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 vt.edu.
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.”
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 [to] assume the character of [a novel’s] heroine, until it passes from recollection, or is superseded by another heroine of a novel read subsequently,” never allowing them to develop their true selves. 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.
 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.
 “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.