From Joseph Smith, Captain Kidd Lore, and Treasure-Seeking in New York and New England during the Early Republic by Noel A. Carmack. pgs 105–109
Note: although Carmack is focusing on Captain Kidd literature, many of his observations apply to literature available in the region generally.
… Palmyra resident Philetus Spear wrote that Smith “had for a library a copy of the ‘Arabian Nights,’ stories of Captain Kidd, and a few novels.” In an 1881 interview on the origins of Mormonism, Anna Ruth Eaton, another of Smith’s Palmyra neighbors, counted “the redoubtable Captain Kidd” as Smith’s “hero,” saying that he had “the autobiography of Capt. Kidd, the pirate. This latter work was eagerly and often perused.”
Even though these recollections exist, it is widely believed that Joseph Smith was unbookish or illiterate. Smith’s mother wrote that her son “had never read the Bible through his life,” and though he exhibited considerable insight for a boy eighteen years of age, “he seemed much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of the children, but far more given to meditation and deep study.” Smith could have traveled less than five miles to the Farmington (Manchester after 1823) library to use its collection of more than 270 books, but scholars have dismissed this as a source of printed information for the Book of Mormon because Smith did not have a library subscription or membership. The young man was known to regularly purchase the Palmyra Register for his father and later the Wayne Sentinel, but many historians are unwilling to speculate as to whether he actually read them. Some maintain that Smith simply did not have access or means to purchase books for a personal reference library. For example, John W. Welch contends that “those who have considered western New York as the information environment for the Book of Mormon may be 120 miles or more off target. One should think of Joseph translating in the Harmony [Pennsylvania] area and, as far as that goes, in a resource vacuum.”
It is not surprising that Mormon scholars dismiss the idea that their founding prophet-leader was literate. Painting the image of the “Boy Prophet” as an unlearned and simple plowboy mythifies him and places him on equal status as Old Testament youthful prophets Samuel, Daniel, and David. Even Smith’s biographer Richard Bushman has perpetuated the widely held notion that Smith’s more erudite associates such as Sidney Rigdon were “more likely to have read widely than poorly educated and unbookish Joseph Smith.”
Still, as economically deprived as the Smith family may have been, there is no reason to believe that Joseph Smith was so destitute that he could not afford a handful of books and pamphlets to read and carry with him. Scholars of private libraries and book ownership have discovered that even families in the lowest economic ranks kept a modest selection of books in their homes. When news was not transmitted by word of mouth, members of rural New England and New York communities obtained information from newspapers and chapbooks purchased in local bookstores. Publishers and printers used subscription agents, traveling peddlers, and chapmen to sell their books in more isolated reaches of the country. The dissemination of knowledge in the early republic was primitive but not inhibited by the various modes of pre-industrial transport.
Before the coming of a comprehensive railway system, canal transportation improved book distribution in New York’s pre-industrial economy. By 1825, when the newly completed Erie Canal passed through the villages of Palmyra and Macedon, the waterway was already proving an economic boon to Rochester and other cities near its course. Within a year of the canal’s inauguration, Rochester, a mill town known for its flour production, was home to scores of mercantile and dry goods stores supplied by canal boats and packets from New York and Boston. At least three bookstores were supported by shipments of books from printers in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Cooperstown, and Albany. It could not have been more fortuitous that the Smith home in Palmyra was less than three miles from the canal, which put young Joseph Smith well within reach of a wide selection of books, maps, and pamphlets. The Cooperstown publishing partnership of brothers Henry and Elihu Phinney, for example, carried an assortment of books—“a variety beyond that found in ordinary village bookstores”—from New York and Philadelphia and distributed them with their own publications through towns and villages from large wagons with moveable tops and counters, even providing a floating bookstore on the canal. In 1824, another canal boat named The Encyclopedia of Albany, owned by Elisha Wilcox of Albany, embarked upon the waterway, featuring a bookstore and lottery office. According to a published announcement in the Palmyra Register, the boat would “move up and down the canal, bearing the riches of science as well as the gifts of fortune, to their respective favorites.” A subsequent article described the unique enterprise:
It is used as a bookstore and lottery office, and contains about two thousand well selected volumes, and a quantity of stationary. It is accompanied by two wagons, for the purpose of extending their trade to those villages, which are a short distance from the canals. The owners sell for money where they can find purchasers, but they calculate that a barter for rags will be the principal part of their trade.
An announcement in Palmyra’s Wayne Sentinel boasted, “Travelling Stores have already passed this place on the canal, and from accounts in eastern papers, we may expect soon to be visited by a Floating Museum, which is now on its way to the west.’” As described in the Cooperstown Watch-Tower, the canal boat Superior, also owned by Wilcox, promoted a bookstore as well as a museum:
The Bookstore apartment is furnished with a general and well selected assortment of books, maps, engravings, plays, &c, &c. The Museum contains a great variety of minerals, birds, sea shells, wax figures of celebrated characters, quadrupeds, together with many ancient relics of warfare, both from the aborigines of America, and of the orientals.”
If one of the floating bookstores didn’t have what a discriminate reader wanted, the village printer might have a selection of charts and bound volumes for sale. From the summer of 1818 through 1820, the Palmyra bookstore and print shop—then owned by Timothy C. Strong—boasted no fewer than two hundred books for sale, including biographies, travel narratives, and geographies that would have noted the islands of the East Indian Ocean, including Nathaniel Dwight’s A Short but Comprehensive System of the Geography of the World (1795), Jacob Cummings’s Introduction to Ancient and Modern Geography and its accompanying atlas (1813), and Jacob Willetts’s An Easy Grammar of Geography and atlas (1814).
The long-held perception that Smith was “unlearned” or “unbookish” cannot be supported by the notion that printed material was unavailable to him. Despite Lucy’s statement downplaying young Joseph’s reading habits, it is possible that he was more attuned to reading materials than Mormon scholars have long believed. Dr. John Stafford, a Palmyra resident who lived a mile from the Smiths, remembered Joseph as being “quite illiterate,” but he also remembered that Lucy had aspirations for her children and began to home school the children. “After they began to have a school at their house, he improved greatly,” said Stafford.
Bushman has written that, although books were available to Joseph Smith, “we must question the assumption that availability means access or dependence.” However, Joseph Smith’s donation of thirty-eight imprints to the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute in 1844 shows that he was interested in the subjects of theology, philosophy, literature, and travel narratives. A donation of this number of imprints is reason to consider the size of Smith’s larger collection, what it included, and when it was begun. Interestingly, in addition to Volume 1 of Orville Dewey’s Old World and the New (1836) and Captain John Dennett’s Voyages and Travels of Captains Ross, Parry, Franklin, and Mr. Belzoni (1835), Smith donated a volume of the noted Danish geographer Conrad Malte-Brun’s Annales des Voyages (1808–14), which contained descriptions and travel accounts from all over the world.