READING FOR TRUTH
By Tad R. Walch, ‘92
A bookworm of the highest order, Stephen Tanner has spent a lifetime culling meaning from literary works.
The temptation was too great: Long shelves of paperback books. An open bookstore. A short walk from the church building.
Lured by the promise of literary adventures in philosophy, religion, and history, Stephen L. Tanner skipped Sunday School.
Now a BYU English professor and the university’s 2004 Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer, as a teenager in the 1950s, Tanner was captivated by those paperback volumes, sitting neatly on the shelves of a long, narrow shop on Washington Boulevard in Ogden, Utah.
The store’s single aisle beckoned with the song of page-turning Sirens, and in it he discovered Homer, Emerson, and Hemingway. As the boy browsed the book covers, he mentally grazed on the ideas of the great minds of history as they grappled with timeless moral issues—the joys and sadnesses, the ideals and inequities of human experience.
This Sunday School truant would grow up to embody twin ironies. First, he became the type of engaging teacher who just might have kept him in those church classes five decades ago. And the reformed sluffer became a champion of studying morality in the written word, making him anything but trendy in the latter stages of his career. Instead, he has thrown himself into the conflict about what our reading can or should mean to us, and he is an unpopular voice for finding Truth—capital T, please—in literature.
Tanner, unsurprisingly, is a bookworm. But he’s a bookworm the way Godzilla was a nuisance. In the otherwise unfinished basement of his home, Tanner has an office with a desk, a computer, a file cabinet, walls of books, and a blue recliner. A stereo rests on a shelf, from which revered melodies emanate, surrounding Tanner while he reads. "I grew up with classical music wafting through the vents from his basement office," says daughter Charlotte Tanner Poulton, ’89.
What’s remarkable, though, is neither the music nor the recliner, nor the books piled around it. The peculiarity here is the number of books—on the floor and the shelves—with bookmarks inside.
"I have a strange habit of starting many books and having them going at the same time," he says. "I complete some many years later. I have hundreds with bookmarks in them." On any given day Tanner could be in the process of reading more than a hundred books—and not just in English. He taught himself German and Portuguese and regularly devours books in those languages.
This is not indicative of an inability to finish what he starts; Tanner completes several books each week. This is world-class browsing, born in that single-aisle bookshop on Washington Boulevard and repeated at libraries and bookstores around the world.
Used bookstores, in particular, are riptides pulling him in and under—garage sales, too, but he is beginning to win on that front.
"I’m trying to wean myself," Tanner says of stopping to hunt for book treasure at yard sales. He adds wryly, "I’m at the point where I have to sit down and calculate how many hours are left to me and how many pages I read an hour; I have to be realistic with myself. It’s a moral victory if I walk away from a book sale empty-handed—I’ve exercised a certain kind of self-discipline."
Over the years, libraries at various universities honed his browsing skills. In addition to taking research expeditions to other schools’ book repositories, he received degrees at the University of Utah and the University of Wisconsin and taught at the University of Idaho before coming to BYU in 1978.
"I wrote my doctoral dissertation in a carrel at the University of Wisconsin library," he says. "Going from and coming to my carrel and during rest breaks I naturally browsed through the stacks and found all kinds of remarkable things, such as bound volumes of 1940s radio programs. The Jack Benny Show was there—the entire script, with the Pepsodent ads.
"These were the kinds of books you couldn’t find in bookstores, especially today when bookstores are full of only marketable stuff. Part of the fun as a reader is making such discoveries. Browsing is a matter of serendipity, stumbling upon exactly what stimulates you but which you’d never have found without stumbling upon it by accident.
"It’s like gold prospecting."
Among the literary gold Tanner has prospected is a wide variety of authors—he doesn’t confine himself to a highbrow canon of books. One of his favorites is John Buchan, a Scottish writer and pioneer of mystery-adventure novels. Buchan was a primary influence on Sir Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond books and movies. He also enjoys Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout’s "Nero Wolfe" novels, and Josephine Tey mysteries. Clearly, he prefers the mid-20th-century detective formula.
