Title: “Swell Suffering”: A Biography of Maureen Whipple
Author: Veda Tebbs Hale
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Yes, I’m cross-posting this book review from lifeongoldplates.com, my old haunt, my book review depository. I’d like to add one comment in this version of the review. I failed to mention that this book has one pretty serious, in my view glaring, error. Basically it’s this: Whipple deserves a hardcover!!! Look, I understand some of the financial considerations, yes, and I love that Kofford Books is putting this puppy out there in any form. But it’s too good for a floppy paperback! Maybe they could work out a deal with Curt Bench and do another run, this time in hardcover, and package it with Whipple’s novel, The Giant Joshua. Get it done! And with that, my review.
One of the most significant conversations in the life of Mormon author Maurine Whipple took place between herself and a Bishop. It wasn’t a Mormon bishop, though, it was John Peale Bishop, a nationally-recognized poet and talent scout. During the 1937 Rocky Mountain Writers’ Conference the two found themselves talking about life and literature on the steps of a Boulder, Colorado frat house. Maurine poured her heart out. “She had lost at least two jobs, created and lost two more, been married, divorced, suffered rape and an abortion, and plunged into six romantic relationships” (97, I wish Tebbs had explored the legal and medical ramifications of an abortion in this time period). This, in addition to other difficulties including resentment towards her father borne of a difficult childhood in St. George, Utah, led Bishop to exclaim: “My God! What swell suffering! Great literature is born from suffering like that!” (1).
And so it was. Bishop brought Maurine to the attention of a national publisher, Houghton Mifflin, ultimately leading to the publication of her acclaimed novel, The Giant Joshua. Maurine would spend the rest of her life failing to live up to this remarkable monument. Her triumph and tragedies are explored in the new book, “Swell Suffering”: A Biography of Maureen Whipple.
Maurine’s 1941 Joshua has been touted as “The Greatest But Not ‘The Great’ Mormon Novel,” and it still holds a place in the hearts of many Mormon readers. Biographer Veda Tebbs Hale follows Maurine’s crafting of Joshua through the correspondence between Maurine and Ferris Greenslet, literary editor and vice president of Houghton Mifflin. Maurine found the work slow going until Greenslet took advantage of her somewhat desperate need for cash—a need that would hardly subside for the rest of her life—by promising $50 per finished chapter, taken from her eventual contracted earnings: “There is another $50.00 here raring to go as soon as we get that chapter seven” (160). By following this carrot-and-stick process, Hale cleverly interweaves brief chapter synopses from Joshua, which tells the life story of Clory, a plural wife trying to survive physically and emotionally in the 19th-century Mormon settlement of St. George.
Readers beware, the biography is full of spoilers, so it may be best to get through the novel before reading the biography.
Just as interesting as Maurine’s production of the book, her writing process and influences, are the reactions she received after it was published. Joshua was written for a national audience and Maurine hoped to help people understand why early Mormons endured what they endured. She referred to their underlying motivation as “the Grand Idea.” According to Maurine, the Mormons were a group of believers “who wanted to see if the Sermon on the Mount would work,” and despite their “bigotry and intolerance” which were “part of the times,” they also had “one essential idea of brotherly love, and it was very beautiful” (184).
Years prior to writing Joshua, Maurine received this piece of criticism which college professor at the University of Utah wrote on one of Maurine’s earlier works: “Bringing in [that extra element] helps a story; but it clouds the problem. Make clear-cut solutions of your problems” (39). Maurine didn’t follow that advice in Joshua, which helps explain why the book still resonates strongly with readers today. Her triumph is her captivating ability to explore the power and reality of faith without forgetting or downplaying faith’s tragedies, fears, and doubts. “Clear-cut solutions” don’t appear in Joshua because they didn’t appear in Maurine’s own life.
Her willingness to explore the disappointment, privation, and woes of polygamous women at a time when that somewhat-embarrassing aspect of Mormon history was finally starting to recede from public consciousness brought on criticism. Some locals in St. George were scandalized by some of the detail Maurine included, but criticism wasn’t confined to neighbors in St. George. Apostle John A. Widtsoe’s negative review of the book in the February 1941 issue of the Improvement Era made her feel rejected by the Church (he didn’t like its “lurid” aspects), and she also related alternate versions of an encounter with a Church authority (sometimes Heber J. Grant, or Widtsoe), who told her “we want nothing to do with you or those of your ilk” (214).
At the same time, other Church members and leaders praised her grand accomplishment. Levi Edgar Young, a professor of western history at the University of Utah and member of the First Council of the Seventy, promised to back a later book proposal she made to Knopf by writing a letter of recommendation. He told her Joshua was “a splendid work and will take its place high up in Western literature” (245). A resurgence of interest in the novel occurred in the 70s when BYU professors Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert, along with others, sought to publicize the book in symposia, university classes, and an anthology (387-390). Hale describes the continued interest in the novel up to the present, including several starts and stops on a Joshua movie project (404).
As various side-projects fizzled, it seems Maurine became increasingly paranoid (although Hale includes earlier traces of this characteristic, like Maurine’s hiring a private investigator to look into the whereabouts of a former lover). Her troubles with traffic accidents, supposedly greedy publishers and editors, city government officials, and the LDS Church had her mind racing about conspiracies and her pen busy composing complaints rather than working on sequels. An extended effort to research and publish information on a clearly-failing scientific theory about overcoming alcoholism, now thoroughly discredited, drained time and money (351).
