excerpt – A Little Lower than the Angels

A Little Lower than the AngelsForeword

Mary Lythgoe Bradford

When I think of Virginia Sorensen (1912-1991) and her first novel, A Little Lower than the Angels, I picture a young faculty wife and mother gathering up her typewriter and paper and trekking across campus to a small tower office where she could write eight hours a day. A fulfillment of her writer’s dream, it was at the same time an act of self-defense. Her mother-in-law had lived with her and her husband Frederick (Fred) since their wedding six years before. Emma Baker Sorensen not only took charge of the household, but she also contributed the pioneer history of her grandmother, Mercy French Baker. Mother Sorensen’s degree in domestic science from Columbia made her “right in everything, and I could tell that she would continue to be right into the future,”1 Virginia said many years later. Fred, with whom Virginia was deeply in love, also showed signs of being right as she began her peripatetic life with this “stormy petrol” of a husband. His problems with his mother, his drinking, his unrealized ambitions would mean a change of job every two or three years for the next twenty years. Virginia, who had considered herself a writer since childhood, decided to turn the situation to her advantage.

Virginia Eggertsen was the third child and second daughter of six children born to Helen ElDeva Blackett and Claude Eggertsen, both descendants of Mormon pioneers. Although her mother was a Christian Scientist and her father a self-avowed “jack” (i.e., non-practicing) Mormon, she was reared in the Mormon church in Manti, American Fork, and Provo, Utah. She was a student at Brigham Young University when she met Fred who was already teaching English at a local high school. After their wedding for time and eternity int he Salt Lake temple, they departed for Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where he earned a Ph.D. in English, and she took poetry workshops from Ivor Winters. Her diploma in journalism and English arrived at the birth of their first child, Elizabeth.

Two years later Frederick Jr. was born, and after Fred’s graduation, the family departed for Indiana State Teachers College in Terre Haute. Mother Sorensen brought along the only remaining relics of Mercy Baker’s life: a sewing chest and a silhouette. Virginia studied these and the Baker family history, and a property deed left by Mercy’s husband, Simon Baker, and signed by Joseph Smith. Virginia searched newspapers of the Nauvoo, Illinois, period and sent away to “good old BYU for a few precious books.” These probably included the Nauvoo portions of B. H. Roberts’s multi-volume History of the Church. She may have seen the works of local historians in Illinois and Indiana and the works of Harry Beardsley, a non-Mormon historian.

It was easy to arrange a month in Nauvoo to soak up local color. One old-timer “knew immediately about the flowers, trees, and the layout of the city” as well as stories of his region. “Legends that remain are almost as important as historical documents,” she said, “because they throw light upon how the people lived during the period of 1829-1846.”2 “I am a family chronicler, not a historian,” she said later. She dedicated the book to Mother Sorensen, and in spite of their difficulties she was grateful for “the gift of time” and for the discipline that developed into a lifelong refuge.

As the manuscript neared completion, she attended a faculty writers’ conference where one of the English teachers showed it to guest lecturer Burgess Johnson. He then passed it on to Alfred Knopf in New York who believed, along with his enthusiastic staff, that he had discovered a new star that would shine its brightest in the Western sky. Virginia’s editor, Harold Strauss, and the Borzoi publicists, were attentive, even affectionate. In fact, the quality of their attention seems to give the life to the stereotype that all New York publishers are ill-informed and prejudiced against Mormons and Westerners.

After his first meeting with Virginia, Strauss wrote her, “Your visit here I remember as a fresh breeze blowing aside the sultry schemes of too clever contrivers among which I have to pick my way.” He found her “exactly the sort of person that your manuscript hinted you might be—a person in love with life for its own simple and wonderful sake.”3 Virginia marveled later that he and Knopf had accepted the manuscript in its simple, wonderful, and unpunctuated state. “I had such a romance with e. e. cummings’ style that I sent [Angels] out without any punctuation! Alec Waugh [her second husband] thought it amazing that a ‘little girl from Utah [could] actually sell to Knopf without a capital letter or comma or period.’ I explained to Harold Strauss . . . that I wanted my words to flow without interruptions. So they sent me a ticket to New York and put me up at the Barbican Plaza over the ducks of Central Park. I was thrilled to hear ducks as I labored.”4

