A few years ago I presented a paper at the Association for Mormon Letters called, "Our Mormon Renaissance." It has to do with early and ongoing aspirations of Latter-day Saints to achieve the cultural greatness largely identified with the fertile period of the Renaissance. Hope you enjoy it.
Our Mormon Renaissance
Annual of the Association for Mormon Letters, 2004 (Provo, UT: Association for Mormon Letters, 2004): 1-7
Gideon O. Burton
The Association for Mormon Letters
February 22, 2003
Utah Valley State College
Renaissance. The very word conjures notions of possibility. It means revival, rebirth, and by this term we celebrate the best of human creativity, the realization of our greatest potential in art and literature. Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Galileo, Cellini, Montaigne, Raphael, Gutenburg, Giotto, Petrarch, Castiglione, Cervantes, Copernicus, Michelangelo, Milton–in the bright shadow of these leading lights, is it presumptuous to name a Mormon Renaissance? Is it an embarrassing understatement, an oxymoron? Of course it is! You can’t compare My Turn on Earth to King Lear, or Arnold Friberg to Leonardo Da Vinci, or an Enrichment meeting refrigerator magnet to Ghiberti’s baptistry doors in Florence. That’s just not fair. The European Renaissance looms so large, its accomplishments are so rich and vast, that the artistic and literary achievements of our people in comparison could only seem, well, very small indeed.
Our culture is in the same position as British culture was in the early sixteenth century. The Italian Renaissance had been underway for two hundred years by then, and English authors looked back at Castiglione or Petrarch in Italy with shame and envy. And they should have been ashamed and envious, for English literature was in pretty bad shape. John Skelton, for example, wrote many poems with form and content like this one, whose lines describe a grotesque moonshiner:
With a whim wham
Knit with a trim tram
Upon her brain pan;
Like an Egypt-i-an. (77)
And this from the poet laureate of both Cambridge and Oxford! English literature was in trouble. Writers like Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard began to imitate Petrarch’s sonnets. But it took most of the sixteenth century for British writers to experiment with poetic meters that actually sounded good. We often think of Shakespeare representing the Renaissance, but long before Shakespeare came the experimenters who were less successful with their subjects and their sounds. Consider Richard Stanyhurst, who diligently translated Virgil’s Aeneidinto English, producing lines like these:
Madness hath enchanted your wits, you townsmen unhappy?
Ween you, blind hoddypecks, the Greekish navy returned? [...]
But lo! To what purpose do I chat such janglery trim-trams? (556-57)
To what purpose? I think I know. A few janglery trim-trams must be coughed out before “To be or not to be” can come to be. The European Renaissance was a period of 300 years. For the Mormon Renaissance, patience is in order–as well as tolerance and encouragement for those in the apprenticeship of their craft, or those who are willing to experiment with new forms of expression or media. In the 19th century, less than 20 Mormon novels were published. In the 20th century, there have been a thousand. Mormon pens have awakened, and we would do better to measure and commend each moment of literary progress, than to await the messianic arrival of some future Mormon Milton.
For this reason the Association for Mormon Letters presents its awards, prints its publications, and holds its conferences: to encourage and critique Mormon authors. For nearly thirty years we have been teaching one another upon whose shoulders we must stand to reach upward. I wholeheartedly believe Wayne Booth’s dictum that Mormons will never attain a great artistic culture until we have achieved a great critical culture (32), for until we learn discernment, until we can separate the wheat from the chaff aesthetically and ethically, we would not even recognize a Mormon Shakespeare if we had one. You will forgive me if I suggest that, after examining hundreds of Mormon publications and products, there yet remains some winnowing to be done.
