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.”

Commentary: Plenary Session of the AML Conference

Eric has given a nice overview of the conference; I’m going to concentrate on two sessions I took notes on.

The Plenary Session was titled, “Looking Back: Memorable Moments in Mormon Literature.” Presenters included Richard Cracroft, Thomas Rogers, Margaret Blair Young, and Susan Howe. Laraine Wilkins, editor of Irreantum, chaired this spirited discussion of Mormon literature’s roots and founding influences. This session was charged with a lot of energy. Here are some highlights:

Richard Cracroft spoke first and took the occasion early on to recommend Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, and Robert Rees’s collection of writing in honor of Eugene England, Proving Contraries. Among other things (many other things), Cracroft reviews Mormon literature in his column in BYU Today. During the session, he went so far as to say that any Mormon who had not read RSR is in dereliction of duty. Also recommended to anyone interested in the development of Mormon literature: England’s essay, “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects,” published in David Whittaker’s Mormon Americana: A Guide to Sources and Collections in the United States. Cracroft told how his interest in Mormon literature began in 1971 and described his goal of helping to foster a strain of Mormon literature “”¦ you can read in the temple on Thursday morning.” He remains very excited about the past, present, and future of Mormon literature and is chock full of personal anecdotes about many founding writers and publications.

In his overview of memorable players on the Mormon drama stage, Tom Rogers mentioned Orson Scott Card for, among other things, Stone Tablets; Douglas Stewart for Saturday’s Warrior; Marvin Payne; Steven Kapp Perry; and Clinton Larson; although his remarks on Clinton’s poetic dramas included an anecdote where he attended a performance of one of Clinton’s plays and watched as the “audience drifted out, and then their eyes glazed over.” Having had the priviledge myself of attending two of Clinton’s plays back when, I know that Rogers’s description of audience reaction during these plays is accurate. Nevertheless, Clinton was, as Rogers put it, “a heavy self-promoter,” and his influence upon the Mormon arts scene and many aspiring writers (yours truly included) is undeniable. Rogers also saluted for their work in theater Charles Metten, Charles Whitman, Richard Cracroft, Eugene England, Scott Bronson, and Tim Slover, among others. Speaking personally on his own experience with his play Huebner, Rogers said he wrote it as a response to a challenge from Alan Keele, staying up all night to complete it. Of theater, he posed a question: Is theater an outdated and antiquated art form? His answer: Yes, but it is an impressively developed form.

In her address, Margaret Blair Young said she has lived through the second Mormon Renaissance. Her reflections on Mormon literature took on personal overtones as she spoke of her awakening to her calling as a writer, triggered in part by her reading of The Brothers Karamazov, a novel that opened her eyes to individual responsibility. She cited Don Marshall’s The Rummage Sale and Doug Thayer’s Under the Cottonwoods as works that influenced her and also said that Tom Rogers influenced her as a teacher and mentor. Her list of mentors further included Bruce Young (her husband), Gene England, and Darius Gray.

In Susan Howe’s presentation, which she was forced to shorten because the session had already run over, she referred to poetry as ” “¦ that other art form for which you can get no money and no fame.” In spite of this, there is, in her opinion, a “fine tradition of Mormon poetry blossoming right now.” As an important source for anyone seeking the roots of Mormon literature, she named the anthology A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints. She credited Clinton Larson with being the father of contemporary Mormon poetry, saying he combined principles of the New Criticism of the 50s, 60s, and 70s with Mormon themes. Howe honored May Swenson’s “original vision.” She also credited Harvest, an anthology of Mormon poetry, with ” “¦ help[ing] people realize there was a Mormon tradition.” She saluted Emma Lou Thayne and Carol Lynn Pearson for their poetic visions. Howe mentioned three volumes of poems written by her colleagues at BYU: In All Their Animal Brilliance (Lance Larson), Leviathan With A Hook (Kim Johnson), and The Well-Tempered Tantrum (John Talbot), each of which have received, among other honors, the AML Award for Poetry (Larson’s In All Their Animal Brilliance received this year’s award). Howe concluded that the “tradition of Mormon poets is alive and well.”

Between the banter among participants, the spontaneous eruption of anecdotes, and the nature of the all-encompassing topic the plenary session ran well overtime and much of it went crashing by like a train that had jumped its tracks. But it was an lively session and I thought that it and other sessions I attended went well along toward re-energizing the AML’s sense of purpose and direction. While the theme of this year’s conference was “Legacies and Destinies: the Past, Present, and Future of Mormon Literature,” clearly the conference provided the AML a healthy chance to contemplate its own roots, current state, and prospects. Attendance seemed lighter than during some years I’ve attended, which is unfortunate, given that IMO this conference had a thorough mix of academics, professionals, and just plain interested folk (like me) that gave it more breadth and texture than some AML conferences have had. And who knew Richard Bushman would be there? It’s surprises like this that keep me going to the conference any time I can manage.

Next I’ll report in detail on the Wayne Booth session, which I considered very well done and deserving of its own post.

News: Still Not Too Late for the AML Conference

You may still register for the Association for Mormon Literature’s Annual Meeting and Conference to be held 8:30 am to 5:00 p.m. this coming Saturday, February 25th. Location: The Sorensen Building at Utah Valley State College in Orem, Utah (see directions here). If you plan to attend but have not yet registered, you may still register at the door beginning at 8:30 a.m., but bring cash or your check book because they won’t be set up to accept credit cards.

As reported previously, this conference’s theme is “Legacies and Destinies: the Past, Presentand Future of Mormon Literature.” AML Board Member Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says, “This conference looks back on 25 years of AML history and forward to where the AML and Mormon literature is headed in the future. The general public will be interested in the sessions, and AML members, in particular, will want to attend because amendments to the by-laws are going to be considered.” Conference sessions will focus on Mormon film, literature and Mormon studies, as well as other topics related to Mormon literary arts and cinematic arts and criticism.

Of special interest are two panels on Hugh Nibley and Wayne Booth. Judy Busk will present an open-to-the-public session on Mormon biography. Judy is the author The Sum of Our Past, a handsome book on the legacy of Mormon women pioneers. Thom Rogers, Boyd Petersen, Bruce Jorgensen, and David Knowlton will also give presentations looking back on the AML’s past and looking forward to its prospects. A full program may be found here.

Commentary: 2005 AML Writer’s Conference

I attended the 2005 Association for Mormon Letters Writer’s Conference, which was held Saturday at Westminster College in Salt Lake. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend half of it because, for some reason, the conference was scheduled on the same day as the single biggest event in the state of Utah ““ the BYU vs. Utah football game. I imagine it wasn’t much of a conflict for most of the conference’s audience, but it had to be for some. I’m not sure that it was due to the game, or whether the speakers, location, or other factors played in, but I did notice that total attendance was way down from the last time I went, two years ago in Provo. Those not in attendance missed out because the half day that I was there for was really good. A few comments on the sessions I attended: Continue reading “Commentary: 2005 AML Writer’s Conference”