In May 1942 A Little Lower than the Angels (a title suggested by Fred) was published under the Borzoi imprint to favorable, even delighted reviews in the Eastern press, as well as in her midwestern home. Walter Prescott of the New York Times noted its “rare sublety and literary stature,”5 and a year later included Virginia as one of a “handful fo rising stars” for her “poetic imagination, her sensitive, artful writing, and her fresh picture of Mormonism . . . all rare and unusual.”6

Wallace Stegner, writing in The Saturday Review, invoked Utahn Bernard DeVoto, who had despaired of writers ever being equal to the Mormon story because God had already written it. “Up to now, nobody has proved Mr. DeVoto wrong, but Virginia Sorensen, in this admirable first novel, comes very close to doing just that . . . Instead of trying to cover the whole panorama of Mormon history . . . she confines herself to the story of Nauvoo . . . [but] even that history she subordinates to the story of a family . . . every member of it is real enoughto make the average historical novel look like Grandfather’s stuffed Sunday shirt.” He pronounced her portrait of Joseph Smith “too kind . . . She endows the Prophet with some of her own gifts.”7

Milton Rugoff called it “a novel of distinction” in the New York Herald Tribune. “What goes on as Mercy fights a desperate rear guard action form her sickbed as Simon and the elders face the loaded guns and torches of the good people of Illinois makes a double-barreled narrative that is everywhere vigorous and yet finely wrought . . . the intimate studies of the Baker children . . . and of Mercy’s reactions and perceptions . . . make the narrative continuously stimulating.”8 Newsweek weighed in: “Poignantly human,”9 while Louis B. Salmon of The Nation pronounced it “a stirring tale of quiet heroism,” yet praised her for creating not simply a “historical pageant” but showing instead the “travail of a desperate band of believers through the mind and heart of Mercy Baker.” He found her style “poetic without being pretentiuos . . . showing sympathy for the spiritual and physical yearnings of the Saints.”10

In the Sorensen’s home state, The Indianapolis Star called Angels “one of the most important first novels of the season.”11 Citizens of Terre Haute honored her with one of the most elaborate literary events in the city’s history, and Fred’s English department bulletin reviewed a reading Virginia gave to the faculty. “Those who heard Virginia Sorensen read in her low melodious voice [said] it would not be too far-fetched to hear on of her rapt audience say ‘Almost thou persuadest me to be a Mormon.'” The Chicago Sun also showed sympathy with the Mormons, calling them a “devout people heroically defending their integrity and the holiness of their goals. Unlike other Christian sects, the Mormons do not stress the inferiority of man to God.”12

New York reviewers noted her ability to dramatize intimate family scenes against an epic background, while keeping the epic securely in the background. Lewis Gannett’s review in The New York Herald Tribune prompted Strauss to scrawl “Whoopee” across the pages before sending it on to Virginia. “Her essence is more than outward plot,” said Gannett. “Mercy Baker, Jarvie, and Menzo, the boy who wanted to be an Indian, are worth knowing.” Gannett also praised a technique that allowed her to “write stories within the longer narrative so complete they could stand alone.”13 He found her treatment of children and women especially convincing. Clifton Fadiman of The New Yorker agreed: “I have read a number of Mormon novels but none that more convincingly explores the mind of Mormon women confronted with the tragic, comic, and grotesque problems of plural marriage.”14

Some of the “short stories” imbedded in the narrative foreshadowed Virginia’s later career as a prize-winning writer of children’s books. “Your children are your best characters,” a friend told her after reading such vignettes as young Betsy listening to a sermon by Wilford Woodruff: “Brother Wilford Woodruff stood before the little ones in Sunday School and spoke to them with the disarming simplicity that had won for him thousands of converts in England.” He asks the children to “suppose these are one hundred and thousand millions of fallen spirits sent down from heaven to earth—that makes one hundred evil spirits for every one of us. The whole mission and labor of these spirits is to lead all the children of men to do evil and effect their destruction.” He admonishes them to “see what danger they’re in” and refers to “these thousands of evil spirits hovering over us night and day” (p. 263). Little Betsy tries to count in her mind the enormity of the number one hundred. “Because she could not count so far, using both hands full of fingers surreptiously among her dresses. The other numbers . . . had no meaning except a terrible vista of endless black wings, beating and suffocating . . .” Woodruff advises them to be watchful at all times “lest evil spirits catch you unawares,” and Betsy is “flooded with a feeling of terrible helplessness.” She asks herself how God could watch over so many. “One little girl and one hundred—If only it weren’t so many” (p. 264).

