Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Susa Young Gates on immorality in literature

SusaYoungGatesPerhaps one of the most discussed literary subjects among Mormons is morality in literature. We worry about profanity, violence, and nudity in media today, and sometimes also worry about the actions of characters and moral messages in what we consume.

These worries are not new, although more than 100 years ago profanity and nudity didn’t appear in plays and novels, so instead the worry was more about how the characters acted and what moral messages were in literature and amusements. And apparently this was true even if you didn’t seek the “sentimentality” so common in the literature and drama of the 1890s.

In the following excerpt, Susa Young Gates, editor of the Young Woman’s Journal, tries to dissuade the youth of the Church from plays and literature with characters behaving immorally. But, it turns out she is no fan of what she calls “sentimentality,” and, in fact, sees the potential for evil in it.

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Editor’s Department

By Susa Young Gates

It is so customary with editor to offer something in the way of Christian greetings, that I feel myself obliged to fall into the general way and say to you all a merry Christmas. Now, if I had a desire to make you read something which when you had finished, would cause you to exclaim, “what a fine writer she is,” I should at once plunge into a glowing mass of expressions which would be beautiful in sound and sentiment, but which would not help you to think better thoughts or live better lives. I do not care to do that for I would rather hear you say, as some of you do, “what you write, dear editor, goes right to my heart, for it is my own sentiments clothed in tangible words,” than to have you tell me I was the the most flowery writer in Utah. Flowers are beautiful, but just now, you and I, dear sister, are in need of bread, everlasting, eternal bread of life. There are so many things that we need cultivated more than mere sentiment that I felt the burden on my shoulders very heavy indeed. It is said that we need sentiment to brighten our lives. So we do, but the kind we get now-a-days has a vicious tendency and leads our thoughts to frivolity and vice more than to truth and nobility. I am led to this train of thought this morning because of a play which I witnessed the other evening. It is not only this play but others of the same kind which make me feel that the whole American nation are in grave danger of losing the wholesome estimates of right and wrong once held so dear by Puritan parents. This play I speak of had for its heroine a woman of bad morals and her life was portrayed in such colors that she was made beautiful and envied, while the good women of the play were made cold, hard, and unfeeling which made the audience hate virtue because of the cleverness with which virtue was clothed and love vice because of its beautiful adjuncts. I have never thought so much and so seriously of the influence upon our children caused by witnessing plays and reading books of an objectional character as I have in the last six months. While conversing with Pres. Cannon one day upon this theme, he said that the reading of trashy novels in his young days caused him a great deal of after sorrow and trouble.  He said he believed it was and would be the ruination of many of our youths. I could scarcely see it at the time, but I see it more and more forcibly all the time. Oh that our writers would ask and receive the gift to portray to our young people the fact that virtue is lovely, vice is hideous! Now, says one, this play you speak of showed that the woman who was so wicked killed herself in the end. To be sure it did, and the killing was done so romantically and so dramatically, that I venture to say the witnessing of it will cause more than one lost girl to throw her life away when she has begun to taste the ashes in the dead sea fruit. I know of one of our sweet, lovely girls who ran away to a house of ill fame and after two or three years of wretched life, she chose the “romantic” way of dying and took poison to end her misery. I feel as if I could arise and shout in the ears of our mothers, for the love of heaven and for the salvation of your own souls, keep your daughters away from such plays and burn the books which have such a tendency in them. Well, says one, I never read a novel unless it has a good ending. What a protection against immorality is that? None at all. I think it may be a good plan to publish at some future time the list of novels which can be read with safety by our girls. There are a number, a vast number of novels written by good and true men and women which will elevate everyone who reads them. But there are so many thousands of them which give a false view of life and its lessons that it would be safer to follow Pres. Cannon’s suggestion and read none at all. And as for plays they are ten times more demoralizing thanare books. A play has all the dress and gilt and pomp and fashion, with the whole sensuous attendants of the brilliantly-lighted, and music-filled house to aid in the fascination with which we see vice portrayed. It is something astonishing to hear pure women rave over Camille and Lena Despard and cry over their woes, while they hate and revile the good and pure characters portrayed in the plays. Men take the purest and strongest of the human passions, love, and with that drop of beauty to enthrall the listener they will so pollute the stream of human actions that the audience are bewitched with the siren song of love and despair, and are withal so blinded by the false sentiment which pervades the play, that there they sit and hear and see things that if said and seen in real life would horrify and disgust them. Fancy a young man taking his sweetheart to see and talk with a woman of loose character. He would be insulted at such a suggestion. And yet, he takes her to the theatre while this woman represents just such a character and with so much vividness that she is a very serpent of charm and danger. Ah well, will the Saints ever learn that truth and purity are beautiful and vice and wickedness are horrible and despicable? Let our story writers and our play writers show vice and immorality to be what they are, soul-sickening and repugnant to the good and pure. Let them clothe virtue in strong and beautiful folds of character and peace, portraying the fact that virtue is never wretched but sometimes sorrowful, and let vice be shown to be what it is, never happy but sometimes wildly uproarious in its mirth and frivolity, and they will teach greater lessons to the young than by a thousand prosy sermons. We have tried to teach these same lessons in the pages of this book. The stories here written have all had a foundation in fact, and have conveyed the lessons of life in pleasant and truthful colors. We are going to continue this good work and we invite all to read and enjoy the stories written with so much love and care by the corps of contributors to the JOURNAL. In this connection I wish to ask you to note what a fine Christmas stocking I have herewith presented to you all. Is not the portrait in the front of the JOURNAL a lovely present, the picture of our “child-poet” and pioneer woman journalist Sister Lula Greene Richards? You can do with yours as I shall do with mine, take it out and frame it. It will make a pretty ornament of our rooms and will keep our “Lula” always in mind. For substantial gifts read the Historical Sketch and Lu Dalton’s advice to Parents. Then for sweeties read the beautiful poetry by Mrs. Greenhalgh. Is not the incident a pretty one, and the rendering fine? All of the contents for this number, are extra good, and I know you will enjoy them. We have decided to discontinue for a time the publishing of portraits of the Y. L. M. I. A. offers, and to give you a few pictures of those among us who have done good work in other directions.

