The Ghosts of Modernity in a Rural Mormon Town

Russell Mormon 3 Comments

The land of Star Valley is an almost mystical one, surreal in its environs and mystical in its origin. The last of the Mormon settlements, it is nestled in the foothills of the Tetons as the one of the last outposts of the Mormon colonial experiment. Entering the valley is not unlike a drug-induced quaintness that leads one to, at once, blink to ensure he’s awake/sober and refrain from blinking lest he pass the town entirely. One might even expect to hear this music played from the rooftops of such a valley. Even now, I can hardly take a few steps in the local grocery store without meeting an old acquaintance.

Yet Star Valley has its ghosts for me, an up-and-coming academic looking to revere his heritage while sweating to earn his “street cred” of modernity and the life of the mind. The people of Star Valley—much like the early republicans of America’s founding—prided themselves on their isolation from urbanization and civilization. “Twill be here,” they might have said, “where we shall build the good society.” A tad volk-ish to be sure, but well-meaning nonetheless. This has, sadly, become code for eschewing the corrupt Democrats and for glorifying a lack of education. Guns, God, and Glory.

Historian James Gelvin has said of the Middle East that we ought not think of the region as experiencing modernization/modernity but modernities. . Modernity is not monolithic. Each nation develops the modern mystique according to its own cultural traditions and intelligentsia. Star Valley was no different.

My parents were bright individuals—my father received a graduate degree in Public Administration, and even though my mother followed the way of so many other wives who terminated their education prematurely in order to support the breadwinner, she possessed the practicality of a rural farm girl. Generally, my parents did little to question the established grooves of thinking that dominate Mormon discourse. My father built his own family room, garage—listening to country music while he did it. He might cite a philosopher here or there, but such things clearly fit within his mental department of “nice to know” kinds of things (aka expendable). My mother became skittish whenever I read websites not explicitly approved by the church. In other words, they were decent people working to raise a decent family who would be decent citizens of the Kingdom in spite of all earth and hell. Throw in a more-than-wayward sibling and suddenly, the kind of intellectual scouring that is the stuff of Mormon Matters became peripheral indeed. To them, there were more pressing matters, believe it or not, than when/where horses became extinct in America.

So how could a small-town provincial like me go from such small ideas like the power of the 454 Casull (a high-powered revolver manufactured at a local arms plant) to big intellectual skepticism? A historian would now spend the next 10 pages discussing Star Valley as a vortex of conservatism and modernism and how the environment in which I lived had a quarter of it that was predisposed to critical inquiry and how I had “tapped into” such developments. They would discuss how porous the community was, or about some book I read. With the Internet’s boom around my early teenage years, an in-born disease that forced me to stay indoors and find other things to do besides sports (aka reading), perhaps these things are true. But to quote from Benjamin Franklin (not Boyd K. Packer—sorry, Packer haters), though these assessments might be true, they are not very useful in determining the journey from provinciality to Ivory Tower Mormon-dom.

Rather, I owe it to something my father said, something he found to be inconsequential at the time but served as a guiding idea over the course of my intellectual development. And it’s controversial, so hold on to your hats. I had asked about the Mountain Meadows Massacre and whether Brigham Young was involved. He told me about the famous letter carried by Jonathan Haslam about how Brigham Young had told Isaac Haight to let the emigrants alone—a well-attested historical fact whose interpretations are much disputed the literature today. But my father touched a chord within me—he had just cited evidence. My father was not citing authorities, referencing scholarship, or anything that would win him credibility with the academic elite. As far as I am concerned, we were engaged in a spiritual activity. Yet I knew the next day he would be banging his nails and listening to his horrific country music regardless. He was helping me to keep the heart of a provincial and the mind of a scholar—all without him knowing the wiser.

So to those who feel hurt, embittered, or angry at finding out this or that historical fact and project these feelings onto a history of insularity, I want to declare within that homemade family room, a father planted the seed of intellectual Mormonism that I continue to feed to this day. Modernity was found within the walls of my own home, even as we paid tribute to what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”—tradition. For me, provinciality and intellectuality are not dichotomous virtues.

Thanks, Dad.

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Comments 3

  1. You make some very interesting points. Too often what we get are the narratives drawn from inferences that touch upon reports of facts. As I look at church history issues, so often what I see are reports of the opinion of someone’s grandchild or a statement written for someone of advanced age that they then signed without reading. Heck, I see a lot of that even today (thinking of some cases where the witnesses were asked to read their statements …).

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful post. While Star Valley is experiencing the spillover effect of the Jackson Hole liberal minded, Cokeville (45 miles to the south) remains insulated. These are two communities trending in different directions. Both were established as Mormon colonies and sanctuaries from polygamous persecution. Star Valley remained devout for most of the last century, while the Oregon Spur of the Union Pacific Railroad brought liquor and general hell raising to the community to the south. In the early 1900’s, a number of strong LDS families including Minerva Teichert’s purchased ranches in Cokeville or Smith’s Fork as it was known. The LDS influence grew as industry and the railroad declined. Too far from industry and tourism, and not quite pretty enough for the 2nd home Star Valley crowd, Cokeville has stuck to its agricultural and Mormon roots. Most years, every high school senior boy will go an a mission and sacrament attendance is ~425 of the 500 person population. They say it is what Star Valley use to be.

    I too enjoyed the influence of parents and grandparents who are both religious and well educated. Sunstone and Dialogue magazines were scattered around the house, primarily because my parents had been friends with an editor or my grandfather had taught one of the authors high school English. However, they didn’t spend their time discussing the hypocrisies or intrigues of early church leaders. For them, these were real men and women who they knew personally or were one generation removed. They spoke with great reverence and awe about the sacrifices the early church members made and the conditions they survived. Anyone who has survived a Star Valley winter would understand.

  3. “For them, these were real men and women who they knew personally or were one generation removed.”

    That really does make a HUGE difference. Caricatures are much easier to make when those being caricatured are not known personally by the one creating the caricature.

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