In Praise of William A. “Bert” Wilson

William A. Wilson, former BYU English Professor and folklorist extraordinaire, passed away this past week. In his honor, I am posting a review I wrote in 2008 for the Journal of Mormon History of Wilson’s book The Marrow of Human Experience: Essays on Folklore.

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I returned from my mission to France in 1982 filled with enthusiasm and passion for the LDS Church. I must attribute some of that passion to the faith-promoting stories I had heard as a missionary, stories of divine intervention in behalf of the Lord’s servants, divine punishments for wayward missionaries, and divine wrath for unrepentant Gentiles. However, soon after my return, I chanced upon a copy of Sunstone containing an article by William A. (“Bert”) Wilson, then a professor of English at Brigham Young University.[1] In that article, I discovered that most of the stories that had been passed around my mission as true were also circulating, with slight variations, in other missions throughout the world. I read stories about illicit trips outside the mission, missionaries accidentally killing an investigator’s cat, elders being struck dead for ordaining an animal to the priesthood, and laundry shops burning down after the proprietor put the missionaries’ garments on display. The article also included a discussion of missionary pranks and missionary lingo, also with surprising analogs in my mission experience.

Initially, I felt a bit dejected. “You mean these stories weren’t true?” I asked myself. But that dejection was short lived, as I came away with a deepened sense of community, a feeling that my experience in France—my goals, fears, failures, and dreams—united me in some very essential ways with other missionaries serving around the world as well as with missionaries past, present, and future. I came to feel I was part of something much greater. As I lost the sense of the magical, I gained a richer sense of transcendent connectedness. I also came to understand that faith needed to have stronger roots than a story told by a fellow believer.

I also became a fan of Wilson’s writings, eagerly anticipating each new essay on Mormon folklore. Next appeared “The Seriousness of Mormon Humor” with an accompanying article by Richard Cracroft on “The Humor of Mormon Seriousness”).[2] There Wilson examined how Mormon jokes function as “clear markers of central issues in [Mormon] society, as a barometer of those concerns engaging the minds of the people at any particular moment.” Then in 1987, I was fortunate enough to be in the audience at the Salt Lake Sunstone Theological Symposium when Wilson delivered his Three Nephites paper.[3] He examined the folktales of the miraculous works performed by Christ’s three New World apostles who, like John the Beloved, were allowed to linger on earth without dying until the second coming. Wilson confronted the question of whether the legend was dying out, as folklorists Hector Lee and Austin Fife had argued. Wilson demonstrated that the legend “was alive and growing,” only now the Nephites appear “in urban dwellings, at parking lots, and ice cream stands, with the freeway sounding noisily in the background.” They also use up-to-date medical methods when aiding the sick and afflicted:

The Nephite visiting ailing Mormons today will still lay hands on people’s heads and bless them, but also frequently relies on the techniques of modern medicine. Today the Nephite pulls a bishop’s son from a lake after a canoeing accident and revives him through artificial respiration; he rescues a church official from a fiery automobile accident and treats his wound “in a very professional manner”; and in one instance he actually enters the hospital, operates on a woman the doctors had been unable to treat, and removes a “black-covered growth” from her stomach. (246)

While I came away from the lecture more suspicious of Three Nephite stories, just as I had become more skeptical of the lore of my missionary days, I also left with a greater understanding of our Mormon culture, our shared desires, fears, dreams, and anxieties, and of our connectedness as a community.

Wilson also inspired me to take a folklore class in graduate school at the University of Maryland, and, like Wilson, I decided to turn my attention to Mormon folklore. For my seminar paper, I compared the folklore told about J. Golden Kimball with that told about Hugh Nibley. I had recently decided that I wanted to write a biography about Nibley, my father-in-law, and had become confused and delighted by some of the stories people had been telling me. I began collecting the Hugh Nibley tales and, assuming BYU may have already collected other tales, I wrote to Wilson, asking for his assistance. Wilson was most gracious, photocopying numerous pages of stories from the folklore archives and, later, talking with me in person when I came back to Utah during Christmas break. I was deeply impressed by that conversation. Not only had Wilson taken time out of his schedule to tutor an unschooled amateur folklorist attending another institution, he was unassuming and kind. Most of all, he was excited about Mormon folklore. I discovered that the down-to-earth generosity and effervescent fervor for folklore I found in Wilson’s articles is an essential characteristic of the man himself.

