I went to American Fork, Utah, today, where Wayne Booth, my graduate school mentor at the University of Chicago, grew up, in a fervent Mormon family.

Although a few historic buildings survive on Main Street, I can’t imagine Booth would recognize much from his past. Utah’s Wasatch Front is booming – it’s one of the fastest-growing places in the United States, right up there with Nevada – and what strikes you as you drive through Provo, Orem, American Fork, and other towns are the many large new houses on the plateau, and the astounding, gorgeous, up-close masses of mountains all around them.

The mountains – some high enough to show snow at their peaks – press in so tightly that you can study, from your car, rock faces and waterfalls and shadows.

If I abstracted from the houses, and from the upscale commercial strips, I could imagine Booth in a very small, sublimely hedged in place — hedged in geographically, and hedged in culturally.


Booth evokes the apartness of American Fork in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties in an essay he wrote in 1998, when he was 77 years old. In it, he quotes from a journal he kept in his twenties, when he was already a skeptical Mormon (though still engaged in missionary work). In a kind of dialogue with his younger self, he explains the nature of his rebellion against his church.

Until I was far into my teens, I was an utterly unquestioning Mormon. My parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles were all visibly, audibly, aggressively devout–all except one uncle, a smoker, a “black sheep.” For our family, non-Mormons were beyond the pale–to be tolerated, of course, even treated kindly if they behaved themselves, viewed perhaps as potential converts, but never courted or married, and never even visited socially. They were certainly not destined, like us, to enter the celestial kingdom. We knew that in the next life those lost souls would not even be allowed to come near us, as we all continued our eternal progression, pursuing knowledge and righteousness–concepts that when defined correctly turned out to be the same thing.

What I remember as most important to me was that in heaven the non-Mormon or non-devout males down there in the lower kingdoms would have no hope for what I had a strong hope for, if I kept my nose clean: becoming the god of another world, accompanied by a pious female helpmate. Meanwhile, here and now, non-Mormons were so far beneath us that it was dangerous even to get near them. I remember feeling scared to walk too close to the one non-Mormon church in my home town, American Fork, Utah. I would always cross the road and walk on the other side, to avoid contamination, and I was thankful that we lived in another ward, far from that wicked place.

In short, until my first questioning began at about fourteen, I was a 100 percent devotee of what might be called an exclusivist, or particularist, anti-ecumenical version of Mormonism. That boy, the very young Wayne Booth, would perhaps these days be called by non-Mormons a fundamentalist (the word wasn’t in our vocabulary, I’m quite sure). Born and reared in the pre-Darwinian nineteenth century, as you might say, he was for about fifteen years unaware of what had been happening to western thought from long before he was born.

Ignorance, clannishness, grandiosity, and a visceral shrinking from your inferiors – Booth describes his young self as well on its way, in its attitudes, toward the ultra-orthodox of Israel, about whose escalating withdrawal from and violence against that country I’ve been reading and posting lately.**

Later in the essay, Booth writes that he still considers himself a Mormon, though a very non-standard one; and he says:

I have been discouraged by the difficulties in the way of intellectual improvement among my people. The Mormon ideology is so firmly rooted in superstition that it seems impossible ever to separate the two: despite all my apologetics, one is simply not a Mormon unless one believes in the literal divinity of the Book of Mormon…

The young Booth begins to sense there must be much more – to himself, to other people, and to the world. His inchoate notion of the complexity and dynamism of human beings draws him to James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Meanwhile, as the idiosyncratic mission drags on, the self-divided missionary takes refuge many hours each week in literature and music, sometimes with conscious reference to religious problems but often simply lost in the joys of art.

But almost every day he wrestles with religious questions. He says that he has discovered that every person is “a walking bundle of ineffability, a bit like God himself,” by which he apparently means that the existential richness of each person finally escapes any attempt at description: forget about conceptual problems, essentially irresolvable, and revel in the riches God’s world offers you. He reads Ulysses–can you picture it, reader, that young missionary, moving from orthodox testimony meetings to James Joyce’s night-town scenes and back to the meetings? — the “most clever, most intellectual, most sophisticated book I’ve ever read!”

