When 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.
In fact, the future of LDS fiction will probably be closely linked with Home Literature, for the LDS writer and the LDS reader share an abiding faith and hope in eternal principle, in the possibility of billions of happy endings. Thus we will have more faith-promoting fiction. And we probably will have still more fiction dealing with LDS history and with characters in the Book of Mormon and the Bible. But, above all, we will have more fiction about Latter-day Saints endowed with real, human problems, problems which can be overcome as well as problems which can defeat and destroy. The effect of the gospel in the lives of such characters afford great fictional possibilities.
But the message of Mormon fiction, while inevitably moral, as is most fiction, need not be painfully blatant. Many of the sweetest messages of life are subtle, and the important messages of truth which LDS fiction will be charged to carry can be aimed at readers schooled in reading well-crafted fiction, at readers who rejoice in the elevating message as subtly suggested through skillful character development, dialogue, setting, symbolism, metaphor, and language. Well-written literature challenges the reader to read to understand–not simply to dismiss–to prove the message, dark or light, and to ponder the implications of his or her new insights. Good fiction thus calls for good readers.
At the heart of such literature will lie the examination, in fiction, of the quest for faith, of the tension inherent in being in the world yet not of the world. It is not a new dilemma, of course. But, daily, the dilemma is renewed in the lives of all faithful men and women, and thus the old tensions continue to provide a springboard to significant new moral fiction. As a creative religion, the restored gospel will teach writers–and readers–to find new and fresh and inspiring yet technically sophisticated ways to create a fiction which will measure up to the great dilemmas of human experience and to the grand message of the Restoration.
Good fiction calls for good readers. Mormon fiction…need not be painfully blatant. The dilemma is daily renewed.
Orson F. Whitney concludes his Home Literature sermon by invoking the blessings that literature has provided to mankind and urging his audience to create literature, not because it is how they should earn a living, but because that literature is needed. This week’s excerpt comes from the final portion of his sermon.
While some may take issue with Whitney’s description (below) of the benefits of literature and the press to mankind, in an overall sense–i.e., compared to NOT having literature or the press–he is clearly correct. our civilization, if we could then call it such, would be immensely poorer without literature.
One sermon given by Orson F. Whitney is cited more than any other when we talk about Mormon literature. The sermon was given on June 3rd, 1888 in the Salt Lake Tabernacle during the morning session of the second day of the YMMIA General Annual Conference. Widely considered the impetus for the ‘Home Literature’ movement, it is perhaps best known for the prediction that Whitney, then a Bishop in Salt Lake City, made that Mormonism would “yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.”
If you have studied anything about Mormon literature, I’m sure you have heard of this sermon. Have you read it?
Wm explains how the belated-ness of the home literature movement and the disruption of the middlebrow strivings led to weak Mormon cultural identity.
In the April 2012 issue of Commentary, Fred Siegel writes about How Highbrows Killed Culture. It’s your rather standard conservative curmudgeon fretting over culture. I don’t agree with much of it. And I have no nostalgia for the 1950s.
Even so, I think Siegel says something interesting here:
“By 1970 the aim of camp to “dethrone the serious” had all but succeeded. The last remnants of bourgeois morality having largely melted away as part of the national culture, there was little to make even mock cultural rebellion meaningful. The “serious” was replaced by a cheerful mindlessness, and the cultural striving of middlebrow culture came to a quiet end. Why should the well-meaning middle American labor to read a complex novel by an intellectual or try to work his way through a Great Book if the cultural poohbahs first mocked his efforts and then said they were pointless anyway because what mattered was living “life as theater”? Today, if there were a T.S. Eliot, Time Magazine would no more put him on the cover than it would sing the praises of George W. Bush. Time’s literary critic writes children’s fantasy novels and chose a science-fiction book about elves as one of the crowning cultural achievements of 2011. Since the highbrow have been given permission to view the “frivolous as the serious,” why shouldn’t everybody else?”
Let’s ignore for a moment the silly swipe against genre fiction and focus more on the fact that he’s correct in that to a certain extent the highbrow embrace of the lowbrow combined with increasing consumerization of culture led to a shift in the cultural aspirations and consumption habits of the middle class. Assuming this is true (and I think it’s only partially true — in part because the rebellion of the 1960s also led to an opening up of access to higher education which still imparted a certain middlebrow, cultural seriousness to many of its graduates) then I think that it explains something about Mormon culture. Continue reading “The serious dethroned; the middlebrow ceasing to strive”
With the advent of the home literature movement in the end of the 19th century, Mormon culture began to produce novels for the first time. For decades church leaders had taught from the pulpit that church members should avoid reading novels because they weren’t “true,” and one speech at a late 1880s YMMIA event by a Salt Lake City-area bishop (although admittedly an influential one–Orson F. Whitney) wasn’t going to change the perception of many church members. The message that reading some novels was acceptable would need to be explained and repeated.
It is, perhaps, one thing to specify what books and other media should be consumed, and quite another to make that material available. While many commentators today will suggest that the bulk of what Mormons have produced is not worth reading (yes, I am referring, among other things, to Jettboy’s post of last week), I think that the Mormon track record, at least in the early days, isn’t bad. For better or for worse, the Mormons of the late 1800s didn’t just complain that outside literature was bad, they began a “home literature” movement meant to provide a good alternative.
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.
As Motley Vision‘s newest Official Contributor, I feel an obligation to have my first post explain something of my experience within and attitude towards the Mormon arts.
Several months ago, I plotted out a post called “Hero’s Journey of the Mormon Artist” which I had intended to submit to William. I’m glad I never finished it however as further reflection has suggested to me that I was implying that that my proposed version of the hero’s journey was a necessary part of being a good Mormon artist. As if being an Orson Scott Card or a Dean Hughes is more admirable than being a Heather Moore or an Anita Stansfield (no sexism intended). And so I continued refining the idea and now I feel that it is not Mormon artists who are on a hero’s journey, but the Mormon arts entire. I will not be going into all seventeen stages of the monomyth, but I will deal with the three major groupings and hit on the secondary levels when they seem helpful.
In November 2005, I discovered, in a review of the Wikipedia article on Mormon Fiction, that the authors of the article thought Mormon Fiction essentially didn’t exist before 1979. Since I knew this wasn’t true, I corrected the article, and many others have added their own corrections and improvements. (I drew my information principally from Eugene England‘s Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects, lest someone thinks I’m some kind of expert on the field.)
But last week I finished reading William’s graduate school paper (available in his July 31st post, Slowly Flowering: My grad school paper on Mormon literature), and I realized that I’m uncomfortable with the way that England has presented this history. I’m not sure it tells the whole story. And I’m not even completely sure that most literary histories tell the whole story.