In another “short story,” Betsy and her small sister Becky accidentally smother some kittens, causing another moral dilemma. Explorations into the minds of children were to become one of Virginia’s trademarks. She was in many ways a little girl grown up who never hardened nor cut herself away from her roots. All of her novels seem unified by a consuming curiosity by which she was able to understand the problems of childhood.

At first the glow in the Eastern sky lulled Virginia and her publishers into high expectations from the Utah Saints. Her hometown paper, the Provo Herald, praised it, as did the The Salt Lake Tribune and the Ogden Standard Examiner. But word from the Mormon church’s most influential publications, The Improvement Era, the Deseret News, and Deseret Book Company caused Alfred Knopf to write to Virginia: “I am very sorry about the news we had from Salt Lake City. And I confess rather puzzled by it.”15 Knopf had assured Virginia that she would outstrip Vardis Fisher’s Children of God, published in 1939 by Harper and Brothers. “I think your novel so much better that the two simply cannot be mentioned in the same breath . . . I think Fisher’s a very pedestrian, unexciting performance which must have sold solely because of its sheer overwhelming bulk.”16 When a friend reported to Virginia that Knopf’s ad for her book in The Salt Lake Tribune had motivated people to “line up at libraries to get the book,” a Knopf publicist replied, “Rushing to libraries rather than to bookselling counters is not too pleasant for us . . . but is perfectly understandable. . . . The average person will read lots of novels, but not wish to own more than a few.”17

John A. Widtsoe was not a literary critic, but his high office as an apostle in the LDS church gave him the power to review novels in The Improvement Era, the church’s house organ. While crediting her “gifted style,” he accused ehr of misunderstanding the “compelling forces” that had motivated the pioneers. She had portrayed Joseph Smith and his associates as “ordinary, rather insipid milk and water figures [that do not] comport with the historical achievements of the Mormon pioneers.”18

The Deseret News weighed in on 15 May 1942: “Mrs. Sorensen has chosen a subject too often exploited and with which she appears to have little sympathy and understanding.” The reviewer followed with an ad hominem attack. She was “a propagandist” who had committed the unpardonable sin of creating a doubter protagonist. “Mercy is not typical of those who believed in the doctrine.” She patronizingly judges her for “her desire to avenge her own feelings . . . [upon] a subject she so thoroughly despises.”19

When the director of the Deseret Book Company wrote to cancel an order, he critiqued the book: “We think Virginia Sorensen has lost an opportunity. Our people have very high ideals . . . The organizations have been of an exalted nature . . . nothing of a base character . . . like she portrays.” Instead of citing the sexual or bed-wetting scenes that had shocked Widtsoe, he attacked a Relief Society gossiping bee, which he deemed unworthy “for one of our faith.”20 With the copy of this letter, a Knopf spokesman wrote: “[This] will explain to you why it is practically impossible for us to do anything for you in Utah . . . But you may be sure that we will do everything we can for your book everywhere else.” Virginia wrote across the letter: “The Powers have spoken! A virtual excommunique!”

That these three responses could be seen as killing sales in Utah makes Samuel Taylor’s comment in 1967 especially appropriate: “I recently re-read four books that caused an uproar 25 years ago [Fisher, Whipple, Brodie, and Sorensen] and I stand utterly amazed. I wondered if these books weren’t mainly the victims of bad timing. . . . If they were published today . . . with a little luck they might find themselves upon the shelves at Deseret Book . . . [A Little Lower than the Angels] reads like something the Improvement Era would love to serialize.”21

Utah notwithstanding, Angels had sold 7,800 copies by the end of May 1942, and it was reprinted a year later by Grosset and Dunlap. “A very respectable sale for anyone, particularly a first novel,” said Knopf. “The times are out of joint and anyway, I think the book is going to sell, even if slowly, for a very long time.” Indeed, it was successful enough that Virginia had trouble moving on to new subjects and new themes.22

Looking back, I am almost persuaded that non-Mormon reviewers of the 1940s understood Virginia’s Mormon themes better than Mormons did. At the time the only acceptable fiction seemed to be that of “home literature”; anything else was judged to be “anti-Mormon.” The term “Home Literature” was coined by Orson Whitney, an LDS apostle (1855-1931) who wrote biographies of church leaders and poetry of an “exalted” type. He urged the Saints to write a powerful literature that would at all times be “subservient to the building up of Zion.”23 In some minds literature that presented the weaknesses and the foibles of human beings could not be seen as building Zion. It was, therefore, judged “anti-Mormon” by a people still smarting from persecution.

