Authors: Riders of the Purple Sage
Table of Contents
THE PERILS OF MORMON WOMANHOOD
You're false to your womanhood, an' true to your religion.
LASSITER TO JANE
If Grey's male heroes have it both ways, his heroines cannot. The contest between Jane's womanhood and religious affiliation is a zero-sum game because what is at stake in rescuing her from polygamy is not only her womanhood, but, implicit in the culture of anti-Mormonism at the time, her whiteness. Although
Riders of the Purple Sage
draws upon some conventions of the captivity plot, there is nothing conventional about Jane's “captivity” as an unmarried woman who owns her own land and cattle. Captivity plots most often involve racial or ethnic difference, but Jane describes her purported captors as “my people”â people who were themselves often imprisoned for polygamy. The culturally presumed Mormon ethnic difference is key to understanding how the novel's “seclusion resolution” is not a captivity but a rescue and why the plot should have Jane lose her inheritance as a clean break from the polygamous past. The cultural flexibility of Mormon ethnic identity makes Jane's transformation all the more significant in that she is rescued as white.
The reification of Mormon religious difference into ethnic status involved, for much of the latter half of the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth, a confused amalgamation of nonwhite stereotypes. Writing in
in 1911 during the anti-Mormon magazine crusade, Alfred Henry Lewis exploited the national anxiety about immigration and white slavery to argue that by bringing female converts from overseas, Mormonism threatened “the whiteness of American womanhood.” Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, the most persistent criticism made of Mormon polygamy was that its threat to monogamy placed civilization in peril, a sexual threat that was, significantly, frequently aligned with and perceived as a racialâthat is, nonwhite and non-Westernâthreat to white America. One journalist argued in 1880 in the
Chicago Evening Journal
that the country could solve a double problem by shipping all of its Negroes to Utah; the same paper urged the nation to take care of its Indian problem by relocating tribes among the Mormons. The year
Riders of the
appeared, Bruce Kinney published a popular text called
Mormonism: The Islam of America.
And one year later, a special commission on Mormonism established by the National Reform Association, in response to rumors of persistent polygamy, stated in its report, “If Lincoln were still living he doubtless would say: âThe national house divided against itself will not endure. No nation can endure very long with its homes part polygamous and part monogamous, with its marriage system partly Moslem and partly Christian.'"
Before the Civil War, comparisons between slavery and polygamy were accompanied by comparisons of Mormons with blacks and other nonwhite people. Reflecting the assumed linkage between sexual and racial health, Mary Chesnut wrote in South Carolina in 1862 that there were “no negro marital relations, or the want of them, half so shocking as Mormonism.” Another common argument was that polygamy produced physiological decline. The polygamous offspring degenerated into a new species, according to one 1861 account: “the yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage; the greenish-colored eyes; the thick protuberant lips; the low forehead . . . [all] constitute an appearance so characteristic of the new race, the production of polygamy, as to distinguish them at a glance.” After the Civil War, echoing an 1879 statement by Morrison R. Waite, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, in which Waite associated polygamy with non-Western peoples, John A. McClernand of the Utah Commission referred to polygamy in 1889 as an “Asiatic and African pestilence.” One female critic in 1880 asked how any proper woman could live with a man whose religion encouraged him to marry “Indian squaws.” (Brigham Young did, in fact, encourage some Mormon elders to marry Indian women as plural wives.)
