Yesterday, as I was finishing my latest Enid comic, I came across Eliza R. Snow’s poem “To the Writers of Fiction,” which I had somehow missed while writing my dissertation. How this oversight happened is beyond me, and I only wish now that I had known about it nine months ago. It would have fit perfectly in the introduction–and maybe have provided a nice epigraph for the entire book. When I revise and publish it, I’m definitely finding a place for the poem.
Here it is in its entirety:
“To the Writers of Fiction”
Oh, why indulge the gifted pen
To float thro’ fiction’s fairy field—
To chant the deeds of fabled men,
And weave the garland phantoms yield?
Truth, has gay arbors, crowned with love—
Broad fields, where pleasure gambols free;
And deeps, where shrouded spirits move,
And heights of folded mystery.
And there are pearls of dazzling hue
In wisdom’s deep, unfathom’d sea—
Fair gems, the path of virtue strew,
Surpassing those of mimicry.
And real life has rich romance
Which fancy’s touch cannot enhance;
And sad existence often swells
The tragic scenes, that fiction tells.
Shall the bright sun of reason fade,
And sink in fancy’s mystic shade?
Shall bold realities retire
Before imagination’s fire?
Or shall a lofty genius bow,
To twine around its noble brow
A garland from inferior soil,
When half the culture—half the toil,
If spent in truth’s luxuriant field,
Would rich, unfading laurels yield—
Would reap celestial diadems
Emblazon’d with immortal gems?
Ye favor’d ones, who sit beneath
The glorious gospel’s heav’nly sound;
Crave not the pebbles on the heath—
Pluck not the shrubs of barren ground.
Waste not the gift that God has giv’n
To you, on things beneath your care;
But let your genius soar to heav’n,
And bask in beams of glory there.
Importantly, this poem was published in Nauvoo on 21 May 1842 in The Wasp, the local secular newspaper that later became the Nauvoo Neighbor. This means the poem is a relatively early example of Mormon poetry, appearing almost a decade to the month after the first Mormon poems were published in The Evening and the Morning Star in June 1832. It also means that Mormon mistrust of fiction, which was prevalent throughout the latter nineteenth century, already existed a decade before the rise of anti-Mormon fiction in the 1850s. But this is not too surprising considering that many Americans at this time held similar views on the worth of fiction. (In the editorial preface to this poem in Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, Jill Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson note that “[m]ost nineteenth century moralists”–including Thomas Jefferson–“frowned on the novel and its increasing popularity” .) Moreover, readers would have first met Snow’s poem at a time when distinctions between fact and fiction in American newspapers were never clear cut. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, occasionally cloaked his stories from the 1830s and 40s in the contemporary discourse and conventions of journalism, even to the point of framing fictional narratives with editorial notes and testimonials. Possibly, Snow’s poem is a response to emerging Mormon writers–those “favor’d ones, who sit beneath/The glorious gospel’s heav’nly sound”–who wanted to write similar works for the new Nauvoo paper.
It would be interesting to learn if this is the case, as most Mormon fiction that I know of was not published until much later in the century. Currently, the entirety of The Wasp and the Nauvoo Neighbor are not available online, and I haven’t yet taken the time to pick through what is currently accessible. (Kent Larsen, perhaps, has done this. Kent?) I imagine there are some examples of short Mormon fiction from the 1830s and 40s floating somewhere on the internet, but I would be surprised to discover that any of it is overtly Mormon in content and theme. Maybe there is something similar to Parley P. Pratt’s A Dialogue between Joseph Smith and the Devil (1845), which was mainly a light-hearted missionary tool, or his Utopian fiction from the same period, but probably nothing like the slice-of-life fiction about Mormon life in Utah that appeared in the 1880s and 90s. Of course, I could be wrong–and I hope I am. Uncovering a cache of overtly Mormon fiction from the Nauvoo-era would dramatically change our narrative about the beginnings of Mormon literature.
At any rate, Snow’s poem is significant for the way it reflects one attitude about fiction among early Latter-day Saints. Interestingly, Snow does not weigh the merits of fiction with those of poetry, but rather focuses on its fantastic quality–associating it with fairies, incantations, fables, phantoms, mysticism, and other seeming paganisms–as well as its capacity to mimic truth. I find this latter objection, that fiction is “mimicry,” most interesting because it suggests anxiety over fiction’s ability to deceive (or, at very least, confuse) readers who are searching for truth. According to the poem, such mimicry dresses life up with “fancy’s touch” while ignoring the “rich romance” already existing in “real life.” It thus seems to discourage the kind of escapism that distances a person not only from daily life, but also from the kind of soaring experiences that happen when one activates genius and engages truth.
As a reader of and advocate for fiction, I disagree with Snow’s overall assessment of fiction’s worth, but I can understand and value her perspective. She was writing for a different era, and it is altogether possible that she was right to encourage aspiring Mormon fiction writers away from the form, especially at a time when Mormonism and its truth claims were still in their infancy and largely underdeveloped. After all, how much more fabricated would the Book of Mormon–revised by Joseph Smith and republished in 1840–or the Book of Abraham–then being serialized in Nauvoo’s other newspaper, the Times and Seasons—appear to skeptics if surrounded by an abundance of Mormon fiction? Perhaps it was in the best interest of the Saints to stick with “bold realities” and sow their literary talents in “truth’s luxuriant field” until the time was right for more imaginative expression.