Supplementing Angels

A not-so-hypothetical from a reader: Your daughter’s AP English class is using Tony Kushner’s Angels in America as a central part of a semester’s curriculum. You are friends with the teacher and would feel comfortable suggesting that she supplement the Angels module with another book or short story dealing with Mormonism from a different, hopefully “insider,” perspective. What work of Mormon literature would you suggest?

57 comments for “Supplementing Angels

  1. First of all, why are they reading that in AP English? Seems a little less than noteworthy from a curriculum perspective…But to answer your question:

    I don’t think it is worthy of AP English, but another book that treats homosexuality and Mormonism is Carol Lynn Pearson’s personal narrative, Goodbye, I Love You.

  2. Boy if I were that parent, would I be annoyed! Angels in America isn’t literature.

    I don’t think there’s an antidote, but if you want a book that’s closer to literature which conveys Mormons in a favorable light, try The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer. Also, although not particularly Mormon in his approach, Wallace Stegner is probably our brightest light, literarily speaking. Anything by Stegner would immediately show-up the shallowness of Angels…

  3. Hm. I guess I don’t quite see the need to supplement it with something Mormon-related, because the play isn’t really about Mormonism. I suppose it seems to me a bit like wanting to supplement Othello with another piece of fiction about Moors.

    I understand why some might find it an offensive work; Kushner clearly doesn’t get Mormons, but I think he has some appreciation for the Mormon zeitgeist.

    The best piece of fiction I can think of to balance out where Kushner’s lack is most glaring – ie, the Mormon sense of community – would be Levi Peterson’s “The Christianizing of Coburn Heights.” It’s funny, too.

  4. First off, Angels won a Pulitzer and is one of the most acclaimed American plays in the last, say, 30 years. That doesn’t mean it deserves a spot on an AP English curriculum, but it’s at least defensible, I think.

    J. Stapley: I think you’re right that it would be difficult to suggest putting Ms. Pearson’s memoir on an AP English reading list. And I don’t think that we necessarily need to be thinking of Mormon literature that discusses homosexuality. Anything that would deepen the students understanding of the Mormon aspects of Angels should be fair game.

    D. Fletcher: I’m not so sure about Executioner’s Song, though I absolutely loved the book. Mailer doesn’t really seem to have much to say about Mormonism, though he draws his characters sharply and has clearly been observant of a certain stripe of Mormons and Mormon culture. What would be cool is to pair Mailer’s book with Mikal Gilmore’s terrific book Shot Through the Heart, which delves much deeper into the Mormon background of the Gilmore family and that of certain other players in the tragedy.

    Matt, Greenfrog: Thanks for the suggestions. I’ll have to check out Peterson’s story and The Giant Joshua.

  5. Yes, I know that, Nate. Stegner grew up (partially) in SLC, and I thought he might be a nice complement to Kushner. How about Mormon County (1942) for a start?

    If we’re talking strict members here, you’re gonna be hardpressed to find any literature of a high level. Levi Peterson … is the closest, or perhaps Scott Card.

  6. While I agree with those above who note that Kushner misses the mark as far as Mormon mannerisms, there’s a good article (I think in Dialogue) that looks at (following Bloom’s ideas about American Religion) the way Kushner gets the Americanness of Mormonism right on.

    If my daughter were reading Angels (which, like Greg, I find defensible, at least as much as, say, Salesman or The Crucible as a play about the US), I’d find some alternate readings for her about (US) America and read the play in that context, not in the context of Mormonism.

    If you really want some good Mormon stuff, though, start with Peterson’s “Christianizing…” I’m also partial to Michael Fillerup, which would play well in an AP English class, I think.

  7. Yeah, Angels in America (I admit, I haven’t read it for 10 years, so I may be remembering some things wrong), isn’t really about Mormons at all. It’s about modern America, and more specifically gay America. Some Mormons concepts are borrowed (a visitation with new revelation from an angel, for example), but the characters who are Mormon are essentially just depicted as generic conservative Christians. And just odd bits — a LDS visitor’s center in New York in 1985? Since the church truly is an American religion, probably THE great example of a truly American religion, you can see why he used the name, and some of the trappings. But not really any of the actual religion.

  8. Easy. Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge–Mormons are complicated, but sympathetic; there’s an environmental theme that would resonate with high-schoolers, and it’s an easy read.

