Subjective Objects : "The Book of Pukei" and Early Critical Response to The Book of Mormon
Journal of Book of Mormon Studies
University of Illinois Press
Nineteenth-century public reaction to the idea of The Book of Mormon is well documented, but what was the response to the book itself? This is difficult to answer, in part because there remains a real question regarding who—including early converts—was actually reading the text. Early boycotts of the book were so effective that Martin Harris, the primary investor in the book’s publication, was forced to admit that “the books will not sell for nobody wants them.” One newspaper wrote, “We do not intend at this time, to discuss the merits or demerits of this work,” an indication of the general unwillingness to engage with what the text contained and a preference instead to focus on what the existence of the text signified. Popular speculation combined with limited distribution meant the gold plates became a blank slate on which nineteenth-century readers and critics could project their own religious preoccupations and anxieties. Numerous newspapers and periodicals took aim squarely at Joseph Smith as a charlatan, but they concerned themselves with The Book of Mormon only as an extension of Smith’s deceit. In this essay, one satirical response to the book itself, “The Book of Pukei,” will serve as a case study in uncovering the simmering tensions between faith and fraudulence for early readers. This tension highlights the difficulty that antebellum critics faced in engaging with The Book of Mormon as a text rather than merely confronting it as an object. Further, I argue that The Book of Mormon anticipates and is sympathetic to these early critical responses, and that it actually works to complicate this tension instead of attempting to resolve it.