Earlier this week I spent an hour or so waiting in line at the TKTS booth in Times Square to get tickets for friends who wanted to see a Broadway play. As I waited in line, the TKTS staff (volunteer actors, as I understand it) were giving their recommendations and summaries of popular shows to the tourists waiting in line who were not sure what to see–usually after asking questions to see what kind of expectations the tourist had. I was very tempted to ask the staff what to see if you hate musicals and like plays that make you think.
Fortunately, my friends did not have those expectations, and getting tickets to a show was possible.
The reaction we have toward works of literature is usually determined by what expectations we have of it. If we read B. H. Roberts’ Corianton with the expectation of something like All The King’s Men, we are bound to be quite disappointed. But if we expect something comparable to Ben Hur, we might actually enjoy Corianton a little. In this week’s “sermon,” long-time Relief Society General Board member Rosannah Cannon Irvine hints at this question of expectations while suggesting that there is a lot to like in Mormon literature.
Irvine was also an author and playwright, active mostly in the 1930s. A daughter of George Q. Cannon, she was born in 1872 and married Alonzo Blair Irvine in 1898. She died in 1969 at the age of 96. In addition to plays and at least one short story, Irvine also wrote articles for the Relief Society Magazine and for other Church publications, including the Improvement Era, from which the following is extracted:
Things to be Found in Mormon Literature
by Rosannah C. Irvine
IN THE early days of the Church, the Prophet Joseph gave this advice to the Saints: “Seek ye wisdom from the best books.” This counsel, good at that time, is doubly necessary now when the market is flooded with books of all types, some good, many questionable, and a host that are really vicious. Thomas Carlyle, after reading a popular French novel, said: “I feel as if I should go and bathe seven times in the River Jordan.” That type of reading, salacious, prolific, and “popular,” is the kind that should be displaced in all our homes by the literature of our own writers.
As with all people who have endured, we have accumulated a vital and distinctive memorial—a literature which is an authentic and graphic chronicle of our people. The works peculiar to our Church are to be found in all the great libraries of the nation. They are as important to our national records as are those of any other outstanding movement.
It has been said by some, not of our faith, that the Book of Mormon is the most significant book of the century. The Bible, which of course does not belong to us alone, together with the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, our histories, our biographies, our hymns and other poetical writings, with their wisdom and philosophy, form a veritable storehouse of truth.
If we are searching for spiritual treasures, there is no better place to seek them than in our Mormon books. But we, generally, perhaps because of our proximity, have failed to appreciate their worth. There are many people living in London who have never seen the Tower, nor visited Westminster Abbey. We often need perspective to help us evaluate things.
We have not yet produced either a Milton or a Shakespeare, but the early writers, both men and women, have recorded the luminous history of our people in simple, direct, unornamented language. In straightforward fashion they have told the events of a vital, a fascinating, a most dramatic story. Today the simple, matter-of-fact words of our early authors must be recognized for their exalted morality and zeal. Their language is more rugged than elegant, more sincere than graceful. Their brevity exceeds their brilliance. They practiced no art. What they wrote, they wrote in the language of their time. They had no thought of fashion or style in authorship. They had no literary ambition. Neither fame nor fortune lured them on. In enforcing a truth they used severity rather than brilliance. In reading their words one may fail to see beyond the plain expressions the glow and glory of an awe-inspiring reality.
Of course, there were some among our early writers who were highly educated and gifted, but all were filled with a divine and righteous fire. All wrote as they thought.
IT IS a pity if public taste has become pampered, and must be so fed on exaggerated, imaginative, and highly flavored food as to reject the homely fare of the writer who relates an intense story in his own simple way. …
If we become imbued with the spirit of these valiant souls who inscribed a life-time of effort and pathos in ordinary, unemotional phraseology, we shall be able to visualize in rare and radiant colors the dramatic actions, intense hopes, and heart-breaking frustrations gleaming through the written words. The older books among Mormon literature are priceless. For inspiration and information they should be in the hands, in the memory, and in the heart of every Latter-day Saint. These wonderful stories can become a strength in weakness, a guide to our understanding. Only let our young people read of the sorrows, the struggles, the endurance, and the magnificent faith of their fore fathers, and they cannot help being built up in the faith.
