Editor’s note: This commentary is part of an ongoing Deseret News series exploring ideas at the intersection of faith and thought.

This month marked an obscure but notable anniversary. On March 16, 1849, American author Herman Melville first published “Mardi,” his third book and first proper novel. With its circuitous plot and numerous philosophical rabbit holes, it was largely met with shrugs of puzzlement and the novel is not often read today. In fact, “Mardi” is probably most recognized simply for its role as precursor to “Moby-Dick” — considered by many to be the greatest American novel (if not the greatest novel of all time).

However,Mardi” is also notable in that it was heavily influenced by another American volume published in the 1800s — namely, the Book of Mormon. 

This will come as no surprise to those familiar with Melville. The son of a library owner, Melville was a voracious reader. His interests were vast, although no topic occupied his mind more than that of the metaphysical. Throughout his life, Melville grappled with questions of faith, doubt and God.

The author’s inner conflict is summed up in a line from “Mardi”: “I am dumb with doubt; yet, ’tis not doubt, but worse: I doubt my doubt.” Both a skeptic and a true believer all at once, Melville agonized over how to find truth and how to know the true nature of God, all amid the seeming corruption of modern Christianity.

Joseph Smith Jr., a man who similarly sought truth and a path to God, would have undoubtedly found a fitting companion in Melville. Although no proof exists the two ever met, their lives overlapped for nearly 25 years. And the available evidence suggests that Melville was familiar with Smith, the Book of Mormon and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Perspective: Painting Moby-Dick
Perspective: Joseph Smith was on the frontier of the fight for religious freedom

Smith and Melville both grew up in upstate New York. Smith was born in 1805 and Melville in 1819. Although their respective hometowns of Palmyra and Albany are about 200 miles apart, they were connected by the Erie Canal. Gossip about Smith and his activities in Palmyra would have naturally traveled up and down the canal. 

Smith never got the chance to read Melville’s work in his life, however. He was killed by an angry mob in the summer of 1844, two years before the publication of “Typee,” Melville’s first book. It was during the spring of 1830, when Smith was 24 and Melville was just 10, that the Book of Mormon was published. After 5,000 copies of the first edition were printed, they were disseminated by Latter-day Saint missionaries throughout the eastern United States. In 1832, when Melville was 13, missionaries came to his hometown of Albany, where they distributed copies of the Book of Mormon.

Along with Smith’s claims to have miraculously translated an ancient text came the declaration that Jesus Christ had appeared to him personally. Referencing that conversation, Smith carried an equally bold message that all modern Christian sects were now corrupt in one way or another, and that many of the plain and precious truths of Christ’s gospel had been lost. The Book of Mormon was said to help remedy these losses. 

Melville, never one to shy away from the heretical or from calling out fellow Christians on hypocrisy, would undoubtedly have been intrigued by Smith. His novels reveal a man who would not have been as appalled by Smith’s assertions as the more pious of his generation. In fact, they most likely thrilled him. The Book of Mormon’s astonishing origin story alone would have been enough to attract Melville; its claim to be uncorrupted Christian scripture from an ancient civilization would have made it all the more enticing.

It’s worth remembering the words of historian Nathan Hatch, who described the Book of Mormon as “a document of profound social protest, an impassioned manifesto by a hostile outsider against the smug complacency of those in power and the reality of social distinctions based on wealth, class, and education.”

This is precisely the kind of book Melville would have loved to get his hands on.

And in fact, Melville makes various references to Joseph Smith and his followers throughout his body of work. The prophet Joseph Smith is mentioned by name in one of Melville’s poems, “The New Ancient of Days.” And the Book of Mormon itself makes an appearance in Melville’s 1852 novel, “Pierre,” when it is lent by one character to another. Other references to “Mormon” pilgrims pop up here and there.

But the influence of the Book of Mormon is most apparent in Melville’s first novel “Mardi,” where he borrows themes and even whole characters from it. For instance, it is in “Mardi” where we encounter Alma the prophet, leader of a proto-Christian sect of Indigenous peoples whose teachings are referred to extensively.

“Mardi” and the Book of Mormon both begin their respective narratives with sacred sea voyages and the abandonment of civilization. Both feature truth-seekers on quests to escape “the normal” and discover more pure and real versions of religion and life. 

Similarly to the Book of Mormon, “Mardi” reaches its climax as the protagonist witnesses tremendous volcanic upheavals and earthquakes that destroy an entire island. These scenes are immediately followed by the witnessing of an Indigenous Christian utopia. One cannot help but think of a similar narrative arc present in 3rd Nephi

Melville wrote to a friend in 1849 encouraging him to accept his new text into his library: “If ‘Mardi’ be admitted to your shelves, you may ... find some contentment in the thought, that it has afforded refuge to a work, which almost everywhere else has been driven forth like a wild, mystic Mormon into shelterless exile.” 

Although cryptic, this statement suggests Melville understood the Latter-day Saints and their struggles. Clearly, the Book of Mormon was on this young author’s mind.

The following year, Melville wrote, “I love all men who dive … the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with blood-shot eyes since the world began.”

Joseph Smith, speaking of himself in 1842, stated: “Deep water is what I am wont to swim in.” 

Melville seemed to have respect for Smith as a “thought-diver,” and viewed him through a much more forgiving lens than his 19th century peers. Both men endured heavy persecution for speaking against the religious institutions of their day. Critics of both men accused them of blasphemy and irreverence.

Melville shared with Smith the frustration of being accused of being a fraud by cynics. Melville’s first two books, “Typee” and “Omoo,” were personal memoirs of his adventures at sea. They recount the true story of his experiences being captured by (and escaping from) a tribe of Polynesian cannibals. When Melville first attempted to sell the manuscript for “Typee,” publishers rejected it. They stated that his story could not possibly be true and was therefore without value. Skeptics and doubters of his memoirs irritated Melville to no end. Even later in his life, he always maintained their veracity.

In a similar vein, the controversy surrounding the origins of the Book of Mormon were no secret to Melville. The facts of the life of Joseph Smith — his groundbreaking teachings, his history of victimization and ostracization, and finally his death at the hands of an angry mob — are what propelled him to “heroic outsider” status in Melville’s mind. 

Although Melville’s fascination is nowhere more apparent than “Mardi,” connections can also be found in Melville’s most towering achievement, “Moby Dick.” 

Echoes and allusions of a search for God in the book’s central metaphor have received astute attention over the years. On closer attention, that same “wild, mystic” reference that shows up in “Mardi” in reference to the Latter-day Saint people, reappears in the titular chapter of “Moby Dick,” chapter 41. The narrator Ishmael, echoing Nephi’s opening lines, states: “I, Ishmael, was one of the crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest. … A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.”

Throughout his work, Melville’s intimations and descriptors of the Saints were linked to sympathy for others in their apparently unattainable pursuits. Like the Book of Mormon’s own Ishmael accepting Lehi’s seemingly impossible quest to join him in the wilderness, Ishmael of “Moby Dick” cannot help but feel sympathy for Captain Ahab’s. 

In one of the most beautiful passages of “Moby Dick,” Melville muses:

“Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause. … But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally.”

View Comments

This “eternal round” invoked has no mention in the King James Bible. It is, however, mentioned in the opening chapters of the Book of Mormon: 

“For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round.”

That America’s greatest novelist found inspiration in Joseph Smith is apt. Both were men who abandoned the sinking ships of society to chart their own courses through the storm.

Giordano J. Lahaderne is an English teacher and author. His latest novel is “The Mambo Wizard.”

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.