My Many Selves: The Quest for a Plausible Harmony by Wayne C. Booth, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
My Many Selves: The Quest for a Plausible Harmony

My Many Selves: The Quest for a Plausible Harmony

by Wayne C. Booth

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In his autobiography, My Many Selves, Wayne C. Booth is less concerned with his professional achievements—-though the book by no means ignores his distinguished career—-than with the personal vision that emerges from a long life lived thoughtfully. For Booth, even the autobiographical process becomes part of a quest to harmonize the diverse, often


In his autobiography, My Many Selves, Wayne C. Booth is less concerned with his professional achievements—-though the book by no means ignores his distinguished career—-than with the personal vision that emerges from a long life lived thoughtfully. For Booth, even the autobiographical process becomes part of a quest to harmonize the diverse, often conflicting aspects of who he was. To see himself clearly and whole, he broke the self down, personified the fragments, uncovered their roots in his experience and background, and engaged those selves and experiences in dialogue. Basic to his story and to its lifelong concern with ethics and rhetoric was his Mormon youth in rural Utah. In adulthood he struggled with that background, abandoning most Mormon doctrines, but he retained the identity, ethical questions, and concern with communication that this upbringing gave him.

The uncommon wisdom and careful attention that empower Wayne Booth's many other books cause My Many Selves to transcend its genre, as the best memoirs always do. The book becomes a window through which we who read it will see our own conflicts, our own ongoing struggle to live honestly and ethically in the world.

Wayne Booth died in October 2005, soon after completing work on this autobiography.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Here the life and the form of its telling are integral—the book enacts the very divisions Wayne Booth is talking about, and what he is talking about has shaped the work he has done that has resonated with so many over the years. The honesty here is valuable in itself as people, Mormon or not, recognize their own conflicts that constitute the process of trying to live a better life, an effort we all tend to bungle. So as an autobiography, this is important. As a study in ethics and rhetoric it is important. As an experience of reading it is important—it comes together for the reader at the end in ways that tell the story of any honest life.

Gregory Clark, editor, Rhetoric Society Quarterly

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Utah State University Press
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)
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My Many Selves

The Quest for a Plausible Harmony
By Wayne C. Booth

Utah State University Press

Copyright © 2006 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-631-8

Chapter One

A Devout Mormon Is Challenged by Rival Selves

So many of us begin strong and then flatten out. So many players in the game of life get to first base. Some reach second. A handful make third. But how few there are who reach home base safely. It requires continual striving to gain that mastery over self. -Gordon B. Hinckley, President, Prophet, Seer, and Revelator of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Long may the blood which was shed by the prophet Stain Illinois ... -Mormon hymn of my childhood, a curse long since expunged from the hymnal

I asked the personages who stood above me in the light [God and his Son Jesus], which of all the sects was right-and which I should join. I was answered [by Jesus] that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong ... and all their creeds were an abomination in His sight. -Joseph Smith's later account, in his thirties, of his first vision, at age 14

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much; such men are dangerous. -Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

The trouble with you, Grampa, is you're always thinking, thinking, thinking. -Granddaughter Emily Izakowitz

Recently at a University reception, as I sipped my glass of wine, I spotted across the room the bishop of my LDS ward, who knows me quite well even though I hardly ever attend services. The immediate impulse of the hypocrite in me, based on almost a lifetime of faked "observance," was to hide the glass. "That's absurdly dishonest," the Moralist in me shouted (silently), "and besides, he's probably already seen it." So I walked toward the bishop, glass in hand. He smiled warmly, we shook hands, and he seemed simply to ignore my violation of the "Word of Wisdom." We had a good brief conversation about "how's it goin'?"-as he sipped his coke and I sipped my wine. (Cokes were for a while banned by the Church because of the caffeine, but then they decided that the Lord meant to include only "hot drinks" when he gave Joseph Smith his health commands.)

I'm pretty sure that many a bishop would have called me in for an excommunication interrogation after witnessing such open violation of the ban on alcohol. Not this one. He doesn't want to kick me out, because he knows that I am still, in many important senses, a Mormon-one who goes on shocking some Mormons by listing himself in Who's Who as "LDS."

