EUGENE ENGLAND, OUR GERSHWIN
By R.A. Christmas
A coincidence (God’s way of remaining anonymous) brought Gene England into my life. It was 1963, and I was teaching English at Idaho State University during a very long winter (there was still snow on the ground on Memorial Day). One grey afternoon I sat at my card-table desk in a rented house in Pocatello and in about thirty minutes out came a twenty-six line poem in rhymed couplets entitled “To Joseph Smith.” Just like that. I only changed one word, in the last line.
After I wrote the poem, I didn’t know what to do with it. It was too ambivalent for the Improvement Era, that was for sure. I’d heard of BYU Studies (where it was eventually published), but that was all. Other than that, I didn’t know where a poem that didn’t idolize the Prophet Joseph might be published—so I sent it to my high-school friend Jim McMichael, who also wrote poetry, and who was a grad student in the English department at Stanford; and it just so happened that Jim, not a member of the LDS Church, had a Mormon friend in the department by the name of Eugene England. As I recall (from Jim), this England fellow (Jim referred to him even then as “Gene”) read my poem, liked it, and said something like:
“Who is this guy?”
It wasn’t long before I was asking the same question.
And that is how I became acquainted with this Eugene England person—indirectly and at a distance at first (we didn’t meet until 1967), and it had to do with my poetry; and it also had something to do with our (now) mutual friend Jim McMichael. The three of us—separate from our other relationships—were a troika. When two of us were together, the other was always there in spirit. It was like that at the beginning, and it was like that towards the end of Gene’s life in the late 1990s when the three of us were together for the first (and last) time at Jim’s cabin at Island Park (Henry’s Fork) Idaho, for a single day of fishing.
In between, we sometimes went years without seeing each other. We went our very separate ways: Jim towards a professorship at UC Irvine and a National Book Award nomination for his outstanding poetry; myself from college teaching into various business adventures; and Gene into professorships and editing and publishing and church responsibilities on a scale so vast and varied that it seems to dwarf what the other two of us did, speaking at least for myself. No reader of this collection of Gene remembrances needs me to fail at trying to sum up Gene’s accomplishments. But every reader of this collection should also know that accomplishment alone was not what Eugene England was about.
Gene, in my view, was the George Gershwin of a Mormon intellectual and artistic renaissance that began shortly after the middle of the twentieth century. (Gene’s first name is George, by the way). And like Gershwin, Gene was enormously talented and extraordinarily generous. Gershwin, for example, showered his songwriter friends and competitors with tons of good will, advice, encouragement—even cash. He bought at least one a piano. Gershwin was the leading light but was also a catalyst for a great outpouring of American popular music. Gene England, in his way, was also a “composer”—an artist and thinker in his own right who helped bring together the group of talented people who created Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, which in turn stimulated the creation of Sunstone, the growth of BYU Studies, and countless other forums for Latter-day Saint expression. For the last forty-plus years, members of the LDS Church, and interested non-members, have had places to express themselves; and the results have been impressive—to say the least. Gene England played a huge part in this flowering of Mormon studies and arts.
Coincidentally, both men—George Gershwin and George Eugene England, Jr.—died from brain tumors.
Thanks to Gene, I was able to play a small part in the creation of Dialogue. I will spare you the details by simply saying that it was an honor to have been present at the creation; that I fondly remember sleeping in the back of my van in Paul Salisbury’s parents’ driveway after a Salt Lake staff meeting; and also working a few nights at the Dialogue office at History Corner on the Stanford Quad. Extending my Gershwin/Great American Music analogy a little further, (for fun only) I can’t resist comparing Wes Johnson to the stately Jerome Kern, Paul to the suave Cole Porter, Bob Rees to Irving Berlin, and certainly Joe Jeppson to Oscar Levant. Bob especially has been my special mentor and enabler for many years, and he deserves a whole book dedicated to his life and influence (please stay on the planet, Robert—these things are hard to write!). As for me—since I spent a few years hanging around Hollywood trying to “make it” as a singer-songwriter—let me be Johnny Mercer.
Without Gene’s vision and encouragement, my life as a writer on Mormon subjects would have been quite different. Through him, I had the opportunity to contribute to the initial issues of Dialogue, which gave me confidence that my LDS point of view and experience could be material for first-rate literary art and criticism. And thanks to subsequent editors such as Bob Rees and Levi Peterson, my contributions have continued up to the present.
Minus Gene, this would have happened—if it happened at all—in a very different way.
