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Guide to the W. Y. (Walter Yeeling) Evans-Wentz Papers , 1894-1961 M0278
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Table of contents What's This?
  • Immediate Source of Acquisition
  • Biographical / Historical
  • Preferred Citation
  • Related Materials
  • Scope and Contents
  • Conditions Governing Use
  • Conditions Governing Access

  • Language of Material: English
    Contributing Institution: Department of Special Collections and University Archives
    Title: W. Y. (Walter Yeeling) Evans-Wentz Papers
    Identifier/Call Number: M0278
    Physical Description: 10 Linear Feet (11 boxes, 1 oversize folder)
    Date (inclusive): 1894-1961

    Immediate Source of Acquisition

    Gift of the Estate of Walter Y. Evans-Wentz, 1978.

    Biographical / Historical

    Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz helped to develop Western understanding of Oriental religions, primarily Tibetan Buddhism. He was born February 2, 1878 in Trenton, New Jersey where he spent his childhood, completing elementary school in June, 1892. After less than two years of high school, Wentz decided to become a journalist. He dropped out and enrolled in commercial courses at business colleges in Jacksonville, Florida and Trenton, New Jersey. Working his way across the United States in various newspaper offices, he followed his family, who had recently settled in La Mesa, California, westward. Having decided that he was not well-suited to journalism, he arrived in Palo Alto in the academic year 1901-1902, hoping to gain admittance to the recently--established Stanford University.
    Since Wentz had not completed high school, he was forced to make up deficiencies through special studies under various tutors. In May 1902 he passed an exam in English composition at Stanford, thus enabling him to submit an application for admittance to the University as a special student. Wentz graduated in Autumn 1906 (the graduation ceremonies having been postponed due to the severe earthquake that had demolished many of Stanford's buildings in April); he was elected Phi Beta Kappa. While at Stanford, Wentz wrote many poems, several extolling California in general and Stanford in particular, that were published, as were a couple of essays, in the Sequoia a student literary publication. As a Stanford undergraduate, Wentz strongly believed that mankind had a great potentiality for spiritual and moral goodness if educated men would actively work to alleviate the social ills. He was impressed with Mrs. Leland Stanford's dream that the University's Memorial Church would encourage the students' highest spiritual ideals without being involved in denominational squabbles. Having been raised a Unitarian in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wentz fit right in with the religious ideals fostered at Stanford. In his senior year he helped found the Social Service Club and served as its first president with Chaplain Gardiner as the advisor. Only a month after its founding, the Club had its first opportunity for social action by helping the victims of the San Francisco Earthquake find food and shelter.
    Wentz majored in English and became interested in Celtic influences on English literature. His advisor, Professor Newcomer, encouraged Wentz to pursue this interest by working for a Master's degree during the academic year 1906-1907. Another professor with a great influence on Wentz's development, William James, was a visiting professor at Stanford in the spring semester 1906 and taught an introductory course in Philosophy. From James, Wentz developed an interest in the study of religious experience and the philosophical idea of a panpsychic reality permeating all of human existence. What was always a philosophical possibility for James became a religious probability for Wentz. After receiving his M.A. in June 1907, Wentz went to Europe. He earned the Docteur-es-Lettres in 1909 at the University of Rennes for literary work in the field of Celtic folk-lore. At this time Wentz affirmed his own part-Celtic ancestry by adding Evans to his name. A year later he earned his Bachelor of Science in Anthropology from Oxford University for work on the Celtic fairy-faith. Evans-Wentz combined his literary work on Celtic folklore, which was begun at Stanford and concluded in France, with his anthropological study of Celtic religion and overlaid with a panpsychical theory to explain the data in his first book, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (London: Oxford University Press, 1911).
    Between 1911 and 1917, Evans-Wentz traveled extensively through the Mediterranian countries, documenting the religious experiences of many peoples. He spent three years in Egypt, not only studying Islamic faith, but also examining some of the Coptic documents of the early Christian gnostic communities and some of the ancient Egyptian texts from Karnak.
    His five-year sojourn in India, Sikkim, and Ceylon between 1917 and 1922 provided the material for his most important works. These years were for the most part not spent in the theoretical study of Tibetan Buddhism, but rather in living it to attempt to experience the life of the people on their own terms. He climbed mountains with pilgrims who were imploring the deities to cure them of their maladies, visited various ashrams, and became a Buddhist novice monk in Sikkim between 1920 and 1922. Despite his close proximity to the religious rituals of the Indian people, he always remained the carefully-trained anthropologist who evaluated his data in a scholarly manner, attempting to illuminate the Buddhist religious experience in light of Western religious phenomena. In recognition of his contribution to scholarship the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in Comparative Religion was conferred by Oxford University in 1931. Thus, when Evans-Wentz first met Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup in Sikkim, he recognized the Lama as a Buddhist scholar whose piety was beyond question. At the time of their first encounter, the Lama was involved in translating several important Tibetan Buddhist texts into English. Evans-Wentz eventually edited these manuscripts so that they would be intelligible to the Western reader. These translations provided the material for Evans-Wentz's four most important books, Tibet's Great Yogi, Milarepa; The Tibetan Book of the Dead; Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines; and The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (first published in London by Oxford University Press in 1928, 1929, 1935, and 1954, respectively). Together these four books have gone through at least fifteen printings or editions and there are translations of some of these works in at least five foreign languages. The years between 1922 and Evans-Wentz's death at the age of 87 on July 17, 1965 were spent editing these four books and writing a fifth book, The Sacred Mountains of the Western World (unpublished). His consuming vocation was to improve understanding between the East and the West. He traveled frequently between Oxford University, the United States, and India. In order to continue his work he laft a large portion of his estate to Stanford University. The fund provides an annual lectureship in his name on topics in the field of Oriental religion, philosophy, and ethics.
    Thomas V. Peterson and William A. Clebsch
    August 1970

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item] W. Y. (Walter Yeeling) Evans-Wentz Papers , M0278, Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford y Libraries, Stanford, Calif.

    Related Materials

    SC0821 Evans-Wentz collection, the research Ken Winkler did in preparation for his biography of W.Y. Evans-Wentz.
    M0205 Evans-Wentz Buddhism and Eastern Religions Collection -- textual works assembled during Evans-Wentz's travels relating to the religions of Asia (principally Sri Lanka, and also China, Tibet, and other parts of Southeast Asia).
    M2008 Ed Reither collection of Evans-Wentz correspondence and ephemera
    M1135 Yoga Institute of America

    Scope and Contents

    Correspondence, books, notes, printed material, ephemera, and photographs pertaining to Mahayana Buddhism. Also contains materials pertaining to Evans-Wentz's education.

    Conditions Governing Use

    While Special Collections is the owner of the physical and digital items, permission to examine collection materials is not an authorization to publish. These materials are made available for use in research, teaching, and private study. Any transmission or reproduction beyond that allowed by fair use requires permission from the owners of rights, heir(s) or assigns. Some materials are believed to be in the public domain. There are no restrictions on use of public domain materials

    Conditions Governing Access

    Open for research. Note that material must be requested at least 36 hours in advance of intended use.