When I came across this text I laughed out loud at the anachronisms and decided I had to include it, even thought it is perhaps just a variation on the General Conference theme of caution over what we read. But then, as far as literary criticism goes, this is the subject most Mormons hear most about–so much so that today it seems to define the LDS market.
The author, George F. Richards, was a fixture in the Quorum of the Twelve for the first half of the 20th century. Called as an apostle on the same day in 1906 as Orson F. Whitney and David O. McKay, Richards was ordained first and eventually was the president of the Quorum on his death in 1950. The son of an Apostle (Franklin D. Richards) and the father of another (LeGrand Richards), he was also the only person to serve concurrently as an Apostle and as Patriarch to the Church (acting).
As far as I can tell, Richards wasn’t a particularly literary man. Aside from his conference talks, I haven’t found many published works by him–a couple of documents about the Temple (apparently written while he was president of the Salt Lake Temple) and a handful of articles in Church magazines. However, he did speak regularly in conference, essentially twice a year for more than 40 years. The following short excerpt comes from one of them:
Evil effects of reading pernicious literature
by George F. Richards
A danger which confronts the children of the Latter-day Saints, I am impressed, is that of reading dime novels and literature of that caliber. I read, from a Salt Lake daily paper, a few days ago, an account of a band of boys, ranging from fifteen to seventeen years, who had been misled in this way. When they were discovered, and the place of their rendezvous was disclosed, it was found that the interior of the place was lined with arms and furnished with a library of dime novels. It was learned, by confession of these young boys, that they had broken into stores and residences on numerous occasions, that they had stolen from their neighbors. One young boy admitted that they had contemplated robbing his mother, and when the question was asked, “What would you have done had she resisted?” the ready response was, “We would have killed her.” This, I take it, is largely the result of reading such literature as was found in the dugout which they frequented. We are told in proverbs, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” James Allen, treating this subject, tells us that “character is the entire sum of our thoughts.” I desire to read one or two of his sentiments along this line; he says:
“As the plant springs from and could not be without the seed, so every act of a man springs from the hidden seeds of thought, and could not have appeared without them. This applies equally to those acts called spontaneous and unpremeditated, as to those which are deliberately executed. Act is the blossom of thought, and joy and suffering are its fruits. Thus does a man garner in the sweet and bitter fruitage of his own husbandry. A noble and godlike character is not a thing of favor or chance, but is the natural result of continued effort in right thinking, the fruit of long cherished association with godlike thoughts.”
Conference Report, April 1910
The article Richards refers to is apparently an article in the Salt Lake Herald of 26 March 1910 titled “Murder Plot Told by Five Bad Boys” and the story it tells is basically what Richards describes. It is also not at all unusual for the time. The Deseret News of 24 August 1910 includes an article titled “Youthful Scamps” which reports on a “band” of teenage criminals in New York City known as the “Savage Scamps” who also had a bunch of dime novels in their loot when arrested. Looking over the New York Times archive, I found many more such stories, along with a lot of hand wringing about dime novels, stretching back at least to the 1880s. Most of these stories attribute influence toward crime to these works and often report that the criminals had dime novels in their possession.
The idea that criminals are avid readers of novels is what made me laugh–it didn’t exactly jive with my mental stereotype of what hardened violent criminals do all day. I can see it now, the gang roost adorned with makeshift bookshelves under a sign that reads “The Jets Gang Library. Members only!”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that novels, even dime novels, have no influence. Allen’s book, As a Man Thinketh (1902), is among the most successful early self-help books, preceding Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich by decades. In the book Allen argues that the way to mold your own character is by controlling what you allow to influence that character and influence the way you think, because, “as a man thinketh, so is he.”
Indeed, few authors really want their books to have no influence whatsoever, so it may be hard to argue against Allen’s views. What isn’t clear to me is the details of how this works. While it is all fine and good to argue against “pernicious” literature, what exactly that is can be difficult to say at times. In most dime novels, for example, the “good guys” win in the end.
What seems to make the difference, though, isn’t whether or not the “good guys” win in the end, but the amount, type, intensity, descriptiveness and attractiveness of the portrayals of evil in a work, especially when compared to what the audience has experienced before. Perhaps by this view Allen, and Elder Richards, would claim that reading, and especially obsessive reading, of most dime novels isn’t good. And with the caveat that most of us still maintain our free will–that all the arts can do is influence, not control–I guess I have to agree.
Today the preaching against “dime novels” in Mormon venues has largely been substituted with preaching against R rated films and violent music and video games. Like with “dime novels,” the preaching is generally in absolute terms–never read any “dime novel” or play any violent video game or see any R rated film. I don’t know if the absolute terms make sense to me, but I certainly can see how the overall influence of repeated exposures isn’t desirable. The problem is how to figure out when an individual is too close to too much.