Wednesday, January 21, 2015

American Mormonism in Card's Seventh Son

Orson Scott Card’s Seventh Son feels very little like a fantasy novel, primarily because it does not take place in Medieval Northern Europe. The opening map, now something of a ritual in fantasy literature, is in fact just a map of the United States as it is now, with all its rivers and mountains right where they should be. The technology and customs of the novel are not of swords and chain mail, but of waterwheels and wagons. And the heroes and sages worshipped by the common man are not Arthur or Odin, but John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson.
          This refreshing change of scenery is, in addition to being an evocative deconstruction of the fantasy genre, crucial to the Mormonism of the story, for Mormonism is a profoundly American religion. Mormons exist because men like James Madison fought to establish religious freedom. Three of the four parts to the Mormon scriptural canon were either translated or recorded first in American English. Our flight westward helped explore the continent and expand the nation.[1] And in more than just the political or geographical sense of America, much of cultural and doctrinal Mormonism directly mirrors spiritual America: individualism, humanism, solitude, and progressive destiny.

          Card sets up his main character, Alvin, as a representation of Joseph Smith. As Harold Bloom has written, Joseph Smith is America’s religion. He taught men that they could become like gods, an idea which amplifies both Emerson’s writing about self-reliance as well as Whitman’s poetic celebration of the self.[2] Like Mark Twain, he created a purely American text in Doctrine and Covenants.[3] Whitman is America’s poet, Bloom writes, and Emerson its sage, but Joseph Smith is its prophet.[4] Thus Seventh Son must take place in America almost by force, as its main character, and its allegorized religion, are such inherently American entities.

[1] The irony here is that this inherently American people, rejected by its homeland, was aiming to stay in Mexico. Were they bummed out when Utah did become part of the States?
[2] Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, New York: Riverhead Books (1994), 253.
[3] In an attempt to paraphrase Bloom, the radicalism of Doctrine and Covenants comes from Joseph’s declaration that it is new scripture, not anything else handed down by older cultures.
[4] Bloom 6, 267.


  1. I absolutely love how you include the comparison of Joseph Smith to Whitman and Emerson--the line, "but Joseph Smith is its prophet" gave me goosebumps. The connection you make to showing how the Seventh Son is American fantasy (which is so refreshing anyway) and how Mormonism is an American religion feels slightly liberating, though I'm not exactly sure how.

  2. I really like how you make the comparison between Mormon doctrine/culture and American spirituality (individualism, humanism, progressive destiny). That is very cool. I had never made that connection and I can totally see it now that you've brought it up.