Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Nephi Anderson on Purpose in Fiction

Nephi Anderson
Nephi Anderson

When I was a child I read and loved Robert Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars, so when my son was old enough, I read it to him also. I had somehow acquired a nice edition of the book, one with an interpretive essay in the end. So, when I went to read the book to my son, I read the essay, and discovered that the book wasn’t at all what I remembered when I read it as a child.

What I had read as a child was simply entertainment. A great story of a girl who goes on an adventure with interplanetary repercussions. What the essay spoke of was Heinlein’s rejection of woman’s liberation.

In my subsequent readings of the book, I’ve clearly seen what the essay talks about. But I missed it as a grade school student. And I suspect that my son, and a daughter to whom I read the book, also missed it as pre-teens. [I’ve got to wonder if Heinlein is even successful at what he was trying to do because of this!] We all read the book as entertainment, not as a lesson.

This background informs my reading of Nephi Anderson’s Purpose in Fiction, one of two literary criticism articles Anderson wrote for the Improvement Era. It is probably no surprise that Anderson, perhaps the leading author of the Home Literature movement, believes in writing for a purpose:

Purpose in Fiction

By Nephi Anderson

In his preface to the sixth edition of “Tom Brown’s School Days,” Thomas Hughes[1] says:

“Several persons, for whose judgment I have the highest respect, while saying very kind things about this book, have added that the great fault of it is, ‘too much preaching;’ but they hope I shall amend in this matter should I ever write again. Now this I most distinctly decline to do. Why, my whole object in writing at all was to get the chance of preaching! * * * My sole object in writing was to preach to boys; if ever I write again it will be to some other age. I can’t see that a man has any business to write at all unless he has something which he thoroughly believes and wants to preach about. If he has this and the chance of delivering himself of it, let him by all means put it in the shape in which it will be most likely to get a hearing; but never let him be so carried away as to forget that preaching is his object.”

In contrast to this view, the more modern novelist, F. Marion Crawford[2], says:

“Probably no one denies that the first object of the novel is to amuse and interest the reader. The purpose-novel constitutes a violation of the unwritten contract tacitly existing between writer and reader. A man buys what purports to be a work of fiction, a romance, a story of adventure, pays his money, takes his book home, prepares to enjoy it at his ease, and discovers that he has paid a dollar for somebody’s views on socialism, religion, or the divorce laws. In ordinary cases the purpose-novel is a simple fraud, besides being a failure in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand.”

Here are two radically different views on the province of fiction. Dr. Hughes claims that the story should be a means by which to teach nobler principles, Mr. Crawford says that amusement and interest is its main object. It might here be said that Mr. Crawford is mistaken in one thing: Often a man buys a novel because of the “purpose” that sticks so prominetly from it.

Many present day critics and reviewers agree with the latter writer. Their cry is “Art for art’s sake,” whatever that means. They denounce as inartistic any novel written for the definite purpose of presenting a principle, expressing a truth, or holding up an ideal.

It is hard to see the philosophy of this last proposition. Perhaps a work of fiction wholly purposeless may conform to this strict “law of art;” but surely a story full of purpose, a high, noble purpose may also be in harmony with that art which lifts the soul into the realm of the beautiful. Art deals with beauty, and the highest beauty centers in God. Art deals with love, and God is love. Art deals with truth, and God is the source of all truth. All of the Creator’s laws are full of meaning, full of purpose. By all means let us have in literature, as in all else, “Art for Art’s sake;” only let us understand what art is.

Dr. Hughes’ little story, with all its preaching, has become a classic. Will Mr. Crawford’s Italian romances ever attain to that rank?[3]

Have the world’s greatest novelists given us purposeless stories? George Eliot was somewhat addicted to this “preaching.” It is claimed that Dickens’ novels have been great factors in bringing about the abolition of the unjust poor laws of England, of bettering the common schools, and correcting many other abuses. Undoubtedly, the motive that moved Dickens to write was a noble purpose. “Les Miserables,” surely, was not written merely to please or amuse some idle reader. Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” is a mighty sermon against sin. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was written for a purpose. It created more anti-slavery sentiment in the North than all other pamphlets and treatises combined. Bellamy has hung a score of socialistic sermons on a frail thread of romance. Not even Mr. Crawford can say that “Looking Backward” is a failure. Even that delight of boyhood, “Robinson Crusoe,” is not without its sermons, as Taine in his “History of English Literature” says:

“Robinson Crusoe is quite a man of his race, and might instruct it even in the present day. He has the force of will power, etc., which formerly produced sea-kings, and now produces emigrants and squatters. * * * Even now we many hear their mighty hatchets and pickaxes sounding in the claims of Melbourne and in the log houses of Salt Lake.”

And so on down the list.

