reviews – “Proving Contraries”

A Collection of Writings in Honor of Eugene EnglandDeseret News, Dennis Lythgoe
Gene England was stricken with brain cancer and died in 2001 at the age of sixty-eight—but his impression on students of both Mormonism and literature was profound and deep. Among the institutions where he taught English, creative writing, literature, and religion were St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, the University of Utah’s LDS Institute of Religion, Brigham Young University, and Utah Valley State College. He spent twenty-two years at BYU, and at UVSC he began the first Mormon Studies program in the nation.

England wrote several books and more than 150 articles and personal essays throughout his distinguished academic career. He was also founding co-editor of Dialogue: Journal of Mormon Thought, which began publication in 1966. He was well known for his love of teaching and people-related issues. He was a very religious man with a deep devotion to his LDS faith. But he was also a thinker who always wanted to know both sides of an argument and had the courage to sometimes espouse an unpopular position.

This legacy makes the publication of “Proving Contraries” especially notable. It contains more than twenty poems, articles, and personal essays designed to celebrate England’s life. They are written by important scholars who were also colleagues or students of England. The opening quotation is from Joseph Smith: “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”

Robert Rees, the editor of the volume, writes in personal terms about England the man; and in his classy closing essay, “Eugene England Enters Heaven,” Rees describes a heaven many readers will love. But there are also challenging and interesting essays by folklorist William A. Wilson and sociologist Armand Mauss.

Carol Lynn Pearson, popular Mormon author and poet, writes about “My Homeless Man”; Doug Thayer, a good friend of Gene’s and a storyteller, writes about “Crow Basin”; and Karen Rosenbaum, also a storyteller, writes about “Unfinished Prayers.” Emma Lou Thayne, Bruce Jorgensen, R. A. Christmas, and Dian Saderup Monson contribute fine poetry, while Edward L. Kimball, Steve Walker, Dennis Marden Clark, and Lavina Fielding Anderson deal with theology and doctrine.

Frances Menlove offers a profound piece on “Foot Care,” while Levi Peterson writes knowingly about wilderness. Mary Lythgoe Bradford writes “Suddenly Single,” a graceful account of her recent experience as a widow in a married church that has not learned how to speak to singles, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich writes a short piece about her shock at receiving the Pulitzer Prize and the way it changed her life.

This is a delightful, thoughtful collection to be savored—both for Gene and ourselves.

BYU Studies, George Handley
This collection reflects what its editor, Robert Rees, Director of Education and Humanities at the Institute of HeartMath, calls the “broad scholarly and expressive interests that characterized Gene’s professional life.”

Eugene England (1933-2001) had wide-ranging influence as a literary critic, theologian, historian, creative writer, and educator, as is evident in this collection of writings by his friends, colleagues, and former students.

The reader should not be misled by the title; it is not a series of recollections of England’s life but rather a collection of poetry, history, fiction, drama, and personal and scholarly essays that offer their own fresh insights into a variety of issues such as education, scriptural exegesis, faith, the Atonement, and the Mormon experience. The only pieces that refer directly to England are Rees’s own explanatory introduction, poem, and final essay and Margaret Blair Young’s personal tribute to England. To readers unfamiliar with England personally or who are undecided about his standing in Mormon culture, Rees’s and Young’s writings may seem overly sentimental and somewhat out of step with the spirit of the other pieces.

The collection includes stunning, crystalline poetry by Bruce Jorgensen and Dian Saderup Monson; a devastatingly powerful short story that refuses facile sentimentality by Douglas Thayer about a boy-scouting crisis in the Uinta Mountains of Utah; a fascinating reflection on democratic education by one of the past century’s greatest educators, the late Wayne Booth; a thought-provoking essay on the rise of religious emotionalism in Mormon expression by Armand Mauss; and a wonderful personal essay by Mary Lythgoe Bradford. Excellent pieces by Levi Peterson, Tim Slover, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Lavina Fielduing Anderson are also presented. The collection offers a fascinating, if at times uneven and somewhat thematically scattered, melange of writings that demonstrate that the intellectual passions of Eugene England are strong and fertile in the minds and hearts of these talented thinkers.