    I love Giant Joshua, too, but adding a discussion of polygamy to the mix is probably less than constructive (I wouldn’t want to be that teacher, anyway).

    Virginia Sorenson’s _The Evening and the Morning_ is also a possibility, but it doesn’t have the reach-out-and-grab-you quality that I’d want for HS.

  9. _The Giant Joshua_ is a great starting point for Mormon literature, but I’m not sure how much relevance it would have for high school students who are studying “Angels in America.” I’d suggest something more contemporary — how about film, say, “God’s Army” or “Brigham City”?

    In terms of recent works, Brady Udall’s _The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint_ has the best ‘literary credentials’ yet has a sympathetic (albeit realistic) portrayal of Mormonism. The problem for a high school class, though, is that it is a long novel.

    Orson Scott Card’s short story “Salvage” from _The Folk of the Fringe_ might be interesting, but I don’t it would depend on if this ap high school teacher can be trusted to teach speculative fiction.

    Actually, I think that one that students might semi-relate to is Alan Rex Mitchell’s _Angel of the Danube: The Missionary Journal of Barry Monroe_. It’s irreverant yet faithful, easy-to-read but literary.

  10. Great minds, Kristine. Refuge was the one book I came up with when this question was put to me.

  11. Acutally — why not match a play with a play? Eric Samuelsen’s “FAMILY: A Play in Two Acts” was published in the March 2005 issue of Sunstone. Or perhaps his novelization of “The Way We’re Wired”?

  12. I guess in my comment #10 I was trying to get at the point that it doesn’t really make sense to have an alternate reading on Mormonism to balance what’s in “Angels in America”, because “Angels in America” isn’t really about Mormons at all — the characters mostly don’t behave like Mormons, just generalized conservative Christians. Maybe just a handout describing what Kushner gets wrong and right, leading into a discussion of why Kushner chose to write Mormonism, and how he uses references to the religion to achive his goals in the play, and whether it matters (both literarily and ethically) whenther Kushner got the details wrong or right. That’d be an interesting discussion.

  13. Mrs (#10 &16): I should really track down that article for you, which does essentially what your #16 advocates.

  14. Other works to consider: Levi Peterson’s The Backslider or the anthologies edited (or co-edited) by Gene England: Bright Angels and Familiars (short fiction) and Harvest (poetry).

  15. The most important literary achievement within the orbit of Mormonism is the poetry of May Swenson, although no one would identify her as a mormon artist, and her work, while it may be an antidote to Angels, is probably not the antidote most are looking for.

  16. Sorry to do this (I’m probably violating some rule here), but I have a recently converted friend who has a question, and I’m looking for a quick answer. Perhaps someone could respond to [email protected] so we don’t use precious space here. Question: what are the policy/doctrinal reasons a single man would not serve as a bishop in the Church? Thanks for any help. Sorry for doing this here.

  17. Most powerful book (not necessarily best written) is _Heresies of Nature_ by Margaret Blair Young.
    Best written, though not centrally touching on Mormonism (more about the Arizona “rez”) is _Miracle Life of Edgar Mint_ by Brady Udall.
    I thought _Red Water_ was not particularly imaginative or compelling.
    Those older books are a little hard to get through.
    Best short story in my memory is “God on Donahue,” also by Margaret Blair Young.

    re: 22. long time back Tony Kimball was a bishop (Cambridge, Mass), but then they phased him out. He may have been the only single bishop at the time. There are a litany of reasons why single men aren’t bishops, from New Testament precedent (“husband of one wife”) to the centrality of the patriarchal family structure to ecclesial and post-mortal organization.

  18. I would visit the teacher and ask her how much Shakespeare she knew and suggest that there was too much great literature around to waste time on queerlit. I don’t have any problem with my daughter reading Tony Kushner anything but I do think that it a waste of precious academic time to waste on this kind of whiny garbage.

  19. mrs (#10 and 16):

    Is GeorgeD (#24) behaving like a Mormon or a “generalized conservative Christian”? :)

  20. I haven’t read most of what’s referenced here, so I can’ t recommend one thing over another, but I want to suggest taking a look at Orson Scott Card’s connected short story collection “Folk of the Fringe” (the whole book). It’s short but captivating and conveys to me some real essence of being Mormon. Looking back on my investigation of the church, I realize that book was an important influence on me, on helping me understand what it means to be Mormon, and that it was something I wanted to be. Particularly the first story, and the story “Pageant Wagon.”

