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.”