If you only read the headlines, history is propelled by exceptions—world-historical figures who bent nations and empires to their will. And they all have the same last name: “The Great”: Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Pompey the Great, Charles the Great (Charlemagne), Frederick the Great, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great. It’s great turtles all the way down.
Nearly absent from the historical headlines are the people who did most of the work: Peter the Pretty Good, Charles the OK, Helga the High-Side-of-Mediocre, Gilbert the Good-Enough-for-Government-Work. Most of the history that really matters was produced by people whom history has judged as something less than “the Great” but who toiled away with competence and dedication to their jobs.
Literature works the same way. We hear a lot about Orson F. Whitney’s call for “Miltons and Shakespeares” of our own. But, really, Miltons and Shakesperes don’t come around all that often for anyone. Even Milton and Shakespeare weren’t “Milton” and “Shakespeare” during their own lives. It takes a while to become a world-bending literary figure; we have to wait a while to see whether or not the world got bent.
In the meantime, writers write, readers read, literature happens, and most potential Miltons and Shakespeares end up being more like Cowleys and Cowpers—solid writers who had splendid careers and were, for a time, seen as indispensable. Abraham Cowley (pronounced koo-lie), for example, wrote the unfinished epic poem Davideis (1656), which, in its own time, was considered by many to be superior to Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). And William Cowper (pronounced koo-per), who lived from 1731-1800 was easily the most famous lyric poet of his generation. Both Cowley and Cowper were pretty good, and probably even very good poets. But they didn’t end up being great.
But most writers and poets don’t end up being great. This is why the general advice give to writers to “strive for excellence” and “not settle for mediocracy” always falls flat for me. Such formulations misunderstand the nature of excellence, which is more of a statistical function than an objective attained by trying really hard and putting your heart into stuff. In order to produce a Shakespeare, a society has to produce a lot of Chapmans and Heywoods and Fletchers and perhaps a Marlowe or two. There have to be readers who know how to read, critics who know how to criticize, and audiences that know how to aud.
What I am saying about Mormon literature, really, is that we don’t need world-shaking outliers of undisputed excellence. We need more pretty good novels and plays and poems. And we need more mediocre literature too, for it is out of a critical mass of OK and pretty good that excellence arises. To my mind, the biggest problem in Mormon literature is not that it isn’t excellent, or even that it isn’t pretty good; it’s that there isn’t enough of it. As a people, we need to write more, and read more, before we even get to the “pretty good” stage of literary development.
So, what about those Miltons and Shakespeares? We may never get them. Not many cultures do. But we could do with some Flannery O’Connors, G.K Chestertons, Cynthia Ozicks, Graham Greens, and Marilyn Robinsons of our own—talented writers and profound thinkers who can find what is essential in our faith and work it into imaginative literature for the whole world to read and care about.
Excellence at the level of Milton and Shakespeare is not required for a culture to have a profound and important literary tradition. Pretty Goodness will do just fine, which is why I happily predict that Mormonism will soon have Cowleys and Cowpers of Our Own.