Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: George F. Richards on “reading pernicious literature”

5.13.12 | | 30 comments
George_F._Richards

George F. Richards ca. 1915

When I came across this text I laughed out loud at the anachronisms and decided I had to include it, even thought it is perhaps just a variation on the General Conference theme of caution over what we read. But then, as far as literary criticism goes, this is the subject most Mormons hear most about—so much so that today it seems to define the LDS market.

The author, George F. Richards, was a fixture in the Quorum of the Twelve for the first half of the 20th century. Called as an apostle on the same day in 1906 as Orson F. Whitney and David O. McKay, Richards was ordained first and eventually was the president of the Quorum on his death in 1950. The son of an Apostle (Franklin D. Richards) and the father of another (LeGrand Richards), he was also the only person to serve concurrently as an Apostle and as Patriarch to the Church (acting).

As far as I can tell, Richards wasn’t a particularly literary man. Aside from his conference talks, I haven’t found many published works by him—a couple of documents about the Temple (apparently written while he was president of the Salt Lake Temple) and a handful of articles in Church magazines. However, he did speak regularly in conference, essentially twice a year for more than 40 years. The following short excerpt comes from one of  them:

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Evil effects of reading pernicious literature

by George F. Richards

A danger which confronts the children of the Latter-day Saints, I am impressed, is that of reading dime novels and literature of that caliber. I read, from a Salt Lake daily paper, a few days ago, an account of a band of boys, ranging from fifteen to seventeen years, who had been misled in this way. When they were discovered, and the place of their rendezvous was disclosed, it was found that the interior of the place was lined with arms and furnished with a library of dime novels. It was learned, by confession of these young boys, that they had broken into stores and residences on numerous occasions, that they had stolen from their neighbors. One young boy admitted that they had contemplated robbing his mother, and when the question was asked, “What would you have done had she resisted?” the ready response was, “We would have killed her.” This, I take it, is largely the result of reading such literature as was found in the dugout which they frequented. We are told in proverbs, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” James Allen, treating this subject, tells us that “character is the entire sum of our thoughts.” I desire to read one or two of his sentiments along this line; he says:

“As the plant springs from and could not be without the seed, so every act of a man springs from the hidden seeds of thought, and could not have appeared without them. This applies equally to those acts called spontaneous and unpremeditated, as to those which are deliberately executed. Act is the blossom of thought, and joy and suffering are its fruits. Thus does a man garner in the sweet and bitter fruitage of his own husbandry. A noble and godlike character is not a thing of favor or chance, but is the natural result of continued effort in right thinking, the fruit of long cherished association with godlike thoughts.”

Conference Report, April 1910

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The article Richards refers to is apparently an article in the Salt Lake Herald of 26 March 1910 titled “Murder Plot Told by Five Bad Boys” and the story it tells is basically what Richards describes. It is also not at all unusual for the time. The Deseret News of 24 August 1910 includes an article titled “Youthful Scamps” which reports on a “band” of teenage criminals in New York City known as the “Savage Scamps” who also had a bunch of dime novels in their loot when arrested. Looking over the New York Times archive, I found many more such stories, along with a lot of hand wringing about dime novels, stretching back at least to the 1880s. Most of these stories attribute influence toward crime to these works and often report that the criminals had dime novels in their possession.

The idea that criminals are avid readers of novels is what made me laugh—it didn’t exactly jive with my mental stereotype of what hardened violent criminals do all day. I can see it now, the gang roost adorned with makeshift bookshelves under a sign that reads “The Jets Gang Library. Members only!”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that novels, even dime novels, have no influence. Allen’s book, As a Man Thinketh (1902), is among the most successful early self-help books, preceding Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich by decades. In the book Allen argues that the way to mold your own character is by controlling what you allow to influence that character and influence the way you think, because, “as a man thinketh, so is he.”

Indeed, few authors really want their books to have no influence whatsoever, so it may be hard to argue against Allen’s views. What isn’t clear to me is the details of how this works. While it is all fine and good to argue against “pernicious” literature, what exactly that is can be difficult to say at times. In most dime novels, for example, the “good guys” win in the end.

What seems to make the difference, though, isn’t whether or not the “good guys” win in the end, but the amount, type, intensity, descriptiveness and attractiveness of the portrayals of evil in a work, especially when compared to what the audience has experienced before. Perhaps by this view Allen, and Elder Richards, would claim that reading, and especially obsessive reading, of most dime novels isn’t good. And with the caveat that most of us still maintain our free will—that all the arts can do is influence, not control—I guess I have to agree.

Today the preaching against “dime novels” in Mormon venues has largely been substituted with preaching against R rated films and violent music and video games. Like with “dime novels,” the preaching is generally in absolute terms—never read any “dime novel” or play any violent video game or see any R rated film. I don’t know if the absolute terms make sense to me, but I certainly can see how the overall influence of repeated exposures isn’t desirable. The problem is how to figure out when an individual is too close to too much.

