Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: George H. Brimhall’s Reading Course for 1912-13

aaaGeorgeBrimhall-1910sepiaOne thing that is very different in Mormonism today than it was 100 years ago is the MIA. We often think of it today as what the youth program replaced–the original program for teenagers. While that is true in a sense, in terms of what the Mutual Improvement Associations (there were originally two) covered, i.e., the scope of their program, today’s youth program is much simpler and limited. Originally the MIA was meant to improve all aspects of an individual’s life, not just the spiritual and religious aspects that our youth programs concentrate on today. And, MIA wasn’t originally meant just for youth. The program was meant to cover today’s young single adults, and perhaps some married ones too.

An example of the broad mission of the MIAs can be found in today’s article, which concerns the “reading course” set for the MIAs for the 1912-13 academic year. I like to imagine it as something like today’s book clubs, except more hierarchical instead of democratic. I suppose the reading course could have been responsible for sales of thousands of copies or more of the recommended books during the year.

Brimhall (1852-1932) is today best known as the president of BYU, and he had held that position for nearly a decade at the time this was written. Brimhall was himself a graduate of BYU (or Brigham Young Academy, as it was known when he studied there) who had gone straight into teaching, working as principal of  the Spanish Fork schools and then superintended of the Utah County school system until he was asked to become BYU’s president.

I’ve added footnotes to the text that give more information about the books mentioned.


The Reading Course, 1912-13

by Dr. George H. Brimhall

Dr. George H. Brimhall, chairman of the Library and Reading Course Committee, said of the present year’s reading course, at the June convention:

“It has been suggested that I refer to the Reading Course. I have been very much interested in that, because I know that if your child hasn’t any better place to play he will play in the mud on the street. I know if a man’s mind is not properly directed into good fields, it will get into bad fields. We have elected as our reading course, this year, six books.

Three of these books are educational, and should be studied. They are text books of a character requiring what we might call work–a little brain work. The first one of these is Where One-half of the World is Waking Up[1. Poe, Clarence Hamilton. Where half the world is waking up. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & company, 1911). Poe was the editor of The Progressive Farmer. The book consisted of letters he wrote to his own publication and several other business publications during his travels to Japan, Korea, Manchuria, China, the Philippines and India reporting on conditions in those countries and drawing on interviews with local authorities, study of authoritative publications and careful observation. Google Books version. Amazon version], which treats of conditions in China and the Orient, in order that we may become able to think and talk rationally about that country; and the next is Mexican Trails,[2. Kirkham, Stanton Davis. Mexican trails: a record of travel in Mexico, 1904-7″¦ (New York: G.P. Putnam’s sons, 1909). A description of the ‘uncommercialized’ regions of Mexico which includes geographic descriptions as well as archaeological information and local life and scenery. Google Books version. Amazon version] which treats of conditions in Mexico, so that a man may know something about Mexico, that the opinion he may express may have some little background. Then there is From River to Ocean,[3. Hebard, Grace Raymond. The pathbreakers from river to ocean: the story of the great West from the time of Coronado to the present. (Chicago: The Lakeside Press, 1911) Hebard was professor of political economy at the State University of Wyoming (now the University of Wyoming) and is considered one of the founding scholars of western history. This history of the colonization of the west was intended for 6th and 7th grade students in the region. Google Books version. Amazon version] another book which is good reading to me. I started on it, and I read it right through. My fourteen-year-old boy had read it, and he wasn’t more interested in it than I was. It treats of the sweep of civilization by the fur-man, by the miner, by the great educator, and the agriculturist, the great road-builders and desert-redeemers.

