Eugene England: Intellectual History as Essential Biography

Two days ago, Kristine Haglund’s Eugene England: A Mormon Liberal was finally delivered (I preordered it in April); the next morning at 9:15 I finished reading the book. The forward to the volume promises an exploration of the work of one of the “important figures in the intellectual life of [Mormonism].” This book will be, I thought, “the food that fits the hunger” (my friend Alex Caldiero’s formulation).

I knew Gene. I wrote an essay for the volume he co-edited on the work of his colleague Leslie Norris. I spent precious evenings of lively conversation at his and Charlotte’s place up the south fork of Provo Canyon. I sat with him in his corner office at what was then UVSC, Mark England’s vast and wonderful complexity of a drawing on the wall behind him, talking about works of Mormon literature and about the contributions of a good university to the Mormon culture we shared. 

None of that makes Gene’s life worthy of a biography of ideas. His essays, however, are another story, a story Haglund tells thoughtfully, eloquently, respectfully, and expansively. She occasionally questions his thinking; challenges Gene would have debated with both gusto and a desire to learn.

Focusing on the genre in which Gene did his best work, Haglund writes that “the essay form allows unfettered curiosity and experimentation, explores contradictions without urgency to resolve them, and situates the author within her creation.” She turns then to a close reading of several essays, beginning with the 1982 “Enduring.” In the face of a crippling anxiety brought on the bottomless question of “why and how I exist in my essential being,” Gene goes on, Haglund writes, “in meandering, essaying fashion, to describe situations that awaken that dread: ministering to a mother of twins, one healthy and one with severe and inexplicable disabilities; studying the many varieties of chromosomal disorders that create babies who inevitably live short and painful lives . . . trying, in a way he knew to be inadequate, to alleviate suffering.” In the end, “England draws no conclusion, but returns to the quotidian. . . . England’s conclusion is that doing something is better than doing nothing. . . . It meant tolerating ambiguity and messiness, even resisting closure and completeness.”

Thinking further about the developing form of Gene’s essays, Haglund ties a productive shift in his writing to his reading of feminist literary criticism (influenced, as I remember, although Haglund doesn’t say this, by his English-department colleague Cecilia Konchar Farr). “Despite the slightly embarrassing essentialism,” Haglund writes, Gene’s “notion that the personal essay was best seen as a ‘feminine’ form led to some interesting formal experimentation in England’s later essays.” Several of those essays, Haglund points out, “are especially free, sliding between autobiography, travelogue, epistle, prayer, flashback, and lyrical description with fluidity that requires both concentration and a willing suspension of temporality and logic from the reader.” 

With these and similarly cogent assessments of Gene’s essays in mind, the section of the book about Gene’s arguments for a God who eternally progresses in knowledge gained an interesting context. Apostle Bruce McConkie made a public stink about Gene’s “deadly heresy” and in a private letter warned Gene “that it is my province to teach to the Church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent. . . . If I err, that is my problem; but in your case if you single out some of these things and make the center of your philosophy, and end up being wrong, you will lose your soul.” What, I thought on reading this self-serving diatribe, what if Mormon leaders could think and write like Gene did? What if their sermons were essays that explored contradictions with Gene’s humility and honesty and hunger to learn? “There are a thousand reasons . . . to wish that England had lived longer,” Haglund writes, “but unsatisfied curiosity about the forms England’s writings might have essayed, given time and ripeness, is surely one of the many reasons to mourn his untimely passing.” Fortunately, Gene’s essays remain to teach and inspire us.

Reading Gene’s work over the decades, I have admired what Haglund describes as a “privileging of action as a means of resolving intellectual dilemmas.” She gives numerous examples of Gene’s work as a branch president and teacher and of his activism against war and for academic freedom and in support of Polish citizens economically struggling at an historical political juncture. She argues in some detail that the overarching dilemma in Gene’s life was more than intellectual, it was existential: he truly believed that Mormon leaders were inspired and that their teachings were true and at the same time he was passionately committed to his own moral intuition. When the tensions grew too great, she writes, he turned to action as a way to “live within the paradox rather than resolving it.”