  21. Frankly, I wouldn’t bother. I’m not very sympathetic to equal time arguments in schools. Why can’t we let teachers develop their syllabuses on their own (within reason, as this seems to be)?

    You could always homeschool ;)

  22. Bryce:

    If you are interested enough in your child’s education to homeschool, why wouldn’t you bother to interact with your child’s (hypothetical) public school teacher?

    The hypothetical said that the parent already had a friendly relationship with the teacher, so I don’t think this is about demanding equal time or a change in the curriculum.

    To me, the real question is, what has been written by Mormon authors that could meet the standard for inclusion on the reading list for an AP English class in a public high school? If the teacher wanted to include something written by a Mormon, what could she pick?

    It’s an interesting (and difficult) question for a lot of reasons, and I think some very good suggestions have been made so far. I hope there are more.

  23. I haven’t read/seen Angels in America.

    However if, as some have said, the thing isn’t really about Mormons per se, then it seems unreasonable to hijack a teacher’s curriculum with an entire new book to read (unless the teacher simply wanted to throw it out to the class as possible recreational reading …. yeah right).

    It would seem more reasonable to throw in a short article from some source that the class could read quickly, be alerted that there are other takes on the issue out there, and then get back to the substance of the coursework.

    Personally, I’m not really a fan of using videos in the classroom, but that’s just me.

  24. There is a great short story by Walter Kirn called “Mormon Eden” that was in the New Yorker sometime in the 1990s. It tells a story about teenagers on a church history tour. It’s as good as Levi Peterson’s stuff but de-coupled from the western setting.

  25. aaron –

    I’ve read that tale and Eugene England’s critique of that Kirn story, in which he tears it to shreds. I have a hard time seeing how a story about how a girl whose spirtual calling is to give doubting Mormon boys oral sex could be a nice corrective to Angels in America.

  26. Kristine (11) mentioned Virginia Sorensen but noted that her novel The Evening and the Morning wasn’t all that gripping; her short story “Where Nothing Is Long Ago” in England’s anthology Bright Angels and Familiars (also mentioned above) is good and would be compelling, I think, to a high schooler.

    The article in Dialogue is Michael Austin’s “Theology for the Approaching Millennium: Angels in America, Activism, and the American Religion” 30.1 (Spring 1997): 25-44. (It’s available on the U’s archives of Dialogue but I can’t seem to figure out how to link straight to it.)

  27. M.J. Pritchett asked:

    If you are interested enough in your child’s education to homeschool, why wouldn’t you bother to interact with your child’s (hypothetical) public school teacher?

    The hypothetical said that the parent already had a friendly relationship with the teacher, so I don’t think this is about demanding equal time or a change in the curriculum.

    I guess I didn’t consider the parameters of the hypothetical. True, there’s nothing wrong with making a suggestion to a teacher. In this particular hypothetical situation, though I think my advice to my daughter would be to tell the teacher that the portrayal of Mormons in the play is not terribly accurate, make a statement to the class to that effect, and make herself available to answer any questions. I would be hesitant to request any substantive changes to the class syllabus.

    True, I homeschool, but that doesn’t mean that I want total control over what my children see and hear. Teachers should have broad latitude to decide the content of their courses, so long as they are competent. Otherwise, I think we decrease their effectiveness as teachers.

  28. Re: #24
    One could pretty well argue that Shakespeare has more literary merit than Kushner, but the AP English curriculum specifically states that the works selected should cover a “wide range of genres, periods, and cultures”, so it can’t be all Shakespear. “Angels in America” is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and is almost certainly the most influential, if perhaps not the best, play written in the last 30 years, so I think it qualifies. Can you name any other plays of the last 10-20 years that would be more suitable in terms of quality? (Hmm. Maybe an August Wilson, like “Fences” or “The Piano Lesson”. That’s about all I can think of) Now, in terms of content, that’s different — it’s relatively explicit at times. Am I already becoming an old fogey at 30? Maybe it was chosen because she figured the sex and language would keep the kiddies attention. Hopefully the teacher didn’t choose it just to be politically correct and diverse.