And then we have the others, restful books, the recreative, The Winning of Barbara Worth[4. Wright, Harold Bell. The Winning of Barbara Worth. (Chicago: Book Supply Company, 1911). Wright was a prolific, popular and financially successful writer who is said to have been the first American writer to sell 1 million copies of a book, and the first to earn $1 million writing. Between 1902 and 1942 he wrote 19 books, several plays and many magazine articles. His most controversial book, The Calling of Dan Mathews tells of a young preacher who resigns the ministry in order to retain his integrity–an idea likely to find favor among Mormons. A western, The Winning of Barbara Worth tells of the competition between an engineer building a water system and a cowboy for the hand of the female protagonist. The story was made into a silent film in 1926 starring Gary Cooper. Google Books version. Amazon version], a bit of fiction which is calculated to inspire a general desire to do things, and perhaps a special desire to win things out of mother earth, to redeem the earth. That book, I will say, has had six hundred thousand readers in its career. It is quite a new book, too. There are some things in it that we would rather were different, but we cannot get a book that is just what we want. Then we have the Piney Ridge Cottage[5. Anderson, Nephi. Piney Ridge Cottage. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1912). The Juvenile Instructor had completed its 21 part serial of Piney Ridge Cottage in March 1912. Google Books version. Amazon version.], written by Brother Nephi Anderson. That is a very instructive and inspiring love story of a country girl in Utah. Then we have Metta[6. Lambourne, Alfred. Metta: A Sierra Love Tale. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1912). Lambourne was, in 1912, at the height of his popularity. He was contributing both art and poetry to almost every issue of the Improvement Era that year and had shifted his focus to literature instead of painting. By the end of his life he had published a total of 14 books, many of them combinations of his visual art and his writing. Google Books version. Amazon version.], by Alfred Lambourne. This is a story that was printed in  a series of articles in the Contributor, years ago, good literature that a man would be better by reading. That constitutes our course this year.

Improvement Era, v15 n9, July 1912, pp. 858-859.


I just might add these books to my reading list for the coming year. Anyone with me?

But beyond the books, I found a couple of things that Brimhall says fascinating. First, I thought his comparison of where children play to which fields we read in entertaining. He said:

I know that if your child hasn’t any better place to play he will play in the mud on the street. I know if a man’s mind is not properly directed into good fields, it will get into bad fields.

I suppose it would be fairly easy to dispute this (if not outright mock it), after all the first thing that comes to my mind is that playing in the mud can be fun–making pottery could be seen that way, after all. Still, I do think that there are some types of books (e.g. pornography) that probably should be avoided, so I have to grant his point, even if his analogy doesn’t quite work for me.

Perhaps more important is his off-hand comment about The Winning of Barbara Worth:

There are some things in it that we would rather were different, but we cannot get a book that is just what we want.

I think there are reams of good sense in this. If you want the perfect book to fit the situation you have, I’m afraid the only way to obtain a book that is perfectly on topic is to write the book yourself. Short of this, you will have to compromise something–message, style, writing quality, or the presence of evil or other distasteful things.

And finally, I also wonder about the presence of Anderson and Lambourne’s works on this list. Not because I think that anything produced by a Mormon is necessarily inferior, but because the timing is very convenient. As I mentioned in the note to Piney Ridge Cottage, the serial version had just finished in March 1912, and at the June MIA conference it had already been selected for the next year’s course? Was the book even available in June? On the other hand, I think that today it might be nice in some cases to have support like that for Mormon literature.



6 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: George H. Brimhall’s Reading Course for 1912-13”

  1. Piney Ridge Cottage, I think, is one of Anderson’s better novels. It also contains the best subplot involving polygamy in all of Anderson’s published works. It’s Mormon melodrama at its best.

    In some ways, I also think PRC was an interesting choice for the MIA curriculum since it is one of Anderson’s least didactic works. It could be that it was selected because the main character–a young woman named Julia–has to decided between a member suitor and a non-member suitor. The text is very much about how a young person learns to make decisions based on spiritual promptings.

    But, aside from this, it is relatively complex–for Anderson and early Mormon fiction–in the way it handles characters and the choices they make. There’s real psychological depth to Julia and the three other major characters in the novel. Not to mention a stinging critique of industrialization and urban Mormons in turn-of-the-century Salt Lake City.

    I’d be interested to learn how MIA leaders at the time used the novel.

  2. An interesting side note:

    On January 1913, Nephi Anderson recorded in his journal that his royalties for Added Upon, The Castle Builder, and Piney Ridge Cottage totaled $197 in 1912.

    “Best yet,” he wrote.

    I imagine the record sales had to do with the MIA endorsement.

  3. Royalties can sometimes be tricky to judge when they were earned so long ago, as you no doubt know. Just based on inflation alone, that $197 is probably more like $4,000 today.

    Then again, if you look at the $197 as a percentage of the average annual salary ($750 a year), it looks more like the equivalent of $12,000 today.

    Not enough to live on, but a nice supplement to your other income.

  4. Having said that, it would be interesting to know what the royalty rates were on his sales. I suspect that they weren’t as generous as rates today, but I don’t really know.

  5. “I suspect that they weren’t as generous as rates today…”

    I suspect you’re probably right since Anderson decided to finance the publication of “A Daughter of the North” three years later in order to make more money from book sales.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know how that turned out. He’s silent in his journal about it.

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