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.
Last week Kent asked AMV readers to consider what would make a Mormon theory of literature different. I could be wrong, but I’m assuming that his points of comparison—his different than—are general theories of literature as well as the theories of literature practiced in the Mormon Letters community. In response to Kent’s query, to the responses it received, and to some other things that have been written in the past two years or so about the relationship among Mormons, Mormonism, literature, and theory, I’m developing some ideas on this relationship and the ways it has been theorized by members of the Mormon letters community; as I develop them, I’ll further address some things that I think are vital to this relationship and how it functions as a critical apparatus. I offer the incipient thoughts that make up this post in earnest of the more thorough treatment I’m composing. My primary focus in this brief discussion is to outline the ways theory and Mormonism get talked about in Kent’s post and its thread of responses (at least those made up to Jonathan’s 2/10/14 reply).
I see reference to at least three kinds of theory in the discussion: theories of Mormon literature, theories of Mormons and literature, and Mormon theories of literature. While I plan to elaborate more on these kinds of theory as I develop a more extensive response, for now here’s how I distinguish among them: more →
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 viewpoint1.
Perhaps the most widespread literary art practiced among Mormons is oratory. The three or four weekly sermons given in every LDS congregation, usually by members of that congregation, sum to a formidable amount of practice at public speaking. And while the average active member may speak in church once every few years, local leaders certainly get plenty of practice. I don’t know if prayer should be considered a literary art or not, but if not, then oratory is likely our most commonly used art form.
While perhaps not as important a question as “what is poetry,” the question “what is a poet” is at least a significant part of the former question, if not an independent question. And when Orson F. Whitney defines a poet as a prophet, the definition might seem to be complete. But he sees something more than a simple association with a prophet. To Whitney, both prophets and poets are not made. To put it in familiar Mormon parlance: poets (and prophets) are foreordained to so be. They must be born with the spirit of poesy.
To a large extent, theory is definition. A theory of literature is therefore definition of its many elements and how they work together to allow the creation of literature. And as far as I can tell, before Orson F. Whitney, few Mormons attempted anything near a theory of literature. A few definitions of elements of literature appeared here and there, but no one covered as many elements of literature as Whitney.
In the following extract, also from the 5-part article he published in 1926, Whitney discusses poetry, and after rejecting a common definition, he provides his own: