Guest Post – Mormonism and Book History: A Search for Sources

By October 1, 2019

Tyler Balli is a master’s student in history at Virginia Tech working on a thesis project that intersects at the history of Mormonism and the history of the book. He can be contacted at tylerab AT

In August of 1877, seventeen-year-old Annie Wells confided to her diary about the “splendid novel” she was then reading, Marquis of Lossie. She wrote, “I never read a good novel, with out I [feel] allmost [sic] jealous of my heroine, and even now I keep building castles in the air about this book only putting my self in as the heroine.” She even composed a poem about her reading experience:

Who ever read the daring deed;

Of some great hero,

Who rode upon his flashing steed

As brave as any hero

Without a thought of admiration

A longing for such a one they feel

And when they close the splendid volume

They recognize their beau-ideal

Concluding her entry, she writes, “Really not a very excellent poet am I, but then that expresses my opinion and no one else need read it.”[1]

Wells’s frank admissions of reading a romantic novel written by a non-Mormon, as well as her fantasies of becoming the novel’s heroine, would have alarmed many church leaders, editors, and other cultural arbiters of the day. Many of them often warned against the dangers of fiction, which could give readers “false ideas about human nature” or inspire “poor, weak-headed creatures . . . [to] assume the character of [a novel’s] heroine, until it passes from recollection, or is superseded by another heroine of a novel read subsequently,” never allowing them to develop their true selves.[2] These are just a few of the ideas about proper or improper reading that swirled around in nineteenth-century Utah, of which ideas about fiction only composed a small part.

I’m interested in uncovering more sources like Wells’s journal. I’m currently a master’s student in history at Virginia Tech working on a thesis project that intersects at the history of Mormonism and the history of the book, and I’d greatly appreciate the help of my fellow scholars in suggesting sources.

I’m specifically interested in looking at Mormon readers from 1869 till the turn of the century: what they read (both secular and religious publications, fiction and nonfiction), how they read, their reactions to reading, how they navigated the contemporary proscriptions and prescriptions of reading, and how reading helped them make sense of the tumultuous transformations going on during this period. I’d like to look at this through the lens of gender as well.

If you have come across a primary source that sheds light on any of these topics, I would greatly appreciate you pointing me toward it. Since comments about reading material and reactions to it are often spread widely across letters, journals, or other places, I won’t be able to scan them all, and I’d greatly appreciate your help if you’ve spotted something.

[1] Annie Wells Cannon, journal, 1877 Jun 30–1881 Sep 4, typescript, MSS 2307, box 2, folder 7, pp. 7–8, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Provo, UT.

[2] “What We Women Do with Our Time,” Woman’s Exponent, February 1, 1878, 132; O. F. Whitney, “The Way to Be Great,” Contributor, April 1880, 158–160.

Article filed under Miscellaneous

  1. Please reassure me that you are planning to discuss concerns about novel reading, particularly novel reading by young women, not as a weird Mormon pathology, but as a broad social phenomenon that was evident in both Europe and the United States and about which a large secondary literature exists. Those ideas swirling around Utah had been swirling around much more broadly for at least 50 years by the time there were any Mormons in Utah.

    Comment by D. Martin — October 1, 2019 @ 9:05 am

  2. This is earlier than you ask for, but perhaps given the source it might be part of a lead-in to what you write.

    Brigham Young was apparently a fan of Charles Dickens. In an 1856 letter to John M. Bernhisel at Washington, BY writes: “You must therefore in this instance follow the example of Dickens’s circumlocution office and ‘study how not to do it.'”

    Since the first installments of Little Dorrit came out only in 1855, and this letter was written early enough in 1856 that there could only have been, at most, one mail delivery across the Plains so far that year, BY must have been receiving current (1855) issues of Dickens’ papers as soon as they could be delivered. Here he has not only adopted one of Dickens’ inventions, but expects that Bernhisel, too, will be familiar with the idea of the Circumlocution Office.

    Brigham Young to John M. Bernhisel, 27 May 1856. Brigham Young Office Papers, CR 1234/1 (box 60, folder 6; reel 70), Church History Library.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 1, 2019 @ 11:07 am

  3. Of course, by the end of his life in 1877, he had changed his mind, advising one son away at school to “sell your Dickens’ works” — which implies, of course, that that son owned and read Dickens’ works:

    “[T]he Bible and many works of history &c. contain as good, graceful, grand, unadulterated English as any romance that was ever written. Avoid works of fiction, they engender mental carelessness and give a slipshod character to the workings of the mind. To strengthen the mind, increase its perceptions, develop its powers, we should read te true and the wise; the perusal of the rest is worse than time wasted, it is time abused. Sell your Dickens’ works and get Stephens’ & Catherwoods’ Travels in Central America, or Josephus’ or Mosheim’s History.”

    Brigham Young to Feramorz Litle Young, 23 August 1877. Brigham Young Office Papers, CR 1234/1. Letterbook 15, p. 170-174, Church History Library.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 1, 2019 @ 11:13 am

  4. Rest assured I will discuss these themes in their wider historical context and that I am well aware of the large secondary literature that discusses them.

    Comment by Tyler B — October 2, 2019 @ 9:47 am

  5. Ardis, thank you very much for pointing me to these sources. I appreciate your help!

    Comment by Tyler B — October 2, 2019 @ 9:48 am

  6. Thanks for this, Tyler. I know there are some reactions to Parley Pratt’s Voice of Warning—can’t remember the latest that I saw. Is there a way you can trace the production and distribution side of things?

    Comment by Jeff T — October 7, 2019 @ 11:11 pm

  7. This is such an important project and I’m so glad you’re working on this. We need so many more scholars turning their attention to this sort of work. If you haven’t checked out the Susa Young Gates papers at the CHL, there’s a lot of material about writings in there. And for those interested, I’m trying to get a Facebook community together interested in book history. It’s still new and we need more people to start contributing, but if you’re interested, you can join here:

    Comment by Robin — October 10, 2019 @ 9:11 am

  8. Thank you, all, for your help and support!

    Comment by Tyler — October 15, 2019 @ 9:02 am

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