Tending the Garden
Lavina Fielding Anderson, editors
The Didactic Heresy as Orthodox Tool:
B. H. Roberts as Writer of Home Literature
Richard H. Cracroft
[p.117]Brigham Henry Roberts (1857-1933), English emigrant, miner, blacksmith, student, Mormon missionary, mission president, general authority, editor, politician, polygamist, unseated Congressman from Utah, theologian, historian, and thoroughgoing defender of the Mormon faith, has won a remarkably secure niche in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a creative writer of fiction and poetry, however, Roberts plummets immediately into an almost deserved obscurity shared with most of his fellow mortals. Yet it is instructive to consider, by means of this long footnote, Roberts’s particular contributions to LDS home literature. That movement, which began circa 1888 and survived, in muted form, well into the 1940s and beyond, instructed LDS youth, by means of fiction and poetry, in the eternal verities, Utah standard. Such a footnote about Roberts is not only instructive because of the additional light it sheds on the home literature movement and the Mormon penchant for the didactic, but also because it may suggest how a mind such as Roberts’s engages Mormon subjects with intentions which, while originally [p.118]didactic, become increasingly artistic. Indeed, the LDS desire to fuse the didactic and the artistic have been at once the grand ideal and the grand failure of Mormon letters. Roberts’s gropings to achieve such a fusion may help modem Mormons clarify their own literary, dilemmas.1
Roberts was a consummate intellectual. Though he ended an eventful but dissolute era in his young life by moving from Jesse Knight’s mines to a Centerville, Utah, blacksmithy, he entered, at age seventeen, an exciting intellectual apprenticeship under the tutelage of Nathan Porter. An LDS convert from England, Porter guided Roberts first to an encyclopedic overview of learning and then to the particulars of history, law, literature, philosophy, psychology, and theology. Amassing an admirable liberal arts education through an in-depth and disciplined study of Macauley, Locke, Hume, Mill, More, Renan, Paine, William James, Jonathan Edwards, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Robert Ingersoll, as well as a yard-long list of Bible commentators and the works of Emerson, Carlyle, Milton, and Shakespeare, young Roberts read all through spectacles of belief in and increasingly profound knowledge of the LDS standard works. The foundation of all knowledge, the culminating intellectual center of all truth, was the 93rd section of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Roberts would be a voracious reader and scholar all of his life. And he would be an incessant synthesizer, a writer who engaged constantly in the preparation of addresses, articles, treatises, defenses, tracts, and histories—and, to the surprise of some, poetry and fiction. Most of it had one intention, to promulgate gospel truth. He was, President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., said of him after his death, “armored in truth,” a crusader for Christ, for Mormonism, in thought, in action, in the spoken word, in the written word—again, even in poetry and fiction.
He wrote little poetry and fiction, however; but that which he wrote partook of the same evangelical zeal manifest in his other endeavors. It is not surprising, then, that the single essay in which he propounds any kind of literary theory radiates a commitment to the use of fiction as a tool to teach truth. In “Legitimate Fiction,” an editorial written in 1889 for the Contributor under the pseudonym of “Horatio” (his other pen names being “Viratus” and “Gratiano”), Roberts notes, after praising the truths of Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur, [p.119]that in fiction he sees “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.” He attacks, on the other hand, fiction which “snivels and drivels folly without end,” all “sentimental frippery and fram,” which “mars what it would mend.” He praises the works of Scott, Bulwer-Lytton, Thackeray, Dickens, Browning, George Eliot, and Victor Hugo. “To bar such works as these from our homes or libraries,” he insists, “would be to deny ourselves access to the richest treasures of English literature.”
