What does it cost to develop a writer? Do readers bear part of that cost? If readers refuse to read anything but the best works, will authors still be able to develop? And what is the role of criticism for a developing author? While these questions are perhaps more about education than strict criticism, when they have such a large potential impact on the quality of literature its hard to see how literary criticism can ignore them entirely.
And Emmeline B. Wells did weigh in on this issue, chiefly in response to a series of complaints about there being too many books, and too few books that are worthy of careful reading. We hear these complaints today, but these complaints ignore Wells’ question in response: how do authors develop if only works of literary genius are read?
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.
I’ve been at my parents house in Texas all week. They have a worn, original edition of Emmeline B. Wells’ Memories and Musings so I thought that it’d be nice to wrap up this run of Weekend Poetry (it will be back at some point — but next week I’m starting up Short Story Friday, again) with one of her poems. Wells was a key figure in the Home Literature movement, and her poetry reflects its neo-Romanticism and concern with showing Mormonism as capable of producing, if not literary genius, at the very least a certain refined, literary respectability. What I found interesting about perusing Memories and Musings is how much of the poetry is written for family and friends and special occassions. Not at all unusual for the times, of course, but it reflects a writer very much enmeshed in a community, responding to it, defending it, seeking to explain it — and especially doing so in dialogue with the Romantic poets and the tropes and figures and allusions they relied on.
I can’t say that any of her work immedietly impressed me with its skill and candor. It comes across as pretty old-fashioned and fairly provincial to my modern eyes. But I can also say that I didn’t spend the time with it that it deserves. I think that there’s much to be learned from her work. Here’s a taste of why I think that is so:
I see adown the shadows of long years,
The faint, dim outlines of a dreamy land,
And glit’ring thro’ the pearly mists of tears,
There seem reflected on that far-off strand,
The keenest hopes and joys my life has known,
And silent griefs which I had borne alone.
I dreamed not that the passion of an hour,
Could leave its ipress in the realm of space;
Or that an angel hand had skill and power,
The ideal picture of a love to trace,
And true to realistic thoughts and fears,
Preserve the record of the passing years.