Leaving the Fold
James W. Ure, editor
All that is comes from the mind; it is based on the mind; it is fashioned by the mind.
—The Pali Canon
[p.27]William Mulder, retired professor of English at the University of Utah, took his bachelor’s degree with honors (Phi Kappa Phi) and high honors (Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Utah. After service as a communications officer with the navy in the Pacific during World War II, he returned to Utah where he completed his M.A. in 1947. His Ph.D. (“with Distinction”) followed in 1955 from Harvard University.
Among his lengthy list of professional activities, Bill was on the editorial staff of the LDS church’s The Improvement Era from 1939 to 1944, edited the Western Humanities Review, and founded and directed both the Institute for American Studies and the Center for Intercultural Studies at the University of Utah. He was a Fulbright lecturer in American literature at Osmania University in Hyderabad, India, and also director of the American Studies Research Center there. In 1957 Bill delivered the 25th annual Reynolds Lecture at the U. of U. on “The Mormons in American History.”
Bill has been a visiting teacher at Duke, Brigham Young University, the University of Washington, Sonoma State College, the University of California at Berkeley, and Weber State University. Recipient of a dis-[p.28]tinguished teaching award at the University of Utah in 1977, he was also president of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters and received that institution’s Charles Redd Award in Humanities. In 1995 Bill received a Merit Award from the Utah Humanities Council for a symposium he co-organized on the work of Fawn Brodie. He is the author of several books and many articles.
A slender, spruce Bill Mulder greets us at the door of an older, graceful home in the Federal Heights neighborhood of Salt Lake City, not far from the University of Utah where he taught for forty-one years. Bill is trim and looks sixty, not eighty-two. His graying beard is as neat as the rest of his person. He beckons us in. The Mulder home was built by Salt Lake businessman Joseph Rosenblatt as his “honeymoon cottage,” and its original dark Philippine mahogany imparts an antique richness to a Renaissance painting hanging against its surface.
Bill’s wife Helen (nee Thomson), recently retired from teaching at Brighton High School, serves us tea, graham crackers, and oatmeal cookies in a glass-walled conservatory at the back of the home. The room feels infused with the spirit of a large, many-armed statue of Shiva (the couple spent six years in India on a Fulbright), and there are photos of Helen in the traditional Indian sari. From this and our conversations, I inferred they became very immersed in the culture. Bill settles into a chair. I soon find myself under the spell of his articulate voice, calmly reasoned mind, and beautifully timed language. The family dog—an old Sheltie—wanders in. Bill gently lifts him and carries him from the room. This interview took place in the autumn of 1996.
I’m a child of Mormon convert parents from Holland. I was born in Holland. So all my life was conditioned by the Mormon experience from the convert immigrant point of view. And I fulfilled a mission in Holland between 1935 and 1937.
When were you born?
On June 24, 1915. So I’m in my eighty-second year.
[p.29]You don’t look it.
People do say I seem to be well-preserved.
And you were born in Amsterdam?
No, Haarlem. I was one month shy of five when our family came to this country. I recently translated and annotated my mother’s Dutch diary which she kept on the way over on the trans-Atlantic voyage. And that’s going to be published in the fall issue this year of the Utah Historical Quarterly with some period photos. So that’s a piece of not only family history, but I’d say Mormon migration history. We have many, many nineteenth-century accounts, but very few twentieth-century ones. Yet, of course, the sensations, the anxieties, the expectations, the disappointments are all there in the twentieth century, too. We settled in at Hoboken (New Jersey), where an elder brother of my mother had arranged for our passage and living quarters.
Were they converts when they came over?
