Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Levi Edgar Young’s Literary Acquaintances

5.20.12 | | 5 comments
Levi Edgar Young

Levi Edgar Young

I think we sometimes assume that Utah was in some kind of literary isolation from the rest of the world, ignored by national and international authors, except to lampoon Mormons, and populated by few who had any knowledge of or opinion about current notable works. Of course, a minute’s thought and perhaps a little research into the period of Mormon literature’s “Lost Generation” shows that can’t possibly be true.

Still, it sometimes seems a little strange when General Authorities seem to know them personally.

In the first half of the 20th century, I would have assumed the General Authority most likely to host a literary visitor or know of current potential Nobel prize winners would be Orson F. Whitney. But Whitney wasn’t the only literary-minded General Authority. Levi Edgar Young apparently held a doctorate in history from Columbia University, unusually enough obtained while serving as a General Authority. After graduating from the University of Utah in 1895, Young taught there until he was called to serve in the Swiss-Austrian mission starting in 1901. A year later he was called as mission president, serving until 1904. He returned, married, and moved to New York City to attend graduate school at Columbia, and while he was there, in October 1909, Young was called to serve in the First Council of the Seventy. He was only set apart to as one of the Seven Presidents in January of 1910 when Apostle John Henry Smith visited New York City.

Young finished his Masters degree at Columbia University in 1910, and The Lakeside Press of Chicago published his book, Chief episodes in the history of Utah, in 1912. By 1916 he was in charge of an archeological expedition to San Juan county. Although a General Authority, he was a history professor at the University of Utah from 1922 until his retirement in 1939. At his death in 1963 he had been a General Authority for 54 years and the senior president of the First Council of the Seventy for 22 years.

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[Conference Address]

by Levi Edgar Young

A great many tourists come to Utah, and pay high tribute to the work of our people. They see something here that is delivering mankind from bondage, and bringing liberty. Such a revival is not the work of man, but the work of the Spirit of God. Miss [Thelma] Cazalet looked into your faces and noted your honesty; your sincerity of life. “There is something about the people here that is impressive,” she remarked in words that to me were graciously given.

Miss Cazalet is a friend of Susan Ertz, who also visited Utah something over a year ago. I had the pleasure of taking Miss Ertz about the city and bringing her to this building where she heard an organ recital. It was an impressive hour. Miss Ertz has written a great novel based on the trek of the Mormon pioneers to the far West. In her story the hardships and sorrows of the people are clearly portrayed; and she tells of the great truths of colonizing the West, and pays high tribute to the pioneers of this State.

It is only recently that the noted Austrian writer, Walter Eidlitzs completed his two volume work entitled ZODIAC. I think the novel bids fair to obtain the Nobel prize for literature this year. Herr Eidlitz came to Utah from Vienna, Austria, because he had been told by one Ann Litisch that the Latter-day Saints seemed to have a power far beyond anything she had ever experienced in her life. Here Herr Eidlitz would be able to find the power and light that the world needs, namely, the priesthood of God. Herr Eidlitz was in our home for two weeks investigating the truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord, and he was greatly impressed with our testimony that the holy priesthood of God had been restored to earth.

I think that all people who accept the Gospel of our Lord are the intelligent ones of the world. It is true that we bring from Europe and other parts of the world the poor in material things, but not the poor in spiritual gifts. We have brought from Scandinavia, Germany, England, Italy, France, and other nations those who have humble faith in the Savior. It is only such who can understand the Gospel. They, like the Apostle Paul, find power in faith; a faith that produces and works itself out in a life of love. They learn like the rest of us that true faith gives all; and in return receives all.

General Conference
Saturday Afternoon Session,
October 7, 1933

I assume that Young was the host for Susan Ertz and for Walther Eidlitz because of his position at the University of Utah. Ertz, while 20 years younger than Young, was a popular novelist by the time he met her when she came to Utah from London, apparently to research the novel Young mentions above, The Proselyte (1933). The novel, which follows an English girl who marries a Mormon missionary, was evidently highly praised. Ertz, who died in 1985, apparently never wrote anything else about Mormonism.

Despite Young’s apparent conviction that Eidlitz was interested in Mormonism, he was more fascinated by the religion and philosophy of India than that of Utah. He left his family in Austria in 1938 and traveled to India, where, as a result of the outbreak of World War II the next year, he was consigned to an internment camp by the British government of India. There he converted to Hinduism and eventually changed his name to Vāmana Dāsa. Despite Young’s appraisal of his novel Zodiac (1930, English translation 1931), Eidlitz/Vāmana Dāsa is best known for his spiritual autobiography Bhakta: Eine indische Odyssee (1951, translated as Unknown India: A pilgrimage into a forgotten world, 1952). He died in 1976.