In this same essay he notes that such uplifting fiction “is working its way into our own [LDS] 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.”2
These statements take on greater significance when read in relationship to the editorials of President George Q. Cannon, who consistently led the anti-fiction attack which had been in vogue among the Saints since about 1850. Typical of Cannon’s Juvenile Instructor articles of the 1880s is this statement published in 1884:
Novel reading has the same effect on the mind…as dram drinking or tea drinking has upon the body. It is a species of dissipation. The mind, under the influence of such a habit, is stimulated and the imagination unduly fed, until such people are almost unfitted for the everyday work of life. They become day-dreamers and are not happy when surrounded by difficulties. They are only happy when they take refuge, as a dram drinker would to liquor, in novel reading. They bury themselves in their novels and allow their feelings to be wrought upon by the painful trials and woes of their heroes and heroines, who only exist in the imagination of their authors.3
Roberts’s 1889 editorial, published the year following Orson F. Whitney’s ringing call for an LDS “home literature,” thus reflects a change in the church position, a change consciously wrought by Whitney, Roberts, Susa Young Gates, and, a few years later, Nephi Anderson. From 1880 to 1882, for example, neither the Contributor nor the Instructor published fiction; by 1884, 4 percent of the Contributor and [p.120]12 percent of the Instructor were comprised of fiction, and by 1890 the amount of fiction in both magazines had risen to 19 percent and 24 percent. “Considering that the Contributor was started specifically to supplant the ‘light literature’ that had gained so much popularity with the Saints,” write Matthew Durrant and Neal E. Lambert, “its embrace of fiction is all the more remarkable.”4 B. H. Roberts was a major force in that significant change of policy.
It is hardly a coincidence that B. H. Roberts became editor of the Contributor in September 1888, the year which generally marks the beginnings of home literature. Nor that Susa Young Gates was editor of the Young Woman’s Journal. Nor that Orson F. Whitney delivered a major address on the subject to the youth of the church. This vibrant trio of young Mormon intellectuals hoped to use literature to teach truth to Utah youths, to give them a spoonful of sugar laced with Mormonism and thus make palatable a diet of homespun truth, faith, and Mormon integrity. But while truth was their purpose, it takes no more than a cursory glance at the literature of any of these figures to make one realize that their love of literature was based at least as much in their romantic natures and love for beauty and art as it was in their urge to become didactic heretics.
Roberts’s romantic roots grew somewhat parallel to those of the other proponents of home literature. Steeped as he was in Burns, Byron, Cowper, Thompson, and Scott, as well as other writers alluded to earlier, and an Anglophile by birth and by nature, Roberts not surprisingly made the most of his 1886-88 mission to the British Isles. Newstead Abbey, Sherwood Forest, Loch Lomond, Stratford, Leicester Castle—”All these scenes and many, many more,” he writes in the third person voice peculiar to his personal history’, “were visited by the elder during his two years’ sojourn in his native land … The trips were educational and fed his fanciful romantic nature.”‘5
This “romantic nature” is seen in his description of his visit to Newstead Abbey on 5 April 1887. “The emotions one feels in … coming suddenly upon the home of the poet who was of so strange a nature—so wild, so fierce & yet so gifted is [sic] difficult to describe,” he writes, and then quotes Don Juan and “Childe Harold” in attempt-[p.121]ing to describe Byron’s abbey.6 On 1 August 1887 Roberts visited Burns’s cottage, where the poet was born and died. Impressed by the plain and rude character of the cottage, he reflects on the idea that most who have “left on record the best & sweetest thought & performed the noblest deeds” seem to have been born in poverty.7 After gathering flowers at an “ould haunted kirk,” reading “Tam O’Shanter” aloud, and guessing at the likely setting for such poems as Burns’s “To Mary in Heaven,” Roberts concludes his visit with the note: “Am extremely grateful for this privilege of visiting the home & land of my favorite poet—the poet of the heart. I hope to make his acquaintance in a better world, & hope that both his own lot & my own will be improved to what it has been in this world.”8
Roberts’s fascination with literature continued throughout his life, and his journals are laden with quotations from Hamlet, “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” and “Essay on Criticism” by Pope, Burns’s “Epistle to a Young Friend,” Byron’s “Childe Harold,” and Dickens’s David Copperfield, as well as passages from Wordsworth, Tennyson, Emerson, and Carlyle. But the dramatic side of his nature responded particularly to the writings of Nathaniel Parker Willis, whose poetry, claims Truman G. Madsen, “haunted Roberts the rest of his life.”9 Indeed, though he was in his teens when he first read Willis’s “The Leper,” a dramatic narrative poem based on Christ’s healing of the leper, Roberts took time to copy the entire poem into eleven pages of his journal while visiting the Library of Congress in 1927, nearly half a century later.
