Eric Eliason is a associate professor of English and folklorist at BYU, and has recently published (with University of Illinois Press) The J. Golden Kimball Stories, a collection of stories about the beloved General Authority that seeks to explore the history and folklore surrounding this popular hero. S.P. Bailey’s excellent review of The J. Golden Kimball Stories was recently published here; I second that review and would add that only that the book is a great read and can be recommended as a Christmas gift for those family members who persist in using profanity in their Church talks. Prof. Eliason agreed to be interviewed about his new book.
BCC: I think the starting point for us is the subject of J. Golden Kimball himself. Your book seems primarily interested not in Golden from any typical biographical point of view, but rather the ‘Uncle Golden’ of lore. What are the salient points about J. Golden Kimball that we should know, other than “the GA who swore”?
Eliason: There is much more to him than that! J. (Jonathan) Golden Kimball was the son of Heber C. Kimball and Christeen Golden. He was part of a new generation of Mormons born in Utah whose parents had made the trek west. Despite being the son of a prominent man, he grew up poor and had to work hard jobs from an early age. His time as a General Authority almost exactly coincides with the time period historian Thomas Alexander calls the transformation of Mormonism from a pioneer to a modern people. Some of the wrenching changes this entailed are reflected in the stories about him. He had a gift with language and for making people laugh. He was very popular in his day with both active and Jack Mormons. It’s said that more people turned out for his funeral than for any funeral other in Utah history (except of course for Brigham Young).
BCC: I find it interesting how we latch on to J. Golden stories, and even that spirit of mischief we associate with him. I find it pops up in odd circumstances — for example, much of what we love about President Hinckley is that occasional puckish spirit. Why do you suppose that is? That’s a tough one. A better way to ask it might be: who are our modern J. Goldens?
Eliason: “Spirit of mischief.” That is well put. I think we might say that allows them to connect with rank and file Mormons who often have a heroic image of General Authorities. The puckishness — I see President Hinckley’s as in the same spirit as (and perhaps modeled a bit on) J. Golden Kimball, makes them more human. It’s a recognition on their part that their calling can make them seem unapproachable. I think an irony of doing this is that it only works if you really are a great man. As to modern Goldens… Hartman Rector could do folksy humor and LeGrand Richards could do fire and brimstone.
Some people have said to me, “We really need a guy like J. Golden Kimball today.” My answer to this is, “That’s why he is still with us, in the vibrant cycle of stories we still tell about him.”
BCC: So, your book cannot really be described as a book of history; it is also not biography, not is it really an exhaustive compendium. What is your book? Who is it written for?
Eliason: That’s right. It is not a history or a biography, though I cover quite a bit of both in the book’s introduction. The main point of the book is to gather together, as much as possible, all of the stories that Mormons tell about him and ask what these stories tell us about ourselves in particular, the human spirit in general, and how J. Golden stories compare to other hero cycles folklorists know about. The stories in the book have been collected by myself, other folklorists, and folklore students since the 1940s. They come from real people. Any one J. Golden Kimball story is entertaining and perhaps even insightful, but not particularly significant. But taken as a whole, they represent, (with all due respect to Maurine Whipple, Virgina Sorenson, Orson Scott Card, etc.) one of the greatest accomplishments of Mormon literature.
Still, the J Golden Kimball story cycle is the product not of just one author, but many people who told, retold, shaped, and maintained the tradition over the years — including some popular performers, whose J Golden Kimball one-man-shows have helped energize J Golden storytelling from time to time. The audience is anyone who likes a good laugh and I have thrown in some footnotes for academic types who like that sort of thing. It makes a great Christmas present for dad or grandpa!
So yes, a compendium of J. Golden Kimball stories is a fairly close description. But the tradition is a live one. New stories are still emerging. Old ones are being reshaped. You can’t freeze folklore in time — it is an always moving river.
BCC: No one walks through the same J. Golden story twice, as it were.
I suppose with that it is time for us to plunge into the obligatory morass of the intersect of folklore, myth, history and religion amongst the Latter-day Saints. In reading these stories, which of them are true? Does their historical accuracy matter, in your opinion?
Eliason: Are they true? I get asked that a lot. Sometimes I respond. “Yes, they are all true. I didn’t make any of them up. They are really told by actual Mormons.” This is not what they are looking for. “No, I mean — are they historical,” They say. I say, “No. None of them are founded on written documents. They are all part of an oral tradition!” But still, I know what they are asking. Some are obvious borrowings from the narrative traditions of other folk humor figures around the country, and then a few details change to make it sound like it really came from J Golden. Others might have some basis in actual things Elder Kimball said or did. But the vast majority of them are 1) unique to J. Golden Kimball, not found elsewhere, and probably reflect something J Golden would been glad to claim that he said and 2) virtually impossible to tell if they are based on historical events.
