I just finished Proving Contraries: A Collection of Writings in Honor of Eugene England (Signature, 2005), edited by Robert A. Rees. And "writings" is the right term, as the book covers every genre: there are poems, essays, stories, articles, and even a short dramatic script. This is appropriate, I suppose, to celebrate the BYU prof and writer who was apparently a moving force in pushing hundreds of LDS writers and students to develop their writing talents in diverse directions. England co-founded Dialogue when he was still a graduate student, at Stanford. Later, he also co-founded the Association for Mormon Letters. If he'd done nothing else, that would have been a substantial legacy. For more biographic details, you can look up the Sunstone issue devoted to England's memory. In the balance of the post, I'll talk about a few of the more interesting entries in the book.
I know most of you skip over the poetry pages in Dialogue or the Ensign, but in such a nicely bound book as this, with suitably small pages, you will make the effort. I did. You can hear "the sea's soft sibilants" as you walk along the beach, and read in the etched surface of driftwood "the runed and ruined language of the world." [From a Robert A. Rees poem, the first in the book.] There are maybe 15 or 20 short poems scattered throughout the book, a small and fitting sample.
The personal essays were actually quite personal. William A. Wilson wrote about the challenges of running the BYU English Department and of his disagreement over "the implementation of the new temple worthiness policy" at BYU in 1996. Carol Lynn Pearson wrote about being befriended by a homeless man while riding BART into San Francisco. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote about how winning a Pulitzer for her book A Midwife's Tale changed her life. An essay on democratic education was contributed by Wayne C. Booth, described as "one of the most distinguished literary critics of his generation." He developed a friendship with Eugene England in his later years as he "reconnected ... with his Mormon roots." Booth really deserves his own post ...
With the articles I'm on more familiar turf. Armand Mauss laments the triumph of sentimentality over rationality in LDS discourse, evident in both official sources (manuals and GA talks) and more informal areas (Sacrament Meeting talks, teary testimonies, even missionary scripts). Seems like a nice complement to the chapter on Correlation in Prince's new David O. McKay biography. Lavina Fielding Anderson contributed an article on Joseph Smith's sisters, whom she labeled "shadowy women of the Restoration." Quick test: can you even name all three of Joseph's sisters without Googling first? Even after reading the article, it's unclear whether these three women were more or less ignored just because women were generally seen but not heard in the early 19th century, or because of something related to Joseph's attitudes about women or family, or because of the sisters themselves or perhaps their choice of husbands.
I've touched on a few of the writings in the book. Over twenty writers are represented, enough to give a broad sampling of the variety of genre and style in "Mormon letters." A fitting remembrance for an inspiring teacher and writer.
As I've been dabbling in the Old Testament the last few weeks, I have noticed how many genres are reflected in it. Not just narrative prose or poetry, stories or history, but even little quirky features like genealogy lists, given names, and etiologies become genre-like tools for exposition. That diversity might recommend (to some of us who spend too much time reading LDS history or commentary) that there are other writing forms worth considering to explore Mormonism as a whole. Proving Contraries is a nice vehicle for sampling the whole spectrum of LDS writing.