Commentary: “Wayne Booth Remembered” at the 2006 AML Conference

The only Wayne Booth I’ve ever read was A Rhetoric of Irony, and that years ago, yet this session honoring his life and his work impressed me deeply. The presenters, Rick Duerden and Neal Kramer, with Bruce Jorgensen chairing the session, brought their love, their respect, and their gratitude for their subject to the table, lending to the meeting an intelligent and gracious atmosphere that IMO elevated the tone of the entire conference. Both Duerden and Kramer had studied with and otherwise associated with Wayne Booth at the University of Chicago; clearly they felt Booth had given them important gifts, intellectually and spiritually (if the two can in truth be split out).

Jorgensen opened the session, describing Booth as one of the “very finest American critics and theorists in the twentieth century.” He said that in 1988 Booth published The Company We Keep, a book Jorgensen said he read “in big gulps.” He chose it for an award for criticism (I thought this was the AML Award for Criticism but couldn’t find record of it on the AML site) and related how Booth told him, “People ask where I got my ethical sense. I always tell them I got it at home, growing up in Mormon country.”

Neal Kramer titled his presentation on Wayne Booth, “Leaving Home and Looking Homeward.” He started by telling how “life weighed heavily on nineteen-year-old Wayne” because he felt that the dogmatic Mormon culture he grew up in “stifled his mind.” BYU satisfied some of Booth’s intellectual hunger but his belief in Mormonism failed to answer to his internal querying and “fell off rapidly.”

On his mission to Illinois Booth discovered the University of Chicago, and rumor had it that instead of throwing heart, mind, and soul into his missionary work Booth began taking classes at the U of C. Richard Cracroft, one of this session’s attendees, broke in here to say that Booth had told him that during his mission he had indeed taken evening classes at the university with permission.

Booth, Kramer said, “thought extremely clearly and well.” During graduate school Booth discovered New Criticism and then the super new critics of the Chicago school. These critics used analytical tools forged in the manner of logical techniques that Plato and Aristotle established. At this time, Booth became immersed in “serious, high-level dialogue among people about important things.” The stimulation such company provided allowed Booth to develop a point of view that “enabled [him] to read literature in a way not done before” among American scholars.

In Booth’s critical stance, Kramer said, pure reason held sway, “but it was the humanity of novels that caused Booth to focus attention on rhetoric.” Such a shift in focus returned the literary conversation to ethical and moral questions. In this way, Booth began to undermine his own enthusiasm for New Criticism.

Ultimately Booth concluded that any literary theory that disallowed inquiry into a work’s ethical stance “went wrong.” Kramer said that as Booth’s thinking evolved, his conversations always turned upon questions of ethics and morals. In The Company We Keep Booth’s goal was to prepare ground where the two groups (I took this to mean critics and communities interested in ethical and moral content and critics and communities disinterested in such) could gather and enter into dialogue. Important to Booth: “friendship, and how to put friendship at the center” of ethical strivings. Booth, Kramer said in winding down his presentation, “gives academics a possibility for how to speak well together.” Given Aristotle’s three categories of friends (friends of utility, friends of pleasure, and friends of virtue or of the good), Booth postulated that critics need to realize that “sometimes friends of utility or pleasure are fine but ought to lead to [the third category of friend, the friend of virtue or the good] where seams are effaced. We seek out conversation for living in friendship.”

Rick Duerden told how in composing his presentation he had felt torn between taking an anecdotal approach and a critical approach. He determined that a mix of both would represent Booth well.

He described Booth as “a powerful intellect combined with an open heart.” Having these qualities made it possible for him to regularly change his thinking and accommodate it to his relationships. Kramer said, “All his life [Booth] searched for what was better and truer.”

All Booth’s changes and growth, Duerden said, marked development in his spiritual growth. Duerden said, “[Booth] loved the ideal of Mormon universality where anybody can be saved or converted.”

By the 1960s, Booth was swinging around to Plato’s ideas. The Company We Keep represents the far end of the spectrum of Booth’s intellectual travels. Booth, Duerden said, moved from “stick in the mud truth to an infinitely spreading relational vision of truth.”

According to Duerden, Booth began finding his way back into dialogue with the Mormon community in the 1980s. Duerden said that Mormons were suspicious of Booth, but the intelligentsia said to the Mormon community, “This guy is the best missionary you’ve got.”

Bruce Jorgensen commented that Booth’s critical stance ultimately rooted itself in love and that the core act in loving one’s neighbor was to ask, “What are you going through?”

Duerden responded saying that Booth “resisted postmodernism and aspired to putting people back in the conversation.”

Richard Cracroft broke in at this point and told how when Booth came to BYU to give a forum address he spoke forthrightly about BYU and the Mormon culture, saying, “We’re Osmondizing BYU.” Cracroft said that the Osmonds had just a few weeks prior either made a donation to BYU or had in some other way manifested their influence. According to Cracroft, Jeffrey Holland went rigid at Booth’s words and his displeasure with Booth’s speech was palpable. At the faculty luncheon held for Booth afterward, Booth asked Cracroft how he thought his talk went over. Cracroft replied he’d never seen President Holland so steamed. “Just watch,” Booth said. “I’ll take care of that.” Cracroft said Booth went over to where President Holland was sitting, said some things that President Holland up, and soon all clouds dispersed. Booth returned to Cracroft and asked, “How’d I do?” Cracroft replied, “I think you did very well.”

