Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Mormon Book Bits #31: Orson F. Whitney, Elias: An Epic of the Ages

Editor's note: This is # 31 in a series of posts by Dennis Horne about collectible books. The introduction is here.

The below information about this now largely forgotten book of “epic” and doctrinal poetry is taken from a chapter of my biography, Life of Orson F. Whitney: Bishop, Poet, Apostle:
            The death of his Zina, with its accompanying intense grief and heartache, and the foiled attempt to obtain a plural wife, sent Orson into deep depression, serious enough for him to wish he were dead. He explained:

            This poem [Elias] was begun in the spring of 1900, not long after the death of my wife Zina, and while I was prostrate upon a bed of pain [grief]. The inspiration was timely. I needed something of the kind to occupy my thoughts and dispel my gloomy feelings. While pondering upon the situation, and wondering whether my life’s work was drawing to a close, I heard or seemed to hear a Voice—inaudible to the outward ear, yet plain to the inward understanding—the same Voice that had spoken to me on former occasions in hours of distress or deep anxiety. It now said:

            “Do you really wish to go?”

            “No,” I replied; “I must not go until I have finished my work.”

            “What would you like to do?”

            “Something that would live when I am dead, and go on teaching the Truth after my mortal tongue is still.”

            “And what might that be?”

            I reflected, and my thoughts took this form: I would like to write a poem embodying all that I have learned, thought or felt respecting the divine plan known as “The Everlasting Gospel.”  I would love to tell in heroic verse the sublime Story of God.  “Mormonism,” historically, doctrinally, prophetically—be that my theme, my task, with whatsoever else the Lord has for me to do.

            No sooner had I come to this conclusion, than the first lines of the poem formed in my mind, and weak as I was I sat up and wrote them down. Thus the work began.

            It took years to complete it, for I could not, of course, give all my time to poetry.  I was still a Ward Bishop and an Assistant Church Historian.  But I worked upon the great theme whenever I could, and found much delight in so doing. It burned like fire in my brain, and I felt that I must get it out or it would consume me. Day after day—sometimes twelve hours or more at a stretch—month after month, and year after year, I toiled on in the intervals of office work and outside engagements, till the poem, if not finished, was ready for a trial reading.  This was toward the close of 1902.[1]

            At the time Whitney wrote the above introduction to his epic poem, his memory failed him on certain specifics. His diary indicates he actually began writing it about late summer—“About this time I began my epic poem ‘The Mormonead’. . . .”—and it took just over two years for him to prepare a strong readable draft.[2] He was also unable to work on it during those two years as much as he remembered, due to a heavy workload as an assistant church historian: “I have re-named my epic poem ‘The Voice in the Wilderness.’ Have not written upon it much of late.”[3] Two months later a like situation prevailed: “Have had a hard week; at the University every morning at half past eight; the rest of the day working like a beaver in the office. My poem ‘The Voice in the Wilderness’ I have had to lay aside. [illegible] do the more pressing work, correspondence for the Presidency, etc., and my Memorial address for Sunday.”[4] But other times he could work on it feverishly: “In office all day at work on my poem ‘Voice in the Wilderness’ and other things.”[5] And he often changed its name: “Have renamed my poem from ‘The Message of Mormonism’ to ‘The Epic of Elias.’ ”[6] He was in the midst of what he and his friends considered his greatest literary contribution to Mormon literature. Even so, other events and experiences were unavoidable and helped keep his perspective balanced.