Roberts’s love of literature, romanticism, and dramatics, combined with the desire to impart of his faith to others, is evinced not only in his expository prose but in his creative writing, especially in his poem, “Reflections Inspired by Once More Standing on the Banks of the Missouri River,” which he wrote while on his first mission in 1880. The poem, derivative of Wordsworth, or a half dozen other romantic poets, begins:
Can it be that I again stand upon try banks?
For know, O mighty River, that I when a mere child,
Watched thy troubled waters seek its resting place—
the ocean …
[p.122]In this reflective mood, Roberts recounts the story of his life, from his boyhood emigration across the plains through his marriage and present mission call, and concludes:
And so it is that I again stand upon thy banks
O mighty River, watching thy troubled water seek
Its resting place, the ocean. And when I think
Of the mighty change since last I looked upon thee
My heart is filled with Gratitude to Him
Who has so prospered and blessed me.10
Influenced by Burns, however, Roberts could write a very different kind of poetry and did so while on his second mission, in February 1885, when he penned a lighthearted poem for a “lady friend,” which begins,
Hail bonnie Kate o’ girls the queen
Whose image haunts my mind to stray.
Why is’t your face will come between
All other things and me today? (“Journal,” 13841)
And a few days later he would write a bit of Mormon verse entitled “Have Courage My Girl to Say Yes” (in counterpoint to the famous “Have Courage, My Boy, to Say No”), which with twentieth-century hindsight is most comfortably read tongue-in-cheek but, when written by Roberts, serving an LDS mission after having taken his first plural wife (Celia Dibble) on 2 October 1884, the previous year (he would take his second plural wife, Margaret Curtis Shipp, in 1889), was no doubt deadly serious:
The dark clouds of hatred are gathering
They menace the Saints with distress.
The nation in pride is forbidding
The Saints to obey God’s behest.
Will the daughters of Zion be fearing
To choose for the right and for God?
With fines and imprisonments threatening
Will they cling to the sure “Iron Rod”?
Have courage my girl to say yes
Have courage my girl to say yes
If an Elder that’s true
Have courage my girl to say yes.
And Roberts concludes:
Better marry a man who’ll be constant
Though of wives he may have more than you
If he’s faithful to God & his cov’nant
Be assured he’ll be faithful to you.
Though of Babylon’s proud wealth he can boast not
Don’t fear if his heart’s only true
The riches of earth can compare not
With affection eternal for you.11
It is, however, in his two pieces of fiction that Roberts most clearly renders his combination of didacticism and romanticism. Throughout his life, his abilities as an orator, his keen sense of the dramatic, and his innate love of literature endeared him to his audiences and made him an ideal though not a humorous story teller, an ability seen in such true-to-life adventures as “My Bear Story,” which he published in the Improvement Era.12 But, as a closer look will demonstrate, it is in “A Story of Zarahemla,” a short story published in 1888, and in Corianton, a short novel published serially in 1889, that Roberts most clearly reveals his struggle not only to transform scripture into didactic fiction but, through his rich imagination and appreciation of art, to transform the didactic into the artistic.
In “A Story of Zarahemla” he clearly fails. The story was written for the Contributor under the pen name of “Horatio” while Roberts was in hiding from federal marshals who were seeking to arrest him for unlawful cohabitation (for which he would eventually serve a four-month prison term in 1889). In the story, Roberts attempts, in [p.124]a heavy-handed way, á la Nathaniel Parker Willis in “The Leper,” to render a scriptural story as memorable fiction.
“A Story of Zarahemla” is an imaginative expansion of a few passages from the book of 3 Nephi, which recount the transfer of plates from Nephi, the son of Helaman, to his son; the older prophet’s sudden disappearance; the persecution of those who persisted in believing in the words of Samuel the Lamanite; the plea of Nephi for his people; and the comforting words of the Lord to Nephi: “Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world,” truly one of the most dramatic events in the Book of Mormon (3 Ne. 1:2-13).