30 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: George F. Richards on “reading pernicious literature”

  1. Mark Penny

    I’m pretty sure a hardcore social scientific study of the relationship between nasty narratives and bad behaviour would show a pretty low level of correlation, but I can’t help wondering how many fans of Twilight have found themselves accidentally robbed of virtue after trying out some of the scenes in the books (and movies). I would say with confidence that if you’re trying to have no more desire to do evil, reading anything that glorifies or sensationalizes sin is not going to help. If you stink in your heart, sooner or later you’re going to smell far worse than weeds to somebody, even if it’s just yourself.

  2. Kent Larsen Post author

    Mark, I agree.

    But, a lot depends on how you define and identify what “glorifies or sensationalizes sin.”

  3. Lee Allred

    Well, you know what Batman said:

    “Criminals are a superstitious, literary lot.”

  4. James Goldberg

    Maybe it would be useful to start with the mechanics of how good work benefits us. If we can figure that out, maybe we can move on to whether the converse is true.

  5. Kent Larsen Post author

    James (6), I like that approach.

    But, didn’t anyone else find the idea of criminals with a library of novels amusing?

  6. Kent Larsen Post author

    Moriah, I thought that might be the case also — until I did the research and came up with so many articles that claimed the same kind of thing from newspapers in many different parts of the country going back to the 1880s.

    Its not proof, but its certainly smoke.

  7. Ben

    Sorry, I left a comment with a link, that must have gone directly into the spam queue.

  8. Mark Penny

    One of the key questions for me is how far a religion should go in “requir[ing] the sacrifice of all things.” This is germane, because in addition to asking ourselves “What would Jesus do?” we might also consider “What would I be allowed to do if I were living in Zion (as opposed to a stake of Zion)?” What options would be denied me (by dint or by decree)? Which of the many fruits of Egypt or Babylon would get me cast out of the camp of Israel?

    If we pretend to contribute to the arts and sciences in a theology, what are the limits? Religious communities are by definition religious, and religion by definition is a system of constraints. For the moment, being “in the world but not of the world,” we enjoy great latitude in our enjoyments and pursuits. How would that latitude be reduced if we physically “[went] up to Zion” and got us out of Egypt and Babylon? How restricted would we feel? What “freedoms” would we suddenly find we could (and couldn’t) live without?

    What would be the penalty for reading or writing Twilight?

  9. Kent Larsen Post author

    I’m not sure, Mark. I don’t see Zion as a place where we have restrictions put on us — we wouldn’t create anything that would be problematic because we are in Zion. It would come from us, not from laws or rules.

    But, I could be wrong, I suppose.

    I also wonder what role context might have in Zion. Arts often play against the surrounding culture and assumptions made — and in a Zion culture, the assumptions are likely to be very different. For example, IMO, nudity is unlikely to be the same issue that it is in our culture today because in a Zion culture we won’t be so quick to sexualize it.

    But, what do I know.

  10. Mark Penny

    We may have to agree to disagree on much of that, Kent. Little experiences I’ve had in Church and just my general impression of human nature (based on sad experience and a smattering of the best books) tell me that if Zion isolates itself from the world, there will be less room to swing the cat in. The size of that space will probably fluctuate as leadership changes, but being different from the world will be an earmark of the community and its members, and that will mean shedding some of our secular intellectualism (and other legacies given by the world)–as a community and as individuals who wish to belong to the community.

  11. Kent Larsen Post author

    Mark, are you being descriptive or proscriptive?

    I agree that the Church seems like it is getting more restrictive.

    But, I’m not sure that means that Zion will be that way. It may be necessary to get more restrictive for a time until people change so that Zion can happen and become less restrictive.

    Theoretically speaking — it really doesn’t matter too much, I suppose. We have to react to the non-Zion reality that we have today.

  12. Theric Jepson

    .

    Ben—-

    I went to go rescue your comment, but it wasn’t there. A glitch somewhere, I presume. Annoying, I know. Maybe you could repost it?

  13. Moriah Jovan

    Moriah, I thought that might be the case also — until I did the research and came up with so many articles that claimed the same kind of thing from newspapers in many different parts of the country going back to the 1880s.

    Its not proof, but its certainly smoke.

    These are just some things I’m throwing out there.

    Firstly, I believe journalists were as sensational then (or more) than they are today. There was little other alternate entertainment.

    Secondly, they weren’t exactly investigative journalists. Travel was hard. They had telegraph and trains, but they got their news “over the wire,” and very little checking of veracity was done.

    So what I would tend to think that all those newspaper reports were parroting each other, spreading much like email warnings about waking up in a bathtub full of ice and faith-promoting rumors do now–only they got it by telegraph and ran with it, thinking the source already vetted. (And, in some cases, fixed a couple of details to make it closer to home.)

