Friday, December 9, 2011

B. H. Roberts on "Legitimate Fiction" and Social Reform

In 1889, the Church was on the brink of making significant policy changes that would fundamentally affect the way its members saw themselves and the world around them. Recognizing this, perhaps, B.H. Roberts, writing under the pseudonym "Horatio," made this passionate plea for the legitimacy of fiction in the Latter-day Saint life. "The dry facts of a theory respecting social reform must be made to live in persons and work out the results desired," he argued, and fiction, more so than "a lengthy homily from the church on the subject," was the way to make them live!  


Note: I've edited the following text for length and bolded the most important stuff for all you skimmers out there.    

from "Legitimate Fiction"
The Contributor 10, 1889
      
But what in the main I wish to call attention to is the fact that it is becoming generally recognized that the medium of fiction is the most effectual means of attracting the attention of the general public and instructing them. The dry facts of a theory respecting social reform must be made to live in persons and work out the results desired. The essayist is a character of the past, the novelist of a certain type is taking his place.
  
Nor is this style of fiction confined to these modern days; it existed in very ancient times, as witness the life of Cyrus by Xenophon. As Cicero says to his brother Quintus, in a letter, "The design of Xenophon in writing the life of Cyrus, was not so much to follow truth, as to give a model of a just government," and I might add, of a prince and a man. To show how effective this style of composition was in the hands of such a master as Xenophon, I introduce an incident which he relates of Cyrus in the before mentioned work. When Cyrus was some twelve years of age he was taken by his mother, Mandane, to visit his grandfather, Astyages, king of Media. Here everything was different from what Cyrus had been accustomed to in Persia. Voluptuousness, intemperance, pride and magnificence were characteristic of it. When the time came for Cyrus to return, a great feast was gotten up in his honor, for he had become a general favorite at the court of Media. At this feast Cyrus was permitted to distribute the meats as he saw proper, which he did, giving such quality and quantity to each of the King's officers, agreeable to his own fancy or pleasure; to one because he had taught him to ride; to another, because he waited well upon his grandfather; to another, because he took great care of his mother; but to the King's cup-bearer he gave nothing. This officer being the one who introduced those who had an audience with the king, and not having procured that privilege for Cyrus as often as he desired it, he was no great favorite with the prince who took this opportunity of showing his resentment.
  
King Astyages was displeased at the slight given one for whom he had a particular regard, because, as he said, of the graceful dexterity with which he served him. "Is that all papa!" said young Cyrus, "if that be sufficient to merit your favor, you shall see I will quickly obtain it; for I will take it upon me to serve you better than he." He left the banquet hall soon to return with a napkin over his shoulder, and holding the cup filled with wine gracefully with three fingers, he approached the king to whom he presented the cup with such charming dexterity and grace that he won the applause of all present, but most of all the praises of the king; "O, Sacas! poor Sacas!" meaning the cup-bearer, "thou art undone; I shall take thy place!" exclaimed the young prince as he kissed the king. Only one ceremony he had omitted, that of pouring a little wine into the left hand and tasting it before handing it to the king, and to this his grandfather now called his attention: "I am mighty well pleased, my dear child: no body can serve me with a better grace; but you have forgotten one essential ceremony, which is that of tasting." "No, it is not through forgetfulness that I omitted the ceremony," replied the young prince. "Why then, for what reason did you do it?" "Because I apprehended there was poison in the liquor." "Poison, child! How could you think so?" "Yes, poison, papa, for not long ago, at an entertainment you gave the lords of your court, after the guests had drunk a little of that liquor, I perceived all their heads were turned; they sang, made a noise, and talked they did not know what; you yourself seemed to have forgotten that you were king, and they, that they were subjects; and when you would have danced, you could not stand upon your legs." "Why, have you never seen the same thing happen to your father?" broke in the king. "No, never," replied Cyrus. "How is it with him then when he drinks?" "Why, when he has drunk, his thirst is quenched, and that's all."
  
It matters not much to us whether the foregoing actually occurred or not. There stands a glorious lesson on intemperance; more impressive than a lengthy homily from the church on the subject; more effective than any mere scientific treatment of the subject, with its learned terms and cold moral precepts could be; at the same time it pleases the fancy with its dramatic force and beautiful simplicity.
  
I can see no harm in such fiction as this; on the contrary, I recognize an effective and pleasing method of teaching doctrine, illustrating principle, exhibiting various phases of character, and making the facts of history at once well known, and giving them an application to human conduct. This class of fiction, indeed, is working its way into our own literature; and stories illustrating the evils overtaking young women, who marry those not of our faith, have appeared both in the Juvenile Instructor and the CONTRIBUTOR. Nor do I think any one reading those stories can doubt their effectiveness; and I am of the opinion that this style of teaching can be employed successfully in other directions.
  
I hope these remarks will not be construed into a defense of those inflammatory, sensational novels,
  
Which, kindling a combustion of desire
With some cold moral think to quench the fire-
Though all their engineering proves in vain,
The dribbling stream ne'er puts it out again.
  
Such works of fiction cannot be too much condemned, nor too severely barred entrance into the household, especially the households of the Saints; and with Cowper I could wish:
  
* * * A verse had power and could command,
  
Far, far away these flesh flies from the land;
Who fasten without mercy on the fair,
And suck and leave a craving maggot there!
  
For with him I agree that-
  
Such writers and such readers owe the gust
And relish of their pleasure all to lust.
  
But while the class of fiction which snivels and drivels folly without end, and is composed of "sentimental frippery and dream," and which mars what it would mend-is to be condemned; it by no means follows that the great works of Scott, Lytton, Thackeray, Dickens, Browning, George Elliot and Victor Hugo are also to be condemned. To bar such works as these from our homes or libraries would be to deny ourselves access to the richest treasures of English literature.
  
Horatio.

I'm not going to comment at length on this piece, but I think it's interesting that the "inflammatory, sensational novels" Roberts condemns are later described as "the class of fiction which snivels and drivels folly without end, and is composed of 'sentimental frippery and dream." In other words, Roberts, like so many Mormon literary critics seventy years later, seemed to have had no time for the fluffy, popular literature of his day. True, he wanted a didactic literature, but Roberts did not, as we often do today, associate "didactic" with bad literature. For him, rather, it seemed to mean a literature that sought to teach and shape the social conscience of the reader. Hence, his endorsement of talented, well-respected writers like Scott, Lytton, Thackeray, Dickens, Browning, Elliot, and Hugo, all of whom wrote powerful works designed to effect some kind of deep social change or another. 

We ought to keep this in mind when we look at the creative efforts of the Mormon writers of Roberts' day.   Were their didactic works little more that trite homilies, or were they powerful instruments of social change within the Mormon community? 

Also, would it be that bad of a thing to say that realistic Mormon fiction today is fundamentally and powerfully didactic?

No comments:

Post a Comment