They were converts. They met, quite unaware that each was investigating Mormonism, in a small congregation in Haarlem. That’s where they met, and they became engaged, finally married. They would’ve come to the states earlier, I think, because that notion of gathering was still strong in the early part of this century. Dad was a printer, but he had to serve time in the border patrol of the Dutch army. During that period two children were born, myself and my older sister, Ann, who’s about fourteen months older than I am. And it’s that foursome, plus a younger brother of my mother—eighteen years old—who constituted the family migrating in 1920. We stayed in New Jersey, first in Hoboken and Secaucus, then Jersey City itself for six years and crossed the continent in 1926, when the Lincoln Highway was fairly young, in a caravan of two cars. A sister of my mother and her family who had come over—my family assisted several families when they were in New Jersey to come over, and you know, they kind of leap-frogged. One sister, an elder sister, went on to Salt Lake with her family. But the other sister was still back in Hoboken, and we formed two caravans. My father bought a second-hand Willys Knight. It was a four-cylinder, just a tiny engine, and a seven-passenger body—a long thing. It looked like a hearse with fold-down seats in the back so that it could accommodate more pas-[p.30]sengers. Uncle Bill Hooft bought a second-hand Hudson Super Six, built square. I recall he had tire trouble most of the way across the continent. They were too poor to buy new tires, and they were held up time and time and time again patching his tires. When we emerged from Parley’s Canyon, which was then in 1926 just really a narrow two-lane road, he said to heck with it. Took all the tires off and entered the valley on its rims. When we reached the Wyoming-Utah border, Uncle Bill, who had an old army bugle, stopped. We all stopped, and he blew a blast on his bugle for sheer joy. We’d gotten to Zion. These are experiences—I was merely twelve at that time. You can see how embedded the Mormon outlook, the Mormon experience, the Mormon values were in my growing up. I was thoroughly conditioned. I didn’t know any cosmos other than what this family, this experience, provided.
You’d lived all of that time in New Jersey?
For six years—from 1920 to 1926. I went to public schools there. My father took us to Bronx Zoo and Central Park and the Museum of Natural History. When I went back years later to those places, I realized that I have very distinct memories of the things—say, in the Museum of Natural History, the Great Warrior canoe that’s in one of the lobbies, for example. But there were the ferries, and later when I taught Walt Whitman at the university, I felt I had an original experience of crossing on a Brooklyn ferry. And Fulton Fish Market and so forth. So all of that was part of growing up.
You were exposed to quite a diverse society in New Jersey.
What was it like in Salt Lake? Was it a different community?
It was a kind of homecoming. Our sights had always been set on Utah, Zion, Salt Lake City. And it seemed from the very start a home, our community, and the neighborhood where we lived just north of Capitol Hill down on Clinton Avenue was filled with Latter-day Saints from Sweden, from Germany, from Norway, so we were active converts in a group into which we fitted very readily.
Where were you were baptized?
At eight I was baptized in … I think we went to Brooklyn, the East-[p.31]ern States Mission, which B. H. Roberts headed for a time. I have very distinct memories of B. H Roberts coming to the Hoboken Branch and speaking. We had a hall above a store, I think, somewhere on Washington Street in Hoboken. But we’d go to Brooklyn for Eastern States Mission conference. I have vivid memories of B. H. Roberts there presiding, and of David O. McKay as an apostle coming to speak. I think they had a baptismal font in that building. They had their own building there in Brooklyn. So I constantly knew of the convert experience in terms of new arrivals. Our family was very active with the Hoboken Branch, multilingual people from various European countries. My mother’s diary records going to meetings and seeing so-and-so and so-and-so, and what it meant to her to have this support in an alien country.
The support continued when you moved to Salt Lake.
We identified immediately with the ward, Twenty-fourth Ward. Eventually Dad became a member of the bishopric. Mother was active in Relief Society, Primary, all of these organizations. Of course, I became a Trailblazer in Primary, and a Boy Scout—I don’t think I ever made it to Eagle. I guess I got my Life merit badge. And the various quorums and ranks in the priesthood to be a deacon and to serve the sacrament, to be a priest and go ward teaching, and finally an elder. Never went beyond elder. I thought that was a pretty good term in itself. I went on a mission as an elder. The point is I was immersed.
You went to Holland on your mission?
That’s right. Of course, I had a pretty good command of the language. So I understood everything and quickly became much more proficient. I really studied the grammar and became a very good speaker and writer. And there were relatives there whom we visited. In fact, in Haarlem, which was my second assignment—my first was in Delft where my father’d been born. We had lodgings with an aunt—a sister of my father. And they, as a matter of fact, converted. I think the greatest sacrifice on their part was giving up their tea and coffee. You know, these external signs, how fully they understood the message I have no clear idea, but it was a commitment. Through them it was also a kind of passage into Dutch ways and the Dutch community. So that was a very valuable exposure. I was a very idealistic [p.32]young man on the mission. I worked hard, didn’t question the cosmos or the cocoon, you might say.
Now we understand this world that is created in one’s growing up—the conditioning. But counter to that, of course, were going to college, reading widely, ultimately going abroad—Okinawa during the war. Seeing how the world wags from a very different perspective, and you respect this. What I found most unacceptable in Mormonism was the insistence on being the one and only.
You were active up through World War II then?
Yes, in fact, on Okinawa when there were LDS boys and women serving in the various units, we were brought together, and I made it a point to attend. It was a tie, among other things, a sentimental and emotional tie to all that was back there. And when you’re out there in a quonset hut or a camp on an island in the Pacific, that’s the tether. The tether lengthens, but it’s still tied to the central post. I was in a first marriage at that time. Among other complications, marital problems and my changing point of view, all of that hastened the sense that I really was no longer at home in what had been this cosmos, this home. You can’t mark a particular moment, at the stroke of midnight—freedom at midnight, but a gradual process, because it also involves one’s courage, one’s sense of whom am I hurting by this declaration of departure from what my parents had given their lives to. But then you realize that they in their turn had made a bold step from their Dutch Reformed period and accepted something new and outrageous in the eyes of others. If you get to the point where you can shed your garments, you begin to see that what you once regarded as fundamental is really peripheral and superficial. And in other faiths, and other beliefs, and other movements, you can see equivalents, so the blind faith in the one and only is shattered. The intellectual separation was easy. The emotional separation was more tangled and gradual. And still living in this community where the people have the LDS label and background … one does not wish to offend. He wishes to be identified for what he is, but not to offend. And you soon discover there are a lot of like-minded people—closet dissenters, or whatever term you wish to give to them, who simply are no longer intellectually nor even emo-[p.33]tionally satisfied with what they grew up. It’s a matter of growth. Real simple growth. I’m very interested and continue to be interested in Mormon history as part of American history, Western history; in Mormon letters as a part of American letters, Western letters; and I write, I suppose, sympathetically; that is, I trust, in a way that is understanding and yet critical. I’ll have to show you the final paragraphs of an article that appeared in Dialogue called, “Telling It Slant: Aiming for Truth in Contemporary Mormon Literature,” where I very openly, I think, declared my credo. That may be why the editors of a new collection of critical essays decided they couldn’t include it, because it’s a very explicit statement as to where I stand. And it’s clear that I’m much more of a naturalist than a supernaturalist. It’s not just Mormonism and its claim to angelic revelation, but the claims of any other faith about the transcendent or the supernatural. Now I’ve read a lot of Emerson, and I’ve read the Transcendentalists and the Romantics, and I understand their sense of an immanent divinity.
Margaret Fuller’s …
Margaret Fuller and so on. But they made wonderful rhetorical use of that outlook, and it had a philosophic base in Kant and other German idealists. In spite of Sterling McMurrin’s wonderful essays on the theological foundations and the philosophical foundation of Mormonism, I don’t think we can make that case for Mormonism. I just can’t accept the Joseph Smith story as theology. It’s a unique work in terms of American literature—very creative, very imaginative, and very influential. Think of the names on the land derived from the Book of Mormon. And it still impresses converts who know nothing about the history of the church. I understand nowadays in the mission field they never mention polygamy, for example, or anything in past Mormon history. Richard Cracroft, who for a while was president of the Swiss-German mission, stuck his foot in his mouth when he mentioned polygamy in one of his talks or conversations. The eyebrows raised and a great flurry of excitement. What’s this?
There seems to be editing of history by official church sources.