            September saw Whitney’s epic poem finally reaching a presentable stage; too early for publication, but far enough along to test before friendly audiences: “Am getting ready my poem ‘The Messenger: an Epic of the Dispensations’ for a first reading in the near future. Bro. D. F. Collett is typewriting it for me.”[7]


            With the political distraction behind him, Whitney could now concentrate fully on his epic poem, and read it before a live audience of prominent and educated Latter-day Saints. The result was gratifying: “The reading of the Poem at Col. Clayton’s . . . last evening, was a most gratifying success. I had not dared to anticipate so much for it. . . .”[8] As he finished up the first edition, he changed the title for the last time: “I have again changed the name of my poem from ‘The Messenger’ etc., to ‘Elias, an Epic of the Ages. by Orson F. Whitney’ and I think that will stand as the title page. Am now typewriting the closing cantos, assisted by Bro. D. F. Collett.”[9] The Christmas holidays found him spending part of his time working on biographies for his volume four of History of Utah, and part improving his poem.[10]

            Emboldened by his success with the first reading, he approached President Smith about another, more prestigious reading: “Met President Joseph F. Smith this afternoon and told him about the poem, and how proud and honored I would be to read it to him and a representative gathering in the Bee Hive [House] Parlor. He readily acquiesced and asked me to make out a list of those I would like invited. I consider it very kind of him. It will be an important event in my history.”[11] His brother Bud helped him with publicity: “This evening’s [Deseret] News contains the article on my poem with these headlines: ‘A Mormon Epic,’—‘Bishop Whitney produces a great Poem—Eternal Truth—the Mighty Theme of the Dispensations told in Verse Sublime.’. . . I consider this day a notable one in my life, from the publication of the foregoing article in the organ of the Church.”[12] In two weeks Ort had the requested names ready: “Sent to President Smith the invitation list for the Bee Hive House readings for which he will set the time. Over 700 names are submitted, including all the General Authorities.”[13] About a week later, plans solidified: “This evening I was sent for by President Joseph F. Smith, who acquiesced in all my suggestions relating to the proposed poetic readings at the Bee Hive House, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, February 16, 17, and 18, inst, are the times set. . . .”[14] Invitation cards were mailed by a committee to three hundred guests, including all of the general authorities.[15] The Deseret News ran an article announcing the reading, while the other (anti-Mormon) newspapers, the Herald and the Tribune “ignored the whole business.”[16]

            The three designated days in February came and went, and Whitney basked in the glow of triumph: “A red letter day in my life! This evening at about 10:45, I completed the reading of my poem in the Bee Hive Parlors, and was the recipient of warm and enthusiastic applause, comment, and congratulations from such men as President Joseph F. Smith, President Lund, Bishop Preston, President Angus M. Cannon, C. W. Penrose, B. H. Roberts, J. H. Paul, H. G. Whitney and many more, Governor Wells and wife included. It was a complete triumph, and I believe marks an epoch in my life. Nothing could be more hearty, soul-felt and sincere than the compliments showered upon me from all sides. The three nights readings constituted one of the most important events in my life. ‘Praise be to God, from whom all blessings flow.’ ”[17] President Lund described the February 16 reading: “In the evening about four hundred people assembled to hear Orson F. Whitney recite his great poem Elias. It is a great theme. He deals first with his own spiritual awakening. Then a dream of meeting the Spirit of Song who gives him his harp. Then he describes the council in Heaven, then the coming of Christ, the primitive Church and the apostasy. He read four canto’s only. Eight left. It took two hours to recite the four.”[18] Two days later, he wrote, “In the evening I took Alvin Peterson with me to hear ‘Elias’. It was fine.”[19] Elder Rudger Clawson was also among those that attended: “Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings I attended a program meeting at the Beehive House, which was called for the purpose of giving Bishop Orson F. Whitney an opportunity of reading his last and greatest effort in poetry—his masterpiece—namely, ‘Elias, an Epic of the Ages.’ The poem has great merit and will doubtless be issued from the press at an early day. It deals with the great plan of salvation as introduced and shown in the history of the Mormon Church.”[20]

