Jill Mulvay Derr is co-author with Karen Lynn Davidson of the recently released Eliza R Snow: The Complete Poetry (BYU Studies/University of Utah Press). She has graciously answered a few of our questions about her important work, of which this post is the first of a two-part series.
Would you briefly describe the volume, its content and organization?
This book is a collection of the known poems of Eliza R. Snow, that is all the poems known to us. It includes poems from her two volumes of Poems: Religious, Historical, and Political (1856, 1877), poems published in various periodicals during her lifetime, and unpublished poems from her journal, trail diary, and papers, and from the diaries, autograph books, and papers of others. It features a total of 507 poems as well as notes on poems of misattributed or doubtful authorship. Sources, variants and other essential information (such as the text of another author’s poem to which she responded with a poem of her own) are included in Textual Notes at the back of the book. The poems are arranged in nine chronological chapters with a short historical/biographical introduction at the beginning of each chapter, and a brief note at the head of each poem. We decided to incorporate undated poems into the chronology, clearly noting that they are undated, rather than leave them as a separate section. We wanted the collection to reflect the unfolding of both Snow’s life and Mormon history. We use the word “complete” in the title, but we know that additional poems will continue to come to light and that dates will be determined for some hitherto undated poems.
You’ve been working on Eliza R. Snow for some time; how did this volume come to be?
The book actually stems from my initial work on Eliza R. Snow, which began in the fall of 1973 when the Church History Division was budding under the direction of Leonard J. Arrington, newly appointed Church Historian. Leonard had hired Maureen Ursenbach [Beecher] as an editor and given her a special charge to begin work in Latter-day Saint women’s history. Her earliest efforts centered on Eliza R. Snow. Indeed, I heard Maureen give a presentation on Snow early in 1973 when I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I was both surprised and intrigued. I’d barely heard of Snow and could not believe that I was unaware of such an extraordinary woman and her contributions. When I moved to Utah that summer I visited the History Division in hopes of getting a grant to do research on Latter-day Saint women and, much to my delight, I was assigned to work with Maureen in compiling Snow’s poetry. I began looking page by page through newspapers and started a small file of 3×5 cards with the first line typed across the top and the sources typed or penned in at the bottom. It was my introduction not only to Snow but to nineteenth-century Mormon women and to Mormon history.
Within a year I had a full-time job at the Division and began working on other assignments so the poetry gradually received less and less of my attention. By 1980, when the History Division staff was transferred to BYU to become the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History, I had become a wife and mother and terminated my employment, though I maintained my association with the staff and continued several projects in Mormon women’s history. Around 1990, when I rejoined the Smith Institute and Maureen and I were working together on the Relief Society history (Women of Covenant), we resurrected the idea of publishing Snow’s poetry and found research assistants to help us prepare transcriptions and document sources. However, by 1995 when Maureen completed her Personal Writings of Eliza R. Snow, compiling and publishing the poetry was no longer of interest to her. Shortly thereafter Richard Bushman suggested that Karen Lynn Davidson, given her strong background in literature, might be interested in working with me. After Karen joined the effort in 1997 the project advanced steadily. We prepared a book proposal for BYU Studies complete with samples of annotation. Because so many poems were written for specific occasions or individuals, Jack Welch recommended that each poem be introduced with a historical, biographical, or theological note. This expanded the project significantly and neither Karen nor I was in a position to work on it full time, but with the help of superb research assistants, particularly Jenny Reeder, it moved forward. Heather Seferovich and her design and production team at BYU Studies were instrumental in helping us bring the book to fruition.
The book’s size is impressive; was Snow particularly prolific? Did she have a routine for writing? How does she compare to her contemporaries in volume and composition technique?
Yes, this book is long and heavy! I would say Snow was moderately prolific. However, she was not nearly so prolific as some contemporary poets. Lydia Hunt Sigourney published some forty volumes of poems whereas Snow published only two. Snow, however, did not earn income from her poems as did Sigourney and other nineteenth-century poets, both women and men. Snow published her first poem at the age of twenty-one and published her last poem at the age of 83, just a few weeks before her death. When one stretches 507 poems across more than 60 years, the average comes to less than 10 poems per year, though some years she wrote and published far more and some years far fewer. This collection is long because we have included both published and unpublished poems, even a few epitaphs. It should be noted, too, that the last 300 of the 1333 pages consist of an appendix, textual notes, works cited, and indexes.
A collection of Snow’s finest works would be much slimmer than this volume. Karen Lynn Davidson is quick to say that poets should be judged by their best work, so one might ask why we have bothered to include all of Snow’s poems given their literary quality is uneven. The answer is that the value of this work is as much historical, biographical, and theological as it is literary. These poems take us into Snow’s world: the people, networks, events, thought and emotion of a half-century of early Mormonism.
Snow was a capable and versatile poet. She wrote an 1800-line epic in blank verse, “The Personification of Truth and Error,” as well as songs for children and everything in between. She skillfully used a variety of meters and could conjure up vivid pictures with words. She wrote political poetry that partakes of the post-Revolutionary era in which she grew up. Her many sentimental poems sound much like those of her contemporaries. It is her capacity to capture Mormon thought and Mormon experience that distinguishes her from her contemporaries.
We know little about her routine for writing. We have only three or four manuscripts that show Eliza in the process of composing a poem. She generally used her journal and diaries as copy books for her poems, a way to maintain a record of what she had written. It is remarkable that she took pains to record ephemera such as birthday poems, and yet they are indicative of the value she placed on relationships with family and friends. These personal poems are rarely confessional but they serve as an important counterpoint to her public life.
How do you suspect that people will use this volume? What sort of studies might it facilitate?
Karen and I are very interested in seeing how people will use this volume because it lends itself to a number of different approaches. The chronological arrangement of poems and historical and biographical information provide readers the opportunity to study Snow’s life or see through her eyes the unfolding of Church history. However, I would say from my meager surveying that perhaps one reader out of ten is reading through the book chronologically. People are checking the indexes for family names or topics or simply sampling poems at random. Several people have indicated they have found a particular poem to use in connection with a Church lesson or to send to someone they know who needs consolation or encouragement.
We hope scholars will draw upon Snow’s poems to further document and illuminate particular events, places, eras, people, and mindsets in Mormon history. Those interested in Mormon cultural life and social interactions will find references to concert, theater, school, and study groups, women’s visits, missionary homecomings, etc. Snow wrote many poems as texts for songs as well as hymns, and matching them to popular music of the era makes for engaging entertainment that takes one back to the old tabernacle, for example, or to the parlor of Phoebe and Wilford Woodruff. The poems provide access to Snow’s developing thought and theological explorations and speculations and, more broadly, to Mormonism’s developing cosmology. Edward Whitley’s soon-to-be-published study of Walt Whitman and other American bards, including Eliza R. Snow, situates Snow’s poems within the context of poems by well-known and lesser known literary contemporaries. Vicki Robison’s recent Sunstone piece on Snow and Tenina Moise shows the possibilities for comparing Snow’s work with that of women from other religious traditions. New feminist approaches to sentimental literature suggest studying Snow’s work to understand the relationships and networks she helped establish and maintain. As Snow’s life and poems become more accessible, she and Mormon women will draw further attention from women’s studies scholars. All of these and possibilities I’ve never imagined will expand our understanding of Eliza R. Snow and the Mormonism in which she played such an important role.
Part 2 of this interview is available here.