They want nothing that will disturb another perspective. That’s one of the institutional annoyances. My disaffection is not as it may be with some—disappointment in the leadership, judgments on their [p.34]character or unwise decisions. I could boil over when I think of the new conference center that they’re going to build downtown opposite Temple Square, but that’s not a reason for departure—shedding the dust of your feet on the old. It’s much more fundamental than that. There are institutional disappointments. No question. The things that go on in wards, stakes, and church that people carry on seemingly uncritically, mindlessly, can make you angry or disappointed. When it comes to tithing and contributions, there are many other causes to which we now contribute rather than supporting an institution and its ways that we really don’t believe in. You know, it would be foolish to do that. Now, to the faithful, there’s an element of fear in not doing the traditional. What are the consequences of not conforming? But the people who’ve been about in the world, and seeing the same commitment on the part of millions to their way of thinking, their way of life, this ethnocentrism on the part of Mormonism seems extremely parochial and it’s hard to abide. Very hard to abide. But there are outlets now that there weren’t some years ago. The Sunstone symposium is a great way of venting all kinds of talk. My wife accuses it of a great deal of puffery, and I do think there is that. You can take any topic in Mormonism and give it the deconstructionist treatment or the higher criticism treatment or whatever. You throw up these things in ridiculous fashion. But at the same time you’re rubbing shoulders with a lot of people you discover also have their doubts, and you can be much more objective about what has been a movement, a dialogue. I’m fiction editor for Dialogue, and I feel delighted that I can recommend pieces that would shock the pants off what the Ensign or the New Era or whatever Aspen Books or BYU Press might want to publish. It’s possible in this community now to be absolutely one’s own person intellectually. There’s a lot of support. It comes not only from the non-Mormons; it comes from people like oneself who owe a debt, shall we say, to a moral upbringing. But at last we arrive where we must stand on our own feet.
Was there ever a time when you left active practice that you felt lonely or isolated?
Not in my case. Relationships formed with non-Mormons were just as supportive. If a person feels guilty, and it’s a matter of conscience, I suppose there might be that uneasiness, that wondering. Did you ever [p.35]see a little piece called “Problems of the Mormon Intellectual”? It was in Dialogue many years ago. Well, there’s another statement that—and it’s not simply my position—but tries to suggest what reconciliations or what steps the free thinker might take … I think we ought to call ourselves free thinkers … or maybe a humanist. That’s a dreaded term around here.
It politicizes people.
Yes. Polarities result when people declare, “I have the truth.” It divides. Look what’s going on in Ireland, in Israel and Palestine—all in the name of religion. These are events that also give one pause and say, “Why commit to a religion, a religious institution, which only intensifies the differences and divisions, and which gives an extraneous authority to something that doesn’t deserve that authority?” You see, when people invoke—in the name of religion—this belief or that, there’s the attempt to give it a sanction that it doesn’t deserve. It intensifies division. That’s why “the one church, the true church, the only church” business is so offensive.
Have you ever considered asking to be excommunicated?
My wife says I’m a coward, that I should take that formal step, and in all honesty I should because if I’m on the rolls, people in the ward continue to think of me as LDS and then have to judge me as a backslider because I’m not attending church, not contributing financially, etc. It would clear the air in terms of where I stand. And I suppose I’ll have to do that.
But the church benefits from your being on the rolls by being able to claim its 10 million members.
I’ve thought of that, too. And there must be a great many like that. They are not the same. Some will equate the anti-environmentalists with the Mormon outlook. And that’s simply not true, because there are ever so many Mormons who are in the environmental movement—no question.
I’m inactive, but by virtue of my birth I’m Mormon. I’m identified as a Mormon by those who are outside looking in, but those who are active don’t identify me really as a Mormon. I’ve been dunked, as a friend once told me, and some would say I have to live with it or get out.
[p.36]If there’s some ceremony by which we could be undunked, that might be definitive.
But that makes me sort of schizoid. Part of the reason I’m doing this is because I’ve never really felt that I fit anywhere.
So this is for your therapy?