            Ort enjoyed his success immensely; enough to push for the poem to be formally published: “The recent readings of my poem at the Bee Hive continue to be ‘the talk of the town.’ Bro. John Nicholson called in today to tell me how much he enjoyed them and what he thought of the poem. ‘It is a great work and will make you famous,’ he said. I also received a note from the First Presidency, in answer to one I wrote to President Smith night before last, asking him to appoint a Committee to help me revise the poem and prepare it for publication. The Presidency express their pleasure and delight in having heard the poem, and named as a Committee to aid me Elders Charles W. Penrose, John Nicholson and George Reynolds—a very good selection, I think, and one that suits me to a ‘T.’ ”[21] Whitney’s memory regarding the origination of the publication and committee request seemed to fail him in later years, for in his autobiography he wrote that he learned “that a project was on foot to publish the poem under the patronage of leading citizens. . . .” And that “These gentlemen [the committee], out of pure public spirit, took the initiative and launched the project, almost without my knowledge.”[22]

            The committee met together three times during the first half of March to go over his work. During the third meeting “Objection [was] made to my identifying Elias with the Holy Ghost. Will therefore have to change it.”[23] Whitney’s equation of Elias with the Holy Ghost in his first draft raises unanswerable questions regarding the evolution of his doctrinal views over the years. Since his epic poem received two major revisions and many minor edits before his death, he could have made any number of doctrinal changes. A few who have read Elias believe that Orson sought to camouflage his old reincarnation ideas in the lengthy text in such a way that they would not readily be noticed. Such a charge is difficult to refute; not only because the poem went through three revisions, but because Ort’s poetic language was imprecise; often capable of more than one interpretation or meaning. One reader might see reincarnation in a stanza in which another might see reference to preexistence. Such arguments are best left to poetic literary critics.


A few days later he met with the committee to receive approval for his doctrinal changes: “This same day—March 20—at 3 pm. the Committee on Poem met at my office; Bro. Penrose offered prayer, and I then read to them my epilogue ‘The Angel Ascendant,’ revised by me in accordance with certain suggestions made by them at our last meeting. They now approved it, and so ends the revision by the Committee.”[24]
            For his birthday, Orson went to Logan, Utah, and read Elias to an assemblage at the Brigham Young College where he had once taught many years before: “I gave my first reading before the Summer School and the general public. . . . Among notables present were Moses Thatcher, C[harles]. W. Nibley, George C. Parkinson. . . . Bro. Nibley said ‘Thy name shall no more be Whitney, but Milton.’ ”[25] Two days later Whitney reported: “Tried to sleep in the afternoon. Pored over my poem. Had a headache; B. S. [Young] blessed me. Gave my third reading at night and scored a triumph. . . . This evening witnessed a memorable incident, [illegible] direct answer to prayer.”[26]


            By the end of the year, Ort’s epic poem Elias had been nearing readiness for printing: “Submitted ms of my poem “Elias” to Deseret News for estimate of publication.”[27]


            Ort continued refining his manuscript: “Daily I am putting the finishing touches upon my poem “Elias,” which steadily improves as I work. . . .”[28]

            No Orson F. Whitney diary is available for 1904, if one still exists, so we do not know the details of the publication process for Elias during that year, except that a new committee with different members was formed to help have the poem issued. However, Ort’s first entry of 1905 informs us that it took a year to be published—meaning copyedited, typeset, printed, bound, and shipped: “In the evening I presented my wife, May, with a copy of “Elias”—Autograph Edition de Luxe, which I intended as a Christmas gift had it arrived in time.”[29]


            Orson had also given President Smith a copy of his newly published poem Elias, that Ort had dedicated to him: “Received today a beautiful letter from President Joseph F. Smith, dated yesterday, and acknowledging my [illegible] gift to him of “Elias.” He expressed his love for me, his confidence, and his thanks for my dedication to him of the poem.”[30] Ort also gave copies of the poem to as many friends and relatives as he could afford to, noting their expressions of gratitude for his gift.[31]