Roberts transforms this account into a story comprised of several scenes, recounting how the young Nephi eludes the Gadianton robbers assigned to waylay him; how his father reveals to him the location of the sacred plates and the accompanying breastplate, Urim and Thummim, Liahona, and the sword of Laban; and how Nephi returns to the city, just in time to save his betrothed, the beautiful Lamanite Miriam (from whom “the curse of a dark skin had been removed through her faith in Christ, and in answer to the prayers of her guardian”)13 from Giddianhi, secret chief of the Gadianton robbers. Frightened by Giddianhi’s wild promises, his treasonable confession of criminality, and his justification of his crimes, Miriam cries, “They who do wrong put forward some excuse to justify their actions,” and rejects him, saying, “Your sophistry has no weight with me” (97). On her threat to expose him, Giddianhi in turn threatens Nephi’s life if she reveals his secret. Giddianhi returns the following day to press his suit, is again rejected, and threatens to make her his slave. Just as Giddianhi attempts to embrace her, however, Nephi springs from the shadows of a palm tree and “with one blow of his clenched hand stretches her assailant at his feet.” With “a glad cry of surprise and joy,” Miriam rushes “into the arms of her protector” and lover (100).
Roberts then skips forward ten days and recounts how the few faithful, after persecution by the unbelieving community and under threat of death from the law, have gathered to await the outcome. Nephi, their leader, has apparently deserted his flock, much to the delight of the unbelievers. Suddenly, however, Nephi appears dra-[p.125]matically at the entrance of the temple, just as the sun is sinking in the west, and announces that after spending the day in prayerful supplication he has received the promise from the Lord that “this night shall the sign be given, and to-morrow will our Messiah be born into the world.” Then, writes Roberts, “all with eager expectancy turned their faces to the West, where the sun was fast sinking out of sight; but after it had sunk behind the distant mountains, the brightness of the day continued to fill the heavens; an hour passed, two, three, and yet it was undiminished” (101).
Their faith bolstered, the people rally behind Nephi, repent, oust Giddianhi and his followers, and prepare themselves for lives in Christ. The elder Nephi is never heard from again, but Nephi the Younger becomes a faithful prophet and Miriam “a faithful, virtuous wife and noble mother.” They live through the destruction at the time of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection and “both were in the company to whom the Messiah appeared in the New World.” It was Nephi, concludes Roberts, who “was made the chief Apostle in the Church, and Miriam was warmly greeted and commended by the Lord for her faith and devotion” (101).
Careless of the unities, unmindful of character development, stilted in dialogue, and heavy-handed in its message, “A Story of Zarahemla” is poorly wrought. It foreshadows, however, Roberts’s much more significant accomplishment in Corianton by compressing at least two stories into one, by adding the lovely and romantic Miriam, and by characterizing, however stereotypically, both Nephi and Giddianhi. Unfortunately, Roberts lapses amateurishly into chunks of unenlightened prose, and his good idea degenerates into a prosaic prose commentary which covers in just eight pages thirty-three of the most exciting years of Nephite history.
Much more successful and much more ambitious, however, is Corianton, which Roberts also wrote while in hiding and published in the 1889 Contributor. Unlike “A Story of Zarahemla,” Corianton is an imaginative and literary accomplishment-relatively speaking. Based on two apparently unrelated episodes in the book of Alma, Corianton recounts the story of Korihor the Anti-Christ (Alma 30), and the story of Corianton and the “harlot Isabel” (Alma 39).
