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August 10, 2022 News » Cover Story

A Poet on State Street 

Remembering the life and legacy of Utah's Josephine Spencer.

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Josephine Spencer, circa 1897
  • Josephine Spencer, circa 1897

On the evening of July 1, the sliding glass doors of the Eccles Theater opened to Main Street, inviting passersby to stop, listen and partake of the poetic offerings emanating from within. For a second year in a row, the Eccles' Grand Lobby hosted the Salt Lake Speaks Slam Poetry Exhibition—held in conjunction with the Open Streets summer makeover on Main—before a crowd of varying ages and backgrounds.

As the summer sun gradually set and the lights of the city began to glow, roughly a dozen local poets held court before a supportive and encouraging audience. Over the course of three block sets—to the finger-snaps and applause of their listeners—the poets spoke of the things closest to their hearts.

Some shared their journeys with body image, others of relationships both broken and discovered.

They railed against the racism, hypocrisy and violence that they saw both locally and nationally.

"Poetry has filled a part of me that was missing," said Rachel Chidester, who performed at the Salt Lake Speaks event.

In a piece describing her own experience with abuse, Chidester conveyed the personal epiphanies that came in the midst of a dark period of her life. "Instead of gazing into oblivion," she said, "I was staring into infinity."

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Like countless others who have hearkened to the poetic impulse, these local artists found a voice with which to articulate what they see and feel, using words to go beyond language.

And their performances amid the hustle and bustle of the city streets added to a long tradition of homegrown, unapologetic Utah artistry, pulsating with the unheard whispers of one of Salt Lake's most notable, yet tragically forgotten, poets of its past.

The name Josephine Spencer might not sound familiar today, but she was once described by the Deseret News as "one of Utah's most gifted writers of poetry and prose." Unconventional, subtly humorous and willing to experiment with her craft, Spencer was a storyteller, a journalist, a political radical and an independent, single woman in turn-of-the-century Utah.

Spencer, as historians Ardis Parshall and Michael Austin summarize in their edited collection of her works, wrote "about flawed human beings ... trying to make their way in a world of surprising beauty, tragic inequality and just enough divine grace to make it all work out in the end."

Living between the pioneer era and the Roaring '20s—and no stranger to depression and loneliness—Spencer knew a thing or two about harnessing the poetic voice in the midst of uncertain times. Darkness, disease, corruption and injustice were as familiar sights to her then as they are to us now, but she also spoke of great hope and beauty, and the elements of human life that help us to not only live but to live well.

And like today's local slam poets, Spencer, too, had much to say about her world. While nearly a century has passed since her death, she has much to teach us about living well and finding our own poetic voices.

Dreams
Josephine Spencer was born in Salt Lake City on April 30, 1861, to Daniel and Emily Spencer. The youngest of six children, she grew up in a separate cottage adjoining the larger Spencer residence on the northwest corner of 300 South and State Street. Daniel Spencer was a member of the Territorial Legislature and a polygamist. He passed away when Josephine was 7 years old.

To those who knew her well, "she always seemed a dreamer," recalled her childhood friend Annie Wells Cannon—who referred to Spencer as "Jote"—in a 1932 article for the Relief Society Magazine. "Whether walking with little friends on the hills or doing the ... household tasks at home, around her there always seemed to hover an atmosphere of imagery."

Spencer reportedly liked to regale her friends with stories and plays full of fanciful figures, for "where others saw plain facts and barren places, she saw loveliness and beauty," Cannon said.

Amid the lilacs and locust blossoms of her neighborhood, Spencer fostered close childhood friendships in spite of her shy nature and even found her poetic impulse emboldened by the example of her neighbors. Living in close proximity to the Spencer cottage was Sarah E. Carmichael (1838-1901), a Latter-day Saint convert who had distinguished herself in years past by her education and poetic prowess before experiencing a sharp mental decline.

Cannon reported that Spencer and her friends would occasionally observe Carmichael and her husband through their fence, hoping to be invited onto the premises.

"Jote was wont to say ... 'You know [Carmichael] writes poetry and has printed a book,'" Cannon recounted. "That in Jote's mind was the acme of achievement—to write poetry and print a book."

Spencer's creative desires were encouraged among family and friends in her early life, but the literary landscape of pioneer Utah was still in a formative state. While many in the community were producing prose and spinning verse, Utah Historical Quarterly editor Miriam B. Murphy summed the terrain of that era thusly in a 1975 article: "The times generally favored zeal over art."