Would you have your children gain an invincible and fervent testimony of the divine mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith? Let them read his autobiography. Let them learn and sing that inspiring song, “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer.” Would you establish an undying faith in your sons and daughters? Have them read the Faith-Promoting Series: “Leaves From My Journal,” “The Life of Nephi,” “Lydia Knight’s History,” “A String of Pearls,” “Helpful Visions,” “My First Mission,” and so on, through the entire list.
Would you have your young men and women prepared to battle with the keen, antagonistic minds which they will meet in the mission field? Have them read Mr. Durant of Salt Lake City, by Ben E. Rich, and the accounts of the sudden and blessed inspiration that came to George Q. Cannon and Jedediah M. Grant and hosts of others in their hours of need. Would you increase their knowledge of the faith and fortitude which sustained our pioneers? Have them read the History of Utah, by Orson F. Whitney. Would you have them quicken and thrill with the desire to accomplish noble deeds? Have them read the biographies of our great men and women. Would you have them become loyal successors to their sturdy ancestors? Have them read our Mormon literature.
For stirring, powerful, fascinating narrative it is unequaled. If you want to make of our present generation of boys and girls the leaders of tomorrow, worthy of their heritage, acquaint them with our history. There is no way to establish virtue, honesty, faith, and enthusiasm in our youth so powerful as the teaching of these themes. The visions and ideals of these heroic men and women should become the reality of their offspring. Let our youth, through their study, learn that the strength of the early members of our Church was gained through suffering and sacrifice; that their mastery over self was the result of high thinking; that their serenity and power to endure trial and sorrow came through faith and steadfast prayer.
Improvement Era, v23 n7, July 1939
Irvine hints that the Mormon literature she is promoting may not be counted as great literature in the eyes of the world, and suggests that it can instead “displace in all our homes” the “salacious, prolific, and ‘popular'” works. She acknowledges that “we have not yet produced either a Milton or a Shakespeare,” and, in defense of Mormon literature, she sees it as “a literature which is an authentic and graphic chronicle of our people.” But she also clearly believes that Mormon literature is of great value, at least “spiritual treasure.”
I also thought that her suggestion that regarding “Mormon books”… “we, perhaps because of our proximity, have failed to appreciate their worth.” I see something like that here in New York City, where, when the twin towers of the World Trade Center were standing, especially in the first few years after they were built, the towers were hated and thought ugly, but somehow today are missed very much. This is, perhaps, a corollary to Mark 6:4, “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” Somehow the familiar often can’t be any good.
Irvine also suggest that much of what is considered good is simply a matter of taste, “It is a pity if public taste has become pampered, and must be so fed on exaggerated, imaginative, and highly flavored food as to reject the homely fare of the writer who relates an intense story in his own simple way.” In the past few decades (perhaps since the 1960s), I think the way that literature is taught has been much more accepting of stories told “in his own simple way.” While there is, I believe, more to recognizing value in literature than simple preference for a style, (how could Shakespeare or Milton or Chaucer have endured if style was the main value?) I also think that Irvine’s point is often legitimate. We often depreciate the works of other literary periods, especially the less well-known works of those periods, simply because we don’t care for the style. When they read it, I think most people would find the average novel from the romantic period annoying, while judging an average contemporary novel as good. Today Bulwer-Lytton draws eye-rolls while millions devour Grisham.
Today, 73 years after this article was published, the expectations we have of Mormon literature continue to be higher than what the market for Mormon literature produces. Fortunately, it isn’t nearly as hard today to find more realistic and objective views of the value of our literary heritage.