Fall 1993, Volume 10.3
Reviewed by Katharine Coles, Department of English, Westminster College of Salt Lake City
How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir by Phyllis Barber. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992,189 pp., $24.95 (cloth).
Phyllis Barber's memoir, How I Got Cultured, is a strong contribution not only to Mormon and to Western letters but to the body of American literature whose purpose is to document the formation of the peculiarly American self and consciousness. As well, the book, which won the prestigious AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction in 1992, stands as a tender and humorous ars poetica, a narrative of how the tension between religion and art worked in the body and mind of the author to make her a professional pianist and, finally, a teller of stories who would become, the time the book was published, the author of a novel, a volume of short stories, and two books for children.
How I Got Cultured is less the explanation promised in the title than a complicated retrospective map of the possibilities of a young life shaped in the culturally and west in the middle of this century. Not only is Ms. Barber born into the quintessential American landscape, she is also born into what Harold Bloom thinks of as the quintessential American religion: Mormonism. In these essays, Mormonism teaches the young Ms. Barber at once to submit to outside structure and control and also to long toward vision and release. Her own nature takes up this longing like a baton: chafing under the restrictions of religious teaching, the young Phyllis turns first to high artthe piano-and then to low-the Las Vegas Rhythmettes, a precision marching team-as possible means of transcending herself and her surroundings.
In the tight-knit Mormon culture, the young Phyllis's parents view her burgeoning piano talent as both a gift and a bane. Her father wants her to focus on learning entertaining, pleasant show tunes to play for the family and for Mormon ward talent shows, and he counseled her against the sin of pride and the desire to become exceptional, in spite of his own yearnings to "be a star for [himself], not just for God." Her mother, who denied her own youthful musical talents, encourages Phyllis's playing, but she also counsels modesty and withholding, reminding Phyllis that her flowering will come in the role as a wife and mother, and that until then her duty is to remain as tightly folded as a bud. When the teenaged Phyllis shows a talent for dance-in a studio where classical ballerinas and Las Vegas showgirls train side-byside at the barre-it is Phyllis's mother who forbids her to continue.
The tension Ms. Barber establishes between the love for family and the familiar and the desire to "force the bloom" and escape in the airy realm of art is both poignant and funny. Sometimes art is represented by figures of high culture Leonard Bernstein, for example-while at other times it is represented by the drill team members, dressed in short jumpsuits and cowboy hats, who meet Mr. Bernstein at the Las Vegas airport. In a sequence of family stories, high culture arrives at a family Christmas party in the shape of Phyllis's alcoholic grandfather, who has strayed from the Mormon fold but who can "shine the inside of a story into pure gold." The admiration the young Phyllis feels for her grandfather's gift is confused by her knowledge that her aunts and uncles consider him a reprobate.
It is clear from the most carefully crafted passages of this memoir that Ms. Barber has a tremendous gift for lyrical prose. She is able to get the words for her experience exactly right, even under the pressure of complicated emotional situations. But there are moments when, even in its flights, the language becomes strangely clumsy, and other moments when the book's metaphors become strained, as if Ms. Barber wanted to make of her experience too tidy a package, too neat a morality play-as if she still sometimes labored under the weights imposed in childhood without being willing to push up at them. But mostly she is wiling to push, and the pressure she brings to bear on her experience is a productive one.
At its best, How I Got Cultured stands as another sign that Mormon letters has, like the speaker of these essays, come into a maturity, permitting, in the work of writers like Linda Sillitoe, Eugene England, Terry Tempest Williams, Darrell Spencer, and now Phyllis Barber, a pressure on tradition that reveals the writers' complex relationships with their heritage. The most satisfying moments in this volume are those in which the reader senses that the young Ms. Barber's coming of age in art and her coming of age in religion, while the two disciplines at times seem to be pulling her in opposite directions, are one and the same process. The Mormon "girl with a body who didn't have a body" may deny herself a first love affair to keep tightly wrapped the bud of chastity, but in that denial she also, perhaps ironically, preserves intact her chance to leave the fold, first for four years at Brigham Young University, then for the wider world. Early in the book, she says, "If I had to stop time, I'd stop it there where we [the family] were united in our certainty" in the truth of Mormon doctrine. But for the young Ms. Barber, the acceptance of complexity is an essential part of her coming of age. By the time she leaves Las Vegas for college-after triumphantly (and hilariously) unveiling her bikinied body during a casino fur show-she has discovered that, for her, God and art are both larger and more forgiving than she's been taught: larger than herself and her desire; larger than she had ever dared to imagine.