Was ‘The Book of Mormon’ a Great American Novel?
Mark Twain may have savaged its literary ambitions, but a new novel from Avi Steinberg tries to rescue Mormonism’s holy text by treating it like fiction.
Has there been a pithier or more devastating anti-blurb in literary history than Mark Twain’s, of the Book of Mormon, that it is “chloroform in print”?
Twain’s infamous judgment appears in Roughing It, Chapter Sixteen, wherein he also writes, “All men have heard of the Mormon Bible, but few except the ‘elect’ have seen it, or, at least, taken the trouble to read it.” True, and it is likely also true that few have taken the trouble to read Twain’s quip in context—which is lucky for Joseph Smith, and for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and for Avi Steinberg, the author of The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla & Kansas City, Missouri.
Twain’s hilarious, withering “review” of the Book of Mormon is worth quoting at length: “The author labored to give his words and phrases the quaint, old-fashioned sound and structure of our King James’s translation of the Scriptures; and the result is a mongrel—half modern glibness, and half ancient simplicity and gravity… Whenever [Smith] found his speech growing too modern—which was about every sentence or two—he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as ‘exceeding sore,’ ‘and it came to pass,’ etc… . ‘And it came to pass’ was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.” Twain nicknamed Smith’s production “The Book of Ether.”
Avi Steinberg’s doubtful project is to rehabilitate the book’s literary reputation, making a case that it is a seminal, even great, American novel.
To that end, though he mentions Twain here and there, and acknowledges the Book of Mormon’s fruitful and multiplying instances of “and it came to pass,” he prudently refrains from quoting Twain’s acid assessment. Who can blame him? Not only is Steinberg implicitly arguing with an undisputed Great American Novelist, but he must also contend with the skepticism of the reader who wonders if he might be overreaching for a subject, an argument. In Dwight Garner’s New York Times review of Steinberg’s debut, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, he wrote, “He applied for the prison library job when he saw it posted on Craigslist. He needed the health insurance. Probably he needed a book idea too.”
Steinberg’s book may look like just another gimmicky addition to the bibliomemoir genre, what Joyce Carol Oates, in her New York Times review of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, called “a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography.” But it performs two distinct functions, both of which are undeniably valuable. One is to demystify, to some extent, the foundational text of a religion with, as of 2013, 15,082,028 adherents—and to whatever extent it fails to do that, it is likely at least to encourage curiosity about that text. The other is to examine the creative process, the human impulse toward narrative, in a manner that is light, engaging, and often funny enough to draw in a casual reader.
“Young Joseph Smith swore,” Steinberg writes, “that late one night in the fall of 1823, a spirit, barefoot and luminous, visited the cramped bedroom he shared with his brothers and told him the hidden history of America, a history that was engraved on gold plates… buried in a hill down the road from the family farm.” Smith, the “translator” of this golden book, was in Steinberg’s view an “underground American writer—a cult author, you might say.” And “what kind of person,” Steinberg asks, “dares to write a sequel to the Bible?”
A person like James Frey, the disgraced but unbowed author of A Million Little Pieces—a book rife with fabrication that Steinberg charitably characterizes as “mythmaking.”
Toward the beginning of Steinberg’s book he is having lunch with the famous liar, who is working on a TV adaptation of Running the Books. No sooner does the reader meet the brash, Nicorette-chomping Frey, than Frey begins goading Steinberg into falsifying elements of his own story. Having had a taste of Frey’s “process,” Steinberg speculates: “Perhaps that was his plan all along: to tell a story so good that the fabrications didn’t matter.” The comparison of Frey with Joseph Smith is apt, especially given that Frey also wrote a sequel to the Bible—The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, a hair less crude than Kevin Smith’s Dogma—but it does little to advance a favorable assessment of The Book of Mormon.
Better on that score is the rollicking travelogue that makes up most of The Lost Book of Mormon, as Steinberg travels to Jerusalem, then Guatemala and Mexico, then Missouri, then Palmyra, New York, retracing the steps of The Book of Mormon’s ancient Hebrew pilgrims. He tracks down perhaps the only copy of The Book of Mormon in Jerusalem, only to find that it’s in Samoan; explains the religious mania known as “Jerusalem syndrome,” shedding some light on the passions that grip human beings in the presence of the sacred; and asks “What comes after Jerusalem?,” that is, what drives our need for a sequel, an exegesis, a journey with no end in sight?
“We make sequels,” Steinberg writes, “as a way of bringing our stories closer to life. As a matter of convention and convenience, stories have endings, but if we were to tell them honestly, stories would never end, just like life, whose dramas dip in and out of time and memory, are recalled, shared, stolen, reprised, recovered, revised—anything but neatly concluded.”
The Book of Mormon is, in Steinberg’s view, a work of fan fiction, a way to imbue a New World with some of the sanctity of the Holy Land. This may not be an earth-shattering observation, but by framing Joseph Smith’s as a literary project Steinberg recovers it from the abuses of those who dismiss Smith as a huckster.
Steinberg’s bus tour of Guatemala and Mexico—to glimpse the Chiapas Valley, “The Book of Mormon’s glorious Land of Zarahemla” and also “a mountain in Mexico that is believed to be The Book of Mormon’s true Hill Cumorah, the site where the Nephite people met their tragic end and near the spot where Mormon fashioned the gold plates”—is the real meat of Steinberg’s narrative. He does an admirably respectful job of rendering his fellow pilgrims, even when they seem crazy, like the man who wanders into the jungle to call monkeys, or the one who dreams of losing his arm to a shark attack to become famous: “Today, unfortunately, Jon was busy buying chocolate in the Almolonga market and missed a critical, potentially life-changing conversation… concerning a scene in The Book of Mormon in which a guy named Ammon fights off a group of Lamanites by systematically slashing them down with a sword, kung fu-style… It was a pity Jon didn’t receive this key teaching from The Book of Mormon… if you want to be famous, cut off someone else’s arm.”
Steinberg is winning as a travel writer, someone who can go native and understand the desire of others for something, anything, to come to pass. This leads him to some James Frey-style mythmaking of his own. He affects not to know why he lied about his identity when securing a role in the Latter-Day Saints’ famous Hill Cumorah Pageant in Palmyra, New York—he gets busted by the event’s organizers—but the reader knows exactly why, that Steinberg would have been robbed of his book’s climactic episode had he been honest about his role as a skeptical, albeit sympathetic, journalist.
It is hard to say whether Steinberg is trying, like Joseph Smith and James Frey before him, to tell a story so good that the fabrications don’t matter. Perhaps, as Dwight Garner wrote, Steinberg just needed an idea for a book. Still, the two conditions are not really so different, and if Steinberg sheds only a dim light on the beliefs of those fifteen-million-and-counting Mormons, he reminds us pointedly how badly we need stories in order to make sense of our lives. As for The Book of Mormon’s religious significance, Mark Twain put it as viciously as anyone could: “The Mormon Bible is rather stupid and tiresome to read, but there is nothing vicious in its teachings. Its code of morals is unobjectionable.” Given the present unpopularity of many of mankind’s grandest religious traditions, that review may not be half bad.