Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Elsie C. Carroll on the Benefits of Literature

8.5.12 | | no comments

As I have researched and written this “Sunday Literary Criticism Sermon” series of posts on how Mormons have viewed literature and the arts, I’ve hoped that in doing so I would myself be able to reach some conclusion on basic questions like, what benefits do we derive from literature. After just 7 months, I have to report that… I think I’m learning something, but I can’t tell if I’m learning the basics or not. But, I’m not ready to stop…

This week’s selection (perhaps the first of several from the same article) dives right into this basic question: What do we get out of literature?

These thoughts are from long-time BYU English professor Elsie C. Carroll, who is perhaps best remembered in the English department because her name appears on one of the annual departmental awards—the “Informal Essay Award.” Carroll was born in 1882 and was a faculty member in English from 1926 until 1951, when BYU was small—more like a junior college. She was herself a contributor to Mormon literature, publishing stories and poems in the Church magazines, including in the Young Woman’s Journal and the Relief Society Magazine. She passed away in 1967.

Here are her thoughts on the benefits of literature:

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White Hyacinths to Feed the Soul

by Elsie C. Carroll

THERE are many things that literature can do for us. One writer has pointed out five of the outstanding benefits to be derived from the study of literature, two of which I wish to dwell upon in particular. He shows how literature keeps before us the vision of the ideal. The importance of this value can hardly be over-emphasized. Everything worthwhile in life is built upon ideals, and literature has been called a storehouse of ideals.

“He who builds no castles in the air,” sings the poet, “builds no castles anywhere.” The great Danish sculptor, Thorwaldson, realized the importance of keeping before us a vision of the ideal to such a degree that he wept over the perfection of his statue of Christ, explaining to his friends that he wept because his genius must be decaying since the statue absolutely satisfied him. He explained that always before his ideal was far beyond what he could execute, and that because this was no longer true he could never create a great work of art again.

Browning expresses the importance of this vision of the ideal when he says:

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?”
And again in these lines:
“What hand and brain went over paired?
What heart alike conceived and dared?
What act proved all its thought had been?
What will but felt the fleshly screen?”

Literature holds up before us the ideals of the past and the present. Furthermore, each piece of great literature itself, grows out of a great ideal.

Another of these five values is that literature can give us a mastery of our own language. When we read the beautiful things that have been woven out of words—rightly chosen and arranged, we even unconsciously absorb some of that beauty of expression. We become like that with which we associate in more ways than one. If we are constantly thrown with persons who use slang, we may at first be shocked, but in time we will find ourselves using slang expressions. Just so if we are continuously reading great and beautiful literature, we not only are unconsciously becoming familiar with the great ideals of the literature, and becoming more like them, just as Ernest in “The Great Stone Face,” unconsciously took on the characteristics which the face on the mountain symbolized, but we are also assimilating a knowledge of words and their beauty of arrangement. With little conscious effort we could indeed master our language through our contacts with literature. There are in our language over a hundred thousand words. The average person uses about three thousand of them; Milton used eight thousand and Shakespeare many times the average.

A THIRD value of literature lies in its power to restore the past and broaden our understanding of human nature. History may teach us what people did, but literature tells us how they felt about it. By way of literature we can transport ourselves to any age or any country; we can associate in the most intimate way with the finest and noblest of characters. And so, vicariously, we can broaden and enrich our experiences to a limitless degree. There is no need of anyone ever being lonely, or of needing to associate with inferior personalities with the myriads of great characters in literature ready to give companionship, courage and inspiration upon the mere opening of books.

The last two values, and those I wish to amplify, are literature as an outlet, and literature as a glorification of the commonplace.

When you have been reading something especially fine, haven’t you often exclaimed to yourself or others: “I have felt just that way myself but couldn’t express it.” The poet has expressed it for you, and when you thrill and find yourself being lifted above your usual level as you read it, you are in reality expressing it yourself—your soul is being fed as you read just as the writer’s was while he wrote.

BURNS was idolized by his countrymen, because he expressed what they felt but knew not how to express. They would read his poems and laugh and cry, for through their reading they were finding an outlet for their own emotions. …

Now as to how literature glorifies the commonplace.

Because the poet has an inspired vision and can see more of the beauty in the world than those of us who are not artists, he has a keener and broader love for everything about him.…

Improvement Era, v33 n12, October 1930

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I have no idea who the source for these five “benefits to be derived from the study of literature” is, but I would like to know, if anyone has further information. But I have to question some of these benefits. The first, that literature gives us a vision of the ideal, certainly doesn’t seem true in today’s “post-modern” world, which, if anything, seems either intent on realism or on exploring what Carroll would have thought to be the seedy side of life. Wouldn’t this prescription tend towards utopian novels instead of the dystopian novels so popular today?

I like the other ideas (mastery of language, understanding human nature and giving an outlet to our feelings) well enough, though it seems like there is more to literature than these three. The last, that literature glorifies the commonplace seems wrong, if you think it does that exclusively or as its purpose. Some literature seems, at least to me, to glorify the uncommon and to portray the already famous and well known. There may be a role for literature to open our eyes to the beauty that is around us, but I can’t see it as an exclusive or even a primary role for literature.

One important additional benefit springs to my mind. Literature allows us to communicate complex ideas with more impact. It allows access to the soul of the reader. The best literature, in my view, helps the reader understand and improve himself, while still entertaining. I don’t see this purpose in what Carroll describes.

I admit readily that there is also a mere entertainment role to literature, and don’t see that in Carroll’s description either—so perhaps there is a focus in her analysis that I’ve missed so far.

Regardless, I think there is more than I’ve thought about—perhaps benefits that are a bit more defined than my understanding and improving one’s self. If I’m wrong, let me have it. If Carroll is off base, let’s state it. And, most of all, I’d like to hear about other benefits you think come from literature.

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