- The J. Golden Kimball Stories
In The J. Golden Kimball Stories, Eric A. Eliason, a folklorist and associate professor of English at Brigham Young University, writes that this work "is a serious book about a humorous subject—the jokes, stories, and legends Mormons tell about their most beloved folk hero, the cowboy-preacher J. Golden Kimball" (p. vii). While other books have been written about this Mormon trickster figure, they often appeal to the popular market, containing short stories and cartoons, or they are sections in a larger academic work (p. xv). Eliason's project is to make an "as-complete-as-possible" collection of stories, while examining the strange tension between subversive humor and sincere religiosity found in the narratives.
Briefly, J. Golden Kimball was something of a Mormon cowboy. He grew up on the Utah deserts where he learned to swear and drink coffee—two "sinful" habits that often set him at odds with church authorities. Yet it was these same imperfections that endeared him to many run-of-the-mill Mormons. Perhaps because of his parentage (his father was an associate of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young), Kimball was called to be part of Mormonism's ecclesiastical [End Page 333] hierarchy. But Kimball—or Uncle Golden, as he is usually called—was always an odd fit as a religious authority. It is not the reality of Kimball that Eliason wishes to remember, though, but the legend of Uncle Golden, the legend of the man who had the ability to use coarse language in wildly inappropriate contexts, such as religious meetings, public gatherings, and even funerals. Eliason is interested in how Kimball stories have been used and are currently used; his goal is to interrogate the value of the stories for the Mormon community. Humor is usually derived from the social gaffe, but often Uncle Golden stories make a point: "Someone asked [Uncle Golden] with an accusing tone, 'Don't you think that in the next life you will be held responsible for the use of such language?' His response, 'Hell, no! I repent too damn fast'" (p. 107). The anecdote may shock the average Mormon, who is unaccustomed to hearing profanities from his or her religious leaders. Yet the story also instructs, because Uncle Golden is able to put a sanctimonious prig in his place. That person may not only be the unnamed accuser in the story but also the individual listening to the story who judges Golden for his language.
Eliason's book can speak to both academic and popular audiences. For those who simply want to delight in J. Golden Kimball stories, Eliason has arranged the book with the historical context and analysis first and the collection of stories second. The casual reader may want to skip to the stories for an enjoyable evening's entertainment, but the more academic reader will certainly want to pay attention to the first section. Particularly useful are two subsections in the Preface. Understanding that his book may appeal to differing scholarly audiences, Eliason provides a brief introduction to folklore for the student who knows about Mormonism but not folklore, and an introduction to Mormonism for the student who has little or no knowledge about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the trek West, or the development of Utah. In the Introduction, Eliason provides a detailed biographical sketch of Kimball for those unfamiliar with this Mormon cowboy. Even those who know about Kimball may be surprised to learn of the tragic side of his life—his troubled marriage, his wayward children, his economic woes—and Eliason observes that "[i]t is almost a cliché to observe that misfortune and profound personal tragedy often form the backdrop for comic genius, but J. Golden Kimball's life is evidence of that connection" (p. 6). Lending credence to that truism, this beloved figure was killed in a car crash in 1938. However, Mormons still find humor in the death of their beloved Uncle Golden. Apparently, when he arrived at the pearly gates, Saint Peter said...