The Latter-day Saint understands that this world is not altogether a play ground, and that the main object of life is not to be amused. He who reaches the people, and the story writer does that, should not lose the opportunity of “preaching,” as the author of “Tom Brown’s School Days” puts it. A good story is artistic preaching. A novel which depicts high ideals and gives to us representations of men and women as they should and can be, exerts an influence for good that is not easily computed

Improvement Era, v1 n4, February 1898

I suspect today many critics would see this issue as a non-starter. My own reaction is simply that the two ideas should be able to coexist: some authors write with a purpose, others for entertainment. For those who write with a purpose, I hope they manage to do both, lest their work end up “preachy.”

But I also wonder if writing a “wholly purposeless” work of fiction is even possible–don’t authors infuse some kind of purpose in most works, even if they try not to? If I look at the recent list of the “Top 10 Difficult Literary Works,” I’m hard pressed to find one that doesn’t have some kind of purpose (although Finnegan’s Wake and The Naked Lunch, which I haven’t read, seem to have obscured their purpose quite well). Even the most popular books written for entertainment often have some kind of message in them. Isn’t Jurrasic Park a cautionary tale about genetic manipulation? And even when there doesn’t seem to be a message, it is astonishingly easy for readers to read their own meanings into even the most mundane of materials.

Another potential issue is the psychology behind objections to fiction with a purpose. I have to wonder how many readers object to “preachy” works when they agree with the preaching. While I’m sure that some critics honestly object to overly didactic works, for most readers, I think, its more likely that they just don’t like the message. Sure some authors do try the readers patience by their lecturing–but many more have created fine works in which they manage to communicate a message while still entertaining.

Despite my feeling that this issue doesn’t require much of an answer, I do think it informs the current situation in the Mormon market. The impression I have is that most of the mainstream fiction in the Mormon market is written primarily for entertainment and most purchasers in today’s market (Mormon or not), are looking primarily for entertainment. Given this orientation, I think that many of the restrictions on “appropriate” literature make sense–if your only purpose is to entertain, why allow anything that might offend your reader?

According to the Wikipedia article on Podkayne of Mars this was also an issue between Heinlein and his publisher, who wanted Heinlein to continue writing books for a juvenile audience. Given that the book reads easily and appropriately for a juvenile audience, I assume that the objection was to the adult-oriented “purpose.”

From my experience, I don’t think that Heinlein’s publishers needed to worry too much about it.


[1] Thomas Hughes’ novel Tom Brown’s School Days was published in 1857 by Macmillan. The 6th edition was published in 1878, and Hughes died in 1896. According to Wikipedia, the novel has been made into films 3 times (1916, 1940 and 1951) and has even been made into a play, performed among other places at BYU in 1970. Hughes wrote two other novels, The Scouring of The White Horse (1859) and Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), as well as a dozen works of non-fiction. Wikipedia also indicates that the book helped spread the sport of Rugby throughout the British commonwealth.

[2] Frances Marion Crawford was a prolific author who published 47 novels in just 28 years, along with a handful of plays and several non-fiction works. He was born in Italy to American parents in 1854, and died there in 1909, although he lived in Boston for a few years and visited the U.S. on occasion. His book Corleone (1897) is the first major treatment of the mafia in literature, although it isn’t one of his best works. He is remembered today both in Italy and through the academic F. Marion Crawford Memorial Society, founded in 1975. The quotation Anderson gives comes from his book The novel: what it is (1893), p. 108.

[3] It is likely not possible to sort out which of these two authors has had more impact or been more successful. I don’t think history has made Anderson’s claim any more obvious. Works by both authors are available in print. Scholars pay a bit more attention to Crawford’s work, but it doesn’t appear that any films of his work have been made.

4 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Nephi Anderson on Purpose in Fiction”

  1. F. Marion Crawford seems just as preachy preaching against preaching as did Thomas Hughes preaching to preach.


  2. Two points, both of which I think are hinted at in Anderson’s comments and represent a more nuanced position than either Hughes or Crawford:
    – The difference between works written to accomplish an extraliterary purpose and values that arise out of stories naturally told.
    – The notion that imitation of reality can serve both artistic and extraliterary purposes, if you believe that reality includes or reveals an ethical/moral dimension

    Part of what’s interesting about what I’d consider more serious literature (in any genre) is that it engages in some way with deeper issues in life, such as dealing with grief, choosing a moral compass, or learning to know oneself. That can happen in literature that hasn’t been written to serve an explicit purpose, but possibly not in literature that exists wholly to entertain.

  3. I couldn’t find the actual preface from the 2010 Best American Short Stories, but this link provides a fine abridgment. I think it addresses the subject of your post very well.

    I just read Space Cadet, my first crack at a Heinlein novel; published in the 1940s. Written for boys, and a fantastic ride, but it seemed clear H. didn’t much appreciate women . . .

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