Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Preface to Pratt’s Mormon Reader

7.15.13 | | 4 comments

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Perhaps the most basic claim in the study of Mormon Literature is that Mormon Literature is a separate literature at all—that it is significantly different from everything else in its literary environment—and, if it is different, when and how it became different. At the start of the Home Literature movement in 1886, Orson F. Whitney argued that the Mormon people needed and deserved a literature of their own, and sparked the creation of such a literature (although, I suppose it might be argued that what resulted was not significantly different from other American literature of the period). But Whitney was not the first to see a separate Mormon literature. I recently discovered a document that shows Parley P. Pratt not only believed such a literature already existed, but planned to anthologize it.

By early in his career in the nascent Mormon movement, Parley P. Pratt already saw himself as a literary figure. He may have been the first to write Mormon poetry, and was certainly the first to publish a volume of Mormon literature, his The Millennium, published in Boston in 1835. He was also perhaps the first Mormon playwright. And, he was apparently the first to see that Mormonism had created what might be called a separate literature.

In November 1844, the following article appeared in the Nauvoo Neighbor, the town’s mostly secular weekly newspaper (the better-known semi-monthly Times and Seasons was more religious and avoided more mundane local news, similar to how the Ensign differs from the Deseret News):

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Literary

It is with pleasure we offer the following preface to a book, which, if selected and compiled with the same wisdom and spirit that characterizes this, will be one step towards Mormon Literature; and so long as Mormonism must make the world better, the sooner we can teach it to the children the better. The author did not intend to publish his preface yet; but we took the ‘responsibility’ of trying what virtue there was among the Saints for the encouragement of genius; so here it is:

THE MORMON READER.

Designed for the improvement of youth of both sexes; and expressly adapted to the more advanced classes in school. By P. P. Pratt, Nauvoo, Ill., A. D. 1844.

PREFACE.

The increase of light, the progress of events, the enlargement of intellect, and the fulfilment of ancient promises and predictions in the present age of the world, have opened a new and extensive field for the exercise of talent; and for the development of the most pure and brilliant items of intellect which had else, remained buriedlike the pearl in the bosom of the great deep, or the ore in the depth of the mine.

The rich and varied productions of this new field have already accumulated so extensively, that we can have in store a great variety of original pieces, both in poetry and prose, which for purity of sentiment, style and eloquence, have few equals and no superiors, either in ancient or modern times.

These embrace subjects of intense interest, to the present and rising generations, not merely as specimens of eloquence or beautiful composition, but as containing sentiments and truths, adapted to our own age and circumstances, and in a great measure free from the errors, traditions and superstitions which are unavoidable which are unavoidably interwoven with the otherwise beautiful and useful compositions of former times.

The object of the author, in preparing this work, is to embody and lay before the public, and also to perpetuate such of these as are best calculated to improve the understanding, to inform the judgment—to refine the taste, and to inspire the youthful mind with the noblest and purest sentiments of truth. And also to preserve the minds of the rising generation, from incorrect tradition and sectarian superstition and error.

Why should an American youth of the nineteenth century be refered to:

Some sanguine field of Afric’s sultry plains!
Or list to Hannibal’s heroic strains?
Have we no patriot’s speech to ponder o’er!
No deeds! no words—no thoughts—no fields of gore.

Or why should we be indebted to a Roman Senate, a Grecian theatre—or to a Cicero or Demosthenes; or some ancient bard for themes, and words to instruct our youth? Have we no senate—no statesmen—no orators—no poets—no original themes for the exercise of thought and talent?

Or has the world been petrified, or stereotyped, or buried like Herculaneum, or Pompeii, for the last thousand years?

Again, why should a Latter-day Saint, while blessed with the glorious fulness of the gospel, and with the light of modern revelation, shining around him with the splendor of noonday, and with the kingdom and laws of God established on the earth for the restoration of all things, and the ushering in of the Millenium, be refered to the speech of Wm. Pitt, in the British Parliament, to the history of Columbus? or to the deeds and speeches of our early American statesmen and heroes? or to some thrilling scene of the Revolution, as to the only subjects worth his attention?