To me it doesn’t matter if they are historically accurate — and to a lot of others who tell them it doesn’t matter so much either. There is actually a folklore term for this. An “anecdote” is a short, often humorous, story where conveying historical information is not the point of the story, but rather it reveals something true about human nature or the culture of a particular group. Some people really want to know if they are true or not, and people’s attitudes toward and reactions to them very much interest me whatever they may be.
BCC: Tell me about the process in putting this together. what were your primary sources and methodology? By the way — I have to point out that I have an alternate source for one of your quotes. the one where he says, “The Lord must have loved a good joke or he wouldn’t have made some of you people” — Hugh B. Brown quoted that in one of his more famous talks.
Eliason: To start, I wanted to gather all the J. Golden Kimball stories I could. A great resource for this was the William A. Wilson Folklore Archives in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at the Harold B. Lee library at BYU and the Fife Folklore archive at Utah State University. Since the 1940s these archives have been collecting transcriptions of stories people tell in this region. I also did a lot of collecting on my own. Once I had a corpus built, I started looking through them for themes and patterns and comparing them to the the stories of other Mormon and non-Mormon heroes. I also looked at Church and U.S. history during Elder Kimball’s life, and J Golden’s personal family history to see if the stories were shaped by any of this. (This is why there are a lot of footnotes in the book, but you don’t have to read them.) It is interesting to note that any American folklorist who has an interest in humor knows who J. Golden Kimball is. People I didn’t even know, who are not Mormon, have come up to me at American Folklore Society meetings to talk about him.
Regarding your alternate source — fascinating. It may be that Hugh B. Brown was the originator of this saying and it got projected back onto J. Golden Kimball. He really is like a magnet. Any free-floating story out there that could conceivably be attributed to him gets attributed to him. I sure this particular quote is not unique to Mormons and goes back a long time. I have heard Baptists and Catholics say it. It is one of those things that is so obviously true that I can’t imagine but someone first came up with it along time ago. I’ll bet Eve said it Adam when “some people” could have only meant him.
BCC: Did you go through any process to verify whether J. Golden ever actually said any of those things (– and does that matter? If one wanted to read a history, what would you recommend?)
Eliason: Yes, I did. I read all of his conference talks I could find and found similarities in tone and spirit to the stories about him but no similarities in plot. But this does not mean he didn’t say the things that are attributed to him. I try to make a distinction in the book between the J. Golden Kimball of history and the J. Golden Kimball of folklore. They are closely related, but not the same person. They are both creations of our collective memory. However, just because something is folklore doesn’t mean it is not true — and just because something has a documentary source doesn’t mean it is. Historians sometimes forget this, and like to call any passed-on remembrance for which there is no known documentation “folklore.” Historians mean this as a euphemism for “false.” When a folklorist says “folklore,” it means “orally transmitted.”
As far as a J. Golden Kimball history goes, you get a fairly thorough sketch in my book, but the book I am eagerly waiting for is the biography James Kimball was working on before he died. James Kimball was a nephew of Elder Golden who did a popular one-man-show on Utah public television that readers might remember. Unfortunately, I don’t know where this project stands now that he has passed away.
BCC: OK, final obligatory NPR-style closing question: what’s your favorite J. Golden Kimball story?
Eliason: Here’s my favorite story:
J. Golden Kimball was examining a hat in Z.C.M.I. When a clerk approached him he asked the price.
The clerk replied, “Ten Dollars,” whereupon Brother Kimball started to look inside the hat, pulling back the band. The clerk, confused by his close inspection, inquired, “What are you looking for?”
Without looking up, Brother Kimball responded, “Holes.”
“Holes?” questioned the now utterly confused clerk.
“Yes,” said Kimball, “for the ears of the jack-ass who would pay ten dollars for this hat.”
As recorded by a Brigham Young University folklore student from a Mormon rancher in Coalville, Utah, 1977.
Thanks to Prof. Eliason for his time. I cannot emphasize this enough: The J. Golden Kimball Stories is a fun book, but also a vastly important book in terms of preserving and honoring our Mormon folklore. The value it will add to your own sacrament talks is immeasurable.