Sunday, April 17, 2011

"The Raw Material for a Literature Absolutely Unique"

This past week I received an email from Theric at Thmazing's Thutopia directing me to this, the introduction to Nephi Anderson's 1912 novel, Piney Ridge Cottage: The Love Story of a "Mormon" Country Girl. The introduction was written by the nearly-forgotten John Henry Evans, who, we quickly learned, was at one time a prominent Mormon man of letters (and, later, Joseph Smith's first major biographer).

What he had to say in 1912 continues to be relevant for Mormon writers and critics 99 years later.


INTRODUCTORY.

"Mormonism" has been a distinct influence in the world now for exactly eighty-two years. During this time it has become a great and notable institution; formed a people, unique in many respects; given direction to tens of thousands of minds; shaped destinies; created an atmosphere, an environment, the like of which you can find nowhere else; has impressed on its adherents, consciously or unconsciously, a philosophy of life, an outlook on the world.

Here then is the raw material for a literature absolutely unique. Here is a means of untold wealth, awaiting the discovering genius and the transforming touch of modern labor and machinery. It surpasses in literary opportunity that which made fame for the authors of the "Luck of Roaring Camp," the "Octopus," the "Virginian," the "Gentleman from Indiana," the Winning of Barbara "Worth," "A Certain Rich Man," the "New England Nun," and scores of other works of fiction which have their setting in this or that part of the country, and which depict characters and scenes peculiar to a given locality. We may go even further than this. We have that in our community life and religion which ought to produce literature with the universal note.

But there are two things that hinder the development of pure literature among us. The first is the hesitancy with which many of our people take up fiction and poetry. We are a sober, an earnest, almost a puritan people, and it is hard for us to exercise patience with that which is not fact, and we forget that artistic truth may be really higher than a mere fact. And then, too, if a story like this of Mr. Anderson's, be in local color, its reading public is bound to be comparatively small, even if most "Mormon" families buy it. No writer among us today therefore, can live wholly by his pen. And until our writers can live wholly by their pen, devoting all their mind and heart and leisure to creative work, we cannot expect to see them do the best of which they are capable in literature.

I plead, therefore, for more encouragement of our home writers. If we are to have anything substantial and permanent in our literature, we must do it ourselves. For although outsiders are beginning now to use this raw material of ours, still they cannot do anything of real and lasting value, no matter how much art they put into their work, because they are outsiders, lacking the sympathetic insight with what they try to depict—which is indispensable to high creative work.

Let us be loyal to our own. Let us lend encouragement to him who lives by the sweat of his brain, as we are already loyal to him who lives by the sweat of his brow. Let us imbibe and help our children to imbibe, the influence that comes from work which has been beaten out on our home anvils under an impulse which has come from our own morality and high seriousness.

John Henry Evans.

Salt Lake City, Utah, April, 1912.

I don't see a real need to add anything more to Evans's words, but I will say this: Mormon literature continues to need a larger reading audience. I'm not one of those who is cynical about Mormon reading habits. Most Mormons I talk to read books of one kind or another--and not just the fluffy stuff (as the stereotype goes). My wife's Relief Society book club, for example, has tackled some pretty heady books, like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and no one seemed to complain. I think they'd willingly tackle Angela Hallstrom's Bound on Earth or Todd Robert Petersen's Rift if they 1) knew about them and 2) had access to them.

Part of what motivates this blog is that I want people to know that these books exist. But awareness only goes so far without access. Unless we can get Mormon literature into the hands of the Mormons, they're not going to read them. I'm sure small-press Mormon publishers can talk about their frustrations with the access issue.

So, echoing Anderson, I plead for "more encouragement for our home writers," particularly those who publish through the small literary presses. There are good Mormon novels out there--heady novels that push beneath the fluffy "gee-whiz" exteriors that many readers associate with Mormon literature. These books are packed with the "raw material" of Mormonism, and they need to be read by Mormons.

Sadly, libraries outside of Utah don't carry a lot of these books, and we Mormons are a thrifty people. Fortunately, the rise rise of eBooks and eReaders are making books and publishing less expensive and more accessible. It could be that Mormon literature will finally get a more substantial following once devices like the Kindle and Nook become the norm.

I hope this will be the case over the next 99 years.

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