"The contemporary ones tend to focus on the violent and sordid, and the heroes are more fallible and problematic and psychologically screwed up," he laments. "I like the brilliant mind solving a puzzle. There’s still room for conventional heroes, even though they’re not realistic. I don’t need to know the detective is having all kinds of marital troubles.
"The pleasure in popular fiction is often the simplified version. We all know when the crime is solved it then goes out into the courts and often the criminal gets off. But we all like to see good triumph over evil, order brought out of chaos."
As such comments suggest, even in his recreational reading, Tanner never gets far from his literary approach, one that searches for truth and takes morality seriously.
SEARCHING BROADLY FOR TRUTH
During his service in the Northern States Mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Tanner determined his interests lay in "the area of the humanities, where history, philosophy, and religion impinge on literature."
Holding to this creed, Tanner has crossed swords with much of his field for 40-odd years. The literary critic, raised on paperback classics, embraced a broad education—call it generalization—just as literary, technological, and academic trends began to push out the generalist and emphasize the specialist.
For a boy in the 1950s, "it was quite natural for a young person to aspire to read great books," he says. "Now in high school they focus on what is popular, timely, trendy. I was raised with an ideal—and it still seems a meaningful one—to try, in Matthew Arnold’s terms, to know the best that’s been thought and written. I’m a little concerned that the notion of coverage—trying to learn a little bit about all the major periods of literature—is being lost because we live in an era of specialization. It’s very difficult for anyone to be a generalist."
While the best literature programs in higher education, including BYU’s, still stress breadth and coverage, the increasing number of colleges, students, and professors has allowed and necessitated academic research in literature to proliferate. In addition, the sheer number of books and authors makes true breadth difficult to achieve.
"There is so much specialization and so much written, period," Tanner notes, "that it’s hard for one person to get a handle on all of western literature."
Tanner chose to write biographies of two literary critics who subscribed to broad moral criticism, Lionel Trilling and Paul Elmer More. "I tend to still see value in a man of letters who has a broad background in literature and ideas," Tanner says, speaking of others but simultaneously describing himself. "Trilling and More were both generalists, men of very broad and wide-ranging knowledge, so when they’d talk about a particular writer, they could do so knowing about the history of literature and the culture in which the particular work was written. I still like people who can attempt that."
Tanner believes universities no longer train students in the same fashion and expects literary generalists to become increasingly rare. If so, Tanner is himself a bridge to a bygone epoch.
"Professor Tanner is a generalist, a devoted and well-read student of literature, philosophy, religion, and the arts," says emeritus BYU English professor Richard H. Cracroft, ’63. "He is not merely dabbling when he addresses so many subjects; instead, he is bringing a consistent moral temperament and broad humane knowledge to bear on a diverse variety of individual subjects. Whatever the topic, his writing bears the stamp of a distinct set of attitudes and values derived from passing an expansive study of the humanities through the alembic of his religious faith."
Tanner’s combination of literature, philosophy, and religion put him at odds with many in his field. He has adopted a moral-philosophical approach in a time when contemporary literary theory holds that, as Tanner says, "there is no reading, only misreading. There’s no Truth to be discovered." Tanner attacks those theories as stripping literature of important meaning.
"Ideas have consequences, and literary ideas have consequences," Tanner says. "Literature is not simply part of an aesthetic dimension where we go just for escape and pleasure. The writer teaches whether he intends to teach or not. In fact, I feel we are most often influenced by literature that appears to be merely entertainment. I’ve always felt you can’t separate literature from life and you can’t separate life from large moral concerns."
There is antagonism aimed at his position. One book editor wrote a note to Tanner saying that Tanner’s text widened the understanding of his subject, but there was "just a trace of bourgeois priggishness in some of your judgments."