The novel begins with Korihor’s dramatic entry into Zarahemla. Under close guard, the heretic is taken into prison for the evening, [p.126]amidst intense curiosity by the citizenry of Zarahemla. Corianton and his brother Shiblon debate the merits of the case, and Corianton defends Korihor as a hero, much to the distress of Shiblon, who sees him as a tool of Satan. At the conclusion of the scene an angry Corianton refuses to attend a conference to plan the forthcoming mission to the Zoramites, stating that he is going to visit Korihor, “one who is cast into prison for the cause of liberty.”14 “My wild love of liberty,” he remarks to Shiblon, “can ill brook the restraints of the gospel or the priesthood, and the skepticism ingrained in my very nature disqualifies me for the work I could readily believe you were designed to support. But I’ll none of it, until I see some manifestation of the power of God” ( 1:175). As Corianton leaves, Shiblon foreshadows his brother’s fate by soliloquizing on a theme which much interested Roberts:
David has his Absalom, Lehi his Laman, and this my brother, my father’s darling son, seems destined to wring my father’s heart with anguish, as they did theirs. Oh! why is it, that those formed in the very prodigality of nature—endowed with heaven-born intelligence-genius—must be cursed with a doubting, rebellious spirit that weighs down all their better parts, and wrecks the hopes built on what their talent promised.15
In a public trial held the following morning, Korihor is set free in the name of religious freedom by the chief judge, who then refers Korihor to Alma, the high priest, for counsel. In well-handled expressions of disdain, Korihor mocks the proceeding: “Acquitted by the law of the land—now I suppose I am to be tried by the law of-heaven! … Well, we’ve heard from earth, now we are ready to hear from heaven—what a pity the other place … is not also represented[;] we would then have a trinity of you to hear from. Proceed heaven!” (2:208)
But after Korihor attacks the slavery, the fraud, and the delusion of the church of God, he, like Corianton, demands a “living sign.” In a moving sermon, based only partially on the scriptures, Alma powerfully undertakes to prove the existence of God. A frightened Korihor hesitates momentarily but then persists in asking for a sign. Alma dramatically commands that Korihor be struck dumb; immediately Korihor “wildly clutched the air; his eyes seemed bursting from [p.127]their sockets and his face was purple with his effort to speak. Those who had stood with him drew back as if by instinct, and he stood alone writhing under his curse” (2:210). After confessing in writing that he had been deceived by Satan, Korihor flees the hall. Corianton, who has fearfully observed the sign, immediately asks for his father’s pardon. Alma, recalling his own wayward youth, forgives his son and permits him to join the mission to the Zoramites.
But Corianton is a doubter by nature; and as the mission among the Zoramites progresses, he demonstrates, first through his misplaced zeal and later through his increasing doubts, that he is still not converted to the gospel he preaches. The turning point comes when he watches a poor beggar accidentally trampled to death by horses. When the beggar tums out to be Korihor, Corianton is angered with God and mutters: “This is one of the judgments of God-cruel, infinitely cruel! He above all others could have been generous and have pardoned him before his justice…had turned to cruelty” (3:248).
At this decisive moment, “Joan,” a beautiful and sensual woman, accosts him, immediately fascinates him, and takes him to the home of Seantum, an apparently friendly Zoramite. Joan and Seantum entice Corianton into Seantum’s opulently furnished mansion, promising him “beauty, gaiety, pleasure and secrecy … Youth was made for pleasure” (4:289). The rich rooms of the stately pleasure dome capture Corianton with their frescoes of “voluptuous figures” and “old mythologies.” But Corianton is even more profoundly captivated by the sensuous dancing of Joan. “What mischief hath not been worked by the witching grace exhibited by beautiful women in the dance,” comments Roberts (4:290), as Corianton, becoming drunk, joins Joan in the dance and later passes out in a drunken fight.
Corianton awakens the next morning with his virtue intact but his self-respect shattered. He is immediately made defensive, however, by the appearance of Shiblon, who has come to retrieve him and upbraid him for his association with Joan, who is really the harlot Isabel, of that “den of infamy” which is the house of Seantum. Shiblon reveals that Corianton’s actions have been proclaimed through the city, and the citizens of Antionum have responded by threatening the missionaries with violence. Infuriated by Shiblon’s accusations against his virtuous Joan, Corianton upholds Seantum, who appears [p.128]on the scene and orders Shiblon arrested for slander. Troubled by Shiblon’s accusations, however, Corianton wanders through the city and witnesses a mob driving his fellow missionaries from the city, shouting that the Saints are consorting with harlots. Fearful, he returns to confront Joan with the accusation and learns that she is indeed Isabel.
She quickly mollifies him by explaining that though she had indeed been part of a plot to embarrass the missionaries, she had inadvertently fallen in love with him, longing, in his presence, to be something better than she was. She persuades Corianton to accompany her home to Siron. Corianton, deeply infatuated, agrees. The couple departs and spends a few days in undetailed but sensual and illicit bliss, and Corianton’s fall is complete.