Molly Bloom is, I suppose, testifying; but she’s most unorthodox… And I guess the key here is “richness” – that endless, wild novel full of characters full of contradictions, wary of the traps of communal life and history and grandiosity, must have taken the protected young Booth on quite a ride.

Booth’s discovery of Henri Bergson deepens his sense of the intense, fluid energy of each self, an energy orthodox religion may deny or contain or twist.

[Bergson argues that there’s] an original vital impetus–élan vital–which is consciousness or “life” pushing upward against materiality (which naturally is descending). Through intuition and not through intellect we can discover this élan vital. There is no limit in time to the impetus; it may even transcend death. It is a becoming–as is all movement–and the aim of philosophy should be to turn inward toward this becoming in order to apprehend, “in order to follow its present results.”

His love of William Blake (Stephen Dedalus loves him too) deepens his understanding of the sources of repression:

He falls in love with Blake’s “London,” memorizes it, and quotes it entirely in the journal, commenting on the mind-forged manacles that he feels still binding him:

In every cry of every man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

Here Booth intuits his own implication in his dilemma, as well as the possibility that, in a free exercise of his own vitality, he might overcome it.

Booth concludes by describing the passionate and indeed spiritual contingency in which he would live the rest of his life:

One could say that without quite knowing it, the young man was discovering the pluralist religion that sparks my life now: the passion for furthering multiple, always partial understandings of a world, a cosmos, a God, that/who somehow deserves to be understood and commands that we both try to understand “It” and live according to Its standards–even while It remains beyond any one formula.

A novel like Ulysses doesn’t merely acknowledge the partial understandings with which we’ll always be grappling; it celebrates that limitation as the sacred key, if you’d like, to our humanity. It is what makes us loved, and loving:  this recognition – about ourselves, about others – that at any given moment in time (June 16, 1904, say) we’re struggling, often heroically, to overcome our past, to maintain our balance and compassion in the present, and to project a survivable future. “My primary interest . . . is to get closer to reality,” writes Wayne Booth in 1942. He comes to realize that nothing’s realer than fiction.


** From a recent column in Ha’aretz:

[T]he culture wars have led to the point where Israel is currently on the verge of falling apart as a country. The events surrounding the refusal of Haredi parents in Immanuel to have their daughters study with Mizrahi girls must be seen as what they are. The Haredi community has staged the imprisonments of these parents into a grand event of martyrdom for the Torah. For them Israel’s legal system simply has no legitimacy.

Paradoxically, not only Ashkenazi Haredim think this way – the Haredi state of mind was made fully explicit by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’ spiritual leader, who condemned the High Court of Justice for intervening. He said that the offended Mizrahi parents should not have turned to arka’ot – the term traditionally used by Jews to designate the courts of the gentile countries in which Jews lived. It was seen as a betrayal of Jews by Jews to turn to these courts instead of a rabbinical court. Add to this that some Haredim used terms like the Chelmnitzky pogroms and ‘inquisition’ to describe these events. This rhetoric shows the depth of the chasm between the Haredim and the rest of the country.

De facto, approximately one million Jews – Haredim and part of the settler community – have ceased accepting the authority of the state.

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2 Responses to “A Mormon Missionary Reads Ulysses”

  1. Jeff Says:

    This struck me: “The Mormon ideology is so firmly rooted in superstition.”

    Although this could be said of nearly every religion, Smith–before he had his “visions” [eye roll]–was a “see-er.” That is, he started out charging people to tell them where hidden treasure was. He would get paid, point out some random spot and then–POOF. Gone.

    If anything ever solidified my leaving religion behind (beside the creepy Catholics shuffling pedophiles around) it was learning how Smith was a total, utter fraud. And Krakauer’s point is that *every* religion is founded in virtually the same way.

  2. University Diaries » Since I just got back from Utah… Says:

    […] now is the arrogance of the belief. UD's graduate school mentor, Wayne Booth, grew up a Mormon and describes how he felt about the unsaved: Non-Mormons "were certainly not destined, like us, to enter the celestial […]

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