazine. That such a person should at this late date be brought from fields Elysian and groomed for the witness stand is a good indication of how desperately bankrupt the anti-Mormon fraternity really is. It is our intention to examine the case of Ann Eliza Young as a guide to what really goes on in the half-world of anti-Mormon studies. Our attention will accordingly be confined to that lady and her intimate circle of supporters. A full-scale study of the whole field is indicated, but such a quantification of the obvious is properly the function of computing machines and not of human beings. Mr. Wallace is as representative a writer of our times as Mrs. Young was of hers. "The harm Ann Eliza did to the cause of Mormonism is beyond calculation," the editors of Life assure us,1 and since Mr. Wallace is determined that the work of this "remarkable woman" shall not go unrecognized in this generation, we cannot do better than to select the works of this scholarly pair as a sampling of the more dignified and sophisticated school of Mormology.
* Sounding Brass was originally published in Salt Lake City by Bookcraft in 1963. It carried the subtitle, "Informal Studies in the Lucrative Art of Telling Stories about Brigham Young and the Mormons."
1. Robert Wallace, "The Frontier's Fabulous Women," Life Magazine 46/19 (11 May 1959): 84.