In 1947 Ray West, a Utah critic and historian, declared that “the popular Mormon story is unavailable to the writer of fiction because it does not admit human error. The perceptive mind, which is the creative mind, is caught always between man’s aspiration and his achievement. The imaginative writer . . . may depict the tragic fact, the actual achievement. The unimaginative writer reproduces the myth . . . and the result . . . is cliché.”24

As Leonard Arrington astutely put it, “By not producing their own imaginative literature, the LDS lost the image battle during the period of their Western pioneering. Not until the 1950s [did] the image begin to change.” He cites the publication of pioneer diaries and histories by Juanita Brooks, Preston Nibley, and Dale Morgan. “Above all . . . our image changed as a result of our production of a significant body of high quality imaginative literature by a number of people reared in our own culture.”25 He cites Virginia along with Vardis Fisher, Maureen Whipple, Richard Scowcroft, and Ray West. A poet might have cried out, “Give me critics to match my novelists!”

I believe that the god who raised up good novelists and historians in the late 1930s and 1940s had not yet called enough critics and publishers to accompany them. From my perspective in the 1990s, it appears that Viriginia Sorensen was the first novelist to write seriously and movingly about the Nauvoo period. Instead of epic characters set down in exotic places to learn religious lessons from their trials, she had the nerve to place a young mother much like herself in a turbulent setting that asked the question, What happens to a happy family when the wife is required to share her husband with another woman? What happens to the adolescent children? Valid questions whenever any woman is forced to share her husband with another wife, with a mistress, or with a mother-in-law. This theme occupied Virginia throughout her career, and it mirrored another question: What happens when a woman is forced to share her husband with a faith, a church, a charismatic prophet?

For Angels‘s heroine, Mercy Baker, a true insider-outsider, these are painful questions. She joins the church and follows her husband out of love for him. He in turn follows the prophet, and his loyalty to the church exceeds his love for Mercy. Indeed, he is constitutionally incapable of understanding her sensitive soul. Like the land, women are to be cultivated and made fruitful. It is one of the triumphs of Angels that Simon emerges as a sympathetic character.

Virginia’s portrayal of better-known historical characters—Joseph Smith and Eliza Snow—posit the idea that the words poet and prophet were once joined; therefore, love between the woman that Nauvoo Saints crowned “Zion’s Poetess” and the founder of the true church presents a dramatic paradox. I believe that Virginia identified with Eliza, having amassed a collection of her own poetry since childhood, added upon each year when she presented Fred with a hand-made book of these poems. Ivor Winters at Stanford encouraged her to produce a verse play. When former callmate Sam Taylor visited her at the birth of Elizabeth, he urged her to write for pulp magazines in order to make money. She replied that she was a poet. Years later Taylor paid tribute to her “lyrical gift [which] marked her as a modern Eliza Snow.”26

Her portrayal of Eliza’s love affair with Joseph shocked some Mormons since it was difficult to imagine the prohpet whispering words of love to a mortal woman—a fair-haired Romeo who quotes scripture as he kisses her eyes. Eliza says, “I don’t like people who call me a poet because they . . . expect me to go around spilling poetry and I can’t. Poetic things just don’t come to me while I’m talking” (p. 85). The prophet understands: “I know how it is. They’re always expecting me to say beautiful things too. And I can’t. Prophecies don’t always just come to me when I’m talking either.”

The prophet/poet theme mirrors another theme that became recurrent in her novels. “In heaven, Eliza,” he tells her, “there will be lips and hands. Men and woman will love one another there.” He takes her hand in his and says, “I will love you there Eliza!” (p. 97) Eliza feels the overpowering emotion of a quotation from Crenshaw that Mercy has given her: “Happy proof! She shall discover/ What joy, what bliss,/ How many heavens at once it is/ To have her God become her lover.” This theme also provides impetus for Virginia’s sixth novel, Many Heavens.

The relationship of Mercy and Simon echoes the ones between Joseph and Emma, Joseph and Eliza. Mercy loves Simon with worshipful loyalty as he worships his God. It would be tempting to deconstruct a text from Virginia’s personal life—the romantic and dangerous temptation to make of one’s lover a God, and vice versa.