 

The Young Woman’s Journal, v3 n3
December 1891, pp. 138-140

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I was attracted to this editorial by the initial statements about sentiment, especially:

It is said that we need sentiment to brighten our lives. So we do, but the kind we get now-a-days has a vicious tendency and leads our thoughts to frivolity and vice more than to truth and nobility.

I have to agree with this. Today we call those who over-sentimentalize their lives “drama queens,” and usually the results are at least wasted time, if not bad feelings and perhaps even violence. Many readers love works that help them feel what the characters in the story feel, works that let them get caught up in the protagonists’ emotions. And many writers try to foster these feelings in their writing–after all, we want to have an effect on our readers. Still, there is a limit. Sentimentality should be balanced with rationality.

Gates is deliberately vague about what play she saw that led her to this essay. Browsing through the Deseret News of October and November 1891, I did find one possibility, French playwright Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca (there may be others; I wasn’t exhaustive and couldn’t find plot summaries for all the plays performed at that time), which was presented in October. La Tosca was the basis for the now widely performed opera Tosca, and there is little doubt that the heroine, Floria Tosca, makes moral choices that no one would want their daughter to make. When the play opens she is sleeping with her lover, and by the end she is unrepentant despite killing a man and only commits suicide because her lover has been executed. Hardly the example to follow.

Assuming that Gates is talking about La Tosca (I assume some readers are familiar with the opera, and that the opera has a similar plot, so the opera can be substituted here), can we say that it is a moral work? Is Gates right that we can not overlook the moral message in the play? Or is the play a negative example?

Of course there are many other popular works, novels, plays, films, etc., with the same kinds of moral messages. I’m not sure that we can or should simply reject them, any more than I would suggest that we can reject films today simply because they contain profanity.

I hope that our moral learning from literature and entertainment is more complicated than this. But I also recognize that, when we use more complicated formulas to judge the moral value of novels, plays, films, etc., we allow ourselves the moral wiggle room to justify morally ambiguous viewing, and in the process, the resulting behavior. I don’t think these decisions are easy.

In any case, Gates’ views are an 1891 version of the argument that Mormons will continue to have for as long as we consume works of literature and entertainment.

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