Spencer reportedly had a witty and optimistic demeanor, according to her contemporaries. Her religious approach was decidedly against the harsh Calvinistic tendencies that some of her neighbors adopted, with Spencer even going so far as to skewer, in a story from 1894, that brand of spirituality "that pricked rather than soothed; goaded rather than led, and repulsed instead of won."

Recognition
As Josephine Spencer passed through her teens and 20s, her literary interests developed along with her community involvement. Too young to join such popular cultural groups as the Wasatch Literary Association, she was involved in converting an old card club into the Azalea Literary Society (1875-1884).

Under the Azalea's auspices, Spencer helped organize several formal balls for community causes, such as one in 1878 for the sufferers of the Yellow Fever epidemic in the southern United States. She delivered an essay for the occasion "which did her great credit," reported the Woman's Exponent.

Spencer began the 1880s by completing a certificate for English and Literature at the University of Deseret—precursor to the University of Utah—and ended the decade with prize-winning work for newspapers like Western Weekly. It was during this period that a literary movement called Home Literature was gaining traction within her Mormon community, and it proved to be consequential for her literary ambitions.

Beginning in the late 1880s, members and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were starting to embrace the writing of fiction as a means of instructing their children and sharing their beliefs abroad. Called Home Literature, the trend encompassed works of poetry and prose that tended to be sentimental in tone and didactic in purpose.

Not unlike the moralistic fiction of mainstream America that had been in vogue since the 1820s, Home Literature began to grow in popularity in Utah just as moralistic writing was falling out of favor everywhere else in the country.

Like others, Spencer contributed stories and poetry to the Home Literature subgenre. Unlike others, however, she was not primarily concerned with teaching Mormonism, but rather developing her gifts and experimenting with literary methods.

Her first published story—an offbeat adventure tale called The Descendant of an Ancestor (1891)—was set in Turkey and owed more to the English writer H. Rider Haggard than anything found on the Wasatch Front.

"Josephine Spencer's early literature is the work of a woman trying to develop her talent for writing," observed Brigham Young University professor Kylie Nielson Turley in her 1995 thesis. "Often, she considers topics similar to those discussed by her friends and neighbors, but occasionally her writings contain blatant humor uncommon to Mormon authors or have overtones of unusual themes such as socialism and the underside of Mormon life."

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Establishing herself as a literary light in Utah's firmament by the early 1890s, Spencer branched out into unknown territories of genre and style, publishing locally and in national journals like the Overland Monthly. Over the years, she would pen stories of adventure, romance, history, politics and even a ghost tale.

Spencer wrote of women, children and the laboring classes as well as the injustices experienced by each. She contemplated love, the seasons, mythology, grief, the West and nature.

Even with her Home Literature contributions—where plot and characterization were, by design, in service to an expected moral theme—one could still detect flashes of deeper insight and unexpected nuance embedded in the proceedings.

But she would agree that not all her literary efforts were successful. Writing to a friend in 1892, Spencer invited those curious about her output to "judge me by the best of my work rather than the poorest."

Of All Trades
On top of her fiction and poetry, Spencer was also a full-time journalist. Between the increased number of American women in newspaper positions during the Civil War, female admittance into local printing unions in the 1870s and the trailblazing work of such journalists as Margaret Fuller and Jane Cunningham Croly, the country experienced a boom in women journalists from the 1880s onward.

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Serving for years as Society and Literary editor for the Deseret Evening News, Spencer utilized her descriptive talents and perceptive eye to report on local gatherings and even corresponded from Chicago for the Columbian Exposition (World's Fair) of 1893.

Present at the formation of the Utah Women's Press Club (1891) and the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers (1901), Spencer was also active with local politics. She was listed as a delegate for the Populist Party in 1898 by the Salt Lake Herald and was put forward as her party's choice for county auditor that year, a nomination she respectfully declined.

With a party that advocated for labor unions, wealth redistribution and the public ownership of utilities, Josephine Spencer was hardly considered an outlier during this period of Utah's history. The state, after all, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Democratic-Populist presidential ticket in 1896.

Never marrying and supporting her sister and niece with her writing, Spencer worked steadily on multiple fronts and continued to develop her abilities in journalism, fiction and especially in poetry. Involved with the state peace movement, she wrote a poem that was recited at peace meetings held throughout the city at the behest of the International Council of Women on May 15, 1902.

The global plea for peace, her poem lamented, "like an echo swung / Vainly among the chambers of lone hills / Down the worn highways of the world has rung / To harass heedless ears and idle wills / That hardly now its rising clamor stills / The old discordance of the world-throned hate / Vaunting itself a dynasty of Fate." She anticipated a future when humanity "shall tune their life-strings to the Psalms of Peace."