The affair soon ends, however, when Isabel, weary with Corianton, returns to her lover, Zoram. Infuriated by rejection, Corianton attempts to kill Zoram but is nearly killed himself. Isabel prevents his death but orders guards to drag Corianton to the borders of the Nephites, in partial revenge for what Alma had done with “sorcery” to her friend Korihor, and so the Nephites will “‘know that your fall is a manifestation of Isabel’s power; let it be Corianton for Korihor—Isabel against God” (5, 329). “Twice deceived and by this woman,” cries a thoroughly shaken Corianton, “twice damned in shame for a thing scarce worth [my] pity” (5:328), and he is bound, forced to run, and then is dragged between mounted guards to the borders of Jershon, in a scene which brings us full circle as we recall Korihor’s initial entrance into Zarahemla. Corianton is left exhausted, wounded, and near death, to stagger into Jershon. Recognized by the people who had been driven from Antionum because of his folly, Corianton is nearly stoned to death but is saved by Shiblon, who is making his way home after his imprisonment. Roberts concludes the novel in an afterword, with the information that Alma again forgave his son, who this time was genuinely converted and spent his life in service to his God and his people. Conjecturing that it may well have been that only in this manner could Corianton have been prepared for “the highest degree of glory to which his nature would attain,” Roberts adds the scriptural comment, “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and his grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before Him” (5:230).
[p.129]In quality, Corianton is as much an improvement over “A Story of Zarahemla” as Clinton F. Larson’s The Mantle of the Prophet is over Doug Stewart’s Saturday’s Warrior. In a five-act structure, Roberts has fused the Korihor-Alma-Corianton-Isabel stories and pointed up the fascinating and instructive parallels between Korihor and Corianton, both of whom fall to different seductions and receive terrible retribution. Though the warnings of the story are clear, Roberts has refrained, for the most part, from drawing his moral too blatantly, and the reader consequently becomes involved in a story, of human beings in conflict, not simply as the recipient of a polemic.
Roberts manages to turn a few lines of scripture into an engaging story. Indeed, the entire second part of the story is based on the few words in Alma 39:3:
And this is not all, my son.
Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel …
Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words (Alma 39:3-4, 11).
In addition to Roberts’s imaginative skill in extrapolating and joining the two Book of Mormon accounts, he managed, as well, to develop the characters of the novel in a manner not anticipated by the wooden “Story of Zarahemla.” He attempts to portray Corianton sympathetically as a brilliant but foolish intellectual; he softens the harlot Isabel by showing her gentler and convincing Joan side, thus portraying the heart of a real woman who, for a few moments at least, genuinely regretted her life in the attraction she felt for the handsome and good-hearted Corianton. While Isabel seduces Corianton from his position of uncomfortable grace, Corianton momentarily and innocently seduces Isabel from her original, evil intentions, intentions which, ironically, are nonetheless carried out. In addition, the novel is full of some very good Elizabethan-like rhythms and cadences, and Roberts puts into the mouths of his villains or half-villains the best and richest lines of the book—’twas ever thus, from Genesis to Faust to J. B.—as Roberts has Corianton and Korihor spew with convincing sarcasms their religious doubts in an extraordinarily [p.130]convincing manner which, today, would never “get through Correlation.” Typical is Corianton’s response to Shiblon about a future mission to the Zoramites: “As for converting the Zoramites, they may be as near right in their theology as yourself, or our father, for aught I know; the whole subject is so wrapt in mystery that we can at least afford to be liberal, and not … thrust men into prison for daring to assert their disbelief in these mysterious things” (175).
Corianton is a fast-moving, interesting novel and a significant step forward for the home literature movement. After its serial publication in the Contributor, Corianton: A Nephite Story was published in 1902. In the same year Roberts permitted Orestes U. Bean, a Mormon dramatist, to redact the book, with substantial changes, into a play, Corianton: An Aztec Romance, billed as “a romantic spectacular drama in four acts.” In the play, home literature achieves its greatest popularity. Staged by a New York theatrical agency, the play set attendance records at the Salt Lake Theater, where the role of Alma was played by Brigham S. Young, grandson of the prophet. It played to substantial audiences from Ogden to Omaha to Chicago and, finally, in New York City, where the later famous Gladys George played the part of Joan, more exotically called Zoan in the play.16
It is ironic that Roberts, who had no real pretensions as a creative writer, would become the first—and one of the few—LDS general authorities to attempt fiction, one of the first Mormon writers to publish a Mormon novel, and the first Mormon writer to have his work (though adapted) performed on Broadway. Thus, though his major literary contribution lies in his many published histories and doctrinal treatises, the footnote Roberts receives in the history of imaginative Mormon literature should be a full and notable one.