Cracroft defends Tanner’s approach: "Every critical study should entail some element of moral evaluation, which nowadays is often considered ‘bourgeois priggishness.’"
Tanner fired one of his broadsides against this trend in a 1999 article in Humanitas, a humanities journal: "So long as literary academics disregard the relation of literature to life and remain isolated from the general culture . . . , they lack the kind of confrontation with reality essential to debates about how society ought to function. . . . Literary study used to be a repertoire of often compatible approaches (formalistic, biographical, psychological, philological, archetypal, moral, etc.). These approaches shared the fundamental assumption that authors are human beings capable, within broad linguistic possibilities, of describing and interpreting in meaningful ways to others the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual range of human experience."
SOLITUDE AND STIMULATION
If Tanner’s life has been devoted to learning from the range of human experience, he hasn’t been afraid to take that search within himself. In fact, he cherishes opportunities for solitude and introspection.
He loves fly-fishing, especially tying flies, and recently he wrote an essay about Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey and their love of the sport.
"With both fishing and fly-tying, people have the idea they are times of reflection," Tanner says. "They are not. They are times of total occupation of your mind with the task at hand: selecting the right fly, making the right cast. That total absorption can be a pleasant contrast to hectic work."
But time for reflection was a part of a family cabin on the Provo River, where for 30 years Tanner enjoyed solitude and practiced catch-and-release fishing—"I was almost on a first-name basis with the trout in the area," he says. "I could also go up there if I wanted to do a little writing and could combine writing in the peace and tranquility with some fishing."
Solitude is a quality in short supply today, Tanner believes. His experience as a professor bears out his opinion.
"Some people can’t bear to be alone with themselves," he says. "Young people need to be plugged into their headphones. They are like an oxygen tank. They can remove them for a short time but then need to be back on them. And as much as they learn from video games—and they may very well teach good reflexes—they don’t teach reflection."
In fact, he says, what now passes as reflection "is insipid mental screen saving."
"There is a blurred distinction between loneliness and solitude," he adds. "Loneliness can be a terrible thing, but solitude is what we’re on the earth for. Ultimately, we are born alone and we are alone in our inner consciences in our life and we need to be comfortable with that. The craving for stimulation and the flight from solitude is an escape from what should be a healthy, adjusted life."
Even university students struggle to maintain interest, Tanner says. "A generation that is entertained almost to excess carries the expectation for entertainment into the classroom, so they tend to be passive spectators unless teachers are able to engage or involve them."
Tanner’s quest to engage students has led him from a distinguished teaching honor at the University of Wisconsin, where he did graduate work, to similar awards at BYU, including the Maeser Lectureship. He also participated in the Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education and Schooling at BYU’s David O. McKay School of Education. But he rededicated himself to transforming his methods after one particular experiment.
In his experiment, Tanner required his students to read Edgar Allen Poe’s "Ligeia," a story rich in descriptive adjectives. "Poe was aiming for effect, and that effect had to be created by stimulating pictures in the reader’s imagination."
But when Tanner questioned the students about the setting, many couldn’t remember anything about it. "They were looking ahead to movement in the plot," he says, explaining that what is lost is a bridge between the reader and the experience of the book.
"Reading can enrich by providing experiences," Tanner says. "And if it’s sensitive reading, it’s almost as if you had been there and had that experience. That’s very important because our lives are very limited in what we can do."
He also bemoans the loss of ability to create mental images from a text. "We live in such a visual age," he says. "The evocative fictional images don’t register for students who are overstimulated by television and film."
To engage overstimulated students, then, Tanner relies on classroom discussion, although he calls the tool both the best and the most dangerous. "The worst thing a teacher can do is ask a question with an answer in mind and take hands until he finds that idea or answer. Good students will recognize very soon when the teacher is playing that guessing game and bright students will remove themselves from the discussion."
