Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Truth Speaks for Itself – Orson F. Whitney

1.29.12 | | 6 comments

Orson F. WhitneyThe more I read of Elder Orson F. Whitney, the more convinced I am that he was the most literary of our modern Apostles. A literary viewpoint influenced much of what he wrote about the gospel in a variety of settings. And his discussion of literary concepts and issues is not only frequent, but covers many of the major concepts that might be considered in a text covering the philosophy of literature.

Today’s quotation is no exception. Here, in a defense of the Pearl of Great Price, he covers two significant issues in literary criticism. First, he weighs in on how to judge literary work, coming up with an answer that is probably not acceptable to most literary theorists today. Second, he emphasizes the individuality of each author’s style (and, perhaps by extension, the necessity of that individuality).

Here’s what he said in defense of the Pearl of Great Price:

… The passage I have read is from the Book of Abraham, translated by the Prophet Joseph Smith from papyrus found upon mummies exhumed from the catacombs of Egypt. This book was made the object of a rather fierce polemic attack a few years since, its authenticity being questioned by a scholarly gentlemen who then resided among us. His strictures were replied to by quite a number of our brethren, and the replies were published in the daily press.

Subsequently I conversed with this gentleman, and he asked me why I had not replied to him. I told him that I had been replying to him all over the country where I had been traveling, but that my reply had not happened to get into the papers. “Oh, indeed,” said he, “and what have you been saying?” “I have been saying this, in substance: That it matters not where truth is found, whether in the catacombs of Egypt, or in the mounds of North America; whether it comes through the lips of an ancient sage or a modern seer; that it matters not who translates it, or how many imperfections the translation may show; that truth is truth; and that the best criterion of judgment when the authenticity of any literary work is passed upon, is the spirit and character of its teachings.” Said he: “I agree with you; that is the best standard by which to judge the authenticity of such a work.”‘ “Then,” I affirmed, “the Book of Abraham needs no defense. It speaks for itself. It manifests its own divinity; for no one but God could have delivered such splendid teachings in such a majestic and sublime spirit as this book contains.”

There is something in every great author that stamps itself upon his writings and renders them peculiar, or characteristic of himself. There is a Shakespearean ring to Shakespeare’s writings; there is a Byronic ring to Lord Byron’s poetry; and a Miltonic ring to the productions of Milton; and any literary expert can distinguish between them. Many poets have described the sunrise, but when one of them says:

“Night’s candles are burned out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops,”

we know that Shakespeare has spoken; and no other poet could have worded it in just that way. Another calls upon God for inspiration,

“That to the height of this great argument I may assert eternal providence,
And justify the ways of God to men”

The lines are Milton’s, and the style is peculiar to that mighty son of song. It is the same with all great writers. The creation testifies of the creator. Is it surprising, then, that when God speaks there should be some distinguishing feature to characterize the utterance and make it different from any utterance of mortal man? There is a spirit, an indescribable quality, a divine power in the word of God that cannot be successfully counterfeited. Men have tried to counterfeit it, but have failed ignominiously.

Conference Report,
April 1917, pp. 41-42

I don’t know if I agree completely with Whitney. I do think that literary works can, and perhaps should, be judged in part on the “spirit and character of its teaching.” To me, a work can be beautify and novel in its use of the language, but if it doesn’t inform the reader of some substantial truth, how is it different from watercolors painted on the sidewalk in the rain? Such works are nice for the moment, for entertainment perhaps, but in the end they are hollow. They are too much like cotton candy.

But I’m not quite sure on his contention that there is some spark of the author in everything he writes, and that somehow that spark is unique for each author. Despite Whitney’s claims, many have been fooled with literary deceptions, and authors have been able to write in the style of others. If, indeed, the handiwork of God can be found where he has inspired an author, I’d argue that this happens more on a spiritual level than in any literary fashion. Doesn’t the existence of so many apocryphal books that have been supported by many proponents through the ages argue that it might indeed be possible to fake the “handiwork of God,” at least for those who are not spiritually in tune?

But more importantly, the idea that the spark of the divine is present in inspired works might, I think, raise the question of whether or not the author matters much. If the “spirit and character of [a work’s] teachings” is most important, and divine inspiration appears in a work, then does it even matter who wrote it?

I don’t know.

6 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Truth Speaks for Itself – Orson F. Whitney

  1. Wm

    This is more proof that Orson F. Whitney is a neo-Romantic but in a rather unique way that could only come about by belief in Mormon doctrine. I agree that this is a problematic approach for literary criticism, but as an example of co-option and Mormonifying, it’s kinda cool.

  2. Theric Jepson

    .

    I like this quotation a lot. I admit it’s the first of which I read every single word.

    And that’s with similar caveats to those expressed above.

  3. Jonathan Langford

    Ditto both caveats and coolness.

    The notion that literary analysis can reliably tell one author from another has largely been discredited, I believe. Of course, within biblical (and Mormon) studies, such efforts have often been applied to various authors of scripture: e.g., to demonstrate that the Book of Mormon couldn’t have all been written by Joseph Smith because it reflects a multitude of different styles, none of them much resembling the writings of Joseph Smith in other contexts. At least, that’s the argument I’ve heard bruited about; I don’t recall seeing any references to the actual research. Either way, it goes in a different direction from Whitney’s argument that all scripture shows certain stylistic similarities because it is all of divine origin.

  4. Kent Larsen Post author

    Jonathan, you may be referring to the various “word print” studies that have looked at the Book of Mormon (and have also been used on non-Mormon questions).

    I do know that there were (at the time I was at BYU, in the 1980s) academic papers done on the subject, but I’m not very conversant on the issue.

    A quick google search yields this page from FAIR (which I have NOT read):

    http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Wordprint_studies

    FWIW, going through several pages of google results for the search “word print studies” I only get Mormon results.

  5. Th.

    .

    That might be because Google is trying to give you what it thinks you want. A good and bad feature of the modern Google.

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