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Due to an undisclosed "breakdown" of health—as the Deseret News later reported in its obituary notice—Spencer ultimately relocated to California in 1922 and joined the staff of the Pasadena Star-News. She passed away in Norwalk six years later on Oct. 28, 1928.

"She very much set out to just be a writer," comments Mormon historian/blogger Ardis Parshall, "not a Mormon writer, not a Utah writer. And she had to draw on those things because that's what she knew, but she was just writing for people who would read her ideas."

What were some of those ideas? While Spencer's stories and poetry touched on varied themes, some striking and prescient issues emerge for our day from her body of work.

Her 1891 poem "The World's Way," for example, contains a biting criticism of the collective hypocrisy and inaction that she believed was all too often adopted by American leaders and citizens with regard to the poor. "There are sparkling waves in the sea afloat," she wrote, "But never a drop to drink / They will bear up the weight of an iron boat / But a man's light form must sink / So billows of pity splash and swirl / While the homeless beggar starves / And the state-ship sails with flags afurl / While the builder dies at the wharves."

In the conclusion to her 1895 story "Finley Parke's Problem," Spencer sounds a warning to readers past and present about how "cheap" prejudices serve to pile up the wrongs and injustices of the world.

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"It seems to me," her character muses, "that about the worst hell some of us could have, hereafter, would be to look back and see our lives as they are now, running around, and out, in their little ruts of selfishness, without any glance outside at the mountains of human misery piled up in sight."

"Little Mother" (1928), a daring rewrite of an earlier Home Literature story, contains even further searching questions for men and women. "The characters are trapped in unyielding gender expectations," wrote Turley, in a 2008 analysis for the literary journal Irreantum.

Perpetually self-sacrificing motherhood, the sole option available to the heroine of "Little Mother," leaves her feeling lonely and "in everybody's way" by the end of the tale, Spencer wrote.

For men, on the other hand, their options are more numerous, but inexorably built around pursuing the next empty rung "leading to the top of the ladder." This was evidently not a state of affairs that Spencer found desirable for anyone.

Poetry Within
Like Spencer and the slam poets of Salt Lake Speaks, poetic capacity is available to all if it is exercised. When it is exercised, a sense of the transcendent and the mysterious begins to flow, as many a mystic and creative artist can attest.

"Poets and artists," writes author Patrice Vecchione in her book My Shouting, Shattered, Whispering Voice, "are people who maintain a relationship with mystery for their entire lives. They don't discredit what can't be explained."

In his book Singing School, Robert Pinsky, American poet laureate consultant from 1997 to 2000, emphasizes the difficult work of exercising and informing the poetic capacity through the process of personal discovery, trial and error.

While it is much easier to follow a particular school or trend, writes Pinsky, "These are fatally easy ways to avoid the double labor of deciding for yourself what thrills you and studying it. And sometimes changing your mind."

If this all sounds too abstract for the "real world," consider the sense of nihilism that permeates so much of modern living, with its subsequent fruits of despair, cruelty, extremism and technological destruction of the planet. These are real phenomena that poets, politicians and the populace generally decry.

The philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, in their book All Things Shining, point to our alienation from a sense of craft in the world and, consequently, a sense of meaning, care or sacredness. "The task of the [craftsperson]," they write, "is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in [themselves] the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there."

So, poetic impulses would not appear to be merely flowery or decorative language, but rather "a way we take stock of ourselves," Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal conveyed to The Salt Lake Tribune in April.

By itself, Rekdal said, the poetic form will not make the changes that are collectively desired of governments and societies, but it will "suggest the activation of certain values in readers that choose to live the values that they find."

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In recounting the life of Josephine Spencer, and highlighting the flow of poetry that still runs through her native city, perhaps we might each find the "heavenly halo which transfigures thought"—to borrow a phrase from an 1893 Spencer poem—by digging deeper and opening ourselves up more widely.

"Vulnerability," observed poet Ashley Finley at the Salt Lake Speaks event, "is a medicine we need."

Whether the medium is the printed page, the visual arts or an endless variety of crafts, the poetic impulse is available for all to joyfully discover and to cry out "against the horror of human selfishness and greed," as Spencer's "Spirit of Literature" (1899) put it.

Whatever form our poetic impulses take, they have the benefit of time—however much of it we can apply to the effort—in which to take shape. Consider the words of Spencer from 1890:

No other hope our souls might move
Than blessed with boon of Life and Time,
To struggle with the world and prove
Its foretold golden prime

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Wes Long

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