One element often overlooked in literary history is the society at a given point in time and the relationships among participants in literature and the arts. Too often we reduce literary history to lists of books and descriptions of literary works, while giving short shrift to the relationships that may have influenced significant literature and the personalities of those who wrote literary works.
The other day when I read the following excerpt, I initially wanted to simply research the names listed, looking at what they wrote and making sure that their work hasn’t been forgotten. But I soon realized that I was also fascinated by the personalities of those mentioned and their relationships.
The 1930s is certainly not the distant past, but somehow I never thought of what literary society at BYU might have been like, nor what impression a teacher like Alfred Osmond (usually remembered today as a poet) might have been like. Here’s Samuel W. Taylor’s take, as well as his view of Mormon literary society at BYU in the 1930s:
from The Ordeal of Lowry Nelson and the Mis-spoken Word
by Samuel W. Taylor
There had been an easy rapport between Lowry Nelson and me–two gadflies–for some fifty years, ever since we both belonged to a literary group of faculty members and students at Brigham Young University. Lowry was then dean of the College of Applied Science, while I was a brash, know-it-all student who had began publishing in national magazines. Other faculty members of the group included M. Wilford Poulson, who was the entire psychology department. He was secretly accumulating his monumental library on early Mormonism. A. C. Lambert was also mining the same vein and secretly writing the untold story of LDS history and doctrine, a passion which lasted half a century. At this time we knew only that he was contributing to educational journals.
Both Lambert and Poulson got into serious trouble because of their research. When A. C.’s secret quest was discovered, I believe it cost him his position on the faculty. When Poulson published an article which established that the Word of Wisdom reflected popular public sentiment at the time Joseph Smith gave it as wise advice to the Saints, a local zealot tried to have him sacked at the university and tried for his membership for this heresy.
Other faculty members of the group included gentle Elsie C. Carroll, author and patron of the arts, who annually awarded a gold medal for the best Christmas story (and my search for the winner one year, Gay Dimick, ultimately resulted in marriage). Harrison R. Merrill, who later became editor of the Improvement Era, vied with Alfred Osmond for the title of “Poet Lariat,” each contributing voluminous doggerel rhymes as commentary on the cultural scene to the Provo Herald. And I wonder whatever happened to doggerel verse anyhow? In my opinion this was the best writing of both Merrill and Osmond. And it was the only type of acceptable humor published in Provo at that time.
Alfred Osmond was the only member of that family whom I knew personally. He taught creative writing, and I will attest that his histrionics in reading a manuscript in class was a dramatic exhibition surpassing any subsequent performance by Donny and Marie. One morning in class I watched, fascinated, as a fly wandered close to the mobile mouth while Alf performed, the insect gleaning the remains of Professor Osmond’s breakfast. And then–gulp–it vanished inside. “Swallowed a fly,” he wheezed. He inserted his hand halfway to the wrist into his mouth, then triumphantly brought it forth. “And here it is!”
Professor Osmond had scant admiration for my literary output, nor did I for his. His criticism was always the same: “Come to the point at once.” Atmosphere, characterization, dramatic progression, suspense, the narrative hook, the plants, the turnover at the climax–all this meant nothing to him. Of course I was writing for the national market, which he didn’t understand, and he for the captive internal press, where the vital element was the faith-promoting factor.
He tried, however, to break into the big time. He wrote a novel, Married Sweethearts, and had it published by a local printer. “I know it would make a great movie,” he said, “but I can’t get anybody in Hollywood to read it.” I admit that I tried to, and then I agreed with a student friend who said, “Nor anybody in Provo.”
Dialogue, v26 n3, Fall 1993, p. 92-93
Of course, we have to read this while realizing that this is just Taylor’s view of what that time was like and what the individuals named were like.
Still, it kind of makes me wish I were back there and had witnessed the interactions of this literary society. Its very different from today.
13 thoughts on “Alfred Osmond and Mormon Literary Society at BYU in the 1930s”
I don’t like it, but it’s good to be reminded from time to time that there really was an age in which paranoiacs ruled. And it’s great to say literature could come out even in such a climate.
I agree that relationships matter a lot. Shakespeare and Milton, after all, were part of some pretty serious literary communities. They didn’t arise hermetically.
(Incidentally, is Alfred related to Donnie and Marie?)
As far as the connection between Alfred and Donnie and Marie, I don’t know. I’ve often wondered, but I’ve never looked.
And, just so its clear what you mean, who are you thinking are the paranoiacs? BYU? Sam Taylor?
Where can we get a copy of the Married Sweethearts manuscript?
I just found my answer: http://search.lib.byu.edu/byu/id:byu533320
Dibs on writing the AMV post discussing Osmond’s preface to his collection of poetic works.
If this page is correct (and the date year corresponds with his BYU library listing), Alfred Osmond is Donny and Marie’s great uncle.
I personally want to know if Married Sweethearts WOULD make a good movie.
I’ll see if I can’t find out, Scott. I may be able to get a copy scanned for me.
It was published by the Deseret News Company in the late 20s. That was Anderson’s usual publisher. I’d be interested to see how how overtly Mormon “Married Sweethearts” is and how comparable it is to Anderson’s work.
By paranoiacs I meant those who think the institutional Church / BYU is out to get artists and intellectuals. I laughingly dismiss such claims but I can do so because of my moment in history.
Sometimes I wish there were more of a reason to be paranoid because that would mean Mormon literature was actually on the institutional radar…which I don’t think is the case.
But then again there was some actual reason to be paranoid in the 1990s, but all that really did was produce some mediocre novels that haven’t aged well.
But more than that, it’s a little depressing to realize how much of your artistic concerns are driven by the historical moment you inhabit.
I say what I say with a lot of affection, of course.
But I think the best Mormon novels of the long-1990s were those that were able to step away from the paranoia of the historical moment and speak to something deeper in Mormonism.
More recent works have been more successful at this, I think, probably because the current historical moment is more accommodating.