Gene and I lost track of each other from time to time over the years, mostly when he was teaching in the east and I was in business in Southern California; but every now and then some unexpected and happy circumstance would bring us together. For example, in 1994 my wife Carol and I decided to move our family to Provo; and while we were house hunting we camped in our old Winnebago at a place called Frazier Park in Provo Canyon, right by the river. (With eight kids this wasn’t easy; but looking back now—of course—it was fun.) One problem, though, was where to attend church. In some way I can’t recall, I heard that LDS services were held during the summer at Wildwood, a mile or so up the road. We went, and lo and behold, Gene was the Gospel Doctrine teacher (of course!). I’d forgotten that Gene and Charlotte had a cabin on the road up behind Vivian Park, where they loved to spend time with their kids and grandkids and escape the summer heat in Utah Valley.
Over the next three years or so, Carol and I had the pleasure of visiting Gene and Charlotte at their cabin, taking a walk or two together, meeting some of their now-adult children, and enjoying Charlotte’s fantastic ice cream (her “Apple-Sin” was one of Gene’s favourites—and ours—as I recall). Poetry, our common friendship with Jim McMichael down at UC Irvine, and our interest in all things pertaining to the gospel were far from forgotten during this period. Gene hosted an annual literary reading at Wildwood each year on July 24; and he always invited me to participate. I also read my poems to one of Gene’s classes at the Y, and then several times when he was at Utah Valley State College. The man kept me busy, and his demands—so to speak—helped stimulate me to increase production and created an overall momentum that has led me to publish all of my poetry and fiction on the internet.
Simply put, Gene loved my “stuff”; and he always seemed to know exactly where I was coming from. What more could a writer ask?
Around 2000, a year or so before the onset of Gene’s illness, out of the blue he invited me to drive up with him to Jim’s cabin at Island Park, Idaho, for a day’s fishing on Henry’s Fork; and of course I accepted. Jim is practically a professional fly fisherman; Gene wasn’t far behind; I definitely “brought up the rear”—but I was more than happy to go, because for hours—all the way up and back from Provo—I would have Gene all to myself. (I’m sure I’m not the first person to feel this way about having “face time” with Gene; he was so divided up between family, church, and professional responsibilities that times like these were rare and precious.) As I mentioned at the beginning, this was to be the first, last, and only time in our mortal lives that Gene, Jim, and I would be together. There was an ironic-but-sweet book-end beauty about that weekend that, looking back, I think Gene would appreciate; because although Gene was sometimes sorry—and often disappointed—he was not, in my opinion, a man to be sad.
We left on a Friday evening—we would fish all day Saturday—and we would drive back that very night. (A typical Gene England “get-away,” I now understand.) On the way, in the dark, we exited the freeway at Downey, Idaho, where Gene grew up; and he gave me a little shadowy tour of the town and his childhood places and memories. Years before, I’d met Gene’s extraordinary father and knew something of the family story. Driving through Downey on that Friday night (I love the peaceful loneliness of such towns!) the England saga—and Gene’s marvelous roots—came alive.
We made it to Jim’s cabin (because I drove!); and to see these two great individuals—also my friends—together after many years, was very moving. They had some catching up to do; and I’d had my time with Gene on the way up, so I left them at it. The next day we fished the Fork—and got totally skunked, partly because we were all still catching up. All too soon, Gene and I were racing back to Provo. If the three of us had known what lay ahead I’m sure we would have found a way to spend more time together—and to catch some fish.
I don’t have the exact date, but as I recall Gene passed away in the late summer of 2001, when Carol and I were serving a mission in Southern California. I know it was before 9/11, because I remember feeling a kind of relief at the time that Gene was spared that agony—although he wouldn’t have felt that way. He would, I’m sure, have strapped on his heavy armour—again—and gone out to do battle with the forces of terror and pride that he always opposed. We probably would have differed on the rightness of America’s response—as we differed on a number of things—but it wouldn’t have diminished in the slightest the love we felt for each other. And there was one thing we were always in agreement about—the truth of the Gospel.
I am writing this in August of 2008 from near Liège, Belgium, where Carol and I are serving our third full-time mission. Above and beyond literature and poetry—way beyond—is the example Gene—and Charlotte—set for me (for us)—the example that shows that it is possible to be an intellectual, so to speak, and an artist, and to still continue in the process of trying to become a Latter-day Saint. Gene’s testimony, in short, was—and is—the most important thing he ever shared with me. During one of my darkest hours, I asked for—and received from Gene—a priesthood blessing that gave me strength to carry on. He was the whole package. Gene showed me that we need both faith and reason (and tons of grace) on our way to immortality and—hopefully—eternal life.
I expect to meet my friend George Eugene England, Jr. again—someway, somehow—maybe by some heavenly coincidence. I believe that the Gene England I’ll meet will be the same Gene I knew and loved in this life—and much, much more. Given the kind of man he was in mortality, how could I expect less?