The Literary, Linguistic and New York City Life of Pratt

December 20, 2011 | one comment
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The first Institute class held in our upper Manhattan apartment in 1988 explored Mormon philosophy and intellectual life. The readings included a 1969 Dialogue article by Leonard Arrington, “The Intellectual Tradition of the Latter-day Saints,” (pdf) which mentioned a questionnaire Arrington had sent to 50 Mormon intellectuals asking them to list the five most eminent intellectuals in Mormon History. I was then surprised to find Parley P. Pratt on that list.

After reading Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow’s Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism, I’m no longer surprised. In fact, I think that the rankings of that survey got it wrong. Parley P. Pratt was 9th, well behind his brother Orson, who was 2nd and ahead of Joseph Smith. Now, I’d have to somehow place Parley ahead of Orson Pratt.

Overall, I agree with Julie that this is one of the important works of Mormon History in 2011. In it, Pratt comes alive in a way that is much more realistic than in his autobiography. Where my youthful reading of the autobiography made me think that, if I had known him in person, I would like Pratt, Givens and Grow’s picture gives me pause. I want to like Pratt, but Pratt’s personality now seems more complex, and I’m no longer sure. Like those I’ve gotten to know best, I can see both very attractive qualities and also some things that annoy me. To me this is the mark of a solid biography — the author’s ability to portray the whole person.

Of course, biographies also need to tell a good, readable story, and Givens and Grow succeed here too. Like other biographies, they use a modified chronological approach, putting chapters in chronological order, each covering a period of his life between significant transition points, but within chapters proceeding thematically, proceeding, for example, from his proselyting during a period, to his writing, to his family life, etc. This avoids the choppiness that can happen in a straight chronological presentation, as, for example, the birth of a child might follow a major speech or occur during the middle of a tense standoff or something.

Personally, I prefer this kind of presentation, but I also have a kind of secret mania for chronologies, which can demonstrate the sometimes hectic nature of life that is lost in a thematic presentation. So I was disappointed to discover that this biography doesn’t have a chronology, and, because I needed one for my own research, I compiled one for my own use as I read. Now I know why this biography doesn’t have one! Compiling a chronology can be as much work as a chapter or more of the book. My own chronology is so abbreviated and colored by my own views and poorly-thought-out wordings that it is insufficient for the use of anyone but myself.

My own research touches on Parley P. Pratt’s life in several ways, and it is perhaps in these areas where I can provide the most useful reaction to Givens’ and Grow’s biography, if I can at all be helpful. While I generally steer clear of most Mormon History before about 1890 (I don’t see any point in an amateur like myself trying to compete with those who are clearly better and more qualified than I am), I am actively interested in Mormonism in New York City, Mormon fiction, poetry and other literature, and Mormon language, among other areas.

Pratt is important in all of these areas. He opened missionary work in New York City. He was an early writer of Mormon poetry (perhaps even the first to write Mormon poetry — he was the first to publish a volume of Mormon poetry). He authored what is generally considered (erroneously I now think) the first work of Mormon fiction. His autobiography is one of Mormonism’s most important literary works. And he was, I’ve now learned, a pioneer in language learning–the first Mormon missionary to learn, in order to preach the gospel, what is now the Church’s second language, Spanish.

Unfortunately, Givens’ and Grow’s biography didn’t give me all that I had hoped for in all of these areas. While they do give much more detail that Pratt’s autobiography on his six visits to New York City, there wasn’t much more than I already knew, nor did they list additional sources that I was unaware of. This could easily be because such sources either don’t exist or are very difficult to find. I don’t even think that it is reasonable to expect this kind of new detailed research from a biography in most cases.

I was also somewhat disappointed with the biography’s look at Pratt’s more literary œuvre. Most of Pratt’s fictional works (there are seven by my count) either got short shrift or were ignored. Hist poetry fared better, and his autobiography best of all. I had hoped for more of an assessment of his literary works. But, I have to admit that they are likely below a reasonable threshold for what should be put in a general biography like this, given their relative importance in Pratt’s life.

But, I was very pleased and surprised at Givens’ and Grow’s look at Pratt and language. I had no idea how successful Pratt had been in learning Spanish (although it is fairly clear that he was less successful than he thought he was!). And the most pleasant surprise was learning of Pratt’s role in the creation of the fascinating, if dubious, Deseret Alphabet.

While I was disappointed in some aspects of the work, due to my own unrealistic hopes, I have to give Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism an unqualified recommendation. This biography shows Pratt as, near as I can tell, he should be: an intense, creative and startlingly original force during the important formative period of Mormonism.

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One Response to The Literary, Linguistic and New York City Life of Pratt

  1. Dave on December 20, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    Thanks for the comments, Kent. There is obviously more to the man than is apparent from the autobiography — at least from what I remember of it. I knew that Pratt pioneered South American missionary work, having a difficult mission experience struggling with the language and struggling with the culture. Hard to believe there was a time when European missions were bountiful and South American missions had little success!