Criticism was a central component animating the European Renaissance, for the Renaissance was not simply a period in which genius somehow flourished; those accomplishments occurred in response to and in very conscious appreciation of superior works of art that had preceded them. Paradoxically, the great strides forward of the Renaissance were only possible by looking steadfastly backward. They looked to models of the greatest works of literature among the Greeks and Romans, and strove to imitate the powers they perceived in poets like Horace and Ovid, in orators like Cicero and Demosthenes, in playwrights like Terence and Seneca, and in the epic writers Homer and Virgil. The past, they felt, was passport to their future. They felt inferior to what was written long before, and in this strong humility they found a patience to observe the formal qualities of Latin syntax or of Greek constructions, and studied the classical authors as much for their form and style as for content, for their rhetoric, their arrangement, their use of reasoning and their riches of rhythm. The ancient writers were held in awe, but the Renaissance humanists turned their awe into analysis, knowing they could never match the achievements of the ancients without understanding their methods.
I believe we have the same inferiority complex as Renaissance authors did, but I don’t know that we have transformed those feelings of inadequacy into a similar humility in which we are willing to study carefully exemplary authors from the past. As a writing teacher I am continually amazed how many students fancy themselves to be writers without bothering to be readers. The greatest writers know their debts to generations who preceded them, and in their long apprenticeships have tried on words, styles and forms they found effective in the greatest writers. Shakespeare was derivative, and gloriously so. I do not mean he simply borrowed plots. He studied and transformed the genres he had read, from Senecan tragedy to pastoral romance. His sonnets also show him working by imitation, closely observing specific rhetorical strategies and patterns from his predecessors. The great Renaissance literary works came about as acts of emulation.
Can we pretend to achieve Mormon Shakespeares if we will not imitate Shakespeare’s respect for and careful study of his predecessors? Can we pretend to aspirations in the novel if we will not study how the best of novels work, both in our own tradition and the larger world? I have read some current LDS domestic fiction, and know full well the authors have read neither Jane Austen nor John Updike. I see some LDS Young Adult fiction whose authors haven’t bothered with E. B. White or with LDS writer Virginia Sorensen’s Miracles on Maple Hill, which won the Newbery Medal in 1957. And if Mormon writers of popular fiction have read Dickens or Twain, it is not very apparent. Do you want to write a philosophical novel but have not read Herman Melville or Umberto Eco? We have popular historical novels in spades now, but have these authors read Stephen Crane, Irving Stone, Lew Wallace, Gore Vidal? Any Mormon writing historical fiction better have read Maurine Whipple’s Giant Joshua and Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower than the Angels. We condemn ourselves to a cycle of ephemeral pulp unless and until we follow a literary spirit of Elijah, turning to our literary forefathers and foremothers, preparing for our children works that will outlast the first paper they are printed on.
Such looking back and looking closely at our literary heritage does not suit well today's produce-and-consume markets, where appetites are quickly fed and satisfied with little accounting to the past or to the future. When the entire culture has Attention Deficit Disorder, it takes an act of bravery to look over one's shoulder even a decade or two, or to look beyond the afternoon's bestseller list into a lasting future. Planned obsolescence is the reality of contemporary publishing, and Mormon markets, like national ones, feed on novelty, not necessarily quality, and there is always the distinct possibility that a popular success may be falsely equated with literary success. In contrast to today’s book marketing, I think of the publisher Aldus Manutius in Renaissance Venice. Committed to issuing the best texts of the best literary authors of antiquity, his press put out quality, affordable editions of almost every significant Greek and Latin author and made possible the growth of those humanist studies that became the backbone of a liberal education to this day.
If we look back to the early days of Mormonism we can find this same Renaissance hunger for good literature, an a appreciation of things literary that went beyond gift books and doctrinal treatises. “We have an ardent desire to increase the value of our literary productions,” said Elder Francis Lyman in 1899, speaking of the Sunday School organization (83). The Sunday School had, since the pioneers arrived in Utah, established libraries in wards consisting of classical literature, and church auxiliaries like the Relief Society promoted both the reading of great authors and the writing of fiction. There have been so many Relief Society lessons on studying the English novel or Shakespeare that in the Mormon Literature Database we have had to establish the Relief Society lesson as a distinct literary genre. The Improvement Era meant improvement educationally and culturally, not just spiritually, and tried to carry into Mormon circles larger discussions about education, books, and films. Mormon history is especially rich in the literary contributions of women, from Eliza R. Snow’s poetry to the many literary contributions of Emmeline Welles as editor of The Women’s Exponent, to the annual short fiction contests in the Relief Society Magazine.