Also, "discussion is very popular with students but highly overrated because it is often a time filler, and students leave without any sense of closure. Sometimes they feel it’s been stimulating because a lot of people have talked, but lots of times they’ve just been talking past each other."
Instead, Tanner tries to present facts, lay out an issue, and then act as a gardener.
"Conducting a discussion is a very difficult skill. It’s like planting a seed with the idea. You have to do some weeding when tangential comments arise and maybe some watering and fertilizing by rephrasing the question or recognizing useful comments. A teacher needs to coach students so they respond to each other and they present some persuasion and evidence for their comments."
THE DISCIPLINED LIFE
Throughout his career, Tanner has rigorously maintained his focus, leading to significant recognition, locally, nationally, and internationally. He has been honored with the Lionel Trilling Award, which recognizes scholars whose work has broad intellectual and moral implications, and has received four Fulbright Senior Lectureships, one to Portugal and three to Brazil. The discipline that has helped him achieve such honors is evident in his approach to writing.
"I’m a very slow, deliberate writer," he says. "I grind sentence by sentence. It’s very painful. Sometimes writing involves an hour, two hours on a paragraph."
However, when he is done, he is just that; the work requires very little editing. Wrote one editor: "The editing is very light because you have written well and carefully (surprise, surprise! this is such a novelty these days!)."
It is a talent he has applied to a dizzying array of essays and articles on subjects as diverse as James Thurber and Sinclair Lewis, trout fishing and war metaphors, spiritual values in the popular western and similes in novels by Raymond Chandler, the humor of E.B. White and gender conflict. He has written four books plus nearly 200 chapters, articles, papers, and reviews.
To do his work, he purchased an Olympia manual portable typewriter in 1958 while on his mission in Michigan. He still uses it occasionally, but it once was his trusted companion. Years ago, Tanner climbed into the passenger seat of a friend’s car for a long drive to a favorite fishing spot in Montana. Tanner surprised his fishing buddy by pulling out his Olympia typewriter and setting it on his lap; a deadline loomed. He pecked away for hours, with intermittent long stares out the window.
He remains distrustful of the desktop computer in his office in the Jesse Knight Humanities Building because using a word processor makes it too easy to move around paragraphs and chunks of text, something that feels, given his painstaking style, too undisciplined.
Despite his disciplined writing and his tenacious fight for morality in literature, Tanner has a relaxed, almost quirky side. He collects pocketknives—each of his grandchildren has received at least one as a gift—and is a font of folk songs.
He recently stunned and delighted a German audience with a number of cowboy songs at a conference on literature of the American West. Tanner was in Germany lecturing about Ernest J. Haycox, a writer of Westerns about whom Tanner has written what many consider to be the definitive biography. One evening, by pseudo campfire, Tanner sang an hour’s worth of songs, including "The Streets of Laredo."
"The Germans got a big kick out of that," says Tanner, who has also entranced study-abroad students with Scottish folk songs. "I came from a fraternity background, where singing was important, and also a folk-song era. Somehow I accumulated dozens of folk songs. I found once that I could drive hundreds of miles, a six-hour trip, and sing the whole time without repeating the same songs."
From folk songs to detective novels to fly fishing to literary classics, Tanner is clearly a man of broad interests. But at his core he is still that teenager in Ogden who loves to slip away and read a good book. Passing on that love of reading to students, children, and grandchildren has been a quest that has come naturally.
Tanner’s daughter Elizabeth Tanner, ’88, says his grandchildren now enjoy his storytelling, just as his three children fondly remember lying curled up on their parents’ bed as their father read to them. "I remember," she says of her childhood, "after Sunday dinner we’d all retreat to a couch or a chair with books."
Tad Walch is the Utah County Bureau chief for the Deseret Morning News.
As the 2004 Karl G. Maeser Lecturer, on Oct. 26 Stephen Tanner delivered a BYU forum address titled "What Are You Thinking?" The subject of his address was solitude and reflection. To read the full text, go to more.byu.edu/stephentanner.
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