The image of Mormons in the years preceding the publication of Grey's novel often relied heavily on associations between Mormons and nonwhite ethnic minorities. Illustrations in magazines would often associate Mormons with Jews, Chinese people, Indians, and blacks. One Mormon baiter in Missouri wrote in 1897, “The Lord intends that WHITE FOLKS, and not Mormons shall possess that goodly land.” In the 1897 short story “Frank Merriwell Among the Mormons, or The Lost Tribe of Israel,” Frank Merriwell, a popular recurring character of magazine fiction who was the embodiment of American values, comments, “He seems to be a white man . . . even if he is a Mormon. ” The confusion over Mormon racial identity was sometimes brought about by transferring onto the polygamist the popular belief that Africans and African Americans had a peculiarly potent sexuality. Into the twentieth century, Mormons were often illustrated as blacks; sometimes it was impossible to identify whether the subject of an illustration was Mormon or black. A 1905 “coon song”âa popular song used to ridicule blacksâwas entitled “The Mormon Coon.” The cover of the sheet music shows a bearded black Mormon man surrounded by six wivesâthree white, one black, one Chinese, and one Indian. A 1904
magazine cartoon entitled “Mormon Elder-BerryâOut with His Six-Year-Olds, Who Take After Their Mothers” shows a Mormon father with his many children, who are of various caricatured races. It is clear that polygamy aroused societal anxieties about miscegenation. In this cultural context, the sexualized battle between Gentile and Mormon in Grey's novel must also have had racial overtones. Warning her of the Mormon conspiracy, Lassiter says to Jane, “The cottonwood grove's full of creepin', crawlin' men. Like Indians in the grass!” The Mormon “black plot” in
is thus a threat to white womanhood and to the “natural” law governing the sexes, a law that the work of fiction nevertheless loves to flirt with endangering.
DISTINCTIONS WITHOUT DIFFERENCES
Mormons and Gentiles are distinct yet intimately related in
the Purple Sage,
eerily resembling one another, to the extent that Jane's Mormonism is retained in a form in which Lassiter can share it, although the actual tenets and beliefs of Mormonism and its history are left unnarrated. “I don't know much about religion as religion,” a Gentile woman says to Jane, “but your God and my God are the same.” The novel wants to maintain a basic Christianity, “entirely free of any church or creed,” by not knowing “religion as religion,” even though distinctions between religions seem to make all the difference. This blindness is due to what the issue of religion is connected to: a non-normative sexual practice's disturbing alignment with religious conviction and a religion's alignment with a large territory. While later Westerns often reject a Christian frame of reference, for Grey's influential novel it is important that the American hero also be a true, un-fanatical believer, if he is to “save” Jane from Mormon fanaticism. Lassiter develops a religious and domestic faith in Grey's novel while falling in love with a virtuous Mormon woman and is introduced to the reader as providentially given to Jane. Speaking with “the arrogance of a Mormon whose power could not be brooked,” the elder Tull tells Jane as he is about to whip the Gentile Venters at the novel's opening, “your father left you wealth and power. It has turned your head. You haven't yet come to see the place of Mormon women.” But before Tull can whip Venters (or, for that matter, put Jane in her polygamous place), Lassiter appears from the west, an “answer to [Jane's] prayer.” While in Tull there is something “barely hidden, a something personal and sinister, a deep of himself, an engulfing abyss,” the “intensity” of Lassiter's gaze that “held” Jane upon his arrival is an interesting contrast to Tull's evil (and an interesting twist on the myth of Mormon mesmerism, the supposed means by which polygamous men abducted women). Lassiter's gaze seems “as if [he] was forever looking for that which he never found. Jane's subtle woman's intuition, even in that brief instant, felt a sadness, a hungering, a secret.” Situated between the dichotomized, bottomless mysteries of these two men, Jane confesses her anguish to Lassiter: “the men of my creed are unnaturally cruel. To my everlasting sorrow I confess it. They have been driven, hated, scourged till their hearts have hardened. But we women hope and pray for the time when our men will soften.”
The irony of Jane's confession is that it is addressed to a man who himself has become naturally hardened by the “unnatural” cruelty and hate of the Mormons he wants to kill (he has been on their trail in the eighteen years since his sister's abduction) and that Jane will try to soften him, ultimately inspiring him to give up his guns. Lassiter even shares with the Mormons and their “black plot,” before he gives up his guns and embraces God and little Fay (who becomes a “religion” to him), a “dark” appearance in his “black leather”: “ âLook!' hoarsely whispered one of Tull's companions. âHe packs two black-butted gunsâlow downâthey're hard to seeâblack agin them black chaps.' ” Just as the Mormon-killing Lassiter is susceptible to Mormon darkness, Jane herself is susceptible to masculine hardening when she begins to grasp “the truth” and “suddenly there came, in inward constriction, a hardening of gentle forces within her breast. Like a steel bar it was, stiffening all that had been soft and weak in her.” The novel thus flirts with certain gendered paradoxes: Lassiter will be softened while Jane is hardened; guns are necessary but must be made obsolete; Venters is deprived of his manhood without guns, but Lassiter will acquire his full manhood when he gives them up. If gender identity is not naturally fixed (in a novel that yet asserts an unchanging natural law governing the sexes), then what makes the man and enforces that natural law is something less than natural. Lassiter asserts that “gunpackin' in the West since the Civil War has growed into a kind of moral law. An' out here on this border it's the difference between a man an' somethin' not a man.” More than the difference between himself and women, or between his religion and the religions of others, what distinguishes a man is his skill with gunsâhis masculine heroism. Yet guns become obsolete once the natural law between the sexesâone man for one womanâtriumphs and returns by means of those guns.