    From the College Board site: “Reading in an AP course should be both wide and deep. This reading necessarily builds upon the reading done in previous English courses. These courses should include the in-depth reading of texts drawn from multiple genres, periods, and cultures. In their AP course, students should also read works from several genres and periods — from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century”

  29. Just fyi: my daughter’s high school social science class is reading “Under the Banner of Heaven.”

  30. I have never understood the controversy around Angels in America as it relates to mormons. I studied theatre for a little while, and as it is a Tony Award winning Pulitzer prize play it was included in the curriculum. Sure it mentions a mormon couple, and how that couple has its problems, and does not really follow the faith, and end up going different ways. I guess it surprises me when people get shocked by the idea that a Mormon man could be gay and leave his wife. I have seen it happen, and if I had children, I would want them to know not only that these things happen, but that people out of our faith notice and write about it. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to discuss the play with your daughter, help her see which things are true or not, and help her understand why the playwright would write the characters the way he did. It may not be the best play, or put mormons in the best light, but come on! I have see a lot more damaging, untruthful things about us out there.

  31. I don’t know enough about the play to have an opinion on how it treats Mormons, nor on whether it’s necessary to counteract that treatment, or how to do it. It seems to me that your friend should be more concerned about the apparent lack of rigor of the AP program rather than how it treats Mormons. Can we assume that this is “central part of the curriculum” because they’ve already been through Chaucer, Milton, et al.?

  32. Having taught AP English, I wouldn’t be against showing “Angels in America” if I believed it had great literary merit and pushed my students to see the world anew. I have yet to see it but I now have more determination to rent it thanks to this discussion.

    The “best” or most interesting book I’ve read about homosexuality and the church, so far, is “Raintree” by Garcia Anthony….=).

  33. The Terry Tempest Williams suggestion is a good one. Though Refuge is more accessible, Leap has more to say about the tensions of being LDS.

  34. When I was in AP English, we read Chaucer and Milton. Also Moliere, Ibsen, Flaubert, Faulkner. . . Of course, this was five years before Angels in America was written. Reading in an AP course “should be both wide and deep.” If I were teaching it I would probably come up with five or six totally different syllabus lists without it ever occurring to me to include Angels. I wouldn’t object, however, to its inclusion by a teacher who has something to say about it, provided that, as gst warns, it’s not at the expense of an adequate coverage of more established masterpieces.

  35. Maren:

    It’s not so much that it doesn’t put Mormons in the best light or that there are no “real life” Mormons who are closeted gays or depressed housewives addicted to antidepressents (clearly there are). The problems stem, rather, from the metaphysical and potlicial underpinnings of the play. If Kushner had written a play that was more in the mode of realism (say, for instance, something in the style of Neil LaBute), I don’t think that I would have a problem with it.

    What I don’t like about _Angels in America_ is that Kushner is using Mormon characters within the context of a (Post?) Apocalyptic, late Marxist perspective. And in doing so, I think, that he fails to engage Mormon history and metaphysics. I’m not saying that there aren’t ‘shallow’ Mormons or that all non-Mormons who write about Mormonism need to understand the King Follett Discourse and know all the ins and outs of Mormon communities. Nor do I have quibbles with overtly political works (individual works that aren’t well done are a different story).

    No, I think the issue for me is that Kushner co-opts Mormonism to further his agenda, but he does it in a shallow way and in a way that ignores the deep sense of community, robust history and challenging and unique metaphysics of our people.

    [And now I see that I should simply say that I agree with mrs’s comments 10 and 16].

    Finally, I’d have to say that for me _Angels_ is an emotionally powerful play, but as time has worn on, I have realized that it really isn’t an intellectually and socially powerful play. But that’s just me.

  36. Yes, we even read Aeschylus in English. The AP program has grown, and now they have French Literature, Spanish Literature, and Latin Literature (although it would surprise me if large number of high schools were equipped to teach these classes), but at the time, there was only English. The school I went to already had covered American literature, so the AP class was a combination of British and World literature. We also read Crime and Punishment, Moll Flanders, King Lear, etc.

  37. Re: #44

    No, I think you made the point more precisely than I did in #10 and #16. Thanks for the addition.

    Re: #37

    Now THAT is somthing that will need a contrary view, because that -is- about Mormons, and, as I understand, not very positive and, more importantly, not very accurate. Of course, I haven’t read more than reviews, so those who have read it can probably say more.

  38. Count me as vote number two for_Folk of the Fringe_ by Card. Why does a teacher need to be “trusted” with speculative fiction, as opposed to any other type of fiction? And why would Card not count as high literature, considering how dull the “high lit” I was required to read in school was?