Richard Bushman asked what the panel thought the consequences for Booth’s thinking might be for Mormons, especially for Mormon writing.

Both Kramer and Duerden addressed this question, but I think it was Kramer that replied that LDS “tend to feel bitterness over people as successful as Wayne Booth who “˜leave’ the church.” He told how it was not unusual for someone to say to him of Booth, “Your church must think this guy is one of the greatest guys around.” Kramer said he had had to reply, “Well, no we don’t.” But as Kramer put it, we “ought to feel comfortable praising and embracing Booth’s thinking, adding that “Wayne was always interested in helping me develop my testimony.”

This whole conversation was interesting, but here Kramer said something that really snagged my attention: “Conversations we [Mormons] think have ended have only begun.” I think he meant this not only as a comment on Wayne Booth’s critical and spiritual stance but also in general about just how much wonderful narrative and conversational matter is out there that we have not yet begun talking about in Mormon folk and academic circles.

Duerden added that in saying the things he had to session attendees he felt he was preaching to the choir. “But the choir,” he added, “sings to the congregation.” He felt that Wayne Booth’s existence and work “was an indictment of our judgement that he wasn’t LDS enough.” Booth, he said, talked people out of leaving the church.

Kramer added that Wayne Booth was “our best friend in many respects.”

Jorgensen added that he considered Booth to have lived “the kind of life President Hinkley urges us to have.”

7 thoughts on “Commentary: “Wayne Booth Remembered” at the 2006 AML Conference”

  1. Thank you for your interesting report. I did some searching and discovered that the February 1989 Sunstone reported that Booth won AML’s “Special Recognition in Criticism” for 1988.

    According to Sunstone, the citation read: “Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep is not specifically, not doctrinally a work of ‘Mormon criticism’; yet it is the work of a Mormon critic who has always acknowledged the roots of his most enduring values, his persistent sense of the world and what is worthy in it, as first nourished in Mormon country and community – in a place some still call ‘American Fark.’ In the present situation of literary criticism, which often can seem desiccated by skeptical polemics rather than fertile with plurality, Booth argues learnedly, lucidly, generously, and delicately for not just the relevance but the necessity and centrality of ethical criticism, and demonstrates the athletic complexity of its action, as if his life – as if all our lives -depended on it. And he persuades us that our lives do indeed depend on our alert, quickened ethical relations to those who offer us the community at large, and the smaller community of Mormon letters within it, is one that promises (or threatens) to keep on giving. We thank him heartily, glad of his company.”

    Posted by Justin

  2. I was also impressed by the Wayne Booth session and hope to soon read some of his works. I anticipate discovering a rich and respectable way of looking at literature that transcends the basic literary criticism I had imposed upon me in college (with all due respect to lit crit types everywhere, I got the impression that current literary criticism is something of a wasteland where critics ravage or exalt texts (any pretty much anything else they want–why limit literary criticism to literature?) according to their narrow causes). The idea of looking at the ethical stance of literature–and understanding a work by considering what the author was going through–strikes me as very interesting. Thanks, Patricia, for your thorough report.

    I hope you don’t mind me adding a few things that stood out to me:

    1. In the context of discussing Wayne’s lifelong relationship with Mormonism, they reflected on the arc of Wayne’s belief in God. It was memorable (and a little touching too) to hear that he described himself later in life as a lapsed or backsliding atheist. They also noted an interesting sounding article Wayne had written laying out the Ironic Proof of the Existence of God, i.e., that irony only makes sense if you posit a Divine Being who laughs when rain falls on your parade.

    2. The comment about Wayne being the best missionary we had came after he apparently gave a speech at a big conference (MLA I think) in which he bore his testimony (the words of the presenter) not of the Book of Mormon itself, but of reading the Book of Mormon with one’s family.

    Anyway, I hope we can (and I mean this in the most generous, warm, unpresumptuous way possible) reactivate Wayne posthumously. Or at least ensure he is present and honored at the Mormon literary equivalents of ward parties. 

    Posted by S. P. Bailey

  3. Thanks for the write up, Patricia. Sadly, I only encountered Wayne Booth’s work once (and that briefly) in my literary studies.

    So I’m pleased that he has at least some honor in his own country — I wouldn’t have known to seek his work if it hadn’t been for the AML.  

    Posted by William Morris

  4. Shawn:

    Thank you for fleshing out points on Wayne Booth’s relationship with Mormonism. I can’t remember who said this–Kramer or Duerden (probably Kramer, maybe you remember better)–but one of them suggested gently but firmly that the overall Mormon rejection of Wayne Booth’s fellowship was more than a little stingy (my word) and that in his fostering of young Mormon intellectuals and the way his work reflected upon the church Booth paid a generous tithing.  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  5. J.B., Thanks for the heads up on Booth’s memoirs; looks like another “must have” for Boothians. I’m going to try to revisit A Rhetoric of Irony  (irony is important to me; I’m working up a series on it to post here)and also try to pick up The Company We Keep ASAP. I plan to squeeze My Many Selves in there too.  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

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