What Would Make a Mormon Theory of Literature Different?

I’ve been listening to course lectures from a Theory of Literature course by Paul Fry of Yale University available through Apple’s iTunesU. If nothing else I hope that by carefully working through these lectures I can work through my inadequacy in discussing some aspects of literature. But I also hope that the course will help me organize what I’ve found in my “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon” series.

The course is fascinating and entertaining (at least to me)–I wish I had somehow managed to cover this material years ago. It has led me to ponder a bit about where Mormons are in terms of literary theory. We’ve explored the ideas of Mormon criticism and Mormon theory of literature here on AMV a little, but I’m not sure that, outside of the idea of Wm’s “radical middle,” we’ve come up with anything particularly unusual–although we’ve certainly argued, as Mormons tend to do, about the details of things like the role of evil in literature and the presence or absence of sex, profanity and violence in literature. We certainly haven’t outlined any theory of literature or even discussed what structure such a theory would need. I’m not even sure yet if anyone has talked much about literary theory from a Mormon viewpoint[1. I haven’t done a literature search yet. Has any Mormon author explored anything along these lines anywhere? (other than as a short side piece or introduction in another work?). I’d love to know what BYU Studies or Dialogue or AML articles to read.].

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Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #81: Orson F. Whitney on the Essence of Poetry

OFWhitneyTo a large extent, theory is definition. A theory of literature is therefore definition of its many elements and how they work together to allow the creation of literature. And as far as I can tell, before Orson F. Whitney, few Mormons attempted anything near a theory of literature. A few definitions of elements of literature appeared here and there, but no one covered as many elements of literature as Whitney.

In the following extract, also from the 5-part article he published in 1926, Whitney discusses poetry, and after rejecting  a common definition, he provides his own:

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Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #80: Orson F. Whitney on Poetry and Oratory

OFWhitneyWhen Mormon Literature folk think of Orson F. Whitney, it is usually in regard to his 1886 talk that predicted that Mormonism would yet have “Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” But in 1926, after two decades as an Apostle, Whitney was still writing about literature and the role it would play in Mormonism. That year Whitney penned a five-part article for the Improvement Era in which he explored the question of literature and Mormonism, and in doing so came closer than any previous author to a Mormon theory of literature.

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Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Truth Speaks for Itself – Orson F. Whitney

Orson F. WhitneyThe 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).

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The warping effect of the resistance to theory

I can’t claim to understand all of what I have read thus far in the Paul de Man essay collection The Resistance to Theory (“Hypogram and Inscription” is particularly obtuse to me). Nor do I have a strong enough background in philosophy and literary theory to properly contextualize or situate his arguments. But in the grand Mormon tradition of prooftexting, I’m going to lift a passage from the title essay because I think it explains a lot about literary criticism in general and Mormon literary criticism, in particular. Ostensibly, the essay was supposed to address the teaching of literature and especially of theory and especially in relation to the theoretical turn that literary studies took in the 1970s (and even more in the 1980s), but de Man broadens the scope to take a look at why there has been so much resistance to theory. It is a defense of sorts, and he points out that much of the resistance to it is “based on crude misunderstandings,” and yet it’s not fully a defense of the excesses of theory. He writes:

It may well be, however, that the development of literary theory is itself overdetermined by complications inherent in its very project and unsettling with regard to its status as a scientific discipline. Resistance may be a built-in constituent of its discourse, in a manner that would be inconceivable in the natural sciences and unmentionable in the social sciences. It may well be, in other words, that the polemical opposition, the systemic non-understanding and misrepresentation, the unsubstantial but eternally recurrent objections, are the displaced symptoms of a resistance inherent in the theoretical enterprise itself. To claim that this would be sufficient reason not to envisage doing literary theory would be like rejecting anatomy because it has failed to cure mortality. The real debate of literary theory is not with its polemical opponents but rather with its methodological assumptions and possibilities. Rather than asking why literary theory is threatening, we should perhaps ask why it has such difficulty going about its business and why it lapses so readily either into the language of self-justification and self-defense or else into the overcompensation of a programmatically euphoric utopianism. (13)

I wonder if one of the major tensions in the Mormon literary world, even when the theory being done isn’t on an academic level, but rather consists of readerly or writerly reactions to the issues of the field (including that pesky Shakespeares and Miltons quote), is that we get hung up on self-justification or overcompensation, and, yes, programmatic utopias. We seem to expend quite a bit of energy slipping around in the mires of what the boundaries are, of what the futures are, of what the major figures are and what they mean, of what “should be done.” These are natural debates to involve ourselves in and seem to be especially endemic to minority /minor literatures and, as de Man explains, are simply inherent to the field.

Or to put it another way: it’s hard to define and evaluate Mormon literature because it’s, well, literature.

But just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean that it’s invalid (in both senses of the word). And perhaps we need to be about our business more and worry less about the justifications and the overcompensations.