It is surely one of the more unexpected voices to go to bat for Joseph Smith: Harold Bloom in his 1992 book The American Religion, which gave serious (if unconventional) consideration to Joseph Smith’s role as a religious figure and which famously described him as a “religious genius.” As sort of a post-script, in the March 2007 issue of Sunstone there was a two-page essay by Bloom entitled “Perspectivism and Joseph Smith.” I can’t say I follow every remark in the essay, but I do appreciate his continued interest in Joseph Smith. Here are a few points Bloom makes in the essay.
The more I brood on Joseph Smith, I become uncertain whether Mormon or “Gentile” perspectives can encompass him. Something is always missing, as he himself prophesied. We don’t know him. I’d like to think we know him better after Rough Stone Rolling, but I’m not sure that’s what Bloom is getting at. In any case, Bloom certainly thinks there is a lot more to the task of getting to know Joseph than most commentators allow.
As an outsider, I wonder if the Mormons are not in danger of becoming just another American mainline Protestant denomination. Somehow I think Bloom may be truly unique in this concern. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, of course, but if he’s right we’ll all be surprised, won’t we?
Perhaps this essay should be retitled: “The disenchantment of Joseph Smith.” All enchantment–erotic, spritual, literary–depends upon partial or incomplete knowledge. I believe Joseph when he says we don’t know him; to me, it is the most important statement of his life. You can’t routinize Smith: the Mountain of Names, when it was shown to me, transcended any reaction I could summon. Interesting response. Myself, I call it the Server Under the Mountain, and I usually think of Arthur C. Clarke’s story The Nine Billion Names of God when it crosses my mind. Perhaps it was the link to temple work that made such an impression on Bloom.