Editor's note: This essay by scholar Grant Shreve is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of "Faith and Thought."
When I first picked up the Book of Mormon in preparation for a dissertation on religion and the rise of the American novel, I didn’t expect to fall in love with it. But I did fall — and hard — although not into the arms of the church. I did not, in other words, become a Latter-day Saint.
Mine was an aesthetic experience, not a religious one. The Book of Mormon gripped me in the same way Herman Melville’s "Moby-Dick" and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s "Dred" had years earlier. I’m a sucker for books that go against the grain, and the Book of Mormon went against just about every grain I knew. Its strangeness, its audacity, its rebuke to the tacit creeds structuring everyday life in antebellum (and contemporary) America, utterly thrilled me. In it, I felt I had discovered a singularly penetrative and searching intelligence. “How does such a book exist?,” I thought. And why isn’t everyone talking about it?
Encounters with the Book of Mormon like mine have been rare, historically speaking. From its inception, the book has more often been a tool for conversion and spiritual edification than an object of belletristic appreciation. Because of its inextricable attachment to a living, thriving, but often marginalized religious community, the Book of Mormon’s place within the academic humanities has been complicated, to say the least.
English departments, especially, have simply pretended it doesn’t exist, quietly building a wall of separation between literary studies and the Book of Mormon that, even though it never threatened the book’s status as a religious text, ultimately denied it its power as a literary one. In the past several years, however, scholars of American literature have become increasingly receptive to teaching and writing about the Book of Mormon as an essential part of American literary history, marking a momentous turning point in the respective histories of both the book and literary studies.
It’s hard to overstate how remarkable this seachange is. As I argued recently in an essay for Religion & Politics, American literature studies’ historical silence surrounding the Book of Mormon has been deafening. Aside from its surprising inclusion in the “Popular Bibles” section of the first edition of the Cambridge History of American Literature, published in 1921, the Book of Mormon was absent from all major histories of American literature until 2009, when "A New Literary History of America" included an entry on the Book of Mormon written by Terryl Givens. In the interim, the Book of Mormon hardly ever received even passing mention in scholarly publications on American literature. And what nods it did receive were rarely favorable.
As the study of American literature became more professionalized after 1930, literary critics learned reflexively to dismiss the Book of Mormon as biblical parody. In 1932, the critic Van Wyck Brooks, echoing a long line of 19th-century critiques, called the Book of Mormon a “solemn parody of the Bible.” Three decades later, in his seminal study of American literature’s arrested adolescence, "Love and Death in the American Novel," Leslie Fiedler parroted Brooks when he wrote that the Book of Mormon had “caricatured the Bible unawares.” Even today, it’s not hard to find scores of critics — professional and amateur, online and in print — who regurgitate this sentiment, whether or not they’ve ever read the book.
This history of dismissal underscores how significant it is that professors of American literature across the country are now assigning the Book of Mormon to students alongside such staples as "Leaves of Grass" and "The Scarlet Letter," and that reputable scholarly journals in the field have begun publishing essays on it after decades of either quietly rejecting articles about the Book of Mormon or never receiving them in the first place. Many factors have contributed to this reversal of the Book of Mormon’s fortunes within the academy, but two of the most important are the availability of editions of the book from reputable trade and academic presses as well as a renewed interest among literary critics in the relationship between religion and literature.
But just because many literature professors have embraced the Book of Mormon does not mean that they are all teaching it the same way. Indeed, its long exclusion from canons of American literature means that there doesn’t even exist a standard way to teach it in the modern secular classroom, as there does, say, with Henry James’s "Portrait of a Lady."
Besides becoming a more familiar presence in large introductory survey courses that familiarize undergraduates with the touchstones of American literary history, the Book of Mormon has also been appearing on syllabi for courses that situate it in some of the discipline’s most cutting-edge contexts. Both Princeton and Johns Hopkins now offer regular courses on American scriptures, which read the Book of Mormon in conjunction with other scriptural works published in the United States (like "Science and Health" and "Dianetics") as well as works that have scriptural aspirations (like "Moby-Dick" and "Ben-Hur").
At the University of California, Davis and the University of Illinois at Chicago, English faculty are teaching the Book of Mormon through the lenses of queer theory and temporality studies. And at the University of Vermont, graduate students were recently treated to a course singularly devoted to the Book of Mormon and the many possible contexts for reading it. In addition to this pedagogical renaissance, a forthcoming collection of essays from Oxford University Press titled "Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon" promises to be a culmination of recent literary engagements with the book.
For someone like me, whose interest in the Book of Mormon is entirely removed from any church affiliation, these reappropriations and novel interpretations of the book seem all for the good. But I also recognize that the recent embrace of the book by literature scholars radically alters the context in which many are encountering it. For nearly two centuries, the LDS Church has set the terms for the Book of Mormon’s reception and interpretation. But in the 21st-century literature classroom, the book’s spectacular origins and the questions surrounding its veracity are often altogether absent from the conversation. Instead, its narrative structure, its historical context, its textual history and its rhetorical power, have taken center stage. Under such conditions, the book is likely to grow in esteem but is unlikely to swell membership rolls.
It’s been disorienting to find myself on more than one occasion over the past several years sitting around the dinner table with family and friends ferociously defending the artistic merits of the Book of Mormon and repeating ad nauseam the old adage that the only thing guaranteed to keep a person in everlasting ignorance is “contempt prior to investigation.” Sometimes I feel like the old deacon who breathlessly reported to Parley Pratt that he had come into possession of a “strange book, a VERY STRANGE BOOK!”
I am a full-throated advocate for this very strange book, but the conversations I long to have about it are best suited for the seminar table and the lecture hall. That they are happening more and more in college classrooms throughout the United States testifies to the truth of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s remark that great books endure once they have been “winnowed by all the winds of opinion.”
Grant Shreve holds a Ph.D. in American Literature from Johns Hopkins University. His forthcoming book deals with religious diversity, secularity and the American novel.