It is important now to have a look at the contrast between that eighty-four-year-old wine-sipper and the totally Devout Mormon Booth I was trained to be. To understand fully my diverse Split-Selves, the Mormon-Split is crucial. It may strike some readers here as irrelevant, but I still think of myself as a Mormon. (Of course, if you somehow detest Mormonism, you can just skip this whole chapter, in which I celebrate many of the true virtues of Mormonism.) In one sense my story is not different from that of scores of friends raised in other denominations who have told me, "Getting an education destroyed my religion; I was raised in faith, but pursuing reason got me into trouble."

But few of them were raised as I was: in a culture totally isolated from others. As their congregations met, they were surrounded by other denominations and probably by many secularists opposing all religion. In contrast, I was born and raised not just in a devout family belonging to a faithful congregation but in an isolated culture, with no non-Mormons surrounding us.

As I think about having lived for those twenty-one years encountering almost no one but Mormons (except for a wonderful chemistry teacher in high school, a Lutheran), I feel an especially strong kinship with all those in any isolated faith who met few or no rivals throughout childhood: any Muslim raised in a totally isolated Arab village and then sent to college in America, and any Jew raised in a settlement consisting entirely of Orthodox families just outside Jerusalem and then sent to the University of Chicago to get a doctor's degree.

I still feel kinship, of course, with everyone who was raised in the one true faith, but it is especially strong toward those who encountered no doubters or rivals until moving up the education ladder. All religious "lapsers" or "fringers" or "peripherals" encounter a quarrel between a loyal loving Self and a Self whom loved ones will consider to be a sad loss or even a traitor.

There are many ways to label those conflicting Selves and the rival cultures that produce them: faith vs. reason; mythos vs. logos; closed vs. open; pure vs. corrupted; obedient vs. rebellious; loyal vs. evil. Sometimes the arrogant side of the thinker in me has labeled it, a bit stupidly, as "naïve vs. sophisticated." Back then the split was often thought of as "Zion" vs. "back East." For Erasmus, facing similar conflicts between full belief and unrestrained "reason," it was sometimes Jerusalem vs. Athens.

For all of us Mormons, Utah was indeed the unique Zion, combining both absolute faith and total commitment to pursuit of truth: divine knowledge. Many of our hymns celebrated the unquestionable truth that God had brought our ancestors to our "mountain home," leading Brigham Young to look down on the valley, back in 1847, and proclaim, "This is the place!" God had established the true center where all of the virtuous would ultimately settle-and soon be resurrected into heaven.

My subconscious mind still floods daily with the hymns that identify ultimate reward with the beauty of those mountains surrounding our town. At this moment, one suddenly intrudes:

O Zion! Dear Zion! Land of the free. Now my own mountain home, Unto thee I have come; All my fond hopes are centered- In thee.

We were all taught that when the apocalypse arrived-maybe next week, maybe next year-we faithful ones would all gather in Zion and then be taken to heaven, while the unfaithful would be destroyed or consigned to some eternal, lower status. (There was no need for a Hell: the lowest of the three eternal kingdoms, Celestial, Telestial, and Terrestrial, took care of that.)

The world outside Zion was where the unfaithful and sinful lived. For some the path to damnation was California, but for most of us it was "back East" (often thought of as Chicago). I only later encountered liberal professors at the "Y" (Brigham Young University), most of whom had earned their higher degrees in Midwest universities. They saw "back East" as a place where one could find much of what is good about Western civilization. Yet for the orthodox as for me (until far into my teens, studying under those professors), the world outside Zion was just plain dangerous, crying out to be saved by our missionary efforts. Stories about how our missionaries were mistreated by "outsiders," even lynched, filled our Sunday services.

About the only "Eastern" idea I can remember being openly approved was the U.S. Constitution. As part of God's careful preparation for the restoration of our one true version of Christianity, the Constitution was holy. (Oh, yes, the Puritan escape from England was also part of the necessary preparation; I didn't learn until recently that some of my ancestors-on the side much neglected by me in my upbringing, the Chipmans, were on the Mayflower!)