I don’t feel schizoid. You know, there’s one way to solve problems, and that’s to rise above them. And it doesn’t bother me. There was a time that it was truly a matter of conscience, but perhaps more a feeling in terms of family and so forth. I have a brother and sisters, some of whom are extremely orthodox and staunch and others who may on the surface be churchgoers and so on, but I know don’t have that commitment, and others who simply stepped outside it as I have. I think that goes on in many, many families.
I’m being interviewed by you now. But I’m responding and thinking of my own experience. I felt guilt around my departure from active status, because that tremendous ingraining of the culture and ideals of Mormonism when I was a child, by my grandparents specifically.
Were they pioneers?
Yes. Pioneers, polygamists.
See, this is the Church of the Pioneers. That’s another thing. So much is made of that westward trek and, indeed, it preserved a church that was about to go under. Now they’re thinking in global terms, but here again is a great difficulty because the thinking is still very provincial and there’s an effort to make the Latin American and the Africans over in our image. They even have a mission in India now. And they have a different heritage. There’s a wonderful irony. On Latin America, I read an article in Dialogue about what’s going on in Guatemala. The converts there take the Book of Mormon to be quite literally the book of their ancestors, and they are the true heirs. We Anglos are saints only by adoption. It’s a very interesting phenomenon going on in Latin America. Pretty soon, maybe not too long from now, the Latin Americans are going to say, “We are the true church, we are the true heirs, we are the Book of Mormon people; you guys are Johnny Come Lately; now listen to us.”
[p.37]We did, after all, come over in submarines, and landed on the Mayan Peninsula …
It’s something to watch. And, of course, there’s something very egotistical or ethnocentric about going into any of these countries of very different cultures and imposing that. The Hindus felt that way about the Christian missionaries who came in the nineteenth century. Again and again I’ve encountered memoirs and essays in which there’s a strong resentment on the part of the Hindu to the proselyting that goes on. The enormity of a Western culture not acknowledging, recognizing the depth and attributes of their own.
It must be offensive to some.
It’s terribly offensive. So I think there are parallels here, in spite of this global outlook that is now enabling or motivating the building of temples and establishing stakes and wards where there used to be missions and branches. It’s still a very parochial outlook. And that’s hard for people who read a lot, who travel a lot, who begin to open up to the values of different cultures and respect them. I’m not the kind of rebel who becomes an Episcopalian or a Hindu or a Buddhist. Sort of equivalent of the feminists who want to become men, really. And that wouldn’t satisfy me. I rest in being maybe a continuing seeker. But even the word “seeker” suggests that there’s a belief in some supernatural, some monolithic truth that’s out there.
Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
I’ve never had any revelations. I think sensitivity, aesthetic sensitivity, intellectual sensitivity could amount to a kind of spirituality. I don’t think of myself as a materialist, but the opposite of that is being spiritual. I think you’re defining elements or qualities that are quite abstract and indefinable but that are very humanistic. I’m going to give you a copy of Wallace Stegner’s credo. Years and years ago he was on Edward Murrow’s radio program—a series of very short statements called This I Believe. I respond to his outlook. This is a very ecumenical outlook. And then I’ll give you a copy of a telling paragraph at the end of my Dialogue piece “Problems of the Mormon Intellectual,” which people tell me, who have read it, helps them locate themselves.
You don’t believe in a higher power?