Given all this, I’m not sure exactly what to make of Young’s remarks. I do tend to believe that “people who accept the Gospel of our Lord are the intelligent ones of the world,” but I’m afraid his examples didn’t end up supporting his claim—since neither author accepted Mormonism.

Instead, I think the more reasonable conclusion might be that some intelligent people do find Mormonism interesting and engaging, even if they don’t accept its truth claims. And for those interested in Mormon literature, Ertz’ case in particular shows that the stories of Mormonism are worth exploring.

Are there other conclusions that we can take from this?

5 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Levi Edgar Young’s Literary Acquaintances

  1. Mark Penny

    That proponents are biased reporters?

    I don’t mean that snidely, by the way, but when a sanctioned representative or confirmed supporter of anything tells me someone else was impressed by the thing represented or supported, I bring out the salt.

    And you bring up an important point: other religions impress people (and convert them), too. In fact, people have testimonies of other religions (and the gods they serve), also. Whether or not we have the corner on some sort of truth, testimonies don’t prove a thing except to those who gain them and those who are willing to be convinced by them. It’s nice when people think we’re nice, but it doesn’t make us God’s people. That’s between us (collectively and individually) and God.

  2. Mahonri Stewart

    It does sound, though, that Eidlitz could have been considered a “seeker” before his conversion to Hinduism. The fact that he came to Utah as part of his pilgrimage tell us something at least, and that he was taking Mormonism seriously enough to travel here on a friend’s suggestion…

  3. Mark Penny

    This site really needs some sort of forum app where discussion started under one post can be conducted as a neatly packaged entity. Meanwhile, to carry on from the thread under the previous SLCS (and germane to the discussion starting under this one), the Art-Authority conflict I keep obsessing about is, in part at least, a struggle to control the narrative. Struggles over narrative happen all the time and in all spheres. I see it when I ask my sons why one of them is crying or who didn’t put away the bath things or whether they’ve brushed their teeth. I see it when my wife talks about the social brush fires that flare up (and sometimes spread) at church. I see it in office politics. Heck, I see it as the different members of my family attempt to make sense of our common past.

    Sometimes divergent narratives can co-exist. Sometimes divergence becomes dissent and is disruptive to an agenda. The issue then becomes whether divergence is tolerable.

    I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that the dialogue and concomitant monologues about same-sex attraction are a good example. Here we have an individual predilection with an associated potential social practice. At first, the official position (or narrative) was that it either didn’t exist or was simply a form of temptation which could be as easily suppressed as the urge to smoke or steal. Spirits were male or female, not both or neither or something else. Use made of the body should reflect that fact. Unfortunately, from the official perspective, the larger social reality (or narrative) did not support that view, much as it does not support the necessity or longevity of marriage, and local reality began to echo the encircling social one, as it did with the weakening support of marriage. Evidence of a genetic cause to same-sex attraction informed (or forced, depending on your narrative) a revision of the condition’s earthly origin tale (okay, it may be built-in to the body and be harder to deal with than a taste for tobacco) without a revision of the spiritual narrative (spirits are male or female), with the result that you can now be gay, but you still can’t act like it. The reactive narrative on the divergent side is that God personally (Himself and to the divergent member) approves of homosexual love, at least when the attraction is built-in and the love is real.

    While Zion is in the world and not a city state with an insular encircling social reality, artists (notably writers) are more or less free to explore this issue from various angles. At this point,I suspect there is greater danger of censure from the encircling social reality than from the internal one. But when the walls go up, the trumpet calls and the gates clank down, musing on the reality of same-sex attraction and the fairness of controlling and negatively sanctioning it will become patently and blatantly subversive.

    Mind you, with the current encircling social reality removed, a lot of pressing issues won’t press us anymore.

  4. Katya

    While Zion is in the world and not a city state with an insular encircling social reality, artists (notably writers) are more or less free to explore this issue from various angles. . . . But when the walls go up, the trumpet calls and the gates clank down . . .

    You seem to be very taken with this idea of an isolationist society. (Every conversation you’ve had on this site comes back to it.) Why is it such a focus for you, do you think?

  5. Mark Penny

    Thanks for paying attention, Katya.

    I don’t know that I’m “taken” with the idea. I just think it’s one we’ll inevitably have to deal with, maybe even in our lifetimes. Certainly the traditional future narrative of the Church is that in some way we will come out of Babylon and be separate from the world. Some of the hard feelings between Jews in Israel are functions of this sort of ideal. Among the genres I write is science fiction and I have a concomitant bent for contemplating future technological and social scenarios. If Zion ever literally becomes a city set on a hill, so to speak—in other words, a separate political entity with its own laws and ways of enforcing them, then the issue of what is permissible in art will be fundamental for those who run the place and those who decorate (or comment on) it.

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