With the advent of the home literature movement in the end of the 19th century, Mormon culture began to produce novels for the first time. For decades church leaders had taught from the pulpit that church members should avoid reading novels because they weren’t “true,” and one speech at a late 1880s YMMIA event by a Salt Lake City-area bishop (although admittedly an influential one—Orson F. Whitney) wasn’t going to change the perception of many church members. The message that reading some novels was acceptable would need to be explained and repeated.
The following article from the Young Woman’s Journal is one of the attempts to change the perceptions about novel writing. What I found interesting is the logic used:
“I have never read a novel in my life,” said a young lady in a boastful tone of voice.”
“That is no credit to you,” replied her companion.
The girl looked incredulous, and asked, “Do you believe it right to read things that are not true?”
The idea is widespread among our girls that novel-reading is hurtful, which is only half true.
Novels are true or false according to the way they picture life. If the characters, events and scenes are unnatural, then the story may be said to be false and is hurtful, inasmuch as it creates ideals that can never be realized and often brings sorrow and disappointment in life. Such are the novels against which our girls are properly warned.
But a true work of fiction—that is, a story whose counterpart can be found in real life—educates the mind and the heart as no other literature can. Such fiction is often truer than history. It is, in short, the history of private life as observed by men and women of superior culture and judgment: and it is written, not in the abstract terms of mere intellectuality, but in warm, glowing colors which appeal to the emotions.
Young Woman’s Journal. v8 n10, July 1897, pg. 486.
I find it fascinating that this short article begins with a fictional conversation, although it doesn’t call attention to that fact. The logic used is also, I think, similar to what we might say today about a portion of literature, although it doesn’t go as far as we might, nor does it seem to allow reading purely for entertainment. Truth, according to this perception, is based in similarity to reality, and error in fiction comes from unrealistic portrayals of life. While I’m not sure that the author actually wants to imply a particular literary philosophy, the ideas expressed may hint at the ideas of literary realism.
But this passage goes beyond simply suggesting that realistic fiction is true; it also then claims that literature can teach better than a dry statement of principle, something that today at least every author hopes is true. We might then extrapolate that the experiential element of literature is perhaps more important than the simple ideas expressed. However, the anonymous author of this article (perhaps the editor, Susa Young Gates) then invests the authors of literature with authority as “men and women of superior culture and judgment,” which is, I suspect, a dubious proposition. Perhaps she suggests this to avoid dissonance with the humanity of authors?
Today, I’m not sure many of us would be comfortable accepting the definition of what novels are worthy implied here. At least, the view presented here doesn’t seem to allow for speculative fiction, although I think much speculative fiction contains important truths.
Still, this passage is interesting as an example of how Mormon views of literature changed and the logic used to influence members toward a different perception, and can, perhaps, suggest some ideas that need to be examined in developing a Mormon literary theory.