B. H. Roberts was not a good poet nor an accomplished writer of fiction. But his contributions to home literature, in his editing of the Contributor (and, earlier, the Salt Lake Herald and the Millennial Star), and in his publication of the lesser “A Story of Zarahemla” and the better Corianton, place him at the center of the home literature school of Mormon letters. Given Roberts’s genius, and the evident progress from his first short story to his only novel, he might well [p.131]have become a good poet or fiction writer. In both his story and his novel, however, Roberts demonstrates an increasing desire to soften the didactic purpose of fiction before the demands of art.
His experiments inspired others, for the tentative success which Roberts enjoyed in Corianton led to Nephi Anderson’s experiments in the Mormon novel and to his best and last novel, Damien, a kind of Mormon Tess of the D’Urbervilles, wherein the fallen heroine is forgiven by her fiancé. In Corianton, Roberts foreshadows such experiments by softening the glaring absolutes of right and wrong without lessening the reader’s concerns regarding Gorianton’s and Isabel’s wickedness. In Damien, Anderson would likewise lead the reader to look unflinchingly at the consequences of immorality, a theme which Susa Young Gates would also attempt in her novels.
It would appear, then, that Roberts was leading writers of home literature toward an art which went beyond the typically sententious and vapid didacticism of “Judith’s Decision” (in the Young Woman’s Journal), “Frank Raymond’s Conversion” (in the Contributor), or in Susa Young Gates’s “Which Path” (serialized in six issues of the Juvenile Instructor).17 But as Roberts and Gates and Whitney and their Young Woman’s Journal and Contributor were replaced by the more official Improvement Era and by tighter central controls, the slight upward motion apparent amidst a plethora of predictable Mormon stories and poems once more turned downward to a low artistic norm which remained virtually static until far into the twentieth century.
In light of that history, B. H. Roberts’s efforts in fiction are significant; he attempted to deal with the contradiction in terms that didactic art or a Mormon literature seem to be. Until the recent dramatic and fictional renderings of the Book of Mormon by such writers as Clinton F. Larson, Orson Scott Card, and Robert Moss, Roberts remained one of the few—and the only general authority—who has attempted to envision and draw upon the Book of Mormon for serious fictional treatment.18
As the latter-day scriptures become the springboard to further literary experimentation, B. H. Roberts’s “A Story of Zarahemla” and Corianton will stand as original and instructive experiments by one of the most complex and brilliant minds of the Restoration, experiments in transforming the thrust for truth into the accomplishment [p.132]of art—a task which continues to challenge the modem Mormon writer.
14. B. H. Roberts, “Corianton,” Contributor 10 (Mar. 1889): 173. The novel is published in five installments-(1) March 1889, 171-76; (2) April 1889, 206-10; (3) May 1889, 245-48; (4)June 1889, 286-90; and (5)July 1889, 324-36-hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by installment and page number.
15. Ibid., 1:175-76. Compare Roberts’s “A Nephite’s Commandments to His Three Sons,” Improvement Era 3 (May-Oct. 1900): 760-65, 835-43, in which he expounds on this idea, concluding that such instances occur, “doubtless for some wise purpose, and perhaps because of relationships and compacts existing in the pre-existent life, not now known to us” (761).
17. Anonymous, “Judith’s Decision,” Young Woman’s Journal 4 (Dec. 1892): 111-22; Marvin E. Pack, “Frank Raymond’s Conversion,” Contributor 13 (Sept. 1892): 524-36; Homespun (pseud. for Susa Young Gates), “Which [p.133]Path?” Juvenile Instructor 27 (1897): [1 Oct.] 586-89; [15 Oct.] 620-25; [1 Nov.] 656-59; [15 Nov.] 684-89; [1 Dec.] 730-32; [15 Dec.] 753-57.
18. Clinton F. Larson, The Mantle of the Prophet and Other Plays [i.e., The Brother of Jared and Third Nephi] (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1966; Orson Scott Card, Memory of Earth (1992), The Call of Earth (1993), The Ships of Earth (1994) all published New York: TOR; and Robert H. Moss, The Nephite Chronicles (Bountiful, UT: Horizon Publishers, 1984-89). For a more thorough treatment of literature based on the Book of Mormon, see Richard H. Cracroft, “‘Polishing God’s Attars’: Fictionally Wresting the Book of Mormon,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 2 (1990): 107-17.