Bill Mulder passed away recently at the age of 92.
He was professor emeritus of English at the University of Utah, and although I took a few of his courses, I was too young then to realize I was in the presence of greatness.
I knew he was good, but it was in more recent years that I recognized the level of his brilliance and his gift with language. He was always an engaging speaker.
He was also splendid in conversation, never elevating himself above you, especially if you were one of his students. He also wrote memorable books, my favorite being "Homeward to Zion: The Mormon Migration from Scandinavia," the story of some 30,000 LDS converts coming to Utah from Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
It was appropriate that he wrote this, because he was himself an emigrant from Holland as a young boy and wrote this originally as his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University in 1956. The book was reprinted in softcover in 2000 by BYU Press.
I also loved "Among the Mormons: Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers," a fascinating collection of writings about Mormons throughout their history. It was co-authored by a charismatic history professor of mine, A. Russell Mortensen, in 1958.
Both books are Mormon classics.
One of Mulder's most important scholarly contributions was his founding of the American Studies Research Center in India. He initiated its programs in Hyderabad, attracting scholars from throughout the continent.
Mulder came to love India almost as a second home and returned there often.
His education at Harvard put an urbane imprint on Mulder that blossomed through the years. In an interview I conducted with him in 2005, he spoke of his student days, praising the "ambience" of Harvard "and its Widener Library with its astonishing collection. It was very enriching. It was scary, but it was stimulating."
Once he discerned that Harvard professors were "ordinary human beings" capable of "kindness and attention," he thrived. His "original drafts always looked like spider webs. The fundamental building block is the good sentence," he said.
He thought of teaching "as a performing art" and admitted to being "something of a ham."
At the Mormon History Association's 2000 convention in Denmark, I watched as Dorothy Skardal, a non-Mormon scholar, critiqued the reprint of "Homeward to Zion." She was very tough, accusing Mulder of too much detail and writing too much for a Mormon audience. She complained that she did not understand the Mormon terms he used.
Mulder, then 84, used his resonant baritone voice, his charm and sense of timing to respond.
With remarkable composure, he said, "If this were a trial, I would call to my defense a letter written to me by David Brion Davis, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian, who expressed his approval of 'the highly unusual combination of detailed scholarship, fine writing and imaginative interpretation. Somehow, you've found a way to preserve specific detail and illustrative anecdote without obscuring your major themes.'"
Nevertheless, Mulder apologized to Skardal for not "providing something for the non-insider."One other thing: "Why didn't Oscar Handlin, my major professor at Harvard, ask any of your questions? Dorothy, I'm just glad you weren't on my doctoral committee."
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