Gender shifts, like the fluctuations between hatred and love in Jane's feelings toward both Mormons and Mormon killers, create in the end a sense that things have been worked through, that customs have been brokenâa sense, in effect, of change and escape. But at the end things are somewhat more usual. Indeed, the characters are made familiarâand familialâas the mysteries of Bess Oldring's and Milly Erne's identities are solved and the characters have something like a family reunion. The once-mysterious masked rider is not only Lassiter's niece (Milly Erne's child), but probably Jane's half-sister if her father took Milly Erne as a plural wife. While the past returns to make familial claims on individuals, to reinstate the American family and to demarcate it from the polygamous Mormons, Mormon polygamy paradoxically allows the Mormon heroine to be more familially related to the Gentile heroâa sign, perhaps, of Mormon assimilation into the “American family.” Not only is the Mormon religion silent throughout the novelâits claims metaphorically crushed by Balancing Rockâin the end it is subsumed by an American familial epic that, given Grey's elevation of sex to a kind of religious principle, like Mormonism's elevation of polygamy, strangely resembles it. Just on the other side of Deception Pass lies a natural gate of escape as mysterious and silent as the unnatural Mormons.
The cultural work Grey's novel performs is in part to assimilate religious difference and its associated corruptions of whiteness and womanhood by not knowing religion as religion and by not knowing the ways in which the novel's (or nation's) designs identify with Mormon powerâhence the novel's silence about the Mormon master plan. The novel thus instills, as Lee Mitchell argues, a sense of capitulation, not only, on one hand, to Mormon power, and, on the other, to Lassiter's power, but also to a set of assumed sexual and religious distinctions that are yet innately unstable insofar as hero and villain, Gentile and Mormon, and male and female exchange roles and imitate one another. In contrast to the shifting cultural representations of Mormons in the latter half of the nineteenth century, in Grey's novel, as we have seen, it is the heroes and heroinesâboth Gentiles and a virtuous Mormon womanâwho undergo temporary transformations, especially regarding gender and belief, in their escape from the unchanged Mormon menace.
Yet if Grey seems always to shift or even dissolve the grounds of difference by which the plot is made to matter, he does so against a seemingly “natural” but mystical background: the stunning southern Utah landscapes he describes, which, like Grey's plot, seem to conceal the secrets of “destiny” even as they render fate as sacred. Both phallic and vaginal, they are as labyrinthine as his plots and as filled with hidden recesses and deceptive turns. They are also intensely ahistorical in the sense that they offer an escape route from history, society, and even those sexual norms the novel seems to uphold: a landscape in which girls seem to turn into boys and back again, where whites are like Indians, where no one can find you or find you out, where nonmarital sex and even rape are seemingly permissible for Gentiles, and where the wind is filled with a pantheistic power. His mysterious landscapes evince a common nostalgia in the early twentieth century for a western geography untouched by America and industrialism whose only human imprints are the abandoned cliff cities of ancient Indian tribes, a landscape that seems to have been waiting silently over centuries for the arrival of Grey's characters in order to lure, transform, and rescue them from Mormon polygamy:
The gorge was full of luminous gloom. Balancing Rock loomed dark and leaned over the pale descent. Transformed in the shadowy light, it took shape and dimensions of a spectral god waitingâwaiting for the moment to hurl himself down upon the tottering walls and close forever the outlet to Deception Pass. At night more than by day Venters felt something fearful and fateful in that rock, and that it had leaned and waited through a thousand years to have somehow to deal with his destiny.