While it seems clear that J. H. Paul’s defense of Utah and Mormon artists and educators in 1931 was inadequate, there is one area where I think he got things right. Literature, like culture, can take a very long time to develop. If European cultures took centuries to produce the first of the most significant works of their literature, how much can be expected of Utah, with its then 80 years of existence, or of Mormonism with its then 100 years of existence. To put it in today’s terms we might say: Can we really expect major works of literature from a group of related sub-cultures that are, collectively, less than 200 years old?
Paul bases his claim on the German philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, known today as the Father of German Literature and as the world’s first dramaturg. Lessing, Paul claims, saw only one worthy new work added to the literary canon from Europe every fifty years:
Has the Desert Failed to Blossom?
Does Utah Lack Writers, Artists, Musicians, Thinkers?
By J. H. Paul, University of Utah
Literature Develops Slowly
SUPPOSE, however, that I am in error in recognizing Carmichael and others as poets; Stephens and others as musicians; Roberts and others as historians; Hafen and others as early artists; besides editors, scientists, publicists, not mentioned here—what then? Is Utah therefore “at term” in the fine arts? Has the last word been said? Certainly not; she has yet time enough and can still achieve wherever she is lacking.
According to Lessing, it requires Europe, on the average, fifty years to produce one really good book—a book that will last, standing the test of time and the judgment of succeeding generations. But Europe is the center of civilization, the light of the world. For more than 1,000 years many of its hundreds of millions have devoted their lives to literature and the fine arts. Now, if it requires 400 million people an average of fifty years to produce one genuine work that is to be read for centuries to come, how long should it take a community of half a million settled on the last frontier of civilization and still battling with the desert and the poverty of pioneer conditions? If it be true that Utah as yet has produced nothing worth while, it is far too early to despair of her.
The writer realizes that in this hurried sketch, he has not recalled even all the meritorious works that he has seen from Utah authors; while of those not mentioned because he has not examined them, there must be quite a few. It is enough to have indicated herein what the literary output is like and to have made a beginning that others may more fitly build upon.
Improvement Era, v34 n5, March 1931
While I did some cursory searches in preparing this post, I was not able to find which of Lessing’s works refer to the development of literature in this way. Someone with a better knowledge of German literary criticism can perhaps let me know.
Still, it was this final portion of Paul’s article that attracted me to his defense of Utah’s education in the first place. It seems reasonable to me that a given population can only produce a major addition to the canon every few decades. Not only is producing a great work of literature difficult, but it seems to also require the right circumstances.
While it is probably best not to focus a lot of time on what great works of literature Mormonism has created or will create, Orson F. Whitney’s statement that “we will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own” still haunts our views. And Paul’s argument above, I think, help us realize that our Miltons and Shakespeares may yet be a long time in coming—they will be the result of not just the influence of the gospel, but a, perhaps protracted, evolutionary process.