From the pulpit of General Conference good literature has been endorsed and recommended, not simply in negative terms to contrast with inappropriate entertainment, but because in its beginnings Mormonism valued literature the same way that the Renaissance humanists did–as a vital link both with the past and with the future, as a place where a more holistic vision of human achievement could find its proper expression. Elder Levi Young was particularly ardent in the 1950s in attempting to reanimate this early vision for language, learning, and literature, reminding the Saints how “Joseph Smith himself became a student of Greek and Hebrew, and classes in the ancient languages were organized in the Kirtland Temple” (Young, 1950, 117). In Nauvoo schools and a University were founded. “The need for a fine library was keenly felt,” explained Elder Young, “for the seventies must then as now be eagerly reading and searching for the truths of the gospel” (Young, 1952, 104). Like Orson Whitney before him, Levi Young emphasized that a missionary’s role was not merely to dispense gospel truths, but to discover them among the peoples and writings of the world. In 1845 the Times and Seasons described Nauvoo’s Seventies Library:
The concern has been commenced on a footing and scale broad enough to embrace the arts and sciences, every where: so that the Seventies' while traveling over the face of the globe as the Lord's "Regular Soldiers," can gather all the curious things, both natural and artificial, with all the knowledge, inventions, and wonderful specimens of genius that have been gracing the world for almost six thousand years.... (forming) the foundation for the best library in the world! (qtd. in Young, 1952, 104)
A few years later in Salt Lake City, attempting still to fulfill this ambition of gathering and appreciating the world’s best achievements, the combined seventies quorums proposed the erection of an extensive rotunda in Great Salt Lake City, to be called the “Seventies' Hall of Science,” –something like the British Museum that many of the early Twelve had visited in London. Brigham Young’s brother, Joseph Young, headed the project, with Truman Angell designing the building in an ambitious gothic revival style (Young, 1952, 104-05). In this the early Mormons were like those of the Renaissance whose imaginations had been fired by the architectural ruins of Rome and who similarly desired a cultural revival on a grand scale.
The great Rotunda was not built, but this ideal of collecting and disseminating the best literature of the past took hold, and soon the Seventies library contained the works of John Locke, Tacitus, Goethe, Bunyon, Marco Polo, and Charles Darwin.
In 1851 a vast library was purchased in New York City and brought out to the Utah frontier, adding to the territorial library the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, Homer, Juvenal, Lucretius, Virgil, Euripides, Sophocles, Plato, Montaigne, Spenser, Herodotus, Goldsmith, and others. The library received copies of the New York Herald, New York Evening Post, thePhiladelphia Saturday Courier, and the North American Review. Of the scientific works there were Newton's Principia, Herschel's Outlines of Astronomy and Von Humboldt's Cosmos. [...] The treatises on philosophy included the works of John Stuart Mill, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Emanuel Swedenborg (Young, 1952, 105-06).
We have a very strong history of valuing literature and writing in Mormonism, if we will embrace our own people’s history, and reanimate their early vision of literature’s role in building up a civilized and sophisticated people, equally at ease with religious doctrine and with secular knowledge.
