One element often overlooked in literary history is the society at a given point in time and the relationships among participants in literature and the arts. Too often we reduce literary history to lists of books and descriptions of literary works, while giving short shrift to the relationships that may have influenced significant literature and the personalities of those who wrote literary works.
The other day when I read the following excerpt, I initially wanted to simply research the names listed, looking at what they wrote and making sure that their work hasn’t been forgotten. But I soon realized that I was also fascinated by the personalities of those mentioned and their relationships.
The 1930s is certainly not the distant past, but somehow I never thought of what literary society at BYU might have been like, nor what impression a teacher like Alfred Osmond (usually remembered today as a poet) might have been like. Here’s Samuel W. Taylor’s take, as well as his view of Mormon literary society at BYU in the 1930s:
from The Ordeal of Lowry Nelson and the Mis-spoken Word
by Samuel W. Taylor
There had been an easy rapport between Lowry Nelson and me—two gadflies—for some fifty years, ever since we both belonged to a literary group of faculty members and students at Brigham Young University. Lowry was then dean of the College of Applied Science, while I was a brash, know-it-all student who had began publishing in national magazines. Other faculty members of the group included M. Wilford Poulson, who was the entire psychology department. He was secretly accumulating his monumental library on early Mormonism. A. C. Lambert was also mining the same vein and secretly writing the untold story of LDS history and doctrine, a passion which lasted half a century. At this time we knew only that he was contributing to educational journals.
Both Lambert and Poulson got into serious trouble because of their research. When A. C.’s secret quest was discovered, I believe it cost him his position on the faculty. When Poulson published an article which established that the Word of Wisdom reflected popular public sentiment at the time Joseph Smith gave it as wise advice to the Saints, a local zealot tried to have him sacked at the university and tried for his membership for this heresy.
Other faculty members of the group included gentle Elsie C. Carroll, author and patron of the arts, who annually awarded a gold medal for the best Christmas story (and my search for the winner one year, Gay Dimick, ultimately resulted in marriage). Harrison R. Merrill, who later became editor of the Improvement Era, vied with Alfred Osmond for the title of “Poet Lariat,” each contributing voluminous doggerel rhymes as commentary on the cultural scene to the Provo Herald. And I wonder whatever happened to doggerel verse anyhow? In my opinion this was the best writing of both Merrill and Osmond. And it was the only type of acceptable humor published in Provo at that time.
Alfred Osmond was the only member of that family whom I knew personally. He taught creative writing, and I will attest that his histrionics in reading a manuscript in class was a dramatic exhibition surpassing any subsequent performance by Donny and Marie. One morning in class I watched, fascinated, as a fly wandered close to the mobile mouth while Alf performed, the insect gleaning the remains of Professor Osmond’s breakfast. And then—gulp—it vanished inside. “Swallowed a fly,” he wheezed. He inserted his hand halfway to the wrist into his mouth, then triumphantly brought it forth. “And here it is!”
Professor Osmond had scant admiration for my literary output, nor did I for his. His criticism was always the same: “Come to the point at once.” Atmosphere, characterization, dramatic progression, suspense, the narrative hook, the plants, the turnover at the climax—all this meant nothing to him. Of course I was writing for the national market, which he didn’t understand, and he for the captive internal press, where the vital element was the faith-promoting factor.
He tried, however, to break into the big time. He wrote a novel, Married Sweethearts, and had it published by a local printer. “I know it would make a great movie,” he said, “but I can’t get anybody in Hollywood to read it.” I admit that I tried to, and then I agreed with a student friend who said, “Nor anybody in Provo.”
Dialogue, v26 n3, Fall 1993, p. 92-93
Of course, we have to read this while realizing that this is just Taylor’s view of what that time was like and what the individuals named were like.
Still, it kind of makes me wish I were back there and had witnessed the interactions of this literary society. Its very different from today.