Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Whitney on the blessings of Literature

8.26.12 | | 2 comments

Orson F. WhitneyOrson F. Whitney concludes his Home Literature sermon by invoking the blessings that literature has provided to mankind and urging his audience to create literature, not because it is how they should earn a living, but because that literature is needed. This week’s excerpt comes from the final portion of his sermon.

While some may take issue with Whitney’s description (below) of the benefits of literature and the press to mankind, in an overall sense—i.e., compared to NOT having literature or the press—he is clearly correct. our civilization, if we could then call it such, would be immensely poorer without literature.

Here how Whitney puts it:

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Home Literature

by Orson F. Whitney

I do not mean to depreciate, or speak slightingly of the literature of the past; such of it, at least, as is worthy of the name. Far be it from me to utter one word that might reasonably be so construed. I wish I had power to tell you what I think literature has done for the human race; what men of letters have accomplished in all ages, from Moses to Herodotus, from Herodotus to Shakespeare, from Shakespeare to Goethe and Carlyle; men who have poured the rich treasures of inspired thought and intelligent research into the lap of humanity, giving birth to civilization and filling earth with fame and glory. I would also speak of the press, that modern giant, that great engine of power, scattering far and wide the embers of intelligence, kindling on ten thousand times ten thousand hearth-stones the fires of thought and noble aspiration; the newspaper, that daily history of the world, champion of truth and defender of the oppressed. how mighty its mission, how far-reaching its influence, how invincible its power! Oh, that it should ever be prostituted, dragged in the mire, degraded to ignoble ends! But alas! it often is so. Therefore, choose between the false and true, between the unreal and the genuine. “Seek ye out of the best books”—the best newspapers—”words of wisdom.” Write for the papers, write for the magazines—especially our home publications—subscribe for them and read them. Make books yourselves, that shall not only be a credit to you, and to the land and people that produced you, but likewise a boon and benefaction to mankind.

It is impossible to compute in figures, or express in words, the blessing that books and book-makers have been to humanity. Let me quote from one whose masterly attempt is perhaps halfway successful. Says Carlyle:

In books lies the soul of the whole past time; the articulate, audible voice of the past, when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream. Mighty fleets and armies, harbors and arsenals, vast cities, high-doomed, many-engined—they are precious, great: but what do they become? Agememnon, the many Agamemnons, Pericleses and their Greece; all is gone now to some ruined fragments, dumb, mournful wrecks and blocks: but the books of Greece! Their Greece, to every thinker, still very literally lives.

With the art of writing, of which printing is a simple, an inevitable and comparatively insignificant corollary, the true reign of miracles for mankind commenced.

The writer of a book, is not he a preacher, preaching not to this parish or that, on this day or that, but to all men, in all times and places?

He with his copy-rights and copy-wrongs, in his squalid garret, in his rusty coat; ruling (for this is what he does) from his grave, after death, whole nations or generations who would, or would not, give him bread while living,—is a rather curious spectacle! Few shapes of heroism can be more unexpected.

Men of letters are a perpetual priesthood, from age to age, teaching all men that a God is still present in their life. * * * In the true literary man there is thus ever, acknowledged or not by the world, a sacredness; he is the light of the world; the world’s priest; guiding it like a sacred pillar of fire, in its dark pilgrimage through the waste of time.[1]

Let us now, for a moment, in the light of this noble interpretation, contemplate the work of a book, a book with which we are all more or less familiar.

Nearly four hundred years have passed away since Columbus discovered America. He found here, what? Forests and Indians, and tropical fruits; little else. But they who came after him found more. Peeping from the crust of the earth, north and south, east and west, were the relics of a civilization that had put to shame the glory of Egypt in her palmiest days. Nations had risen and fallen on this fair land, before whose fame and power the strength of Rome, the wealth of Asia, would have paled as stars before the sun. Whence came they? What were their names? Why had they fallen? None knew. The sad sea waves, and the sighing winds answered not, but continued to chant in mournful numbers their solemn requiem for the dead. The natives could not tell, except in tales and traditions as vague and shadowy as the legends of the Druids, or the runic fables of the Norsemen. Who, then would answer? One day a little boy went into the woods and prayed. God answered him and gave him more than he asked. A book came forth by the power of God; a buried record, hidden in a hill. It told the story of the past, it prophesied of the future, and from that hour, Joseph Smith, the despised Mormon Prophet, became the real discoverer of America.

The Contributor, v9 n8, June 1888

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What again stands out to me is the disconnect between Whitney’s vision and the attitude of most Mormons towards literature. Although in the Victorian era authors first learned how to make a living from writing, Whitney makes no allusion to writing as a career, and even quotes Carlyle, who suggests that writers rule “from the grave… [over] whole nations or generations who would, or would not, give him bread while living…” Clearly Whitney’s expectation is that the writer may not be able to earn a living from his craft. Yet so much of our expectation today is that success as a writer is determined by how much money you make from it.

Whitney’s final paragraph above (3rd from the end in the complete sermon), is, I think, a classic Whitney take on Mormonism. We regularly hear from the pulpit in General Conference, as well as in other Church-related sources, how singularly important the Book of Mormon is to mankind. Still, this is the only reference I’ve seen that places it in the context of discovery. And while Whitney doesn’t indicate that he sees it this way, I wonder if the Book of Mormon might also be seen as discovering important elements of human nature, and even elements of the American psyche—perhaps another way that the Joseph Smith is the “real discoverer of America.”

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[1] FWIW, these quotations are from Carlyle’s On heroes, hero-worship, and the heroic in history, an edited compilation of lectures he gave between 1837 and 1840 which was published in 1841. Each of the paragraphs Whitney gives is a separate quotation, and these excerpts do not appear in the same order in Carlyle’s lecture. However, they are all from the fifth lecture in the book, The hero as man of letters, Johnson, Rousseau, Burns, dated Tuesday, 19th May 1840.

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2 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Whitney on the blessings of Literature

  1. William Morris

    “Write for the papers, write for the magazines—especially our home publications—subscribe for them and read them. Make books yourselves…”

    Amen.

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