Return of the Backslider | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Return of the Backslider 

Author Levi Peterson comes home to reflect on his life and work.

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Thank you. ’Preciate being here,” said Levi Peterson, addressing an audience of about a hundred Weber State University students and a handful of old friends. They had come to hear him read from his autobiography A Rascal by Nature, a Christian by Yearning: A Mormon Autobiography recently published by the University of Utah Press. Most of the students seemed uncertain who this writer was and had never read'or probably even heard of'his novel The Backslider, which so startled and alarmed members of Peterson’s family and community when it was published a generation ago.


Written by a Mormon and about Mormons, The Backslider told the story of a likable rural youth named Frank who is tormented by the struggle to suppress his natural yearnings and abide by strictures of the faith. As Peterson succinctly describes his dilemma, “He’s a Mormon. He believes in God. And he wishes he didn’t.nn

Frank’s older brother ends up castrating himself out of shame for his own failings, while Frank takes the opposite tack, enjoying the pleasures of being a backslider. Then, racked by guilt about results of that way of life, Frank lives the life of an ascetic hermit, mortifying his flesh with barbed wire. Only the love of a good'non-Mormon'woman saves Frank from probable suicide.


“People used to ask me what my subject matter is,” said Peterson. “‘Mormons in sin and turmoil,’ is what I always said. Now that I’m older, when people ask me that, I tell them, ‘Older Mormons in sin and turmoil.’ The interest in sinning has not lessened over the years, but the ability to sin has debilitated.nn

Head of the English department at WSU for 10 years and a faculty member for 25 years, Peterson moved to Seattle when he retired seven years ago. The publication of his autobiography is a triumphant return to his old stomping grounds. By happy coincidence, a 20th anniversary edition of The Backslider will be published by Signature Books in December. The “fine edition” of 1,000 copies features original art by Micah Clegg and will be available “in time for the holiday season,” said Connie Disney, art director at Signature Books.


Peterson prefaced a brief excerpt by talking about the performance anxiety he has suffered from all his life. Fully detailed in his book, Peterson endured 17 years of psychoanalysis. He was originally so terrified of lecturing students that he laboriously wrote every word of each lecture, so that if he did “freeze up and completely lose the train of my thought,” the text would be there to help him continue.


Returning to his book, Peterson then read a comic interlude about a fellow teacher in the English department, Cluster Nilsen: “On our excursions, Cluster and I developed the habit of stopping for breakfast at restaurants of the greasy-spoon variety where I learned, from Cluster’s evil example, to drink coffee. I still have this bad habit. I do not think I am a serious caffeine addict. I like coffee mostly because it is a convenient sin. It is a very handy, inexpensive way to stay out of harmony with your church.” That got the biggest laugh of the reading.


A few minutes later, the room was stricken into silence when Peterson told how Cluster unexpectedly died. Reading from his book again, Peterson concluded: “At the burial I recognized that his death had given me a hold on Ogden. You start to feel like the place where your friends are buried is home.” Then Peterson started, helplessly, crying. “Sorry,” he said, wiping away the tears, keeping his head down. Finding the next section, Peterson started reading again.


He told the story of the story behind the birth of The Backslider, in 1983-84. Peterson and his wife, Althea, joined an informal writing group, whose members included Bruce Jorgenson, Linda Sillitoe, Dennis Clark and their spouses. Meeting monthly at their homes over dinner, members critiqued each other’s works-in-progress.


All agreed that Peterson had made a great start on a potentially powerful story'if only readers could endure the pain and horror. Peterson decided to start over again, creating a new first chapter using “the simple language of common people.” Speaking in “short, elliptical sentences,” with the “colloquial patterns of speech” Peterson had grown up with, Frank became a more fully rounded, comic character. “The sentence structure of common people frees me,” Peterson happily discovered.


He refuses to speculate about the ultimate meaning of The Backslider, having received every kind of reaction to it over the years. A sales clerk at a local store perhaps summed it up best when he told Peterson, “What it means is that God is no enemy of human appetites.nn

Reading from his autobiography again, Peterson concluded, “If I ever made anything beautiful, it is this book. In my feelings, it is a gravestone, a monument left behind to testify that I have lived.nn

Peterson took a few questions from students and colleagues, then class was dismissed. “Thanks a lot,” Peterson said in response to the applause. “’Preciate you coming.”


A Rascal by Nature, a Christian by Yearning
Levi S. Peterson
University of Utah Press
464 pages

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Bob Sawatzki

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