Later, when studying and teaching "back East," with all my relatives rightly fearing that I was becoming a fringer or worse, I often did feel that I had escaped to an almost divine Athens: the thinker in me had cast off dogmatic ignorance and could now pursue truth, obtain learning, even become genuinely wise. That drive, at least, could be defended by a couple of Mormon slogans still deeply embedded in my mind: "The glory of God is intelligence" and "Man cannot be saved in ignorance."

Yet I was aware-during two years in Haverford, Pennsylvania, nine in Richmond, Indiana, and more than four decades in Chicago-that what I saw as the enviable side of "back East" was but a small and even threatened part of it. In many ways the culture I was entering, viewed according to my moralizing self's convictions, was radically inferior to the Utah scene. Those who lived back home had standards, including genuine service to others. Many of the outsiders I was meeting were-as I had been taught to expect-corrupt. And the Mormons who had become not just fringers out there but "Jack Mormons"-open rejecters-were often even worse: they smoked cigarettes and cigars.

Even now the contrast between the lives lived by insiders and those of many lapsers shocks me and sometimes drives me back toward being fully active. A fully lapsed friend who has had nine children reports to me that the four who are active LDS members have had far more productive, happy lives than the ones who broke away. While I would never argue that Mormons are on average happier than Catholics or Protestants or Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists (and so on), I feel sure that to be "affiliated" with some "congregation" is a genuine blessing.

The experience of my daughter Alison's conversion to Judaism is a prime example. When we attended our grandchildren's bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah, the ceremonies moved me to ecstasy.

I feel utterly confident that for a family to belong to any one of the good churches, with a supporting congregation, is the best inoculation against the destructive forces of our culture. As I sometimes put it to friends, I am currently inactive in at least five true churches. Still, it's not surprising that I sometimes came close to breaking away and becoming a "Jack Mormon." The thinker in me would sometimes think-but almost never say out loud to anyone-"All of those dogmatic 'faithful' ones threaten the world with ignorance and intolerance." Looking back now, I see this as a gross distortion. Those "dogmatic faithful ones" are on average among the most generous-spirited, most admirable of human creatures. Everyone there, from day one, is trained to believe in devoted, unpaid, pro bono service to others. No bishop gets paid a cent for his demanding service. No lecturer or singer or missionary gets any financial reward. Members of the wonderful Salt Lake Tabernacle Choir are all "amateurs," in the sense of doing it only for the love of it, often driving from afar several times a week to rehearse. Can you see why I can never decide to obey other Voices and make a full break from a church that encourages such lives?

What Was It Like Living on the Inside?

If, as is highly probable, you were not raised in an enclosed culture like mine, it will not be easy to understand just how deeply it gets into your heart and soul-or as we sometimes would put it, into your bones. In American Fork, Utah, back in the 1920s and '30s, almost all of the three thousand citizens were openly Mormon; a majority were descendants of immigrants. There were six Mormon congregations, each with its own "Ward Chapel." The few non-Mormons, a tiny minority I can't remember ever meeting, had the only other church building, called something like "Community Church" or "Congregational Church." (Don't expect me to remember it, because it was something I totally avoided. Even as late as age fourteen, when I started delivering newspapers and had to ride my bike down the street passing that wicked church, I would carefully cross to the other side to avoid getting too close to the sinful.)

The family surrounding me even more tightly was huge by today's standards: four loving, authoritative grandparents; two loving (and slightly less bossy) great-grandparents; eleven living aunts and uncles; innumerable cousins and second cousins. Almost all were devout-or pretending to be. Surrounded by the pious, most of them exhorting me to do everything the one right way, for at least fifteen years I never met or talked with anyone I knew to be a non-Mormon. (A dim memory argues that there was a family of Jews who were tailors, but I can't remember encountering them.)