Is he not engaged in a revolution of greater magnitude—in a mightier struggle—in a more terrible war—in a work more lasting in its influence, and more extensive in its bearing upon men and things, than were our fathers? yes verily he is. Does he not witness more mighty achievments; more heroic deeds, more noble efforts, more generous sacrifices, more sufferings and patience, and perseverance, and finally, more triumphant victories than can be furnished in the history of the past? He certainly does.

Then of course it may be inferred that in proportion to the magnitude of the work, and to the greatness and sublimity of the theme which occupies the human mind, its powers are increased and expanded, and its strength and beauties are developed.

Our orators, our statesmen, our heroes, our patriots, poets and martyrs, present superior claims to our attention, while they speak in words that burn—or while they live to conquer.

Or die, to live again
And conquer all, and reign.

Nauvoo Neighbor, v2 n30,
27 November 1844, p. 2

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To my knowledge the Mormon Reader was never produced. Exactly how far Pratt got in compiling materials for the volume we will likely never know in this life. About a month after the above article was published, Pratt departed for New York City to take charge of the mission there and smooth over the problems caused by the Prophet’s younger brother, Apostle William Smith. By the time he returned to Nauvoo, the city was in chaos and secondary education, the target of this project, was likely far from his mind. Thus, the Mormon Reader was never published.

The Neighbor was published by John Taylor, with the assistance of W. W. Phelps, and it is likely the latter who wrote the first paragraph of the article, introducing Pratt’s preface. Phelps was clearly enthusiastic about the project, and was likely himself a booster of Mormon Literature, given his own contributions to it.

In thinking about this project, Pratt faced and addressed some of the questions that we today should face. He argues for the need for a Mormon Literature, gives basic qualifications for judging literature, and roots his ideas in Mormonism. While it is clear that Pratt overstates some of his claims, I believe that in this work he is the first to treat Mormon Literature as a field worthy of anthologizing and study.

So what is Pratt’s argument that Mormon literature should and is different? Pratt early in the preface argues that the introduction of the gospel has “opened a new and extensive field for the exercise of talent,” apparently suggesting that the content of new Mormon doctrine is what creates this field—Mormonism, he is suggesting, is a different field because its ideas are different.

He then goes on to suggest that, like revelation, literature must be relevant to its times. He says:

… why should a Latter-day Saint, while blessed with the glorious fulness of the gospel, and with the light of modern revelation, shining around him with the splendor of noonday, and with the kingdom and laws of God established on the earth for the restoration of all things, and the ushering in of the Millenium, be refered to the speech of Wm. Pitt, in the British Parliament, to the history of Columbus?…

Also as with revelation, I assume that Pratt is not rejecting older literature, like the speeches of Pitt and the history of Columbus as without any merit at all, but that such works should be used:

in proportion to the magnitude of the work, and to the greatness and sublimity of the theme which occupies the human mind

Despite these claims, it might seem fantastic that Pratt could hope to pull together enough material for a short anthology. As far as I can tell, by late 1844 the bulk of the material, outside of scripture, available for populating an anthology was poetry and sermons or doctrinal expositions. But there were several hundred published Mormon poems at this point, and dozens of published sermons and doctrinal expositions, to say nothing of the essays, letters and histories available. Add the uniquely Mormon scripture available and, such an anthology doesn’t seem quite so far fetched.

There is much more in Pratt’s views that should be examined and researched. I hope to work more with this text and the claims it makes. I think it makes a fascinating statement of how Mormons viewed their literary production, and the purpose of literature, in late 1844.

4 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Preface to Pratt’s Mormon Reader

  1. Mahonri Stewart

    What a great find, Kent!
    Do you think that Pratt’s _The Mormon Prisoners_ was being prepared for this anthology, and its interruption may have caused Pratt not to finish that piece?

  2. Th.

    .

    What a shame it was never completed. The history of this field would be so different.

  3. Wm Morris

    “Is he not engaged in a revolution of greater magnitude—in a mightier struggle—in a more terrible war—in a work more lasting in its influence, and more extensive in its bearing upon men and things,”

    Wow. Agreed — great find, Kent.

    What’s interesting to me is that this places Pratt in the company of the other ethnic/minor literatures that came to the same realizations at around the same time or even more towards the latter part of the century.

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