Wm writes: Scott Hales — who most AMV readers will know from The Low-Tech World and Modern Mormon Men — spent some time earlier this year doing archival research on Mormon literature. Here’s a guest post by Scott that comes out of some of that research.
Is Nephi Anderson “Scriptus”?
by Scott Hales
In the Nephi Anderson Collection of the Church History Library is a folder that contains newspaper clippings that Nephi Anderson collected throughout his life. Most of these are of articles, letters to the editor, or poems he published in newspapers in Utah, a few eastern cities, and England. Many of them, like clippings about missionary work or anti-Mormon activity in England, are unremarkable because they represent the kind of thing you would expect Anderson to save. Others, like a few describing violent crimes (“Child Murder Near Southend—Head Broken with a Slater’s Hammer,” “Ex-Convict Found Drowned”), raise fascinating questions about why an author known for his sentimentality, “lovely spirit,” and the “gentleness and kindness in his being” would be drawn to such grisly stories. (I have my own theories about the dark imagination of Nephi Anderson, but I’ll save them for a later post.)
Also contained in this folder are clippings from an 1897 newspaper column called “Fly Leaves,” a kind of literary fact dump with the occasional sentence or two of cultural commentary. The author of the column is listed as “Scriptus,” an obvious pseudonym like those used so often at the time (B.H. Roberts, for example, was “Horatio;” Emmeline Wells was “Amethyst;” Susa Young Gates was “Homespun,” etc.)
Because so much of what Anderson collected in the folder was his own work, I immediately assumed that he was “Scriptus,” took a mental note of it, and moved on to other matters. Later, after I returned home from my research trip, I did a quick search for “Scriptus” in the Improvement Era and other journals and magazines from the time, but came up with nothing. Disappointed, I again moved on to other matters.
Fast forward a month: I am looking through Utah newspapers for evidence that connects Anderson’s Added Upon to Edward Bellamy’s best-selling utopian novel Looking Backward. For anyone who has read the two novels, the connection is a fairly obvious one—and many, many people, including Richard Cracroft and AMV’s Kent Larsen, have noted it. But, aside from a brief mention of Bellamy in his essay “Purpose in Fiction,” Anderson seems never to have written anything significant about Bellamy or Looking Backward in any of his journals or letters—not any that have survived, at least. So all I can do is try to show how the newspapers Anderson was known to have read—the Ogden Standard, the Deseret News—featured the occasional tidbit on Bellamy. Easy enough.
Then I find this interesting paragraph in the Deseret Evening News:
It is not often the author of such a book as Looking Backward lets nine years elapse between books. Edward Bellamy did not take advantage of the immense popularity of his former book to flood the market with works “by the author of Looking Backwards.” He was satisfied with the 400,000 copies sold; but meanwhile was not idle. He has issued another volume called Equality. This book is a continuance or sequel to the first, the same characters and scenes being used. The work deals with those high ideals of socialism which so charmed the reader in Looking Backward. Mr. Bellamy’s book came as a sort of revelation to the world. Yet over fifty years before the law of consecration was revealed to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the world has had ample opportunity to know about it. Mr. Bellamy’s man made scheme following somewhat the revealed law on the same subject, received the wonder and applause of the world: the heaven revealed order makes no stir, receives no attention. What a strange order of things! (8)
I check the date on this piece: 18 September 1897. The title: “Fly Leaves.” Author: “Scriptus.” It’s one of the pieces I found—but obviously did not read closely enough—in the clippings folder at the Church History Library.
I read the paragraph again, looking for evidence that connects Anderson to “Scriptus.” If Anderson is “Scriptus,” then this column provides concrete evidence that Anderson not only read Looking Backward, but also drew connections specifically between Bellamy’s utopian society and the law of consecration—which is what he seems to do anyway in Added Upon.
The second reading yields nothings, so I do another search for other “Fly Leaves” columns in the Deseret News archives and get a few hits. One column, dated 4 October 1897, begins with a notice of the death of the mother of Bjornistjerne Bjornson, a Norwegian author whom Anderson alludes to favorably in The Castle Builder (1902). Further down the column are other notices about literary figures Robert Louis Stevenson and Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose work Anderson knew very well (and also alludes to in The Castle Builder). Another column, dated 19 October 1897, discusses the translation of Ben Hur into Arabic, English novelist Jerome K. Jerome, and American writer Julian Hawthorne. The content of both columns seem consistent with Anderson’s interests—especially in Norwegian writers.
I go back to the 18 September “Fly Leaves” and find perhaps the best evidence that Anderson is “Scriptus.” There, at the bottom of the column, “Scriptus” recommends Amelia E. Barr’s short story “Prisoner of Conscious” as “fiction with a ‘purpose’”:
It is a powerful piece of fiction, and the evident purposes is to show the hideousness of the ‘old confessions of faith’ and religious teachings which have made hopeless prisoners of so many people […] After reading such a story the Latter-day Saint who does not send a grateful prayer to God for the restoration of the Gospel with all its life and light, must be dead to the principles of gratitude. (8)
What draws my attention here is the attention “Scriptus” pays to “purpose” in fiction, which is one of the ideas Anderson championed in his quest to make fiction—and the idea of fiction—“safe” for Latter-day Saints. My mind immediately moves ahead four months to Anderson’s essay “Purpose in Fiction,” which was published in the February 1898 issue of the Improvement Era. In this essay, Anderson argues that “[a] good story is artistic preaching. A novel which depicts high ideals and gives to us representations of men and women as they should and can be, exerts an influence for good that is not easily computed” (271). This sounds like “Scriptus” to me. Maybe it’s not conclusive…but the evidence seems strong.
So far I have been unable to find anything else by “Scriptus” aside from the three “Fly Leaves” columns in the Deseret News. I keep my eyes open, though. In the 1880s and 90s, Mormon fiction writers used pseudonyms as a way to shield their identity from a public that was suspicious of those who wrote imaginative literature—especially fiction. So maybe more is out there by “Scriptus”—maybe some of Anderson’s earlier attempts at fiction.
In some ways, though, I like that Nephi Anderson seems not to have made more use of the “Scriptus” moniker. Perhaps he realized that Mormon readers were ready for fiction—and the best thing a Mormon fiction writer could do was be an author not only in deed, but also in name.