We did know a few families that seemed to be lapsing, like two aunts who had fled to California; they were always treated with explicit contempt behind their backs and with implicit anxiety and sometimes even open exhortation when they visited. When those two "lost souls" (my father's sisters) visited, we would face some paradoxes. My mother, more tolerant than most of the family, would forgivingly serve them coffee, bringing out our one can of coffee preserved year after year on the most remote shelf possible. I remember their complaining-jokingly? behind Mama's back?-about how awful the coffee was.

The impact of dogmatic, monolithic truth was reinforced by the power of the stories my grandparents and two great-grandparents told. Five of the six (the Clayson, Booth, and Hawkins clans) filled my life with stories about how their parents, weavers and farmers in England, had been "saved" by being converted in the 1850s and then miraculously managed to cross the ocean and plains and become assigned by Brigham Young to found this or that tiny village. One grandfather was actually born on the thousand-mile trek across the plains; he and his mother were then carried the rest of the way in a shaky wagon. One great-grandparent had actually pushed a handcart most of the way. And all of them knew that the reason the families had made it alive and well, unlike many who died en route, was that God had rewarded them for their conversion and continuing devotion.

That closed-culture experience-what felt increasingly like imprisonment to the thinker, as he moved through his teens and was rebuked for asking dangerous questions-was reinforced by hourly, daily, weekly strict routines, the kind that most religions try to provide but which only a closed culture can fully realize. When all of your friends and relatives, not just weekly but every day, practice precisely the same rituals, which are also being practiced in every neighboring town-when everyone who is anyone is a devout Mormon-you become indelibly ritualized:

Sunday mornings, from birth to age twenty-one: Sunday School (from age seven to twelve, it was always with anxious, bossy Grampa Clayson teaching us-sometimes angrily-that promptitude is next to Godliness; and we never missed any meeting unless we were seriously ill).

Sunday afternoons: reading of scripture, with no athletic games, no movies, no swimming allowed (as you'd expect, we did some minor cheating on this one).

Sunday evenings: "Sacrament Meeting," with prolonged sermons.

Once a month, "Fast Sunday": no breakfast, as we honorably donated what the fasting saved to a Church charity, then attended a meeting something like a Quaker "silent meeting," with anyone free to "bear testimony." I stood up spontaneously at age ten and spoke nervously about how grateful I felt for living in the valley of the "mountains high, where the clear blue sky arches over the vales of the free"-the thrill provided by the mountains that were visible through the east window of the chapel.

I'm sure that "bearing my testimony" was prompted almost entirely by the hypocritical desire to appear pious: no one my age had, to my knowledge, ever before borne his testimony voluntarily! I remember doing more than simply mouthing the clichés about divine Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon.

Tuesday afternoons, from early toddling to age twelve: "Primary" lessons in the chapel; all children required to attend, singing songs about Mormonism and various virtues: "Little purple pansies in the garden old ... / We are very tiny but must try, try, try, / Just one spot to gladden, you and I."


Excerpted from My Many Selves by Wayne C. Booth Copyright © 2006 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Wayne C. Booth was born February 22, 1921, and died October 10, 2005. Descended from Mormon pioneers, he began as a young man to wrestle with church teachings, a struggle that informed both his decision to root himself in the secular world and his particular interest in the field of rhetoric. He earned a bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University in 1944, a master's in 1947, and a PhD in 1950, both from the University of Chicago.

He was the author of several books, including the highly influential The Rhetoric of Fiction. He argued that as a technique rhetoric can enhance communication between author and reader, not merely manipulate the reader's response. To Professor Booth, literature was not so much words on paper as it was a complex ethical act. The author's task, then, is to draw readers into the web of narrative and hold them there. The critic's task is to tease out the specific rhetorical devices. He later considered rhetoric in a number of forms beyond the narrative, from political discourse to television commercials.

Booth was until 1992 professor of English at the University of Chicago, where he was associated with the Chicago school of literary criticism and became especially well known for his works on rhetoric. A former president of the Modern Language Association and founder and editor of the journal Critical Inquiry, his widely influential books have included The Rhetoric of Fiction, Now Don't Try to Reason with Me: Essays and Ironies for a Credulous Age, A Rhetoric of Irony, Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, and For the Love of It: Amateuring and Its Rivals (based largely on his devotion to cello playing).

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