I am currently reading a book suggested to me by President George Q. Cannon. A while back, while reading his biography, I learned that George Q. was fond of the novels of Anthony Trollope. As my wife can attest, I am not much of a novel reader. However, George Q. has always been one of the more interesting Mormon leaders of the 19th century for me, and I thought it would be fun to see what kind of novels he enjoyed. Trollope does not disappoint. His novels are the original political thriller, except that they aren’t thrillers. Rather, they are big sprawling stories about Parliamentary intrigues meant to show up the tawdriness of the age (in this case high Victorian England). I have been reading Phineas Phinn, a novel about a young Irish barrister who, by a strange confluence of chances, finds himself elected to Parliament as a new Liberal member, just as the reigning Tory government is falling. We see Phineas driven by ambition as he sets about his political career, which provides a vehicle for Trollope to make all sorts of little jabs at Victorian morals.
I am not surprised that Cannon liked Trollope. He is an excellent example of an upwardly mobile, politically-inclined Briton. Of course, he found his route upward far from Westminster, first on the shores of the Mississippi at Nauvoo and later in Utah as Brigham Young’s counselor. At the height of his influence, he was de facto administrative head of the church, Utah’s Territorial Delegate to Congress, and the general mastermind of Mormon political, business, and legal affairs. He was certainly party to enough Byzantine backroom political deals to appreciate Trollope’s political yarns. Indeed, I imagine Cannon as one of the few culturally bi-lingual 19th century Mormon patriarchs. On one hand, I imagine him fitting in with atavistic, old-testament figures like John Taylor, Heber C. Kimball, or Wilford Woodruff. At the same time, he seems to have had the acumen and urbanity to negotiate the political, business, and legal world of the East.
We often enplot Mormon history as a story in which a pristine Utopian movement creating its communal Zion in splendid western isolation was slowly but steadily undermined by outside forces until it ultimately capitulated in ignominious compromise. The image of an amused Cannon reading Trollope on his way to or from Washington, DC is a reminder that the Utopian isolation was probably never as complete as we might imagine, and the Kingdom has always found use for bi-lingual and worldly ambassadors.