Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Orson F. Whitney on Originality

Orson F. WhitneyImitation may be the most sincere form of flattery, but it may not have so many benefits to the flatterer. Its hard to see how an artist imitating another can rise above the original, or even equal the original, but still many works of art simply imitate earlier works, applying the style or ideas behind the original to a similar situation, and it seems like entire genres of art are built on formulas. How many Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books did you read before you knew what was going to happen just by reading the title? How many episodes of Law and Order did you watch before you expected the arrest of a suspect at 20 minutes (including the commercials) after the hour?

In the following Orson F. Whitney takes a dim view of imitation, calling it plagiarism. But I’m not so sure. While I can see his point, think the truth is much more complicated, if for no other reason than the fact that it is very hard to draw a line between imitation and originality–I think every work is both original and imitative to some degree.

Whitney wrote this essay several years before his 1888 “Home Literature” talk, in which he suggested that Mormon Literature needed to be original. When I discussed that talk, I suggested that he might have meant that a gospel literature would of necessity be original. While this essay provides some insight into his “Home Literature” comments, I’m not sure that either provides that clear a definition of what he means by “originality.” Whitney’s own work was not exactly original in form or style as far as I can see, and what originality there was in the Home Literature movement that Whitney inspired was more in the subjects of the works produced than in anything else.

But, much of what Whitney says rings very true, and was, I think, followed, insofar as authors did not actively seek to imitate others:



By Orson F. Whitney

ORIGINALITY is the pathway to greatness. The neglect of that important truth has probably caused more failures than any other error in the catalogue of human frailties. We may scan every profession, every calling, in public or in private life, and we will find that false pretension lies at the bottom of nearly all the disappointments, blighted hopes and ruined careers of earthly existence. The lesson is repeatedly and emphatically taught that to be successful in life, respected in society, and to attain eminence among the good and great, a man must be himself, sincere, earnest and upright, meaning what he says and doing what he means, as far as lies in his power. Whoever would win the confidence of his fellows, must first win his own; a thing never yet done but by honesty and integrity of purpose. The man who distrusts himself will invariably incite that distrust in others; but he who has faith in himself will inevitably gain the reliance of those around him. Being true to self simply means being original, copying no man’s character or disposition, living the life marked out by the finger of God, and governing one’s being by the law which was intended to govern it, neither measuring other lives by an individual standard, nor permitting one’s own life to be measured by the standards of others.

But the question arises, is it not proper to imitate a good example, to select a prototype, and endeavor to attain a similar excellence? To this we may answer: Imitation should never be confounded with emulation. It is certainly right to emulate, to strive honorably to equal, in goodness or in greatness, a character worthy to be respected and admired. But there is an original way of doing this, in which imitation, which is simply counterfeiting, has nothing to do whatever. For even in imitation there must be originality. The player, whose very profession is to imitate, if he does not possess originality will never become eminent. The paradox is one of easy illustration. Actors, while acting the lives of others, must also act out themselves. They must use their own characters as mirrors to reflect the characters they assume, if they would have the reflection properly cast upon the intelligent appreciation. In other words, there is an imitation which even imitators must avoid, and that is the imitation of each other’s style of acting. No matter how excellent that style, or how popular, it will not do for any one but its originator to seek popularity in its practice. An actor ceases to be great, ceases to progress as he otherwise would, when he ceases to originate ideas and descends to appropriate the ideas of another. For in so doing he stifles the inherent germ of individuality, whose bud might ripen into a popularity of its own, in a weak and vain desire to graft a strange and uncongenial fruit into the tree of his being. Borrowed plumes seldom set well on anybody. It is rarely that a coat fits any one half so nicely as the one for whom it was made.

Some might argue that a lack of natural ability is sufficient to justify this practice of ideal counterfeiting, and that one who could not succeed by being original, would be excusable for copying the manner of a successful genius. To this it can be confidently asserted, that he who cannot succeed by being original could never succeed by becoming an imitator. If a person have no natural aptitude for the profession he has chosen, he would better forsake it at once, thereby doing himself and society a favor; for it is a thousand times better to be a good shoemaker than a poor actor. But, if he possess a spark of ability in any line, let him fan that spark until it kindles into its own humble flame of mediocrity, rather than by venturing too near the fire of genius, in an effort to steal a brand from the burning, become scorched and blackened for his foolhardy action. Genius will make its possessor great, if he allows it to do so, for genius is always original, always portrays itself, and never stoops to plagiarise, however popular the temptation. But an enviable distinction will never be gained by those who assume to hold what nature, in her wisdom, has withheld from their possession. The ass will be known by his braying, however closely he may wrap himself in the skin of the lion. Again, it is not always the genius that mounts highest on the ladder of reputation; for while it is the undoubted privilege of genius to do so, comparatively few ever exercise the prerogative. And many of these mount so fast they become giddy before half reaching the summit of possibility, and loosing their hold, fall and are dashed to pieces; while numerous are the examples on record of the enviable achievements of mediocrity, aided by a resolute endeavor to win the top of the ascent, or come as nigh to it as effort and ability would allow.

