As I understand it, university-level Mormon literature courses have been taught since the late 1970s, mainly at BYU thanks to the efforts of Eugene England. In recent years the number of courses have increased, and currently exist at least at BYU, LDS Business College and Utah Valley University. And there have been courses with Mormon literature components taught elsewhere as well.
But the university level isn’t the only place where Mormon literature courses could be taught, and as I’ve already noted, the idea of using Mormon writing to teach children, at least, occurred to Parley P. Pratt quite early. Now, I’ve come across another course, this one aimed at Relief Society sisters in 1948. And this course was apparently taught—at least in some Relief Societies. Still better, its author was a recently retired English professor who had taught for 19 years at New York University.
In the past 40 years the descriptions of Mormon literature published by Eugene England and his successors have designated oratory as one of the primary forms of our literary output, one that Church members are most familiar with. It is in oratory, as well as the personal essay, that Mormons are sometimes thought to excel. Given the pattern of Mormon worship, that makes sense.
But we also might ask whether a strength in oratory is best for our literature. Are some forms of literature inherently better than others? And does the Mormon view differ from that of others who have examined literature?
Its no surprise that Orson F. Whitney had has opinion about oratory:
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.
What makes poetry work? Why is it different than fiction and other genres? I’m not sure any scientific answer is possible to this question, since it involves so many elements, many of which simply can’t be measured objectively. But this view hasn’t kept appraisers of literature from trying to say what makes poetry different.
Part of the difference is found in the “music” of poetry—its use of rhythm, rhyme and other features to connect to the reader or hearer of its words.
As a non-fiction literary form, the essay is sometimes left out when we consider literature—fiction, drama and poetry seem to get the bulk of attention. But the essay is a well-developed and commonly used form, and I’ve even heard claims (can’t remember where at the moment) that Mormons excel at the essay.
So what makes it different than other forms? Is there something about the essay that is more appealing or more conducive to Mormon thought? The following article might answer these questions to some degree.
I’ve been listening to course lectures from a Theory of Literature course by Paul Fry of Yale University available through Apple’s iTunesU. If nothing else I hope that by carefully working through these lectures I can work through my inadequacy in discussing some aspects of literature. But I also hope that the course will help me organize what I’ve found in my “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon” series.
The course is fascinating and entertaining (at least to me)—I wish I had somehow managed to cover this material years ago. It has led me to ponder a bit about where Mormons are in terms of literary theory. We’ve explored the ideas of Mormon criticism and Mormon theory of literature here on AMV a little, but I’m not sure that, outside of the idea of Wm’s “radical middle,” we’ve come up with anything particularly unusual—although we’ve certainly argued, as Mormons tend to do, about the details of things like the role of evil in literature and the presence or absence of sex, profanity and violence in literature. We certainly haven’t outlined any theory of literature or even discussed what structure such a theory would need. I’m not even sure yet if anyone has talked much about literary theory from a Mormon viewpoint.
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.
I’ve been following Margaret Young’s plans to teach the “Literature of the Latter-day Saints” class at BYU this coming semester, and I was pleased to see that she has posted her reading list for the course on her blog, and plans to post “parts of the class” on her blog also. I even suggested to my BYU student daughter that she take the class.
Nope. That won’t work. In addition to the students who have grabbed one of the 30 seats for the class, there is a waiting list of 63 (as of this morning).