Summarized by Rosemary Pollock
Retired U. historian still penning his way through centuries
Deseret News 14Nov99 A2
By Dennis Lythgoe: Deseret News books editor
Davis Bitton, a prolific historian of early modern European history
and Mormon history, has spent 40 years teaching and writing where his
name has become legendary. He recently retired from teaching in 1995 to
pursue retirement and devot all his time to writing.
"I enjoyed my career," Bitton said. "I enjoyed the teaching. It was
always a delight. I had been apprehensive about retirement, because I
had heard about people who had difficulty with it. But when I retired,
I didn't miss my teaching for one minute. It just seemed that I went
from one to the other, and I've enjoyed my retirement every bit as much
as my career as a professor."
Bitton earned a doctorate from Princeton, and taught at the University
of Texas at Austin, then at the University of California at Santa
Barbara, before settling down for 29 years as a professor at the
University of Utah. He authored "The French Nobility in Crisis," a
standard book in the field of European hisory.
Bitton, 69, was asked why he has his hand in both fileds of history.
"Study Mormon history all the time? Who'd want to do that? It seemed
kind of narrow, although I was interested in it. There were no jobs in
it. I din't even think of myself as an American historian. I had
become interested early in European history, and in graduate school, I
thought the real powerhouses were in that field. There is enough there
to keep a person interested for two or three lifetimes, and I've always
enjoyed teaching it."
Bitton served for l0 years as an assistant LDS Church Historian to
Leonard Arrington. Bitton and Arrington collaborated on "The Mormon
Experience." He also wrote "Mormons and Their Historians" and "Guide to
Mormon Diaries and Autobiographies."
His latest book on George Q. Cannon is considered to be his most
important biographical work. Bitton calls Cannon "the Gordon B.
Hinckley of the 19th century." "He was the first counselor to four
successive church presidents. He was an additional counselor to Brigham
Young and first counselor to John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo
Snow. He really occupied an important position," said Bitton.
Bitton was "elated" when members of the Cannon family offered him
access to George Q. Cannon's journal. Bitton cut the original
manuscript considerably, from 1,400 pages. "It would have been a
two-volume work or no one would have finished reading."
Bitton calls Cannon a "man of many parts." "Some people may be
impressed by intelligence and others by spirituality - but Cannon had
both." "He would give his best judgment when called upon, but he would
always defer to the president. He was never an empire builder."
Bitton also saw Cannon as "the pivotal figure" in the shift that
Mormons made from the Democratic party to the Republican party. "When
the national Republicans showed a willingness to reconsider their
position, the Mormons got the chemistry to make the shift. The
challenge was to persuade enough Saints to vote Republican to avoid
lopsided victories in the state."
On a personal level, Bitton admired his subject as a strong and
considerate person. He was a "people person" who was "totally dedicated
to a cause and was willing to work for it day after day, year after
year. If you needed someone today to head a sports franchise, George Q.
Cannon would be the man. One Cannon family member told Bitton, "Cannons
are like Ford cars, You pass one, and there's another one in front of