I’m afraid not. There may be intuitive things. How does intuition [p.38]operate? We are at this moment all that we have ever been—the result of all the experiences, internal, extraneous, that we have ever been. Louis Zucker, one of my hero professors at the university, said something like “human nature is biological in its root but spiritual in its flower.” You see? We are of this earth—earthy. We have to feed, cultivate ourselves in a material sense. We ingest and we evacuate. I mean, we are living organisms, but at the same time, we have minds—however you define mind, whether it’s a mere mechanism or not—that are capable of entertaining dreams, ideas, hates, loves, and so on. That’s spirituality, you know. All that is not material and has to be then, I would say, of that kind which you might call the internal as opposed to the external. But that means that I simply dismiss all this angelology. Whether it’s Joseph Smith’s or Islam’s or anyone’s. It takes a big burden off my system of beliefs, because then you begin to realize you don’t have to blame a supernatural power or deity for what’s happening to you. It eliminates an awful lot of misery—the kind you hear at funerals. Why this had to happen or that had to happen. The question doesn’t come up, because you see it as an inevitable consequence of natural causes—or psychological causes—but causes that are palpable. It’s a big relief. That’s a bigger relief to me than stepping outside of a ward ritual. Now maybe in some people that could make them callous. They might raise the question, “Well, that’s going to lead to Nazism and uncontrolled behavior toward others.” If your system of ethics isn’t supported by a divine belief, that could lead to terrible atrocities—treating human beings as simply atoms or natural products. But I don’t think so, because a person growing up with humanistic sensitivities and beliefs isn’t going to behave like that. So that’s the burden of my relief. Let me tell you this. My long association with Sterling McMurrin has been an important prod in the direction of this kind of thinking.
Were you a member of his … What did they call you?
The Swearing Elders. The last thing we did together before his death was make a presentation at the Sunstone symposium in August 1995 on the Swearing Elders. I have a copy of my part in that. I didn’t record Sterling’s. But there is a record. Sunstone puts everything on tape, and they’ll have an index of all the sessions and so on.
Sterling was the kind of person who kept a façade in terms of good [p.39]public relations with the community, but he was a heretic. I’m still not able to pin down what his ultimate fundamental philosophy might be, except perhaps personalism—something he got when he was at the University of Southern California under Pepperell Montague. But I recall in one of our Swearing Elder sessions, a very important one, when Bruce McConkie defended Joseph Fielding Smith’s creationist point of view as opposed to the evolutionist. I think it was there. And someone accused Sterling, “So then you have no hope of resurrection?” Sterling answered, “That’s exactly all we have is a hope.”
Speaking of that, what do you think will happen to you when you die?
Go back to Mother Earth, to be honest. Now, there are religions which say these atoms will reform and recruit those who believe in reincarnation to come back again in whatever form your karma deserves. But that’s a form of the supernatural which I can’t accept. But to snuff out a candle, it’s snuffed out. That’s it. Self-realization is a very important element in many Oriental religions—the Buddhists, the Hindu. And I think that element is there in the Mormon notion of eternal progression. Mormonism is really very eclectic. It wasn’t just Joseph Smith who pulled it together. There’ve been a lot of theologians since—John Widtsoe’s A Rational Theology, Talmage’s Articles of Faith, and so on. But that idea and the idea that the glory of God is intelligence—these are very attractive … We’re attracted to the early intellectuals like Lorenzo Snow. In a century that was very biblical, literal in its biblical belief, these positions made a lot of sense. But if the Bible is not the literal Word of God to you—that’s great literature—then you can’t accept it as a basis. To double the jeopardy, Mormonism gives not one book of scripture but two or three. And even some very enlightened people down at the BYU, among my friends in the English literature department, continue to have this sense of the division between what man says and what God says. It’s all what man says. A Hebrew proverb says, “The law speaks in the tongues of men.” And when anyone, the brethren or the people at the Y or wherever, talk about the literal word of God, they forget the medium.
The tongue of man.
[p.40]You’ve left Mormonism, but obviously you’re fascinated with it.
