In my mind, the counterpart to Orson F. Whitney in Mormonism’s Home Literature Period is Emmeline B. Wells. Both were prolific, both wrote poetry and criticism, and both were General Authorities. I don’t yet know if the comparison is very good, but it is there in my mind now.
In contrast to Whitney, Wells is a bit more practical. Instead of his theoretical musings, she looks, at least in this case, at the practical–what the work of writing is like for the author. And there, Wells finds that, like is all too common for outsiders of many fields, that the work, the drudgery of writing is not understood at all. Instead, friends often assume that the poet or the writer can just dash off a few lines whenever the mood strikes.
So, Wells tries to explain that writing can be drudgery. And, she adds that for women the problem is often worse, because husbands only see what is physically apparent in the household, and sometimes don’t even value the intellectual accomplishments that an author manages to eek out during a workday.
This was written in 1883. I wish I could say that things have changed at all.
Keeping a journal is perhaps one of the few areas where the advice given to the general membership of the Church and that given to aspiring writers is similar. Still today we occasionally hear the advice from the pulpit, usually in the context of how this will improve our spiritual lives. In contrast, writers have traditionally been given the advice to keep a journal in order to improve their writing and provide material for their creative lives.
Unfortunately, at least in terms of Church members, I suspect this has been one of the most ignored pieces of advice to come from Church leadership. Any historian of Mormonism will tell you that, even among Church leaders, diaries and journals are few and far between. And even when they exist, the events that we see as important now, were too often not seen as important in the diaries and journals of participants. Alas, I am, myself, guilty of this failure.
The more I read of Elder Orson F. Whitney, the more convinced I am that he was the most literary of our modern Apostles. A literary viewpoint influenced much of what he wrote about the gospel in a variety of settings. And his discussion of literary concepts and issues is not only frequent, but covers many of the major concepts that might be considered in a text covering the philosophy of literature.
Today’s quotation is no exception. Here, in a defense of the Pearl of Great Price, he covers two significant issues in literary criticism. First, he weighs in on how to judge literary work, coming up with an answer that is probably not acceptable to most literary theorists today. Second, he emphasizes the individuality of each author’s style (and, perhaps by extension, the necessity of that individuality).
Given how strict and narrow George Reynold’s views were in last week’s “sermon,” I thought I would provide a different view, from someone who is often assumed to be as strict as the views Reynolds expressed. Instead of urging members to concentrate on the scriptures and avoiding literature written by others, Brigham Young teaches in the text below not only that we should “study evil,” but also that the Lord knows all about Hell because he is aware of what is happening there.
My previous “Lit Crit Sermons” have been from sources that generally took a positive view of literature, seeing the role of the author or poet as an important and divinely inspired one. That view is, unfortunately, not universal among past General Authorities of the Church and those who wrote in LDS-oriented magazines. In fact, Church leaders often saw dangers in literature from the outside world and warned Church members against reading that literature. The Home Literature movement was the solution to the dangers that leaders saw.
This is, as far as I can tell, either the first or second published discussion of literature in a Mormon source (an earlier article discussed writing letters). As might be expected from a Mormon periodical in 1832, Phelps’ arguments are very focused on the Bible as an inspired document, and one that is clearly superior in all respects to anything that man might come up with on his own. While I’m not sure I buy this entirely (I think I’ve read poetry that is better poetry than that found in the bible), I do think that we don’t see the Bible as literature as much as we should. And, it is often sublime.
If we define literary criticism as any discussion of literature or its role, then LDS General Authorities have frequently been literary critics, from the beginning of Mormon publishing. Yesterday I came across the following description from Orson F. Whitney, buried, of all places, in his pamphlet/short book, The strength of the “Mormon” position.