If the poor simpletons who turned down their collars and wrote in imitation of the great Byron, whose genius won the adulation of the world, had been satisfied to develop their talents in the way that nature intended, instead of attempting to climb Parnassus along the precipitous pathway made by genius, which, though beaten before them, was too long and steep for strength like theirs, they might have attained reputation as writers of poetry. But not content with an humbler place in the literary firmament than was occupied by the bright, particular star they so admired, they wandered along in a strange way, and finally were lost, and perished in its mazes, because they understood it not. The path of plagiarism is always a by and forbidden one, and invariably leads downward into the depths of oblivion.


The Contributor, v1 n7, April 1880


I do think that much of what Whitney claims here is overstated. I doubt that a lack of originality has “caused more failures than any other error in the catalogue of human frailties,” at least as I understand failure. Perhaps the most common imitation humans make is following in their parent’s footsteps–farming the same plot of land in the same way, for example–and if the family survives each generation, I don’t see the failure.

On the other hand I love the way Whitney makes many of his claims. “Imitation should never be confounded with emulation” is a maxim that deserves to be included in Bartletts, perhaps along with “Even in imitation there must be originality” and “It is a thousand times better to be a good shoemaker than a poor actor.”

Whitney also touches on the arts repeatedly in this essay, especially when he discusses acting: “Actors, while acting the lives of others, must also act out themselves.”¦” I have no idea if this is good advice for acting, but I do think Whitney’s counsel to poets to find their own style is wise and bears repeating:

If the poor simpletons who turned down their collars and wrote in imitation of the great Byron”¦ had been satisfied to develop their talents in the way that nature intended”¦ they might have attained reputation as writers of poetry.

I might add to Whitney’s statement the observation that views of many of the great literary figures of an age have changed over time, so imitating another writer has the risk of being ignored as the imitation of a style well out of vogue. Where we today still think highly of Byron, I don’t think Bulwer-Lytton is held in regard at all today; so where does that leave his imitators?

Whitney ends with a caution that I think might bear some thought:

It is not always the genius that mounts highest on the ladder of reputation; for while it is the undoubted privilege of genius to do so, comparatively few ever exercise the prerogative.

I’m not sure if Whitney means to suggest that genius has willingly failed to do so, but in any case I agree that it does happen. Genius is just not always recognized immediately, as the stories of artists and authors like Herman Melville, Sousandrade and (with a hat tip to the recent Oscar nominated film) Rodriguez demontrate.

5 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Orson F. Whitney on Originality”

  1. Whitney was a late-Romantic so, of course, for him original genius is a big deal.

    I find the imitation versus emulation distinction intriguing, but he doesn’t really do enough with it for me to figure out if that’s a useful distinction.

  2. Well, first there is the irony that the man decrying imitation is best remembered for “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.”

    But on a more serious note, it would help if Brother Orson would narrow things down a bit by what he means by originality. There are really only so many original plots (opinions can vary from three to thirty).

    I _think_ he means what we call today “voice,” an individual’s own identifying way of arranging words to paper.

    If so, then I agree with qualifications. First, if a writer writes enough, that individual voice is going to come out eventually anyway simply due to us all being individuals. Second, one of the best tools a writer has when learning their craft _is_ to imitate another writer’s voice and style to learn how words are patterned and storytelling is crafted–as long as such imitation used like a bicycle’s training wheels: just for the short period necessary to learn to wobble away on your own (albeit unsteady) two wheels.

    There are also certain forms (the pastiche for example) where the enjoyment for both reader and writer is the very overt, conscious imitating of voice (and plot).

    My main disagreement with Brother Orson in this particular Sunday sermon is the notion of genius or natural talent. Natural talent can lend to one’s art, but in the main most genius boils down to work and study and more work and the genius midwifed by 10,000 hours.

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