  39. I think that _Folk of the Fringe_ should be on syllabi. It’s one of OSC’s best works.

    I say “trusted” because, frankly, I went to school with many of the English lit majors who are out teaching high school and community college courses, and most of them don’t get speculative fiction. They don’t see it as a valid genre for criticism or teaching.

    In fact, the only genre that

    Now, I realize that there are some professors out there who teach and write about speculative fiction — but not many. And even then, such faculty often focus solely on the literary stuff — Bradbury and Urusla K. Le Guin are worthy of attention, but OSC and Frank Herbert aren’t.

    Oddly enough (but not really c.f. Todorov), mysteries seem to be everybody’s favorite “guilty pleasure” and worthy of some critical attention.

  40. Putting “Folk of the Fringe” on an AP English syllabus is a bad idea. I read it at some point in the last decade and enjoyed it, but I don’t remember that it overwhelmed me with literary merit. More importantly, there is a 0.0% chance that the AP English exam would ever include questions about it. (For the same reason, too much foreign language literature isn’t a good idea, either, as much merit as it might have in other courses.) And most importantly, a student might succumb to the temptation in the stress of the AP exam and write an essay based on “Folk,” and the essay reader will not have heard of the book, let alone read it, and will possibly get the impression that the student reads only trivial literature about his own church. Even if untrue, that impression will color the reader’s evaluation. If the English class were on speculative fiction or religious literature or American minority literature, then it would be worth considering. But an AP class, with a specific mission of duplicating college-level work and preparing students for an exam, is all about unquestioning acceptance of the canon rather than its subversion. “Slaughterhouse Five” is a better choice for speculative fiction. It’s been a while since I’ve been seriously concerned with AP English, though, so show me “Folk” on an ETS reading list, and I’ll take it all back.

  41. No one has mentioned The Conversion of Jeff Williams, by Doug Thayer. It is a wonderfully crafted book, as well as a coming of age tale appropriate to the teenage audience. It deals nicely with the tensions of being a Mormon teen. The writing is wonderful and the characters convincing. You ought to read it, even if they don’t want to use it in the school.

  42. The really vexing thing about Angels is the idea that you can write (and get all sorts of praise from New York critics for) a work about Mormon religions/family relationships without knowing anything at all about Mormon culture.

    So a good counterweight would be any play, movie, or book about troubled religious/family relationships whose author DOES know the religion and culture in a deep and intimate way. Think of “Fiddler on the Roof” or “The Chosen” (or anything by Chaim Potok) or “The Apostle.”

  43. Jonathan:

    My response is less to what you said — which I think is sound advice and an accurate reflection of AP teachers and test readers — but more to the questions that this advice raises.

    That is…..

    I think that says more about AP English that it does about _Folk of the Fringe_. And although I’m a critic of some of OSC’s works, choices and habits (the Alvin Maker series doesn’t live up to its initial promise, imo), I’d have to say that some of his short stories, including ones in _Folk of the Fringe_ are as well-written as “Angels in America” and other works that are chosen in the name of multiculturalism. I realize that “Angels” was/is very hot, but I think that it’s turned out to be more “The Vagina Monologues” and less “Waiting for Godot.”

    This is not to knock mult-culti-ness. I’m all for it (in terms of expanding the canon and putting different cultures in dialogue). But once you start bringing in works from non (or quickly) canonized authors, you open up the discussion we’re having here.

    Why is that “Angels” isn’t relegated to the minority litearture ghetto?

    As for “Slaughterhouse Five” — it was on the syllabus of my English honors class. I enjoy the book (Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time [I think that’s the correct wording — it’s been awhile)], but, you know, it’s not that great of speculative fiction and it’s not that great of literary fiction, either. I think that work by Gene Wolf — in particular the novella “The Fifth Head of Cereberus” — is better speculative fiction with the same (or better) literary merits.

  44. [A] LDS visitor’s center in New York in 1985?

    There certainly was one in 1985; it occupied the second floor of the Manhattan stake center (built in the mid-1970s), complete with a diorama something like the one seen in Angels. We kids thought it, and the kiosks that showed “Homefront” television ads and other short films, were pretty cool to play with.

    Yeechang, nostalgic

  45. There certainly was one in 1985; it occupied the second floor of the Manhattan stake center

    I neglected to mention (for the benefit of the many on T&S who only made their way to NYC for graduate school) that the visitors’ center was gone by 1990 or so, making way for a genealogy library and additional offices and classrooms for what was, even then, a very crowded building.

Comments are closed.