“Novel Writers and Publishers,” by M. M. Backus (from Christian Parlor Magazine, May 1844; pp. 19-23)
Christopher Martin Wieland wrote himself into a reputation by a novel, which he called Agathon: and although he christened it with so good-omened a title, and said many good things in the course of his production, he administered stimulus rather than catharticon to the sensuality of his readers. He interspersed his feeble denunciations of vice with such glowing descriptive tints of its alluring scenes, that his audience turned their steps forthwith to those theatres, whence lessons of virtue were supposed to be learned by gazing upon the unveiled deformities of sin. An anatomy of the character of the popular novels of our own day would be injurious in the same form, if the anatomy presented prominent beauties enough to counteract the more offensive portions of the skeleton. In this, however, the artist is as culpable as the subject of his pencil. Wieland wanted money for his pleasures, and money was ready for fascinating pictures of scenes, in which a voluptuary rejoiced to revel. Callow debauchees bought Agathon: that was to Wieland a substantial recompense. Reviewers praised its flippant wit, its brilliant fancy, and its endless variety: that was capital for future trade. With hard money in his purse-nettings, and a floodtide popularity to bear him up, he might laugh to scorn the stereotyped dullness of moralists; and he lived without fear or favor of them all.
But Agathon has perished from the roll of readable novels: its place has been supplied with wit and fancy, and variety of a more piquant and seductive caste, in the presence of which even Agathon might blush for very shame. Novels have risen above the literary horizon, been put in circulation by moral men through a moral community, and introduced to our domestic circles—the very contact of which Wieland would have avoided as the plague. But such is the innate tendency of the novel—it is earthy, downwards, grovelling. The creatures of God, as all naturalists discover, strive to level upwards; and so manifestly is this design permeating the whole created system, that one monomaniac of natural science ventured to suggest that man was originally a shell-fish, and had passed through every stage of the animated creation, till he was finally developed into a man. But the creatures of man have a reverse tendency: they level downwards by essential gravity, and seek the lowest grades of organism. Already the novel has degenerated from its primitive purity, and become the lowest and vilest of the dregs of the intellectual creation. Its primitive purity! Nay, we tripped there:
for, although the true novel is of modern date, its first rude progenitor was an offspring of iniquity, and the impurities of the original blood are constantly appearing in the tetters and blotches upon the features of its legitimate children.
The Greeks made the first attempt at a novel; but their productions were flat, shabby, vulgar affairs, and the imagination can hardly conceive of more insipidly loathsome sentiments, than Daphnis and Chloe are made to entertain and utter of the passions and motives of the human heart. The Romans, thanks to their severe sobriety, were never guilty of an effort to cast their passions in a fictitious mould. Then came the Troubadours, thrumming amorous ditties under balconies by moonlight, and dancing attendance upon lovesick, enervated dames for their daily bread. In their hands they grasped all the materials of the novel, but few among them had the patience to write a volume, where a ballad of a dozen stanzas would secure the expected praise and douceur; and none had the self-denial to read a volume, when a few moments’ audience to the notes of the guitar, and the flattery of a starving minnesinger was sufficient to satisfy the cravings of passion, and keep alive the formal glare and hollow hauteur of chivalry. From the Troubadours to the French school of Madame Scuderi, and the English school of Richardson, is but a single step: and though we are thus introduced to stiff and lifeless masses, we discover the same clay and the same corrupting ingredients. The English character divided the stream which thus re-appeared from its subterranean passages, into two channels, the one of which followed the course of history and the past, and the other that of domestic scenes and the present. Scott has his thousand imitators in the former, and Fielding his endless copyists in the latter. The French character is uniform only in the matter of ceaseless change; airy, frivolous, epigrammatic, and mock-heroic, the French novel skims the very uppermost stratum of society, just dipping the tips of its wings upon the stagnant and miasmatic surface. But we are outrunning our subject.
A novel, purely and legitimately such, baffles description. It borrows so much from poetry, history, and the actual of life, which is not its own, and borrows it only to corrupt, that a strict definition will fail to include all that may and does enter into its composition: and it is so diversified by national propensities and customs, that a loose definition would comprise every department of belles-lettres. Philosophy in Jean Paul, voluptuous sentimentalism and Spinosism in Göthe, and mesmerism in Jung; infidelity in Voltaire, superstitious deism in Rousseau, classical criticism and poetry in Madame de Staël, bagatelle in Balzac, and the Munchausenism of cut-throats in Sue; history in Scott, graceful villany in Bulwer, charitable sympathy in Dickens, with a pertness, as recent events have shown, full as effective for niggardly as for humane objects, not to carry the dissection through our own land, all unite, or may unite in the composition of the novel; but in addition to these admissible ingredients it has certain qualities, which are found to be its universal accompaniments. Upon the negative side, then, which may pass in review first, a novel must proscribe religion; and by religion we understand a garment of vital godliness, worth a man’s wearing before his fellow creatures in honor of his Maker.
