Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Whitney on Originality in Mormon literature

8.19.12 | | 6 comments

Orson F. WhitneyOrson F. Whitney’s Home Literature sermon lays out a stunning vision, not by describing the role that Mormon literature should serve (as we looked at last week), but also by describing a vision for the kind of literature that Mormonism should produce. This week I thought I’d look at the middle third of the sermon, which talks a bit about originality in literature.

From Whitney’s description (below), I have to ask: has Mormon literature been as original as Whitney envisioned? And, perhaps we might also ask: if Mormon literature were as original as Whitney envisioned, would he like it?

Here’s the relevant portion of the sermon:

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Home Literature

by Orson F. Whitney

The formation of a home literature is directly in the line and spirit of this injunction. Literature means learning, and it is from the “best books” we are told to seek it. This does not merely mean the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the book of Doctrine and Covenants, Church works and religious writings—though these indeed are “the best books,” and will ever be included in and lie at the very basis of our literature. But it also means history, poetry, philosophy, art and science, languages, government—all truth in fact, wherever found, either local or general, and relating to times past, present or to come.

Yes, the Prophet even meant revelation, inspiration, immediate and direct; for does he not say, “seek learning by study, and also by faith?” Faith points to futurity, to things that will be; study pertains more to the past, to things that have been. History is temporal, prophecy is spiritual. The past is great, but the future will be greater. The dead letter may be precious, but the living oracle is beyond all price.

It is from the warp and woof of all learning, so far as we are able to master it and make it ours, that the fabric of our literature must be woven. We must read, and think, and feel, and pray, and then bring forth our thoughts, and polish and preserve them. This will make literature.

Above all things, we must be original. The Holy Ghost is the genius of “Mormon” literature. Not Jupiter, nor Mars, Minerva, nor Mercury. No fabled gods and goddesses; no Mount Olympus; no “sisters nine,” no “blue-eyed maid of heaven;” no invoking of mythical muses that “did never yet one mortal song inspire.” No pouring of new wine into old bottles. No patterning after the dead forms of antiquity. Our literature must live and breathe for itself. Our mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be. The odes of Anacreon the satires of Horace and Juvenal, the epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton; the sublime tragedies of Shakspeare; these are all excellent, all well enough in their way; but we must not attempt to copy them. They cannot be reproduced. We may read, we may gather sweets from all these flowers, but we must build our own hive and honeycomb after God’s supreme design.

We will yet have Miltons and Shakspeares of our own. God’s ammunition is not exhausted. His brightest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. In God’s name and by His help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundations may now be low in earth. Let the smile of derision wreathe the face of scorn; let the frown of hatred darken the brow of bigotry. Small things are the seeds of great things, and, like the acorn that brings forth the oak, or the snow-flake that forms the avalanche, God’s kingdom will grow, and on wings of light and power soar to the summit of its destiny.

Let us onward, then, and upward, keeping the goal in view; living not in the dead past, nor for the dying present. The future is our field. Eternity is before us.

The Contributor, v9 n8, June 1888

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My own response is that Mormon literature has not been nearly as original as Whitney desires. Most of the home literature movement looks to me like an extension of Romanticism, and not really a very original extension at that. I’m less sure about the so-called “lost generation,” who mostly wrote toward the end of Whitney’s life; but my sense is that despite the quality of their writing, it wouldn’t be considered original compared to the American authors who were their contemporaries. And more recent authors? While we clearly have seen some very good writers, I don’t think we can call them original in the sense that Whitney means, as much as I’d like to. Unless I’m misreading Whitney, he seems to be suggesting an entire new literary movement originating in Mormonism. We haven’t seen that kind of originality, I don’t think.

Where does that leave Mormon literature and Whitney’s prediction? Surely both originality and producing new “Miltons and Shakespeares” of our own is more difficult than ever. This kind of originality is a very high bar to reach.

The sense I have now is that Whitney’s sermon may have been taken too directly. Reading it now, I think that he was not just suggesting that Mormon authors strive to write original literature, but seeing that a truly original literature is the inevitable result of developing a gospel culture.

If that is correct, we, Mormons, may have put the cart before the horse, so to speak. Perhaps we need patience in our convictions. Instead of striving for the literature Whitney describes, we might have more success working first on producing literature that helps move our culture forward, so that the potential Whitney describes becomes possible. Instead of achieving Whitney’s vision by direct effort, we reach for an intermediate goal, and achieve the vision indirectly.

While I suspect this indirect approach is needed, achieving even the intermediate goal of a literature that moves our culture forward still looks too difficult, given current attitudes. It still seems like our culture has largely lost the vision that Whitney sought to instill. Like the broader culture around us, by and large Mormons seem to value literary products (including books, film, drama and other narratives, and probably also other forms of media) as entertainment above anything else. My worry with this is that in the process we have lost the ability for our culture to change us for the better. When literature is just entertainment, isn’t it easier to dismiss it as unimportant, rather than let it better our lives?

Regardless, reading Whitney’s words, I am sure of one thing more than anything else: he isn’t talking about a literature that is just entertainment.

6 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Whitney on Originality in Mormon literature

  1. David J. West

    Maybe its because I’m not original enough but I like to have it both ways.

    I want to entertain in my writing but also have something more IF someone can but see it.

  2. Kent Larsen Post author

    David, if I gave the impression that I’m somehow against entertainment, I apologize (although it does kind of seem like that is Whitney’s viewpoint).

    Personally, I think our culture values entertainment a little too much — more than the literature of ideas, certainly. A better balance would be good.

  3. David J. West

    Kent, I didn’t take it like that at all (and I do agree with your assessment of both Whitney and our current cultural milieu.)

    I was just commenting and admitting that I purposefully attempt both.

  4. Mark Penny

    Well, first of all, what in tarnations is a literature, anyway? What literatures do we speak of? We chop the term up by continent, nation, region, period, language, dialect, philosophy and what all. Given those supposed facts, what would we even mean by a Mormon literature? What would make it Mormon? Provenance, values, terminology? Of the people, by the people, for the people?

    Second of all, how would we recognize a Shakespeare or Milton of a Mormon literature? What did those two dudes do that set them apart and could be replicated in our day or days to come? Compose a massive body of original idioms and quotable quotes? Compile a humungus body of erudite allusions?

    I guess it comes down to thought, action and language. A literature that articulates and inspires uniquely Mormon thoughts, records and inspires uniquely Mormon actions, and employs and generates uniquely Mormon language would perhaps qualify as a truly separate Mormon literature. A Mormon Shakespeare would surpass all others in all three areas. A Mormon Milton would write an epic that embodies the hopes, fears and contradictions of the culture.

    I’m up for it.

  5. Mark Penny

    Oh, yeah! And the Shakespeare would have to do his or her thing in a way that all humanity can relate to, like, forever and ever.

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