Joseph Smith and the Mormons. By Noah Van Sciver. New York: Abrams, 2022, 454pp, $29.99
Guest Review by Paul Buhle
This monumental work has a considerable backstory. Artist Noah van Sciver, the eighth of nine children, was born and raised in a Mormon home in New Jersey until his parents divorced when he was 12 and his mother brought him along a different path. This disjuncture, followed by others more typical of teens in the last third of the twentieth century, may have stirred his artistic impulse. No doubt he looked to the example of an older brother who went successfully into the Superhero comics big time. Experience, separation and a sort of rejoining the earlier world thorugh art: these are large themes in artists’ and writers’ lives for centuries. That Van Sciver has taken on Mormon founder Joseph Smith is no accident.
Van Sciver has a penchant for US history, especially the history of the nineteenth century, rife with religious and social contradictions, idealists, cranks, Protestant revivalists and utopians. Joseph Smith, unlike nearly all the others, was a successful institution-builder (Mary Baker Eddy with her Christian Science denomination might be another example).
The spectacular, world-wide growth of the LDS or Latter Day Saints, its weighty and deeply conservative political influence in Utah and beyond, is remarkable given the improbable origins of the Church. The extended and heavily institutional story of prophet Joseph Smith, considered by most non-Mormons a dubious self-creation, is offered here in splendid detail in remarkable color.
Van Sciver could have examined the saga from a psychological distance, and even chosen to play the iconoclast. His earlier books on U.S. history, from Lincoln to Johnny Appleseed and Eugene V. Debs, show something else: a penetrating treatment of personality within a vanished era. That he documents his study with careful explanations at the end of the book, and that he donated the original art for the book to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is a measure of his seriousness.
Joseph Smith’s story is bizarre, a story about a discovery (he insisted) of golden tablets buried in the ground in upstate New York in the 1830s; a story about a church with outlandish views including (after a while) polygamy; a story that would not be the same in any other artist’s hands. Smith and his flock moved Westward with the great population shift of the mid-nineteenth century, and—this is crucial—they moved through natural and wondrous landscapes, which are drawn with stunning beauty and a certain strangeness by Van Sciver.
So much of the narrative has always seemed to critical observers as a magnificent case of American charlatanism, these days likely to be seen as pre-Trumpism. And yet Smith and his followers, staggering through bankruptcies, persecutions and the fatal defenestration of Smith himself, seen by Van Sciver, the observer-artist, looks like a revelatory detail of American history that seems in turn. . . a lot like the rest of American history.