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.
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
For some time I have looked for ways to promote Mormon literature — ways to put the idea of Mormon literature in front of the public. The best, or most resonant, of Mormon literature needs to become part of our culture in a way that makes at least some works familiar to most members. Getting there involves the long process of educating the culture. Many different ways of promoting literature will need to be used. We need Mormon literary figures on t-shirts and shopping bags. We need fantastic book covers of well-known works to be highly recognizable. We need scenes or snippets of those well-known works to be seen all over. In short, we need Mormon Literature Memes.
Today those of us who are at least somewhat invested in Mormon Literature might be excused if we are defensive when Mormon Literature is attacked as not worthy of attention. I know that I, personally, would say something like “well, its not all that bad” or “I don’t think you’ve read enough of the better works of Mormon Literature to judge…” It turns out, we’re in good company.
Sometime before the following excerpt was written, Utah was attacked for its failure to produce worthy artists, and not just from any readers. Both H. L. Mencken and Bernard DeVoto, the latter a Utah native whose mother was Mormon, criticized the state, saying that it is a land devoid of literature, music, art—not having produced even “a critic, or educator, or editor, or publicist.”
Orson F. Whitney concludes his Home Literature sermon by invoking the blessings that literature has provided to mankind and urging his audience to create literature, not because it is how they should earn a living, but because that literature is needed. This week’s excerpt comes from the final portion of his sermon.
While some may take issue with Whitney’s description (below) of the benefits of literature and the press to mankind, in an overall sense—i.e., compared to NOT having literature or the press—he is clearly correct. our civilization, if we could then call it such, would be immensely poorer without literature.
Orson F. Whitney’s Home Literature sermon lays out a stunning vision, not by describing the role that Mormon literature should serve (as we looked at last week), but also by describing a vision for the kind of literature that Mormonism should produce. This week I thought I’d look at the middle third of the sermon, which talks a bit about originality in literature.
From Whitney’s description (below), I have to ask: has Mormon literature been as original as Whitney envisioned? And, perhaps we might also ask: if Mormon literature were as original as Whitney envisioned, would he like it?
One sermon given by Orson F. Whitney is cited more than any other when we talk about Mormon literature. The sermon was given on June 3rd, 1888 in the Salt Lake Tabernacle during the morning session of the second day of the YMMIA General Annual Conference. Widely considered the impetus for the ‘Home Literature’ movement, it is perhaps best known for the prediction that Whitney, then a Bishop in Salt Lake City, made that Mormonism would “yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.”
If you have studied anything about Mormon literature, I’m sure you have heard of this sermon. Have you read it?
With the advent of the home literature movement in the end of the 19th century, Mormon culture began to produce novels for the first time. For decades church leaders had taught from the pulpit that church members should avoid reading novels because they weren’t “true,” and one speech at a late 1880s YMMIA event by a Salt Lake City-area bishop (although admittedly an influential one—Orson F. Whitney) wasn’t going to change the perception of many church members. The message that reading some novels was acceptable would need to be explained and repeated.