The religion of the Waverly novels—and we designedly take the best—is that of asceticism, intriguing in the cabinet, or pandering in the by-ways; of hypocrisy disgracing the Christian name with vices of every hue; or finally of passive, simple, good-for-nothing good-nature, which doles out a sentimental charity, that would be ridiculous for a sane man or woman to practise. The religion of a manly, well educated, well-directed, well-proportioned character—such an one as would honor its possessor—such an one as we may meet every day of our life—active, intelligent, planning, directing, and constituting the very nerve and sinew of society, is not discoverable upon Scott’s pages. His devotional temperament has been proudly claimed upon the evidence of such casual lyrics as “The Day of Judgment;” but we have never discovered upon his pages any tokens of even charity for sincere religionists, and every one has certainly discovered symptoms of irreverence in the caricatures, which uniformly set off the peculiarities of the religious fervor of the Scotch. Did no better poetry exist in the Highlands? Were there no nobler exemplifications of Christianity, even in a barbarous age, either north or south of the Tweed? Yes; but there was an insuperable objection to the admission of such personages upon the same stage with the fulsome, selfish, swaggering chivalry of the mediæval era. They were clothed with a character that would not amalgamate; it lacked flexibility to yield to caricature, and it lacked the propensities of the fool to be wheedled by the flimsy artifices of chivalrous and legitimatized villains: therefore, religion was proscrib-
ed without benefit of clergy, or at least forbidden to appear, except under a veil of diseased sentimentalism, to cover those brilliant colors which would cast a dimness over the tawdry nobility of semi-Quixotic character. We have selected the purest, and the best of modern novelists, and if such be the case with the chief, how is it with the retainers of the camp?
Again; the novel discards the useful and practical of life. It is a common mistake to attribute the success of some modern writers of fiction to felicitous limnings of domestic or vulgar scenes: it is the wit and oddity of exaggeration, that imparts to them animation and zest, which the art of the writer contrives to keep in that state of pendulous equilibrium between desire and gratification, most favorable to the securing of his own purpose.
Rejecting, then, these essential elements of our being, the novel universally builds up its sovereignty by appeals to the more grovelling and assailable passions of the heart. It makes overtures to vanity, mawkish or infuriate love, malignity, and our propensity to the marvellous; it decorates these passions with every variety of dress, but a natural one, colors them like anything but life, and presents them under every phase, but the one that is visible to common optics. Always in a tempest, and a flutter, straining, tugging, and bracing up the intellectual powers to some novel conceit, or some unheard-of coincidence and catastrophe, which may without inconvenience lack all the interest and probability of real life. To do this successfully the author must frequently consult the landscape he would delineate; associate with the characters, to whom he assigns the honors of heroes; eat the viands they eat, drink from the bowl they use in their libations, seek the haunts to which they are driven, taste the pleasures they exult in, and make himself one with the dramatis personæ of his subject. This has been done and is even now in process of repetition; and like the proverb “set a thief to catch a thief,” you must make a villain to describe one. It requires no effort on the part of minds of a certain calibre and frame to pay that tribute of degradation and servitude for their capital. The rouè, the enthusiast, and the fool are characters formed with remarkable facility; and the vast ocean of letters is constantly flinging to its surface bubbles and refuse enough to perpetuate the race. A little learning, a well practised wit, without study and without design, are all the qualifications requisite; the rest have a spontaneous growth, and strengthen into manhood with use and activity.
We need not at present diverge into a disquisition upon the proper uses of fiction; nor even point out the broad interval which separates the tales of Hannah More from the ordinary novel, and the fictions of Scott from the exaggerations of Sue. Their dissimilarity is too obvious to require such a modification of our statements, as will exempt the former from the ban, under which the latter justly fall. The entire object is dissimilar, the minor plots have another aim, and the spirit of the language and sentiment is as different as the upper air from the exhalation of a marsh. The legitimate modern novel is a moral distortion: an arbitrary concatenation of busy, exciting scenes, adjusted by the rules of plot and complot, to inebriate the baser passions, and keep up a delirium of empty excitement. It is like dainty viands, destined to gratify an animal appetite, and to ‘perish with the usage:’ to be devoured with the voracity of a gourmand and to be remembered only for the qualms, which the revulsion of the surfeit causes, and exacts as the penalty of an abused economy. The scenes which promise fairest to whet and gratify this artificial excitement, are those, in which common sense and common life have the least to do: the plots which perform the most service are those in which few men are witlings enough to be accomplices; the objects which interest most are those on which no man would throw away his hours either out of friendship or self-love. A genuine modern novel is a species of intellectual distillery, hot with fermentation and decomposition: it lives upon the disorder it creates: it fattens on the intellectual poverty of those, who draw nigh unto its intoxicating cup. The strongholds of fiction upon its devotees are the ulcers it engenders upon the literary stomach: and the potence of its sway is exemplified in the delirum tremens with which it hurries many of its votaries into an immature grave. This is no exaggeration. Göthe’s Werther, and Ottilie, can count their converts and disciples in suicides; and suicides, too, among the noble, the learned, and the affluent in life. And if fiction can bring such strong delusion over man that the spirit can be nerved by its influence to the last reckless act of cowardice and high crime, we need not stay to question its power in alluring men to the minor peccadillos, which fill up the picture of human infamy.
