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:
When Mormon Literature folk think of Orson F. Whitney, it is usually in regard to his 1886 talk that predicted that Mormonism would yet have “Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” But in 1926, after two decades as an Apostle, Whitney was still writing about literature and the role it would play in Mormonism. That year Whitney penned a five-part article for the Improvement Era in which he explored the question of literature and Mormonism, and in doing so came closer than any previous author to a Mormon theory of literature.
Where should literature fit in our priorities? Is it more important to preach the gospel than put on a play? Is culture worth time away from service? While its probably not that simple—one of these things doesn’t necessarily take away from another—still our Mormon culture and its products are often assumed to be less important than the stated gospel priorities of teaching the gospel and redeeming the dead. The following passage shows that the Church doesn’t (or at least didn’t) see it that way.
Drawing on Mormon elements to make things interesting, exciting for a national audience is the easiest opportunity and one worth doing.
Speaking to the mass American Mormon audience and mirroring their concerns and values is another opportunity. It’s less interesting to me, but it has its place.
Critiquing Mormon-American culture and the LDS Church from a place of disaffected Mormonism is another opportunity. It’s less interesting to me, but it has its place.
Providing realistic but faithful portrayals of the daily lives of Mormons is another opportunity — and one of my favorites.
But none of those truly leverage the simple fact that many American Mormons are well-positioned (because of assimilation; because of our dual citizenship) to critique the various main streams of American culture in a non-reductive, original, LDS-infused way. This is not done very often. It is very interesting to me.
By now everyone has read Mark Oppenheimer’s article on Mormon literature in the New York Times. Typical in its approach, it highlights Mormon successes in genre fiction and offers a few explanations for why these successes happen and why they aren’t more forthcoming in a Mormon-flavored “Realist literature for adults.” The reasons he puts forth seem to be as follows: Mormons are uncomfortable with realism, Mormons are afraid of “church disapproval,” and Mormons are culturally geared towards a “sunny outlook” that privileges uplifting narratives over realistic literature that presents sex, violence, and swearing without judgment and moralizing.
In his eloquent and insightful response to this article, George Handley rightly calls Oppenheimer out on these reasons, particularly the notion that literary greatness is some alchemic mixture of “great suffering,” book sales, and national recognition. Mormon writers, Handley suggest, have made great strides irrespective of these factors, and will likely keep doing so “before the rest of the world notices.” For him, rather, Mormons have “underachieved” in the realm of realistic Mormon literature—or “Great Mormon Literature”—as a result of a number of cultural flaws: their reliance on “triumphalist rhetoric,” a “thirst after quick and easy forms of [cultural] vindication,” and rather narrow ideas “about what constitutes a Mormon identity.” In making this argument, he seems to echo Samuel W. Taylor’s 46-year-old claim that Mormon literature is the captive of “positive-thinkers,” or public-relations-minded Mormons who police their people’s output for the sake of pleasing and appeasing public opinion. He also suggests—taking a cue, perhaps, from Nephi Anderson’s account of the artist in Zion—that Mormons need to do a better job of being a community that cares for (and about) its artists—including artists whose works are neither nationally recognized nor compatible with the ideology and aesthetics of “positive-thinking” Mormons.
For many Mormons today, a play about a murderous school teacher would be hard to classify as “uplifting.” And while I would be surprised to hear anyone today suggest that all drama was in conflict with the gospel, the condemnation of the media today by many Mormons hardly seems different. But in the search for what is “uplifting” it might be nice to define what we mean by that term.
While I’m a little embarrassed that it has taken me 3 months to get back to this series, I’m pleased to pick it up again and hope that it is warmly received. I’ve also updated my list of these posts and discovered that I’ve already produced 77 (including the present number) and, more importantly, have enough material to continue for quite a while.
Nor have I quite finished with the writ and wisdom of Whitney. In the preface to his 1889 poetry collection, Poetical Writings, he recognizes the aversion of some readers to religious poetry, apparently because critics found so much of it of low quality. Whitney, of course, disagreed: more