Skewing a Life

In his Roughing It, Mark Twain claimed this about Joseph Smith’s writing of the Book of Mormon: “Whenever he found his speech growing too modern–which was about every sentence or two—he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as “exceeding sore,” “and it came to pass,” etc., and made things satisfactory again. “And it came to pass” was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.”

At some point while reading Terryl Givens’ biography of Gene England, I thought:

Whenever Givens found himself thinking positively about Gene’s activism, he ladled in a few such words as “naive,” “a desperate prophylactic,” “painfully late,” “misled,” “idealist,” “obliviousness,” “oblivious,” “didn’t register,” “terrible interpreter,” “a persistent, willful, naiveté,””self-destructive weakness,” “tone-deaf,” “tonal deafness,” “naively optimistic,” “didn’t heed the caution,” “willful resistance,” “imperviousness to the obvious,” “a conspicuous symbol of disruption,” “rare moral and logical obtuseness,” “too smugly presentist,” “gratuitously defamatory,” “full of zeal, naïveté, and moralizing ‘outburst,'” “a parading of moral outrage,” “inflammatory,” “crossed the line from provocation into opposition,” “iconoclastic and dangerous.” These were Givens’ pets. If he had left them out, his biography would have been only a pamphlet.

Givens quotes my friend Gary Browning’s assessment that “Provocative to Gene was not a negative word” (204). Although he finds Gene’s ideas “prescient” in several cases, the balance of Givens’ analysis, the parts that, if left, out, would render this book a pamphlet, reveal that “provocative” is a negative word for the biographer.

Gene’s problem as a provocateur, as Givens sees it, and I think he is right in this, was that Gene was torn between “loyalty to conscience and loyalty to an institution he believed was divinely led” (4). His strength as a provocateur, as I see it, was that he often chose his conscience over dictates of Church leaders.

Givens addresses a choice for the better Good in the introduction (while systematically calling it into question throughout the book): Mormons’ “unique reading of the Fall,” Givens writes, argues that “when confronted with two competing Goods, Eve chose the greater” (3). Unfortunately, Givens retreats from the idea of a greater Good to what he sees as “a more generous appraisal of both parties involved in certain classes of religious conflict, where equally laudable values, and not opposing moral poles, define the struggle” (4).

Institutional racism and conscientious anti-racism, for example, are not equally laudable values, they are opposing moral poles. The one is clearly the greater Good (the only Good in this pairing). Arguing publicly against institutional racism does not make an activist oblivious, naive, logically obtuse, or gratuitously defamatory. The biographer may have his own sense for how best to deal with such issues, but to judge Gene’s choices against his own does a disservice to Gene England and to many other outspoken advocates for a better institution.

Gene’s life was interesting in many ways. Besides his founding of Dialogue and his influence as a teacher, however, his thoughtful personal essays are what make his life worthy of biography. Richard Bushman calls Gene “perhaps the most significant figure in Latter-day Saint intellectual life in the second half of the twentieth century” (back cover of Givens’ book). Where is that intellectual life evident? In Gene’s essays. Givens mentions several of them in other contexts, but his tight focus on conflicts with Church leaders dominates a book that devotes only 16 pages to a discussion of only 5 essays. Further compounding the problem, Givens doesn’t include a list of Gene’s books, much less the titles of the dozens of essays included in those books.

Gene’s readers over the years can picture the cover images of Brother Brigham, 1980, Dialogues with Myself, 1984, Why the Church Is as True as the Gospel, 1986, The Quality of Mercy, 1992, and Making Peace, 1995. And the titles evoke readers’ memories of ideas that inspired and provoked and informed. A couple of my own memories:

When Leonard Arrington’s biography of Brigham Young was published in 1985, he came to Vanderbilt University, where I was a member of the faculty, for a lecture. Knowing that I was a Mormon, the historian who had invited Arrington asked me to attend the lunch at the faculty center and sat me next to Arrington. I had read the new book shortly after reading Gene’s book and I mentioned to Arrington that passages in his book were word-for-word copies of passages in Gene’s book. I asked how that had happened. He turned to talk with the person on his other side and ignored me for the rest of the lunch. Gene worked for Arrington, as Givens points out. But I still wonder how Arrington would have explained the plagiarism.

I remember laughing at the title Dialogues with Myself and thinking only a narcissist could choose that without blushing. But after I sat down with several Mormon friends in Nashville to discuss the essays, we left the lively exchange vowing to examine our own values and choices in ways Gene had modeled.

Gene’s “Food for Poland” project and his essays in Making Peace (or was it The Quality of Mercy?) inspired Cecelia Konchar Farr and several of the rest of us with connections to the former Yugoslavia to organize what we called “Blankets for Bosnia.” Our work resulted in two semi-truck loads of warm coats and blankets sent by the LDS Church to people suffering through a harsh winter during a civil war.