Dialogue, R. John Williams
In the spirit of Eugene England, I would like this review to read something like a personal essay. So I’ll start with something personal. I’m writing this review for two important reasons, one noble, the other less so: First, Gene was one of my professors during my undergraduate days at BYU, the first, and perhaps only professor I had there who truly challenged his students, moving us out of our comfortable intellectual certainty as young confident Mormon know-it-alls. Second, to be frank, this book costs $35, and I’m a relatively young Ph.D. graduate; offering to write a review was one way of getting a free copy of the book without stretching the wallet.

These two reasons are in some ways related, and it might even be Gene’s fault. What if I had not experienced the exhilarating motivation of Gene’s gentle but demanding questions in class? What if I had not found the depth and energy of Gene’s intellectual “dialogue” with literary greatness? Would I have gone into academia as I have? The truth is, I was headed for law school and would probably have made a fine lawyer. But I also have to give some credit to the administration at BYU, as it was not only what Gene did in class—but also what he had been restricted from doing—that provided that extra bit of motivation. Gene had wanted us to read things he could not assign at BYU (where his tenure proved more “contrary” than he ever thought it would), and this censorship fascinated me. How could such a gentle, Christlike, and intelligent teacher meet with such resistance at the Lord’s university?

I can distinctly remember walking up to the Harold B. Lee Library reserve desk, where I requested the article in which he had argued that polygamy was hardly a celestial law and that we would do well to stop thinking that it was. He had placed it there after being told that he could not distribute it to his class. It was fine, the administration told him, if one of us sought it out on our own, but he was not allowed to require us to read it. So I read it. And then everything else Gene had written. And then every back issue of Dialogue I could get my hands on. It was as if I were tapping in to a vast, pulsing energy, something rigorous and exciting and true. So now I am a poor graduate student with an intellectual debt to one of the great Mormon liberal fathers, and I love it.

The book itself is a series of brilliant and thought-provoking essays and poems on a wide array of subjects, all of them written “in honor” of Gene. As is the case with the festschrift genre in general, the phrase “writings in honor” is employed with some elasticity, as the essays and poems range from directly remembering Gene (as in writing about Gene, to honor his memory) to writing simply alongside Gene (including essays that Gene himself may have critiqued at some point), to writing on topics that may have simply interested Gene (writing in his wake, as it were, without directly referring to him at all). If one omitted the occasional reference to Gene, the photographs, and a few of the essays that directly remember him, the volume would read something like a normal, if better-than-average, issue of Dialogue. In fact, I think this is why the book costs $35: I am not the target audience. Generally, the people who will buy this book are “average” Dialogue readers—those who, like me, remember Gene with fondness, but unlike me are generally over age fifty and own nice homes somewhere in the Western states.1

This was not always the case. Back in 1987, when Gene was actively teaching and publishing and when Dialogue conducted a readers’ survey, those same readers were in their mid-thirties. It may be that the $35 price tag has quite a bit to do with the nice, acid-free paper, the excellent binding, the photos, and the classy dust jacket. But in another sense, the price simply reflects the buying power of its target audience whose members have not only enjoyed the fruits of Gene’s brilliant intellectual and spiritual work but have also moved into another stage of their own intellectual, spiritual, (and financial) journeys, a kind of superannuated “memoir” state. R. W. Rasband, in a review of this same book for the Association for Mormon Letters, writes, “As I look over the table of contents I can’t help but notice that the majority of contributors are at or near retirement, the same age that England was. This saddens me because a truly remarkable generation of independent Mormon thinkers is passing, and I honestly can’t see who is going to replace them in today’s more homogenized church culture.”2

But no matter who assumes the reins of “independent” Mormon scholarship in the future, one can be relatively certain that the venues for that intellectual activity will seldom involve paper. The “next generation” of Mormon scholars do not, as a general rule, shell out $35 for essays in honor of the previous generation (which is not to say that they shouldn’t). They do not, unfortunately, even subscribe to Dialogue. Whoever these next Mormon intellectuals are, they are connected to digital networks, computer screens, and online discussion groups. One finds them woven into the fabric of online “threads,” moving through cyberspace with relative anonymity. They show up at online sites like Times and Seasons, Exponent II Blog, By Common Consent, Feminist Mormon Housewives, Millennial Star, and a host of other blog-like discussion sites.

