The Great American Novel

A young man sets his sights on writing a successful novel. He pours heart and soul into it for some time, crafting a moderately capable story that blends a fantastic view of history with certain religious and social themes popular in his day. Does he have a best seller? He shares it with some family and friends. They read, and they take it seriously!

“Where did you get this story?” they ask. Rather than admitting that he wrote it by candlelight in his free hours, he creates a far-fetched story of an angel leading him to discover ancient writings. This wouldn’t be the first time that such a thing had happened. Long before Dan Brown suggested that the story for The DaVinci Code was actually drawn from legitimate ancient documents, Nathaniel Hawthorne claimed to find a mysterious embroidered letter “A” in the attic of the custom house in Salem, Massachusetts. And a few decades before him, Washington Irving attributed his account of “Rip Van Winkle” to the historical inquiries of the fictitious Diedrich Knickerbocker.

So our young author, who set out simply to write a novel that might earn him a bit of coin and some notoriety, determines to see how far he could push this story. He begins to elaborate on the account of his story’s coming into being. An angel visited him by night. And years earlier he encountered God in the woods. He was led to a hilltop to dig up long secreted plates of gold, etched in an unknown language–or maybe it was a known language. He needed to translate these plates, which involved a singularly complicated process. (Hebrew could have been so much simpler!) This was turning into a great yarn, a bona fide publicity stunt.

Is it possible that Joseph Smith, as he sat down to write The Book of Mormon, actually intended to craft a novel, joining James Fenimore Cooper and Charles Brockden Brown as the earliest of American practitioners of this popular art form? Is it possible that this book, now nearly 200 years old, was essentially a sort of April Fool’s stunt?

While it is pretty much impossible to take the Book of Mormon seriously as scripture, it would be far from the worst nineteenth-century American novel. It could even be seen as prefiguring such works as Ben-Hur, stories that use the Bible as a starting point but that then wander over the hills and far away.

Maybe Joseph Smith set out to deceive from the first word, but maybe not. In the end, it really doesn’t matter much, but the idea is intriguing to consider.