Modern readers who fault Eliza Snow as a mere versifier also fault Virginia’s portrayal of Angels’s lovers as too sentimental. But critic/historian Dale Morgan believed that a tendency toward sentimentalization was offset by her dramatization of the “age-old questions that are always new: on what terms a man and a woman may live together, what they can possess of life, and what life can do to their possession of each other.”27 I agree with Morgan that although her characters seem authentic in their setting, they exceed mere regionalism and could be set down anywhere else. Richard Scowcroft, another Mormon novelist of the 1940s, believed that “all literature is in a sense regional—that is, a writer writes from the social and georgraphical climate with which he’s familiar . . . Fiction comes out of human experience, and the Southerness of it, the Westerness, the Mormoness of it, is significant only as a meant of portraying human character.”28 Virginia decided that “It is not new sights that are important in writing, but new seeing.” She learned to feel the “equal validity” of different, but co-existing patterns of life. She maintained that “Once we have recognized . . . the great human struggle . . . we may move in any crowd of strange or familiar faces but never again be unaware of the struggle—and of the importance of each individual.”29

Some critics fault her historical research, however. For instance, Eliza was not Joseph’s first polygamous wife in an unconsummated union. Considering that Virginia anticipated Fawn Brodie by three years and research and writing on Nauvoo and its heros by twenty-five years, she was quite successful in recreating a part of the brief idyll highlighted by historian Carol Cornwall Madsen in a study of Nauvoo women: “These women built homes that breathed permanence . . . Latter-day Saint Marys and Marthas pooled their talents to introduce refinement and grace . . . developing visiting rituals of friendship that became the basis of health and welfare services . . . that would be transferred to Utah.”30 Like Madsen’s women, Mercy was “often left alone with a farm and small children.” Mercy joins a thousand Nauvoo women in signing the “brilliant defense of the Mormon cause, written by Eliza Snow and Emma Smith and presented to the governor of Illinois.”31 Virginia alternated such historical vignettes with intimate family scenes, at the same time avoiding the historian’s label. “All my life I was escaping into poetry and stories, and I liked to embroider everything.” When accused of writing “unsavory” scenes, she replied, “I didn’t think they were unsavory . . . I saw what was around me . . .” When members of the family complained that certain details were wrong, she countered that the novel was a work of her imagination, based on her own experience. She said that “Some of [her] experiences can’t be bettered, but I’ve never been able to satisfy myself with any description of how it felt to be in love.”32

A writer can never render a living historical character as he or she really was. The writer must make the character fit the purpose of the story itself. Joseph Smith may have been vastly different from Virginia’s conception of him, but as a character in Angels he is authentic. Mercy Baker was a real person, but she was probably not exactly the woman of Virginia’s story. Indeed, in “real life” she was not a polygamous wife at all.

I think Virginia’s use of historical background is quite sophisticated, slipping unobtrusively into the narrative. In her first meeting with Eliza Snow, Mercy is told that “when Brother Joseph first chose this place, some said he couldn’t be right this time; they told he’d need a boat to survey it. And he said, ‘All right, then, build me a boat.’” Eliza adds that “it was Commerce when we came . . . Brother Joseph said Commerce would be a name for a rowdy, whiskey selling settlement, and Nauvoo means ‘beautiful place’ and implies a place to rest.’ And that’s what we want—all of us” (p. 24). The story of Nauvoo’s naming becomes part of Eliza’s tone of voice, subtly explaining the lives of the people, and the prophet is introduced in a vital, human way. The persecutions of the Mormons, their trials in Nauvoo, so violently portrayed by Vardis Fisher, are not important to Virginia’s characters except when the Mormons are preparing to leave Nauvoo. Then she has Simon set upon by Mormon haters. Brigham Young’s conversation with Stephen Douglas, which results in the ousting of the Mormons from Nauvoo, is recounted when Simon asks his son to read the proclamation that “we propose to leave this country next Spring” (p. 375). (Virginia found a copy of this proclamation in Mercy Baker’s sewing chest.) Polygamy is used to develop Virginia’s belief that Mercy in the final analysis was always alone in her own skin. Polygamy, a test of her faith, becomes a lesson in life’s more painful truths.

A speech given by a character in Many Heavens applies here. The hero, Zina, says, “The queer thing is the way our story is tied into that one peculiar little know of Mormon history. It couldn’t have happened just the way it did ten years before or ten years afterward. Yet the fundamentals—the love and the marriage—could have happened anywhere; they go back to the Prophets and ahead to the Millennium” (p. 10). Virginia loved a peculiar people, but she loved them for the traits they shared with the rest of humankind.