The Mormon Renaissance is not something in the distant future, but already something underway. It began with Mormonism itself, for the Restored Gospel names the rebirth not only of the primitive Christian church, but the rebirth of human civilization itself and of those liberal ideals of embracing all truth that are shared by both Latter-day Saints and their Renaissance forbears. Our theology, explained Parley P. Pratt,
is the science of all other sciences and useful arts...philosophy, astronomy, history, mathematics, geography, languages, the science of letters; and blends the knowledge of all matters of fact, in every branch of art, or of research. It includes, also, all the scientific discoveries and inventions—agriculture, the mechanical arts, architecture, shipbuilding, the properties and applications of the mariner's compass, navigation and music. All that is useful, great, and good; all that is calculated to sustain, comfort, instruct, edify, purify, refine or exalt intelligences. (12)
If we do not see ourselves as participating in the ongoing Mormon Renaissance, then we have abandoned the sense of vision that gave a few thousand immigrants and frontiersmen the courage to lay down cities and raise up temples, founding universities, colonies and industries, confident that God was providently leading his people forward despite mobocracy, apostasy, and primitive conditions. Their small beginnings were matched by their grand vision.
The early Latter-day Saints shared with their Renaissance progenitors a profound sense of opportunity, renewal, wonder and discovery, that came about in the wake of those ships that had newly traversed the planet and opened new worlds up to the Renaissance mind: Colombus had discovered the New World; de Gama had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and opened the East to the West; Cabot had sighted Newfoundland; Vespucci had found Brazil, Balboa had discovered the Pacific Ocean. Magellan had circumnavigated the earth; Jacques Cartier had discovered the St. Lawrence Seaway. Similarly, early advances in science had opened up both the heavens and the earth: Copernicus proposed the heliocentric universe, which Tycho Brahe’s observations and Galileo’s telescope confirmed; Robert Hooke’s microscope in the 17th century would open another world. In this context of expanded possibility, it became possible to imagine new orders of being, new social worlds to match the riches and wonders of the physical world opening up. Thomas More’s Utopia is an excellent example of how the Renaissance humanists both looked backward to the ancient world as a model (More’s Utopia updated Plato’s Republic in fantasizing a better human order on earth), and forward to new possibilities that had been opened in the human spirit just as new geographies had been opened up on the horizon.
The 19th century Latter-day Saints continued this Renaissance tradition in simultaneously looking back to ideal societies in antiquity–the primitive church and Enoch’s City of Zion–while embracing the American ideal symbolized by the very frontier that they pioneered, where new human worlds seemed as possible as those vast new landscapes before them. Mormons have always envisioned a millennial society in the not too distant future, embodying our highest ideals.
Mormons put their social idealism to work, of course, creating Nauvoo, Great Salt Lake City, and the United Order communities of late 19th century Utah in real-life Utopian experiments. Like Thomas More, or Nathanial Hawthorne, our literature has included attempts to depict an idealized society. In Added Upon Nephi Anderson portrayed a millennial world where the literary arts would be as significant as the innovations in economics and politics that other utopian literatures have emphasized. More and Anderson are followed by speculative Mormon authors like Orson Scott Card. In the realm of science fiction we can recognize the Renaissance impulse to conceptualize new worlds.
Are we now reluctant to voyage upon the dangerous but rewarding seas of other genres, other uses for literature? Are we content to settle for some of the crass and hackneyed uses of literature that surround us? Or can we envision literature as carrying us toward something, as proving not an ornament but a necessary accouterment of an exalted society? To see the Mormon Renaissance fully achieved we must re-envision the function of Mormon literature. It will not be a vehicle for marshaling recruits; it will not be pulpit pablum to decorate doctrine; it must not be an inert alternative to worldly media; it shouldn’t be an uncritical imitation of established genres. It must be seen as an engine, a vehicle for discovering truths sacred and secular, a medium for bringing about Zion. This is the understanding of literature that Orson Whitney gave: literature is an epistemology, a way of knowing, a way of capturing and focusing what is of good report and praiseworthy within and outside Mormon borders. Literature is not a travel brochure, advertising an attractive destination. It is the ship in which we travel, by which we wend our way, finding treasures in foreign ports, and weathering storms and waves.