Throughout these experiences Maurine interacts with a colorful cast of characters. There’s Lillian, a friend who is in the process of reevaluating her relationship to Mormonism and who encourages Maurine to have some flings with various men; Joseph Walker, a “cultural Mormon” who provides her with positive feedback and encouragement; Dean Brimhall and Fawn Brodie, who don’t become very close with her based largely on some religious differences, Sam Weller, a book seller who she eventually trusts with the copyright to Joshua; Juanita Brooks, a St. George neighbor who provided important personal comfort to Maurine at times, but who also doubted her knowledge about elements of Mormon history like the Mountain Meadows Massacre (247, 347, and there was nearly a MMM film made back then!); Dale Morgan, a western historian who, despite his support, had a spat with Maurine over some plagiarism (255); and Carol Jensen, a plural wife in Southern Utah whose husband had died. Carol became Maurine’s legal guardian in 1982 until Maurine’s death, and was a friend and helper to Hale through the biographical process. In spite of these friends, acquaintances and family members, Maurine believed her work was spurred by and resulted in solitude: “Every writer’s curse is loneliness,” she wrote “because his work, itself, is the loneliest, cruelest job in the world” (204).
One of the most interestingly coy characters in the biography is Veda Tebbs Hale, the biographer herself. Hale spent time during the last years of Maurine’s life interviewing her for the biography. Evidently, she also sometimes filled the role of friend, confidant, and even occasional artistic collaborator; there’s an ambiguous reference in a footnote to her helping Maurine revise a short story (223). Hale is not a trained historian and she enters the narrative quite personally at times, offering her “personal feeling,” her defense, or her criticism of Maurine (80,95, 197, several chapter conclusions). This unique biographer’s perspective and access sans academic discipline contains potential for disaster, but Hale turns it into a crucial strength for this biography.
Hale is familiar enough with Maurine, for instance, to recognize her repertoire of anecdotes, allowing her to notice differences in how Maurine related them to various people (192-193, 213, 305). She tries to assist the reader in understanding some of the more embarrassingly desperate and dramatic personal letters Maurine wrote to various suitors, providing some preemptive catharsis by describing their agonized and uncomfortable nature (95, 197, 335). It’s somewhat unusual to see a biographer discuss her own emotions in the biography itself: “I felt embarrassed for Maurine, irritated by her tone, and exhausted by reading” letters stored in the BYU Special Collections, some of which Maurine begged to have removed, but which remain today (105; see 91). Some of Hales’s personal sources are a bit tenuous, as when she cites “an unnamed temple worker in St. George” (189), reminiscent of the same small-town gossip Maurine herself was often the subject of. But she was able to interview a good number of Maurine’s personal acquaintances as well. She was even with her shortly before she passed away at a St. George nursing home where she’d spent the last few years of her life, and Hale describes the touching death (421).
Despite such intimacy, Hale remained distanced enough to include unflattering information, along with a little hand-wringing about privacy. She is able to ask Maurine for clarification about old letters or stories, although Maurine doesn’t always have a satisfactory answer and sometimes becomes quite angry at the asking (91). Hale makes this an opportunity to explore the murky boundaries between the past as others saw it and the past as we compose it in our own memories. For example, a relationship with a lover named Tom Spies ends in tragedy when he dies of cancer according to Maurine, but he actually lived 19 years beyond their parting (194; see also 46, 48, 53, 305 on memory). Details of Maurine’s failures in various teaching positions, a rape and abortion, thoughts of suicide, an unexpected hysterectomy, attempted relationships with married men, embarrassing love letters and angry rants, failed relationship after failed relationship—Hale deftly handles many difficult situations without turning gossipy or tabloid. Perhaps this is why she does not approach these difficulties as a novel narrative might by building up suspense. More often, she prefaces the circumstances with their ultimate conclusions (56, 65, 84, etc.).
A particular example of Hale’s ability to tell the story without lurid gazing is her analysis of Maureen’s attempts at several non-traditional relationships with men. Hale detects a certain old St. Georgian perspective, a “combination of rigid sexual morality combined with under-the-surface acceptance of unorthodox relationships,” i.e. plural marriage. Hale depicts Maurine’s familiarity with plural marriage as partly accounting for how she justified pursuing a few married men (77, 81), and how she all-but-proposed a polygamy-like relationship to a successful doctor/bachelor which would have involved herself and a few of his clinic workers (204, 210). It never happened.
Nor did the much-anticipated follow-up to The Giant Joshua. She had hoped to trace three generations of Mormons in St. George. Perhaps the “Grand Idea” would really shine through in the sequel (113), but she continued to find excuses not to complete the manuscripts despite being under contract at various points in the process. Perhaps she felt she couldn’t live up to expectations based on the quality and depth of Joshua. Belated income on a movie rights deal (which seems to have fallen by the wayside) helped Maurine survive, but it didn’t provide the impetus to completing her project; she had become too old, it was too late (404). Hale and others discovered pieces of manuscript, character outlines and bits of narrative, which Maurine had worked on off and on for decades. She allows a glimpse at these materials, at what could have been (“The Failed Sequel,” 272-292).
The biography ends with a postscript in which Hale completely shifts from the voice of biographer to the voice of personal narrator and participant. She describes a beautiful outing late in Maurine’s life when together they witnessed a remarkable rainstorm causing a sudden waterfall to crash over the red rocks of a ridge in St. George. Hale thought of Maurine’s life and her work: “Can your work and mine—can this biography somehow help that Grand Idea of love and brotherhood…I knew we both wanted it to be so” (429). Her unique biographical voice helps bring Maurine’s story—a story of triumph, heart-ache, and crawling courage—to life. This is a wonderful, if emotionally taxing, biography of a fascinating Mormon author.