In an article written in 1955, Virginia summed up her philosophy: “For writers . . . what is the lesson? The necessity for creating freely, certainly, but something more, the responsibility of preserving some web of significance that men can live by. And this too is only a part—for it demands not only freedom within a tradition, but an ever-widening tolerance for the traditional values of others.”33

As for me, I think I know what it was like to live in that little city in a swamp, a city obsessed by grandiose dreams and in love with its prophet-king.

Ever since I was introduced to Virginia Sorensen’s world in 1955 by my thesis chair, William Mulder, at the University of Utah, I have been her grateful friend. Mulder convinced me that she was a fit subject—a living, breathing Mormon novelist representative of a host of others I had not yet read. It is a clue to the culture that I could pass through graduate school without reading Maureen Whipple, Sam Taylor, Vardis Fisher, Fawn Brodie. Virginia was very productive, having written six novels with Mormon themes and three children’s books. I was drawn to her characters and landscapes so much like those of my childhood. She had a Danish, Old World charm, a seeking spirit, and an observant eye. A year later, after reading her books and meeting her and her family, I finished my thesis, “Virginia Sorensen: An Introduction,” and embarked on a mini-career as an introducer of her works at conferences, study groups, and in the newly-minted Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Fifteen years later I was still introducing her in my role as editor of Dialogue. I had the privilege of introducing her in person to readers of Exponent II at a retreat that also featured her cousin, Esther Peterson. She had become part of Mormonism’s “Lost Generation,” a term bequeathed her and the other novelists of the 1930s and 1940s by the brilliant critic Edward L. Geary. These were those writers who felt unappreciated by their natural audience. Virginia felt keenly that lack of appreciation was as clear in a letter she wrote to Edward L. Hart in 1987: “I felt deeply the lack of sympathy out home and perhaps rather more deeply, the booing. Even the family said, ‘Can’t you let Grandma lie in peace?’ When I had hoped to give her a kind of eternal life.”34

In the world outside Utah, Virginia had been recognized for her superior children’s books while her adult novels were being reprinted in other countries. She went out of print in America at about the time readers and critics were discovering her in Utah. In the 1980s and 1990s young scholars and teachers at Brigham Young University and other universities discovered what the critics and writers of the 1960s and 1970s already knew. But they added fresh new insights, some feminist, to the earlier considerations of Edward Geary, Bruce Jorgensen, Eugene England, Linda Sillitoe, and John Sillito. They were published in independent journals and int he proceedings of the Association of Mormon Letters who presented her with a lifetime membership.35

Upon learning that she was being rediscovered by a new generation of Mormons and Westerners, she told me that she considered herself “now forever introduced. . . . I have been your favorite windmill, but bringing forth sweet water.”36 When I asked her in 1980 what she felt about being read again, she said, “When your books are out of print and you’ve given them up to find that someone is reading a book that came out over 25 years ago is very hopeful. When I learned that Dialogue readers and professors and writers at BYU and in Salt Lake were reading me again, it made me very much want to do a good modern Mormon novel.”37

At the end of the decade she was much in demand, invited to speak at Brigham Young University, Weber State, and at the Utah Librarians Association. Eugene England declared her to be “Foremother of the Mormon personal essay,” and Dennis Rowley, archivist at BYU’s Archives and Manuscripts library, announced that he was working on a book of “Conversations with Virginia Sorensen.” (Unfortunately, both Rowley and Virginia died before the project could get underway.) She visited the scenes of her childhood in Manti and the graves of her parents in Provo, and decided to be buried near them.

When Bill Mulder inducted her into Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Utah on 8 June 1988, he declared that “Virginia Sorensen may be out of print but not out of mind.” His perusal of the checkout record at the Salt Lake Public Library showed that she had been read enough to require rebinding of the books. Calling her Utah’s First Lady of Letters, Mulder decided that at least one member of the Lost Generation had been found.38

All this leads us to the fulfillment of one of Virginia’s dreams—to see her books reprinted. It is also one of mine—for the simple and wonderful reason that they make such good reading.


1. Virginia Sorensen, “Autobiography,” Something About the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 15 (Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1983). All of the reviews and correspondence from publishers quoted in this foreword may be found in the Virginia Sorensen Archive, Department of Special Collections, Boston University Library, Boston, Massachusetts.