I have long felt that a collection of Wilson’s essays was needed. Too few know and have been influenced by Wilson’s work, largely because of its lack of adequate distribution. In The Marrow of Human Experience: Essays on Folklore, editor Jill Terry Rudy brings together much of his work, highlighting three aspects of Wilson’s career: his work defining and building the field of folklore studies, his work on Finnish folklore (Wilson wrote his dissertation on folklore as a force in creating national identity in Finland, the location of Wilson’s LDS mission and the land of his wife’s birth), and his work on Mormon folklore. The section on Mormon folklore takes up about 45 percent of the book, and brings together all of the essays referenced above as well as classic essays like: “The Study of Mormon Folklore: An Uncertain Mirror for Truth,”[4] “‘Teach Me All that I Must Do’: The Practice of Mormon Religion,”[5] and “Personal Narratives: The Family Novel” (a version of which was published in BYU Studies as “In Praise of Ourselves: Stories to Tell”[6]).

This collection does omit a few of Wilson’s works. For example, absent is Wilson’s first publication on Mormon folklore, “Mormon Legends of the Three Nephites Collected at Indiana University,” published in Indiana Folklore in 1969. The editor instead chose his more recent and more analytical “Freeways.” However, the collection, in my opinion, realizes Jill Terry Rudy’s desire for it to serve as a sort of “greatest hits” (2). It brings together highlights of Wilson’s work in one place, creating an “easily accessible and transportable collection” of Wilson’s work, as Rudy had hoped (1), and constitutes a lasting tribute to a significant scholar. The collection also includes a bibliography of Wilson’s complete oeuvre as well as a fine short biography of Wilson by his daughter, Denise Wilson Jamsa.

Jamsa paints the portrait of a boy from Downey, Idaho, who never really left, becoming its “ardent spokesman” and “devoting his professional life to recording and preserving the ‘lore’ of close-knit communities like his Downey friends.” Jamsa believes it was “the communal nature of folk art that appealed to [Wilson] the most” and that his “scholarship was driven by a passionate desire to illuminate, validate, and honor the culture that produced him” (284). The celebration of community—of Downey and of Mormonism—within Wilson’s work is, I believe, his greatest legacy.

My only regret about this collection is that it will likely be read primarily by folklorists rather than the folk of Mormondom. It appears to have been designed and packaged with folklorists and students of folklore in mind, the Mormon content a part of the whole rather than the whole, an addendum rather than the focus. It is not aimed at or marketed for a Mormon audience. The Mormon community desperately needs this book and will not likely find it. Wilson believes that collecting and studying folklore “is not just a pleasant pastime useful primarily for whiling away idle moments,” but “centrally and crucially important in our attempts to understand our own behavior and that of our fellow human beings” (203). Such understanding—of our selves, of our neighbors, and of our connectedness as a community—is, I believe, deeply needed by Mormon folk today.

 

[1] William A. Wilson, “On Being Human: The Folklore of Mormon Missionaries,” Sunstone 7, no. 1 (January–February 1982): 32–40.

[2] William A. Wilson, “The Seriousness of Mormon Humor,” and Richard H. Cracroft, “The Humor of Mormon SeriousnessSunstone 10, no. 1 (January 1985): 6–13 and 14–17 respectively.

[3] William A. Wilson, “Freeways, Parking Lots, and Ice Cream Stands: The Three Nephites in Contemporary Society,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21 (Autumn 1988): 13–26.

[4] William A. Wilson, “The Study of Mormon Folklore: An Uncertain Mirror for Truth,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 22 no. 4 (Winter 1989): 95-110.

[5] Wilson, William A. 1998. “‘Teach Me All That I Must Do’: The Practice of Mormon Religion.” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the American Folklore Society, Portland, Oregon; October 31, 1998.

[6] William A. Wilson, “In Praise of Ourselves: Stories to Tell,” BYU Studies 30 (Winter 1990): 5–24

 

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