I haven’t yet read Kristine Haglund’s biography of Gene, but Ben Park’s review of both biographies for “By Common Consent” gives me hope that her book will do justice to what Jana Riess calls “one of Mormonism’s finest minds.” (https://bycommonconsent.com/2021/08/02/eugene-england-and-the-modern-mormon-mind-a-review-essay-on-two-new-biographies/)

Finally, some thoughts about events I was involved in that Givens misrepresents to one extent or another.

Writing about Gene’s support for his colleague Cecelia Konchar Farr during BYU’s initially bungled attempt to fire her by claiming she hadn’t published enough in her three-year probationary period, Givens claims that “at this moment, along with department chair Bert Wilson, England stepped forward as Farr’s only colleague to defend her against the decision of her colleagues and administrators” (242). Cecelia’s English Department colleague George Schoemaker, a folklorist on a series of one-year contracts, risked and lost his job for his work in drawing together the first group of faculty members from across campus to defend Cecelia, Gail Houston, and David Knowlton. Our nascent BYU Chapter of the AAUP published comparisons of their work with the work of 15 other assistant professors who passed the mid-term review and found they ranked among the top five. But facts, in the end, didn’t matter against orders from members of the BYU Board of Trustees.

Givens further notes that after Cecelia’s departure “England would become . . . passionately committed to fighting for a very broadly defined academic freedom at the church school” (243). Gene did indeed work with us. Good for him. But passionately fighting for academic freedom was largely left to several of the rest of us.

Givens writes that Bert Wilson, “England’s closest friend and former department chair was equally disheartened but stopped short of carrying the campaign to the public” (243). Bert in fact joined us in our public campaign (an authoritarian institution leaves few options for dissent other than appeals to the public), helping to write and signing joint documents that appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune and elsewhere. Bert lamented that following his conscience in this case would likely lead to his rejection as a missionary to Finland after his retirement. Fortunately, it did not.

The section about Cecelia, Bert, Gene, and the issue of academic freedom moves to an unfortunate and telling conclusion: “Not only had England failed to muster sufficient support for Farr or for an absolute academic freedom, but he was also out of sync with prevailing sentiments at the institution regarding the conditions under which professors worked and taught. Surveys of that period revealed that college professors rated their jobs as satisfactory or very satisfactory at numbers between 64 percent (at public institutions) and 72 percent (at private ones). At BYU, the number was 85 percent. Clearly, the English department, or its most outspoken members, were outliers” (243).

Givens is the one out of sync here.

Gene failing to muster enough support for Cecelia is meaningless, as Givens surely knows. Boyd Packer told Stan Albrecht, the Academic Vice President, to fire Cecelia. When he refused, another Vice President was chosen who got it done.

Gene failing to muster enough support for an absolute academic freedom is wrongheaded from front to back. No one was advocating for absolute academic freedom, Gene included. Mustering support for a more reasonable reading of the new BYU Academic Freedom policy would have meant nothing. The BYU administration was bound to follow the direction of the Board of Trustees, which was requiring tighter control of the faculty.

At about this time I spoke at an AAUP conference on academic freedom at religious universities. A member of the BYU religion faculty followed me to Chicago and after I gave my talk rose to tell the audience that 85% of BYU professors opposed the work our chapter was doing and were perfectly happy at BYU. Jordan Kurland, the AAUP officer who was chairing the session, responded sternly: the AAUP doesn’t judge levels of academic freedom by levels of popularity. We make judgements based on our standards.

And while we’re talking about the AAUP, Givens claims that at UVSC, when a grant for a Mormon studies program was in doubt, Gene “urged the sponsoring of a UVSC conference on academic freedom. The administration consented, and at the venue he spoke forcefully on the topic, as did UVSC president Kerry Romesburg and Baylor University provost Donald Schmeltekopf. The grant was accepted” (264). The conference was organized by the UVU Chapter of the AAUP, of which I was a founding officer. We did not ask the administration for consent. Because we valued shared governance, we asked Kerry Romesburg to speak. We also invited the Baylor provost, who was a life-long member of the AAUP. That the grant was accepted may or may not have had anything to do with the conference.

Givens’ errors undermine trust in other areas of the book of which I have no experience. But they can be humorous as well. Gene’s father, George Eugene, Givens writes, would fish on good days “at the local pond for suckers and herrings” (6). The only herrings in Idaho are in bottles or tins.

postscript: while pointing out errors, I spelled Givens’ name many different ways. mea culpa. i think i’ve fixed them now. a friend pointed out my mistakes and said he found the problem Steve Peckian. I’d bask in the complement if my mistakes were chosen like the Scholar of Moab’s…

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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