The habitual use of the stimulus of fiction is
always enervating to the intellect, as that of alcohol is to the physical system. It operates to gradually contract the mental powers within a certain field of exercise, and divest them of that vigor and strength, which are requisite for the acquisition and enjoyment of valuable knowledge. A propensity to novel reading is a state of intellectual debility and megrim. It is dissipating, also, to the moral principles and character, introducing confusion into any system of ethics, and discrepancies into any course of conduct. It blunts the sensibilities, and deceives the votary with the substitution of a false edge, which will endure no service. We have heard even Christian men account for the influence of the novel by the dreamy theory that fiction is a reaching forth unto the first estate from which man has fallen—an effort of the soul to picture to itself the purity and happiness which once attended our first parents in paradise. Nothing so effectually blinds the moral vision, as a contemplation of the original dignity of human nature. “We are His offspring,” sang one of the poets, and Paul confirmed the truth of the saying. But our Saviour also said of others, “Ye are of your father the devil.” If, then, the theory must stand, that fiction is a foretaste of eternity, the question still recurs—of what eternity? And if the tree shall be known by its fruit, we shall have no difficulty in determining the parentage of modern fiction.
In addition, however, to all these natural infirmities of fictitious composition, others of a darker and a deadlier character have, of late years, been introduced, to poison the streams of moral life; we allude, of course, to the garbage of French novels, which is exhaling its pestiferous odors over the fair and fruitful fields of our land. The literary character of these productions, like the moral character of their authors, may be unimpeachable in a court of criticism or justice; but there is an air of the careless voluptuary attending both, which renders their society and communion repulsive. We are in the presence of finished villany, which circumstances alone restrain from the crimes on which its fancy dwells; which can reap a richer reward by describing than by playing the brigand; which can cater to every vicious passion in others, and thus secure the means of cultivating its own base appetites. Being in such society, we find debauchery deified, and crime portrayed as a species of school for the education of beauty and virtue. We have passion held up as the crowning charm of an angel; riot, as the condition of social happiness; sin as a misfortune which never entails its ills upon its offspring; monsters, as the universal specimens of the human species; intrigue, violence, and wantonness, as the sole employments of human activity. A drama of crime, in which the actors are never villains enough to excite our disgust, and only virtuous when they are fools. We have the most degrading circumstances of life collected into a solid mass, and fused in the crucible of a lascivious infidelity; we have these materials arranged and adorned by a genius, tossing under the feverish spasms of its diseased fancy, till the putrefying collection has been surcharged with suitable medicaments, and the fetid odor of vice drowned by the fumes of incense. Moulded into organic shape, it appears a stripling cherub, with a coronet surmounting his flowing locks, borne aloft upon the party-colored wings of fancy, and waving a silver wand to guide its magic steps. It is sin clothed in the white robes of virtue, deism consecrated as our holy faith, and the spasmodic palpitations of lust adored as the end and aim of our being.
Strange to record, while there are none so poor as to do reverence to this living monster, there are thousands who are standing on tiptoe to commune with him under the concealment of his mask; while few would, in real life, either associate with, or give countenance to such patchworks of crime, there are multitudes seeking such scenes under the disguise of literary condiments. Eugene Sue’s most impure conceptions are laid upon the drawing-room table, where Sue, in his cleanliest attire and most sober mood, would be turned from the door; and Christian men and Christian presses have entered into a competition who shall scatter the most of those principles, which they profess to abhor, and give the widest popularity to those mysteries of iniquity, which they have pledged their highest hopes and their sacred honor to opposite with all the weapons which God may place in their hands. The ingenuity of man can find apologies for almost every degree of crime, and can even metamorphose idolatry into religion, intoxication into temperance, and blasphemy into prayer. But if anything deserves the highest reprobation of a moral community, it is the pliancy of that principle, which will not only allow evil to be called good, but which, in the ardor of gain-getting and rivalry, practically confounds right and wrong, and teaches others, by the irresistible eloquence of example, to go and do likewise. Our presses have reached a fearful crisis in this high career of contributing to the diffusion of covert debauchery and infidelity; the very ink
might blush red with shame for the tales it is constrained to tell; the very paper might blacken with horror at the passions to which it is made to pander. Wherever the responsibility may fall—and we suppose each participator, before his fellow-men, will contrive to shuffle off the load and its consequent ills—the duty of every honest and principled man is clear enough; to shut his shop and his purse against the infected merchandise, in order to confine the plague to the quarters from which it springs; and let it rage, if needs it must, within those circles whose interests and rivalry lead them to call it harmless, and would gladly thank the bountiful Giver for an increase of their store, even if obtained at the price of the temporal and eternal ruin of His immortal creatures.