    You know, like the AP. And the NYT. And all those bastions of journalistic integrity.

    I doubt any one of those accounts was actually true.

  14. Mark Penny

    I guess I’m talking about a city of Zion scenario. Cities are political entities. They have geographical bounds. They have governments–and governments have policies. Policies affect laws and by-laws and the allocation of resources. The allocation of resources affects the availability of resources and that affects individual freedom.

    A city of Zion cut off from the world would have far more sparsely stocked libraries and, if it connected to the Worldwide Web at all, some kind of firewall to keep the world’s worldliness out. Far fewer ideas would flow through the minds of those inside the walls, cement and cyber. The inhabitants of Zion would live under a dome of ideology which would make a crime of more than a few things lying around in our yards and family rooms today. This would suit a lot of people fine, but it would certainly be a difficult adjustment for others.

    In the long run it might be for the best and work out comfortably. I have a hunch that the closer we draw to the Lord, the weaker the pull of many things will be. But the transition would be difficult, might even feel like suppression and there might be crucibles (or cultural revolutions) of a sort as the various shades of free thinking and fundamentalism crowd together under one broadly interpreted roof.

    This is really more matter for a blog post (and Zion apocalypse fiction) than a comment thread, but I so seldom have an audience for this sort of talk.

  15. Theric Jepson

    .

    I don’t know. Nephi Anderson’s Zion wasn’t like that at all, and if Added Upon isn’t scripture, I don’t know what is.

  16. Mark Penny

    I started reading that once, but I don’t think I got past the pre-existence. Not a jab. As I recall, it belonged to the friends I was staying with while I finished the last two months of grade 12 (my parents had moved to Orem so Dad could go back to school) and I just ran out of time.

  17. Katya

    I have a hunch that the closer we draw to the Lord, the weaker the pull of many things will be.

    I have a hunch that the closer we draw to the Lord, the more we’ll appreciate everything that He and His children have created.

  18. Jonathan Langford

    A couple of thoughts (in reaction primarily to Mark):

    - Within the Church, we’re generally taught (doctrinally) that sacrifice isn’t a matter of permanently giving up something, but rather of deferring — putting it on the altar of something higher. That suggests a rather different reading of the notion of a religion that requires the sacrifice of all things, in my view — though I’ll grant you the cultural tendencies.

    - A while back it occurred to me that if we are essentially children of deity, then our fundamental desires must at root be good ones, though they may be twisted in incorrect directions. In fact, that seems to be Satan’s primary strategy: take something good at heart and twist it into something that becomes evil.

    Starting from that assumption, living a godly life would, if anything, strengthen our desires, appetites, and passions, while also at the same time bringing them into closer alignment to their true origin and nature. So that to be a celestial being is to feel and desire more deeply, but also in a more balanced and correct way. Which aligns nicely with the idea of pornography as “that which dulls.”

  19. Mark Penny

    First off, this has been fun. Although, like Mr. Incredible (and, I imagine, most of the good folks here), I tend to work alone, it’s nice to be involved in a community with some of the same concerns and a diversity of views to draw on and spar with. It helps one to measure and shape one’s thoughts.

    I agree fairly generally with the views in that last comment, Jonathan, but in reading them I realized that in some respects, this thread is a shishkabob of apples and oranges. There are both psychological and sociological aspects to the question of freedom in Zion. In the ideal family, ward, stake, region and worldwide church, the blessed state of asking not amiss is achieved no faster than the saint is able. While the church is in but not of the world, people fairly easily give and take the sociological space to psychologically grow from grace to grace and work toward becoming psychologically and sociologically of one mind and one heart. But I wonder how that will work when Zion is set completely apart and we drain out of the stakes into the tabernacle, so to speak. What will the tolerances be when the individuals, families, wards and stakes are locked grindingly tight with each other in one geographic ark?

  20. Mark Penny

    At the risk of crowding the Recent Comments queue, I’ll depart for the moment with a remark about a story I started working on six years ago (and will probably finish six years from now). To be brief, it’s one of a collection of sci-fi desert island tales in which, now that I think of it, psychology comes either under or out from under sociological stress. The reverse happens, too, I believe. Anyway, in the one I’m referring to, a galactically famous prima donna of an author finds himself part of a marooned community with no time or appetite for his fame, his attitude or his old themes and style. After resisting the inevitable, he reverts to rhymed epics based on events and values in the village that is his home. Perhaps something like that will happen when the worldliness is pulled out from under our artistic feet.

  21. Katya

    Maybe not everything (there’s some bad stuff on the resume), but I get your drift.

    appreciate ≠ like

    One definition of the word is “recognize the full worth of,” which I would take to mean not blindly embracing or rejecting anything, but thoughtfully considering everything that crosses our path.

  22. Mark Penny

    Katya, you mean something like “valuate”?

    James, unfortunately, it feels like a novel. Like I say, could be a while. Mind your health.

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