Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Levity

12.2.12 | | 8 comments

From our perspective in 2012 the mid 19th century counsel against novel reading seems somewhat strange. In comparison to what is portrayed in other media, novels seem generally quite tame, to be honest. Why would these novels, which were certainly less risque than novels today, considered such a problem. Were our 19th century leaders just prudes?

The more I read 19th century sermons and articles that preach against “light” literature, the more I think I understand their perspective. It seems to me that the modifier “light” is key to understanding what the brethren then were talking about. We still have counterparts to “light” literature, and while I probably wouldn’t go as far as they did in the 19th century, if my daughter was reading some materials that I think are “light” today, I would ask her “what are you reading that junk for?”

Again I don’t know who wrote this particular article. It isn’t even about literature exactly. But it does mention literature, and I think it does tell us how leaders saw “light” literature. The article is about “levity,” and in the 19th century, “light” literature was seen as levity—frivolous, a waste of time, and useless.

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Levity.

By J. C.

WHILE it is quite proper that we should have the stern duties of life somewhat spiced and modified with recreation and enjoyment, no reflective person will deny that the inordinate indulgence in frolic is an evil which ought to be carefully avoided.

Everyone knows that food, properly seasoned, is more palatable and digestible than it would be were it always served in a plain, monotonous, crude state, yet this does not lessen the fact that the same food, over-dosed with spices, would be a stupid waste of means, and very obnoxious and hateful to the system.

As with the functions of the body, so with those of the mind. In order to have sound, healthy, well-developed minds and morals, we must always have our enjoyments properly seasoned and tempered with wisdom and moderation.

There is a vast amount of religious, moral and intellectual application and training necessary to fit and prepare us for the proper discharge of life’s duties, and time is too precious to be squandered in the extreme practice of pleasure-seeking.

Duty, from necessity, must always stand pre-eminent. Its place is in the front ranks of life’s affairs. Pleasure can never justly predominate. Its proper sphere is to assist, but not to assign, and those who permit duty to be circumscribed by enjoyment, must, sooner or later, suffer the foolish man’s reward.

In treating the subject of levity, a great many things naturally suggest themselves for consideration, a few of which only can be here presented. Levity unhinges the mind for serious reflection and concentration, and carries it often away until it becomes purposeless and fickle. It leads many to think of dances, theaters, concerts, billiard saloons, trashy novels, etc., when they ought to be thinking of how they can become acquainted with science, art, history, religion, etc., and sometimes end in leading persons, naturally chaste and virtuous, into the vortex of sin and dissipation.

We know that the young mind is naturally fond of fun and frolic, but as youth must ripen into age, and as we shall be expected some day to take a responsible stand in society, we must not allow youthful indifference and error to debar us from future honor and usefulness. Youth is the proper time for the acquisition of sound, solid, life aims. And it has been a life-long regret with thousands of good, honest men and women that they let the golden opportunities of youth pass unimproved.

As we do not wish to further infringe on valuable space, we leave the few remarks here made for the consideration of the kind reader, trusting that they may be the means of awakening a little reflection on the subject of too much levity.

Juvenile Instructor, v17 n3, 1 February 1882

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The article does use similar language to what we’ve seen in sermons by general authorities who counseled against “light” literature. Levity, it claims, “leads many to think of dances, theaters, concerts, billiard saloons, trashy novels, etc., when they ought to be thinking of how they can become acquainted with science, art, history, religion, etc., and sometimes end in leading persons, naturally chaste and virtuous, into the vortex of sin and dissipation.”

Before that levity is connected to “the extreme practice of pleasure-seeking.” The author says that “pleasure can never justly predominate” our lives. I do understand that. Our national culture seems almost hedonistic. Pleasure seems like the ultimate good today. [Or, perhaps I’m just becoming a prude!]

Its not hard to see that in literature today. It is easy, I think, to divide literature into what is written mainly for pleasure—what you read to escape, “just for fun,” and what is read for insight. I know I feel that way to a degree. And I even think some of it is junk, although I probably draw the line between worthy and worthless a little differently than others or than our 19th century leaders. For example, I was bothered when my teenage daughter got a subscription to a fashion and celebrity-oriented teen magazine. I don’t see value in such publications at all, and I didn’t want her to have it. [But, in the end, it was her choice, not mine.] I’ve also spent too many hours in my life reading through formulaic genre novels merely for pleasure.

So, I think I understand now what the counsel was all about. While I would probably draw the line between worthy and worthless with more tolerance than the authorities did then, I must admit that I see what they were worried about. And, I’m afraid, even the Mormon market now produces works that might be considered “light” literature.

At a minimum we need to be smarter about the balance we strike between books read simply for pleasure and entertainment and books read for education, enlightenment, introspection and inspiration. If saying that makes me a prude, so be it.

8 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Levity

  1. Paul

    I guess it’s a matter of perspective, but I never feel like anything I read is just escapism.

  2. Mahonri Stewart

    And, of course, the writer takes the common 19th century position of putting theatre into that list of sin. Thankfully, Brigham Young and Joseph Smith took the opposite view. I love that one of the things that William Law criticizes Joseph Smith for in the Nauvoo Expositor is his enjoyment for theater.

    And, of course, Brigham Young gave whole sermons supporting theater (not to mention a lot of influence and financial support). You can also see that Brigham also has a lot of novels on the shelves when you tour the Lion House (or was it the Beehive House?). I remember noticing a lot of one of my favorite novelists Dickens… :)

  3. Th.

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    I think leavening what was said about novels with what was said about theater results in pretty good advice on creating an art diet.

  4. YvonneS

    It is interesting that someone would write against “levity” in the 19th Century when Emmaline B. Wells was using a pen name to write romance novels which sold in Utah. They did not represent her best work, but then what romance novel is well written.

    If one spends very much time watching television one would notice that “light” material is all around us, and still, IMO, has the ability to educate.

  5. Kent Larsen Post author

    Maybe my facts aren’t quite straight, but as far as I’ve seen Wells wrote just one autobiographical novel, published serially in the Womans Exponent (never on its own). Have I missed some? I’ll get to her writings eventually, but I haven’t heard of other fictional prose by Wells.

    But its true that the preaching against “light” literature may have been opposing some current practice. It could be that some “light” literature was produced by Mormons before this point. I’ve been going through LDS and Utah publications and haven’t noticed any yet, but I haven’t really looked carefully yet.

    We assume that the home literature movement started with Orson F. Whitney’s “Home Literature” talk in 1886, but I don’t think that means no one was writing fiction before that date.

  6. Mark Penny

    Hey, you’ve got to unstring the bow and shoot a few rounds now and then or you’ll be a quivering mass of highly moral uselessness, but you shouldn’t poison the well while you do it. Unfortunately, there’s a dang sight of well poison out there just waiting for idle minds to bring it in the workshop.

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