            Early sales of Elias were hopeful: “Received from H. G. Whitney [the] manager [of the] Deseret News a check for $109, payment for 45 copies of ‘Elias’ cloth editions at $2.40. These have been sold at the News Book Store. . . . I am also revising “Elias” for some future edition.”[32] But as the year passed, the new Elias publication committee found themselves needing financial help: “This forenoon, my friends Heber M. Wells, and Richard W. Young, of the ‘Elias’ committee, had an interview in my behalf with the First Presidency; Apostles John Henry Smith and Charles W. Penrose also being present. The result of the interview was a subscription by the Church for seventy copies of my epic poem ‘Elias,’ at ten dollars a copy. This will take the bulk of my Jubilee edition off my hands. Added to the former subscription by the Presidency of 12 copies of the Edition de Luxe at $25, it will make an even $1000 from the Trustee-in-trust on account of the poem. I feel very glad and thankful.”[33]


            With the first edition of Elias having been issued and selling, Orson could not forget his poem, and continued working on it off and on for the rest of his life, giving it two further major revisions, one that was published in 1915 and a second that never moved beyond manuscript stage. Whitney’s call to the apostleship placed him in a position to give more time to the rewrites than he otherwise would have had. As an Apostle his main duties were to attend stake conferences, and he had few other duties during the weekdays, except those literary assignments given him by the First Presidency.  That November he wrote: “Worked on ‘Elias—the Epic of the Ages.’ Such is its new title.”[34] Diary entries in 1907 and 1908 indicate time spent revising and improving the poem, having the new version retyped for publication, and having the first edition reprinted in five hundred copies.[35]

[1] TMH, 243-244.
[2] OFWJ, September 1, 1900.
[3] OFWJ, October 27, 1901.
[4] OFWJ, December 20, 1901.
[5] OFWJ, January 2, 1902.
[6] OFWJ, April 17, 1902.
[7] OFWJ, September 19, 1902.
[8] OFWJ, December 11, 1902. In the same diary entry, he also wrote: “I have just written for the First Presidency their ‘Christmas Greeting’ to the Latter-day Saints to be published in the [illegible] No. of the Deseret News. I feel very happy in those continued evidences of the confidence and good will of the Authorities.” The second and concluding reading of the poem was even more successful: “In the presence of a throng that filled the commodious parlors of the Richards mansion 175 A. St. I gave this, the last reading of the series begun December 10th at Col. Clayton’s. . . . All present overwhelmed me with praise and congratulations. I told them I felt more than grateful, but not lifted up a particle, for I did not feel that I had done it, but God to whom I gave all the glory” (January 11, 1903).
[9] OFWJ, December 16, 1902.
[10] See OFWJ, December 30 and 31, 1902.
[11] OFWJ, January 9, 1903.
[12] OFWJ, January 10, 1903.
[13] OFWJ, January 24, 1903.
[14] OFWJ, February 3, 1903.
[15] See OFWJ, February 9, 1903.
[16] OFWJ, February 17, 1903.
[17] OFWJ, February 18, 1903.
[18] AHLJ, February 16, 1903.
[19] AHLJ, February 18, 1903.
[20] Rudger Clawson diary, February 16-18, 1893; as found in A Ministry of Meetings: The Apostolic Diaries of Rudger Clawson, 547.
[21] OFWJ, February 21, 1903.
[22] TMH, 247, 249.
[23] See OFWJ, March 4, 7, and 13, 1903.
[24] OFWJ, March 20, 1903.
[25] OFWJ, July 1, 1903.
[26] OFWJ, July 3, 1903.
[27] OFWJ, December 7, 1903.
[28] OFWJ, December 31, 1903.
[29] OFWJ, January 1, 1905.
[30] OFWJ, January 5, 1905.
[31] See OFWJ, March 6, 1905.
[32] OFWJ, April 18, 1905.
[33] OFWJ, September 27, 1905.
[34] OFWJ, November 20, 1906.
[35] See OFWJ, January 27, September 30, 1907, and November 6 and 7, 1908.

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