Having perused many of these online sites myself and even contributed to these discussions on occasion, two things strike me as interesting: First, how exciting, heated, wonderful, and brilliant some of these discussions can be on the one hand, while sometimes slipping into a kind of quasi-intellectual form of “self expression” rather than true “communication” and “dialogue” on the other. And second, how seldom, if ever, those participating in these discussions realize the enormous wealth of foundational intellectual work already done in forty years of Dialogue publications.3 While some may argue that each generation must work out these problems on its own, I would contend that there is incredible value in digging into the discursive past. Trolling through these online forums, I have often wondered things like, “Wasn’t that Michael Coe’s point back in 1973?” Or “Wouldn’t this person benefit from Gene’s Letter to a College Student from 1974?” Or even, “Isn’t there a great article on that topic in the current issue of Dialogue?”

My point, then, is that Proving Contraries should be read as something like an open portal to an important and rigorous intellectual past, one that seems to be increasingly forgotten in our blog-saturated culture. One might turn, for instance, to Armand Mauss’s succinct explanation of a transformation that has occurred in Mormon public discourse over the last half-century. In his essay “Feelings, Faith, and Folkways,” Mauss notices that whereas speakers in Mormon chapels might have at one time “reached under the lectern in search of the books of scripture often available to pulpit speakers,” that same move today is characterized more by a reach for that “dependable box of Kleenex tissues” (23). This change in pulpit-sytle discourse, Mauss argues, “symbolizes the triumph of feeling over understanding” in today’s church; “of a softer worship over a harder one; perhaps of an evangelical—or even Pentecostal—homiletic over an analytical style; of personalized adaptations of scripture over appreciation of historical context. It represents the triumph of the heart over the head in popular Latter-day Saint religious expression” (24).

One might also turn to Margaret Blair Young’s contribution, “Gene—Sorry I Missed You (P.S. I still do),” in which she recounts a fascinating personal journey toward a “writing life” that began when Gene pushed her “to finally tell the hard stories my heart had learned so well” (188). One might delve into Lavina Fielding Anderson’s fascinating essay on “Joseph Smith’s Sisters,” in which she turns her attention to three of the “obscure historical characters in LDS history,” thus reminding us that “Brother” Joseph was not only the leader of a burgeoning church, but a member of a family as well. Wayne Booth’s essay, “Are We Losing Democratic Education?” is a testament to his renewed interest in Mormonism and his ongoing commitment to more egalitarian institutions of education, both of which were important for Gene, whom Booth considered a close friend.

There are similarly works of breathtaking poetry, hard-hitting drama, and vivid, soul-searching literature by writers like Emma Lou Thayne, Tim Slover, and Douglas Thayer. In short, Proving Contraries is a brilliant monument to the work of Gene England and the generation(s) of scholars that he inspired. One can only hope that many more of the “next generation” of Mormon scholars will some day say, “Gene, we’re sorry we missed you.”

Notes

1Robert W. Reynolds, John D. Remy, and Armand L. Mauss, “Maturing and Enduring: Dialogue and Its Readers after Forty Years,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 39 (Winter 2006): 85, reported that “about 64 percent [of respondents to the survey] are over age fifty, and more than 40 percent are over sixty,” “72 percent are in the Western states,” and “90 percent” are home owners.

2R. W. Rasband, AML-List, June 6, 2006, 7:39 p.m., Subj: AML Review: Proving Contraries,” aml-list@mailman.xmission.com; also posted at Amazon.com.

3There are, of course, some exceptions to this statement. Nate Oman, for example, a frequent writer for TimesandSeasons.org, seems very well informed on past discussions in Dialogue, though for some reason he has yet to publish in Dialogue anything other than a brief argument (which originated online) that Dialogue should publish more from readers like him. Nathan Oman, “An Open Letter to the Dialogue Board,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 39 (Winter 2005): 227-29.