The transformative powers of literature, the spiritual resources of imaginative writing, were not lost upon the Protestant reformers who formed the second wave of the European Reanissance. “I am persuaded,” said Martin Luther,
that without knowledge of literature pure theology cannot at all endure, just as heretofore, when letters have declined and lain prostrate, theology, too, has wretchedly fallen and lain prostrate; nay, I see that there has never been a great revelation of the Word of God unless He has first prepared the way by the rise and prosperity of languages and letters, as though they were John the Baptists. Certainly it is my desire that there shall be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible, because I see that by these studies, as by no other means, people are wonderfully fitted for the grasping of sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and happily. Therefore I beg of you to urge your young people to be diligent in the study of poetry and rhetoric. (176-77)
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries brought a new focus upon the literary, and upon the obligation of each Christian to find his or her way not only by reading scripture, but by writing. The personal journal became a necessary component of protestant Christianity, for each person needed to compose his or her own salvation narrative, a record of God’s providence. Sometimes I think we cheapen the notion of a personal record, as though we toss a bone to the grandchildren by assembling a passable scrapbook. We would do well to re-read the soul-wrenching devotions and meditations of John Donne. When he wrote “no man is an island,” he was not writing for posterity; he was writing for sanity, each line a lifeline to his God. George Herbert called his confessional poetry his “private ejaculations”–which in his day meant short earnest prayers uttered in moments of emergency. His poems may have lasted to futurity, but they were his present means to wrestle with God, to express his joys and to calm his fears. Perhaps the best Mormon tradition of devotional writings that can ever be written must never be done with an eye to publication, but to meditation. I think, perhaps, that the great strength of Mormon writing will come only as we give up worrying how our words will sell, or how they will represent our culture. An inner Renaissance is the only authentic one we can fashion. Revision is repentance; turning a page is turning a new leaf.
Such personal literary reformation is daunting at times, perhaps because of the very fact that our literary forbears loom so large in their eloquence. We fear we could never measure up. Why should we write? “Every ship is a romantic object,” said Emerson,
except that we sail in. Embark, and the romance quits our vessel and hangs on every other sail in the horizon. Our life looks trivial, and we shun to record it. (252)
But no life is trivial if recorded with vigor and honesty and with respect for the reforming force of form itself. To record one’s life is to reform one’s life. In the spirit of Renaissance exploration–both geographical and literary–we should set sail across the unexplored regions of our past or present, with as much faith in where words can take us as they had faith that ships would take them. They opened up worlds, and words opened up them.
So let the Mormon Renaissance begin within each of us! Enough of this hand-wringing and timidness, this reluctance to compose ourselves in ink, to do that work with words that is worthy of the Word, the Son of God, who descended below all things and above all things, tracing for us the necessary trajectory of our souls and our art. Enough of worrying ourselves into mumbling and stumbling, when we have so much to say, so much to express, inspired doubly by a living faith and our faith in the lively, godly nature of the arts. We hold back our personal salvation and we mock the progress of Zion by not consecrating our aesthetic sensibilities, our drafts and redrafts, our stories, our narratives of life in all its vibrant vicissitudes, its mystifying contradictions, its soaring ecstasies and soul-wrenching defeats. Eternity is within us and before us; we have tasted the goodness of God. Yet we are mired in ignorance and mortality and sin and self-doubt and the misgivings and misfirings of a million sordid sorts. And in the middle of this mess God has slapped us on the cheeks, has shoved a paintbrush or a keyboard in our hands, presented us with canvas and paper and stolen scraps of time and told us Be like me, create. He has given us redeeming work to do, if we will take the invitation to work out our tangled thoughts, to work through style and symbol, plot and character, to find him and to better know the suffering he has known, to find our siblings, all our fellow sufferers, and find ourselves renewing and renewed through the rough and tumble of these words and images, patterns and rhyme, music and color and rhythm. And yet we stand like balking Beehives at our first youth dance, unwilling to embrace the Bridegroom, unwilling to accept the gifts he lavishes on us through that unspeakable opulence that is literacy.
I am a Mormon, and so I must create. I have come to know a creating God, who calls himself the Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, his very name reminding me that His good news comprises all that can be said and thought within the bounds of language. Can I be his disciple, really, if I will not unleash the godly gift of language he has given me? I do not think I can.