While commendable in some ways, these choices often led to awkward and even troubling conclusions. Gene’s writing about the ban on priesthood for blacks is one example. Haglund notes that Gene argued that the ban was divinely revealed but that the reasons given for the ban were racist and that the real problem was with God’s sense that white people were as yet unable to accept blacks as equal. With such tortured reasoning, Haglund writes, “the individual conscience is salved and group cohesion is maintained, but sometimes without meaningful addressing the ethical issues that produced the conflict between the individual and the group in the first place.” Further, “in all of the cases England adduces as examples of the paradoxes involved in individuals’ relationship to a church community, it at least appears that individual integrity was sacrificed for the sake of obedience to authority.” Haglund concludes that “the argument England never quite makes explicitly is that religious practice integrates unanswerable questions into a life of meaningful action—of trying, essaying, proving contraries. Paradoxes that resist rational resolutions can nevertheless be meaningfully lived.”

I haven’t been personally hampered (critics would say, haven’t been inspired) by requirements of obedience or by faith in inspired leaders. That opens the door to solving or to at least more directly addressing some of the problems that tortured Gene; it also closes a door to a community bound by such faith. In my forthcoming book of essays, written mostly during my tenure at BYU (Dwelling in the Promised Land as a Stranger, By Common Consent Press, spring 2022), I think through these issues at some length.

In an essay Haglund doesn’t discuss, Gene’s belief leads him to what I see as a most unfortunate conclusion. His thoughts “On Fidelity, Polygamy, and Celestial Marriage” begin with the premise that “the highest form of love in the universe is the fully sexual and exclusive love of a man and a woman eternally committed to each other.” This premise leads to the stipulation of “absolute prohibitions against homosexual activity and extramarital intercourse and very strong discouragements of lust—of promiscuous, selfish, or obsessive eroticism— even within marriage. The only rational explanation, it seems to me, for such warnings and prohibitions is that by their very nature certain practices tend to center on self rather than relationship and to deny the creative integrity of sexual intercourse—that is, its unique capability, at least in potential, to produce new life.” 

Even when he is simply and harmfully wrong, I love the fact that Gene put his ideas out there and truly welcomed the discussions that ensued. The celebration of sexual love in the passage just cited reminds me of a moment in a seminar I took from Truman Madsen. The course was on Paul Tillich’s two-volume Systematic Theology. Haglund mentions Gene’s use of some of Tillich’s work, specifically The Courage to BeSystematic Theology is a harder nut to crack, but Madsen led us into its intricacies with his signature charisma. I can’t recall any of the details of Tillich’s system, but I vividly remember the discussion of the workings of the Holy Ghost during which Madsen spoke of how the consuming spirit of an especially good sacrament meeting always inspired him to return home and to continue the workings of the spirit in bed with his wife. Those were the days!

Gene produced an engaging body of work. Haglund respects that work by attending to it, by contesting it. She summarizes Gene’s “commitment to the progressive and progressing God . . . his lifelong dedication to learning and teaching, his political activism, and his complicated efforts to consecrate his intellect to the church he loved.” And finally, she writes a bibliographic essay that widens the scope of her study and offers readers a broader sense for Gene’s work. She points to the England Family Foundation’s site eugeneengland.org. She reminds us of Signature Books’ online library (http://signaturebookslibrary.org) that hosts four of Gene’s books. She explores various works she gathers under the headings “Pedagogy, Teaching, Values,” “Feminism, Gender,” “Mormon Literature,” “Pacifism,” “Race,” and “Poetry.”

Kristine Haglund’s book probes the ideas of a remarkable and deeply influential writer. She is a perceptive, generous, critical thinker willing to wrestle with the ideas at length. Her work, most simply put, is a gift that leads into Gene’s mind and soul and provokes similar introspection in us as readers.

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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