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"Extravagant Fictions": The Book of Mormon in the Antebellum Popular Imagination

Title"Extravagant Fictions": The Book of Mormon in the Antebellum Popular Imagination
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2012
AuthorsHalverson, Jared M.
Academic DepartmentDepartment of Religion
DegreeMaster of Arts in Religion
Number of Pages107
Date PublishedAugust 2012
UniversityVanderbilt University
CityNashville, TN
KeywordsAnti-Mormon; Campbell, Alexander; Cole, Abner; Criticism; Fiction; Howe, Eber D.; Palmyra Reflector; Palmyra, NY

"...What did people find so funny about the Book of Mormon, especially when others embraced it as sober, salvific truth? Furthermore, why did so many of those who commented on the Book of Mormon, from benign observers to bitter opponents, employ humor in their depictions and even their attacks? In short, what was it about the Book of Mormon that struck a comic chord?

As we shall see in attempting to answer these questions, what this humor says about early Mormonism may be less significant than what it says about nineteenth century America, and it promises to reveal as much about the country’s mind and heart as about its funny bone. “One’s sense of humor is a clue to the most serious part of one’s nature,” observed poet Marianne Moore, and in this, what is true of the individual is true of the nation, especially when certain punch lines and laughingstocks achieve a sort of cultural currency.

“If one wishes to know . . . ‘what is really on the collective mind,’” wrote historian Joseph Boskin, citing Alan Dundes, “‘there is no more direct and accurate way of finding out than by paying attention to precisely what is making people laugh.’” Thus, for a time we will have to ignore the caution of E. B. White, who warned, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” Noting that risk, but trusting in its value to those minds interested in the history of antebellum America, the study that follows seeks to “dissect” some of the humor aimed at early Mormonism, specifically that which targeted the Book of Mormon during roughly the first decade of its presence in print..."