The Mormon Renaissance begins for us all the moment any one of us steps forward to accept the rebirth offered to us through the medium of the Word. Immersed in words, will we be baptized by the Word, by the divine capacities of language, or will we stand to one side idling with catchphrases and soundbytes, regurgitating words and patterns acceptable within some applauded genre, unwilling to bite our teeth into the pith and core of what our language can convey if given even half its mighty scope?
The Mormon Renaissance begins as we respect what writing can effect within our souls and our communities. The Renaissance Humanists believed literature could rejuvenate both individual souls and entire civilizations. Literature is a binding force. It makes communities and makes communion, both with God and every soul responding to its potencies. It finds the parts of us that we had hidden and ignored, it lets us feel the depths of wonder and confusion, pain and joy that we have never dared to show to others. Oh, it is a messy thing, as messy as the lives and thoughts that it reflects, deflects, inspects, and redirects. It is a salving, saving medium, and we have not discovered its rejuvenating center if we reduce its function to teaching, preaching, or the narrow motives of fame or money.
When will the Mormon Renaissance begin? When your Mormon Renaissance begins. So tell me, where is it you have hidden your true self while you have tried to write or say what others might approve of? Where is that shadow self, the one so full of anger and grief and profanity and lust and all the other potent passions in which you live and move and have your being as much as any better self you show at church? Where is he or she? Free him. Liberate her. Grow brave enough to follow Jesus and to face your own Sanhedrin, and say “yes, this is who I am.” Until we are willing to stand condemned in open drama, we are not ready for the closure of redemption in the final act.
Your Mormon Renaissance takes shape misshapenly, of course. So show me, where are all your smudged and halting drafts–discarded bodies of your vain attempts to say your say? There is no Renaissance without the thousand dying bodies of those false attempts, the skeletons of first or worst ideas, piling up a mound of wadded paper, or clotting up your hard drive in a folder you name “scrap”. Creation is vivisection, things come half-alive and incomplete, a ream of shameful prose must dung the way before a seedling roots itself in viability. The ink is amniotic fluid that surrounds and nourishes the thing you bring to being.
Renaissance means rebirth. Every birth is violent and delicate, precious, and messy. Birth is “a savage sea,” says Neruda, “that summons up a wave and plucks a shrouded apple from a tree” (68). We must have the faith to be reborn again and yet again, to find our vision in revision, and then at length we shall emerge, shining and upright, with words to match the glory of our God.
Booth, Wayne. “Religion versus Art: Can the Ancient Conflict Be Resolved?” Arts and Inspiration. Ed. Steven Sondrup. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1980. 26-34.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co., 1929.
Luther, Martin. "Letter to Eoban Hess, March 29, 1523." In Luther's Correspondence. Trans. and ed. Preserved Smith and Charles M. Jacobs. Vol. II. United Lutheran Publication House, 1918.
Lyman, Francis M. In Conference Report, October 1899. Salt Lake City: Deseret News Publishing Co., 1899. 76-83
Neruda, Pablo. “Births” [Los nacimientos]. In Fully Empowered [Plenos Poderes]. Tr. Alastair Reid. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975.
Pratt, Parley P. Key to the Science of Theology/A Voice of Warning. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book , 1965.
Rollins, Hyder E. and Herschel Baker, eds. The Renaissance in England: Non-dramatic Prose and Verse of the Sixteenth Century. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland, 1992.
Skelton, John. “The Tunning of Elinour Rumming,” in Rollins and Baker, 77-81.
Stanyhurst, Richard. The First Four Books of Virgil His Aeneis in Rollins and Baker, p. 553-57.
Young, Levi Edgar. In Conference Report, October 1950 Salt Lake City: Deseret News Publishing Co., 1950. 113-19.
—. In Conference Report, October 1952 Salt Lake City: Deseret News Publishing Co., 1952. 103-07.