19th Century Mormon Utopian Literature

11.7.12 | | 4 comments

aBlakeJacob's Ladder 1799-07Since reading Added Upon and writing about it in my dissertation, I’ve wanted to compile a list of works of nineteenth-century Mormon utopian literature, or works that describe or yearn for an ideal society or which advocate for action that would lead to such. I realize, though, that compiling such a list is almost a fool’s errand since so much of early Mormon literature—and I consider hymns literature—has to do with building Zion and the Millennium, the ultimate utopian dreams.

Even so, a few months ago, I spent an afternoon and came up with this list. It is incomplete, of course, and will likely remain so until I get serious about it. What I’d like to do in the meantime, though, is open it up to you who know nineteenth-century Mormon literature better than I do (my interest in it is about two years old) and ask if I’m missing anything crucial. Specifically, I’m looking for works of fiction or “proto-fiction” (allegories, fables, parables, etc.) that could be reasonably labeled “utopian” or even “millennialist.” I’m interested in poetry too if its utopian expression is out of the ordinary.

My thought, however, is that what I have below is fairly representative of what’s out there. Am I right?

The List:

Anderson, Nephi. Added Upon

Lyon, John. Harp of Zion: A Collection of Poems, &c. (Possibly the most utopian of early Mormon literary projects as it was published for the benefit of the Perpetual Emigration Fund, a cooperative effort to gather Saints to Zion.)

Specific Poems in the Collection (In alphabetical order):

“The Apostate: A Fragment”

“Dedication”

“Millennial Hymn”

“Pilgrim Saint’s Song”

“The Ruined City”

“Zion”

Phelps, William W. “Come to Me”

—. “Vade Mecum”

Pratt, Parley P. The Angel of the Prairies; A Dream of the Future

—. The Millennium and Other Poems (Essentially every poem in this collection qualifies)

Smith, Emma, Ed. A Collection of Sacred Hymns, for the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS hymn books, of course, are a storehouse of utopian expression–not all of which is Mormon. I’ve only looked through the original LDS hymnbook, so my list is obviously lacking later hymns that idealized Utah as Zion.)

Specific Hymns in the Collection (including hymn numbers):

“Glorious things of thee are spoken” (4)

“The time is nigh that happy time” (5)

“Guide us, O thou great Jehovah” (13)

“We’re not ashamed to own our Lord” (14)

“Now let us rejoice in the day of salvation” (18)

“Ere long the vail will rend in twain” (19)

“This earth was once a garden place” (23)

“The towers of Zion soon shall rise” (29)

“There is a land the Lord will bless” (34)

“The glorious day is rolling on—” (71)

Like I said, this is a work in progress—and really only the work of one afternoon. Sometime this week I plan to skim Orson F. Whitney’s Poetical Writings for traces of utopian thinking. I’m also hoping to follow any new trail that comes out of this post—especially if it has to do with fiction.

Conspicuously absent from this list, by the way, are the poems of Eliza R. Snow. I’ve got a copy of Derr and Davidson’s Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry handy, but its more than 1000 pages of poetry seem very intimidating at this stage in my list making. Both “Millennialism” and “Zion” have good-sized listings in the index, however, and I’m sure Sister Snow is not lacking in utopian expression.

Also absent are poems from Cracroft and Lambert’s A Believing People, which is the only anthology of Mormon literature on my bookshelf that seems to contain anything from the nineteenth century. Many of these poems qualify, but I have left them off because so many of them are in the hymnbook and familiar to us already.

However, in their introduction, Cracroft and Lambert do make this observation about Mormon literature, which I think is not unrelated to a discussion about Mormon utopian literature:

[...] Mormon writing is outside the mainstream of modern literary fashion. The result of the Latter-day Saint world view is a literature strikingly at odds with the humanistic existentialism of modern literary fashion. Mormons characteristically continue to see the world through a paradisiacal glass, brightly. At its worst the literature springing from such a view may convey merely a Panglossian simplemindedness that tosses all problems and human difficulties into a catchall called the millennium or that leaves the solution of human difficulties to a fatalistic shrug of the shoulders and to God. But more and more this God-centered world view is seen as the source of great human responsibility, dignity, and opportunity, a desirable kind of world view that seems to be finding more and more adherents in a world fraught with a debilitating purposelessness. (5)

I think I agree with most of what they’re saying here, but I don’t care for the way they seem to suggest that early Mormon literature conveys a “Panglossian simplemindedness” that we are “more and more” moving away from as we rework the way we apply our God-centered world view in literature. Also, I dislike their dismissal of “a catchall called the millennium,” which bothers me mainly because I think the idea of the Millennium, like the idea of Utopia itself, is extremely powerful–and subversive–in its rejection of oppression and evil. Granted, Cracroft and Lambert are probably referring to opiate works that lull readers into a passive contentedness with “all problems and human difficulties.” But do Mormons–even the Mormon doggerelians–produce much of that kind of literary drug? In Mormonism, waiting for Zion and building Zion are both active interrelated endeavors, right? Both actively seek to change the world. So, I want to ask: Is “Panglossian simplemindedness” even an issue? Can a work be “Panglossian” and still be Mormon?

(Also, we should be careful not to conflate a clumsy aesthetic and with “panglossian simplemindedness.” You can have both in a poem, but one does not necessarily make the other.)

One interesting find, which I’ve not included on the list, is Ina Coolbrith’s “Millennium,” which Cracroft and Lambert included in A Believing People. I’m hesitant to add it because Coolbrith, despite being the niece of Joseph Smith, was not a practicing Mormon during her life and I find it unlikely that her description of the Millennium in her poem stems from her experience with Mormonism. Cracroft and Lambert don’t give it a date, but the anthology The Literature of California (U of California P, 2000) dates it around 1880, which puts her somewhat safely out of reach of her Mormon roots.  That said, the poem itself strikes a few of the same notes her uncles Valentine’s Day revelation on war struck in 1832. So…maybe I’m a bit premature in writing off Coolbrith and her poem.

Thoughts?

4 comments: “19th Century Mormon Utopian Literature

  1. Scott Hales Post author

    Now that you mention it, I’ve heard of “One Hundred Years Hence,” but forgotten about it.

    Anderson’s early twentieth-century work “Beyond Arsareth” is also on my list now…especially since I’ve never–to my embarrassment–come across it before.

  2. Kent Larsen

    Yes, Scott, I deleted an earlier comment on Beyond Arsareth because I realized it is 20th century, not 19th century.

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