2. Gertrude Cronin, “Have You Heard about This?” Terre Haute Sunday Star, 28 Sept. 1941.

3. Harold Strauss to Virginia Sorensen, 27 Nov. 1941, copy in my possession.

4. Virginia Sorensen to Newell Bringhurst, 2 Feb. 1988, copy in my possession.

5. Orville Prescott, Review, New York Times, Wednesday, 13 May 1942.

6. Walter Prescott, “A Handful of Rising Stars,” Spring Bok Supplement, New York Times Review, 21 Mar. 1943, 13.

7. Wallace Stegner, Review of A Little Lower than the Angels, Saturday Review of Literature, 9 May 1942, 11.

8. Milton Rugoff, “The Mormon Paradise,” New York Herald Tribune Books, Sunday 10 May 1942.

9. Unsigned review, Newsweek, 18 May 1942.

10. Louis B. Salmon, “Mormon Family Portrait,” The Nation, 10 May 1942.

11. Corbin Patrick, “Important First Novel by Hoosier,” Indianapolis Sunday Star, 10 May 1942.

12. Marion Fradon, “Early Mormon Settlers on the Mississippi,” Chicago Sun, “Books and Art,” Sunday, 24 May 1942, 33.

13. Lewis Gannett, “Books and Things,” New York Herald Tribune, Tuesday, 10 May 1942.

14. Clifton Fadiman, “Books: Three Novels,” The New Yorker, 16 May 1942, 60.

15. Alfred Knopf to Virginia Sorensen, 12 May 1942, copy in my possession.

16. Alfred Knopf to Virginia Sorensen, 7 Jan. 1942, copy in my possession.

17. J. R. De la Torre Bueno, Jr. to Virginia Sorensen, 17 June 1942, copy in my possession.

18. John A. Widtsoe, “On the Book Rack,” Improvement Era, June 1942, 380.

19. Frank Winn, “The Bookrack,” Deseret News, 15 May 1942.

20. Axel J. Andresen to Everett Stuart, 1 May 1942, copy in my possession.

21. Samuel W. Taylor, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2 (Summer 1967): 29-30.

22. She was never able to please Knopf again. Mother Sorensen had advised a joint project, so she and Fred worked on a combination biography/novel on Sam Brannan which finally reach 1,426 pages. Virginia was awarded a Guggenheim to Mexico to study Brannan’s activities there, and instead wrote her 1951 novel, The Proper Gods. Knopf refused the Brannan book. “I did two versions of Sam . . . before I put the whole mess in a box along with my marriage,” she wrote (letter to Newell Bringhurst, 21 Mar. 1988). The fact is she stayed with the marriage through seven adult novels and four children’s books, but that is another story.

23. Orson F. Whitney, “Home Literature,” A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints, ed. Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1979), 129.

24. Ray West, Review of Sweet Love Remembered, Western Humanities Review, July 1947, 303.

25. Leonard Arrington, “Mormonism: Views from Without and Within,” Brigham Young University Studies 14 (Winter 1974): 150.

26. S. Taylor.

27. Dale Morgan, “Mormon Storytellers,” Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature, ed. Eugene England and Lavina Fielding Anderson (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996), 10, first published in Rocky Mountain Review, Fall 1942.

28. Richard Scowcroft to Don D. Walker, 25 Oct. 1946, copy in my possession.

29. Virginia Sorensen, “Is It True? The Novelist and His Materials,” Western Humanities Review 7 (Autumn 1953): 284.

30. Lynne Watkins Jorgensen, Review of In Their Own Words: Women and the Story of Nauvoo, by Carol Cornwall Madsen, in Journal of Mormon History 21 (Spring 1995): 169.

31. Ibid.

32. “When You Are a Writer, You Write,” Interview with Virginia Sorensen by Mary L. Bradford, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Fall 1980): 29-30.

33. Sorensen, “Is It True,” 283.

34. Edward L. Hart, “Writing: The Most Hazardous Craft,” Brigham Young University Studies 26 (Summer 1986): 84.

35. See, especially, the Proceedings of the Association for Mormon Studies for 1994 (Vols. 1 and 2) and 1995.

36. Virginia Sorensen to Mary L. Bradford, 12 Nov. 1980.

37. Interview in Dialogue 13 (Fall 1980): 36.

38. William Mulder, “Citation Honoring Virginia Sorensen on the Occasion of Her Election to Membership in Phi Beta Kappa Alpha Chapter of Utah, June 8, 1988,” typescript in my possession.