Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #77: Orson F. Whitney on poetry and religion

Orson F. WhitneyWhile I’m a little embarrassed that it has taken me 3 months to get back to this series, I’m pleased to pick it up again and hope that it is warmly received. I’ve also updated my list of these posts and discovered that I’ve already produced 77 (including the present number) and, more importantly, have enough material to continue for quite a while.

Nor have I quite finished with the writ and wisdom of Whitney. In the preface to his 1889 poetry collection, Poetical Writings, he recognizes the aversion of some readers to religious poetry, apparently because critics found so much of it of low quality. Whitney, of course, disagreed: Continue reading “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #77: Orson F. Whitney on poetry and religion”

Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Nephi Anderson on the immoral in drama

Nephi-AndersonWhen we hear principles taught from the pulpit, they sometimes seem remote, disconnected from reality. So speakers often add stories, sometimes fictional, to their sermons, so that we can put the principle in context. The stories produced during the Home Literature movement are often in that vein, what are sometimes called “didactic” stories, with a clear moral teaching the principle that the author wants to communicate.

In this series I’ve presented excerpts from many sermons and essays that demonstrate what Mormons have thought and discussed about literature. Today’s text is a little different, because it is an excerpt from a short story. But, it still fits, because in this story Nephi Anderson, dean of the Home Literature movement, preaches about literature–specifically what kinds of drama should be presented.

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Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: the Relief Society Magazine on kinds of truth

Just what is true in literature and what meaning we can find in it are perennial subjects for prophets as well as literary pontificates. Yet often both of these are treated as unitary–a work of literature is either true or its not, and has just one meaning. Of course literary critics have long seen that works of literature can be true in different ways and have multiple meanings. But somehow this fact is lost in the debate when we put things in a religious sphere.

Except when it comes to scripture. By the early twentieth century some Mormons not only thought that scripture was true in multiple ways and had multiple meanings, they also taught these ideas in the published Relief Society lessons about the Bible, such as the extract from a lesson found below. Oddly enough, I’m not sure that most Church members today see this point, at least not from the scripture lessons I attend each week.

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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.

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Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Preface to Pratt’s Mormon Reader

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Perhaps the most basic claim in the study of Mormon Literature is that Mormon Literature is a separate literature at all–that it is significantly different from everything else in its literary environment–and, if it is different, when and how it became different. At the start of the Home Literature movement in 1886, Orson F. Whitney argued that the Mormon people needed and deserved a literature of their own, and sparked the creation of such a literature (although, I suppose it might be argued that what resulted was not significantly different from other American literature of the period). But Whitney was not the first to see a separate Mormon literature. I recently discovered a document that shows Parley P. Pratt not only believed such a literature already existed, but planned to anthologize it.

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Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Standards and Authorial Integrity

An author’s integrity, in the Mormon context, might be defined in terms of how well the author stays true to the Mormon beliefs that the author claims. This definition is perhaps the assumption behind those who criticize Mormon authors for including profanity, sex and other violations of Mormon beliefs in their work. In contrast, many authors believe that integrity refers to writing in a manner that is true to life, instead of what might be more successful commercially. Of course, since these two definitions of authorial integrity are different, at times they conflict.

While initially I would have assumed that the latter view was recent among Mormon authors, the following excerpt shows that the view that authors should be independent of commercial considerations and should write what is true to life is much older than I assumed.

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Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Susa Young Gates on Reading What Is Important

SusaYoungGatesIn this series I’ve observed before that the 19th century attitude of Mormon leaders to reading, favoring non-fiction over fiction, had to do with where truth could be found. Fiction was inherently untrue, and therefore it should not be read. But there is more to it than that. Leaders, especially women leaders, believe that Church members, especially the youth, should concentrate on those things that would make them better people and help them contribute more to society.

In today’s reading the editor of the Young Woman’s Journal takes this a bit farther:

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Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: James A. Langton on Library Funding

James A. LangtonI noticed this past week that my local library system, the New York Public Library, is again seeking donations and letters to city council members in order to address its budget woes. The move, of course, has everything to do with the time of the year, as the city works through its budget and, initially, cuts the library budget as part of the solution for the shortfall.

Given the habits of local governments, I imagine that your local public library is facing the same budget issues, or will fact those issues soon. And, unless your public library has a reputation of near that of my library, it is likely facing a much more difficult budget problem. Somehow the library seems like an easy place to make cuts. But the following excerpt helps explain why funding libraries is important.

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Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Relief Society lesson The Author at Work

RSMagCover-Jan1917Few Church members today remember that when the Relief Society was more independent, it had its own lessons, and one of the monthly lessons focused on literature and the arts. The text below is one of those lessons, from the January 1917.

In many ways this lesson is surprising, and not just for the fact that it was taught. I was surprised at how basic the lesson was, covering material that I think I was taught in High School, although I’m not sure that it sunk in very well. It is tempting, therefore, to think that one reason for dropping these lessons is that they were being taught in school. However, I’m not sure that in 1917 the school system was covering this material very well, and even today I think many Church members would benefit from repeating these lessons, even though they don’t have much to do with doctrine.

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Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Spencer W. Kimball on The Power of Books

SpencerWKimballAt this point, the sense I have is that Mormon attitudes towards literature and media stabilized by the middle of the 20th century, and hasn’t changed too much since then. LDS leaders generally praise classic works, especially those from at least 50 years before the discourse, while cautioning against the bad in media, especially the portrayal of sex, violence and profanity. And speakers often complain about the declining values in the media.

Perhaps the following excerpts from an article by Spencer W. Kimball and his wife Camilla will give a sense of what I mean. In most ways their comments could appear in a Church magazine today, except for the references to current technology.

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