Sure. I’m fascinated with Americana. I took a degree at Harvard in what they call very pretentiously the History of American Civilization. Well, that’s very inclusive, but it does suggest that you approach the life and institutions of any culture in a multidisciplinary way. You think of what the sociologist can give you and the psychologist, and the anthropologist, and the literary critics, and on and on. And use all of these the way a carpenter uses a set of tools to get his work done. And to be hung up on any one of those approaches, whether it’s Marxist or classical or biographical, is to limit yourself in the same way that the dogmas of a given religion hamper themselves, hobble themselves. The nice thing about interdisciplinary approaches is that you’re unfettered. There’s a danger in that, to be so eclectic that you’re like a sieve full of holes and have no methodology. But you can work out a methodology, and it allows dissertations that couldn’t be honored in a given traditional discipline. In my case, I taught forty-one years in the Department of English, but my dissertation at Harvard was really a historical thing. The Mormons from Scandinavia, the migration of the Mormons from Scandinavia, which the University of Minnesota Press published as Homeward to Zion. And it’s still the definitive work on that particular migration. Being of Dutch birth and having lived in a ward that was full of immigrants and so on, it was a natural attraction. I did a master’s degree at the University of Utah on immigrant writing, immigrant journalism as both an aspect and instrument of immigrant culture, and that got me into Scandinavian sources, German and Dutch. The Scandinavian sources were so rich that when I carried my M.A. thesis to Harvard and had an interview with Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., the historian, wanting to get into his seminar, I showed it to him. He said, “You should build on this.” In his seminar on immigration, I looked much deeper and wider into the history of Scandinavian missions and migration, and it eventually did become the dissertation which became the book. And then with A. Russell Mortensen, at the same time—because we were at it for several years—we produced the anthology that you may be familiar with called Among the Mormons: Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers. Well, it’s back in print, in full format at Sam Weller’s. I’ll show you the original. But it’s held up, you see, since 1958; it went through three hardcover printings with Knopf, then the University of Nebraska Press picked it up in their [p.41]Bison Book Series. And now Sam Weller … I negotiated with Knopf to get the rights, and Sam Weller, under his Western Epics imprint, has brought it out in full format, has taken that wonderful cottonwood scene of the Mississippi as the paperback cover. It was the jacket in the Knopf work. Well, I cite this to suggest what you call a fascination with Mormon history and Americana, and to treat them, I think, with objectivity … It’s not the kind of approach of a Mrs. Ferris or a Charles Kelly or people who are out to undo and to get the thing they are writing about. We provide the documents and narrative connections and introductions to the document with a lot of history in them. And people can judge for themselves. Without question, it was a major episode in that whole westering. We’ve just seen this big series on the West on TV, and this book makes available fascinating documents.
Bernard DeVoto is one of those who was out to get somebody. I felt that way when I reread recently some of his work.
In his early essays, he had a very particular ax to grind. Ogden, Utah, was not the cultural center of the universe, but he had his growing up there, and he did attend the University of Utah for a time. He’s someone who really bit the hand that fed him. He had an ax to grind—several axes to grind, several chips on his shoulder. There’s no question about it. In 1926—this is all fresh in my mind. I don’t think I have a photographic memory. I just gave during the governor’s conference a keynote address on Utah’s literary heritage, and towards the end I quote Bernard DeVoto for my own purposes. In March 1926 the American Mercury—H. L. Mencken’s Mercury—published an essay by DeVoto called “Utah.” It’s a long catalog of illustrations, denunciations of the aridity of Utah culture. Stegner refers to this in his Life of Bernard DeVoto, and in Stegner’s case, it was a very interesting personal episode. He was a student at the U. at the time—1926—had just started. One morning the young Stegner came down a hall. A door opened and George Emory Fellows, ancient history professor up there from Maine—he’d come West—tossed out a magazine onto the floor of the hall. Stegner picked it up and discovered that there was an essay there by Benny DeVoto called “Utah” that was really hateful and scurrilous in terms of Utah culture since the Wild West. In effect, Devoto had said: “With an effort, some people in Utah might be able to sign their names.”
[p.42]DeVoto did burn some bridges, didn’t he?
He wrote a centennial essay that was just about as bad. Nineteen-thirty was the Mormonism centennial. They didn’t appreciate him, obviously. He mellowed, you know, toward the end. He really mellowed.
You mentioned passing on to heaven. One of the practical difficulties is the Mormon belief of family reunions in heaven … To think of the different ages at which people die, and—the resurrection—at what stage are these people going to be resurrected? Children continue to grow, not really knowing grandparents, certainly not great-grandparents. Doesn’t that present an irresolvable problem about family life and the hereafter?