Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #86: Ramona Wilcox Cannon on the spiritual in literature

3.2.14 | | one comment

Literary theory often leaves out any spiritual element or claim—something that separates religious thinkers and writers from others. I believe that the role of spirituality in literature is particularly important in Mormonism, since we believe in personal revelation and that such revelation is relevant to everyday tasks, such as writing and consuming literary works. I believe, therefore, that spirituality must be an important element of any Mormon literary theory.

Nor is my belief unique. For example, Ramona Wilcox Cannon decried the lack of spirituality in the following article in 1926.

Ramona (1887-1976) was just the third woman to earn a masters degree from the University of Utah and was unapologetic in her pursuit of education and intellect, which she applied both for the benefit of her family and the Church. A strong-willed child, Ramona heard of the famous decennial passion play at Oberammergau at age nine and soon began saving to make the trip, reaching her goal in 1910 at age 23. After seeing the pageant, Ramona was escorted around Europe by her brother, who had just completed a mission to Germany, and then stayed in Germany for a year, studying at the Royal University of Berlin. She earned a certificate and eventually became proficient in five languages (English, Latin, German, Spanish and French). Returning from Europe, Ramona studied at the University of Utah while she taught school, earning her master’s degree in 1914. While working on the Church’s 24th of July parade a few months later she met Joseph J. Cannon, a widower with three children, and before the end of the year they were married.

Joseph had business interests in Colombia, leaving Ramona at home with the children for months at a time. The couple decided to move their family there in 1919, staying for two years until the business interests failed. Returning to Utah, Joseph became the editor of the Deseret News, and, after 3 years was called to serve as mission president in England, bringing his family with him. Joseph died in 1945, only six years after the family returned to the U.S. In the ensuing years, Ramona built an impressive record writing the “Women’s Sphere” column for the Relief Society Magazine during a 28-year span and eventually the “Confidentially Yours” advice column in the Deseret News, where she was known as Mary Marker for 25 years.

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Inner Dimensions

by Ramona Wilcox Cannon

The spiritual life is of such consequence to us that we may be showered with material luxuries and yet feel starved and unhappy. And on the other hand, there are many whose claims to material prosperity are humbl« indeed, who walk in a spiritual beauty that clothes their lives with radiance.

History repeats itself. All down the line nations at the height of their spiritual glory, have glowed and prospered, and, that glory once departed in favor of purely material magnificence, they have crumbled to decay.

It is a source of wonderment that, with so many examples before our eyes, the modern world, including America, should be veering rapidly away from the spiritual light of life. To realize that this is true, we need only glance at our modern literature, for literature always reflects its age. Too much of ours is dominated by a great fear—the fear of “maudlin sentimentality.” The thought that authors may

make their characters appear sentimental about marriages, for instance, leads them to present the realism of marriage, and that modern realism is the material side—the ugly, the crass.—It means dishwashing for the woman, the pay envelope for the man drudgery, shackles, passion —not the high communion of two immortal spirits, the joint service to God and man of two intelligent beings. There is a tendency today to blush with embarrassment at- the thought of possessing a soul— thing that cannot be seen and touched, or weighed and measured, or tasted and enjoyed.

Note the skeptical attitude of the majority of our magazines. Technical skill today is of a high order; but the stories we read have, for the most part, very little stimulation.

“By their fruits ye shall know them.” Are not Main Street, and The Spoon River Anthology, and other such products of our realistic, modern age, poor substitutes for Ruskin, Dickens, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Emerson, and the many other big souls cradled by an age that loved God and respected man’s higher life?

Was it not Matthew Arnold who felt the change approaching, and bewailed the fact, commenting to the effect that he saw spirituality ebbing away from England like a full tide leaving her dry and barren?

The same result is manifest in the field of education. …

It will not help us to grow pessimistic about these conditions and sit down and sigh or wring our hands. But it will help us to look them squarely in the face, and see what we can do about them.

First, we must remember that the brighter side exists. There are still fine influences operating in our literature, education, politics, and other channels of national life. We all know so many good peo- ple that we cannot believe in the ultimate evil of the world or of the coming generation. But this lack of spiritual values, this scoffing at what should be sacred—this utter independence of the thinking-machine and isolation of it from the soul-machine—is a grave danger. If we could take a census in our own country, I am quite sure that we would find the vast majority of our citizens desiring decent living, wholesome habits and even lofty ideals. We are not the gross materialists we are sometimes charged with being. We have made mistakes and wish to correct them. Our flare for figures is one force that is coming to our rescue. Psychologists are studying criminology, and the reasons and cures thereof. That will help. People are doing all kinds of intelligent work in prisons and reformatories, and that helps, too, though not nearly so much as preventive measures.

The difficulty throughout the country seems to be that the majority are a little too quiescent. It happens that many of those who are in the limelight are operating destructively to the interests of the race, and those who believe more sanely and rightly are sitting back not doing much. Concerted effort can accomplish miracles. It can make teachers realize that if they have nothing constructive to offer to their classes in the little asides from their subjects to which all teachers are addicted, they would better overcome the “aside” habits, and stay with their texts instead of giving young people constant snacks of unwholesome personal opinion, or of prevalent synicism or pessimism.

Those who believe in spiritual standards and development should exchange silent acquiescence for propaganda. They should raise their voices until their influence is felt and reflected in our literature and education and politics and churches. They should acclaim the fine and splendid things that are still being done, but too often without appreciation, and decry the things which are harmful.

Improvement Era, v29 n11
September 1926, p. 1005-1009

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While I agree with the premise that spirituality does have an important role in literature, I’m not sure that I agree with Cannon about how spirituality should appear in literature. I’m certainly not willing to use her criteria to dismiss Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street and Edgar Lee Masters’ The Spoon River Anthology. I believe there is a lot of value in those works, The realism that Cannon decries has, I think, an important role to play.

But , I do find her claim that too much of our literature is “dominated by a great fear—the fear of “maudlin sentimentality” intriguing. While it is surely true that too much sentimentality makes for poor literature, I think it is reasonable to suggest that it is also possible to have too little sentimentality. We do want to feel something when we read a novel or story, don’t we?

And although I don’t agree with Cannon’s views exactly, I do find her call to arms stirring—at least a little bit. I agree with her when she says “The difficulty throughout the country seems to be that the majority are a little too quiescent.” And later she adds, “Those who believe in spiritual standards and development should exchange silent acquiescence for propaganda.”

Indeed. Now if she had just been talking about Mormon literature…

Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #86: Ramona Wilcox Cannon on the spiritual in literature

  1. Wm Morris

    More proof that Mormon literature has a strong post-romantic rather than modernist streak to it. Thanks, Kent.

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