In “The Morality of Pictures,” William A. Alcott worries that “immoral” illustrations in books for the young will loose “a flood of evil” upon the U. S. (Sound familiar?)


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“The Morality of Pictures,” by William A. Alcott (from The Mother’s Assistant, April 1845; pp. 78-79)

Pictures in books and papers—especially in those which are designed for the young—are very fashionable among us, of late, and the fashion seems to be advancing. I rejoice that it is so. There may be limits which, in this particular ought not to be passed, but I believe they are, as yet, very far distant.

By means of pictures, the impression made on the mind through the eye is much more vivid, and consequently much more permanent. Beside, we can, with these aids, teach faster than without them; and our progress is rendered more pleasant.

There is one thing, however, which should be carefully watched, which is the morality of pictures. They are as efficient for evil as for good, and perhaps more so. I have no hesitation in saying, that for want of a proper supervision of this matter—by somebody—a flood of evil, more terrible in its consequences than any of the ‘seven vials’ of the Revelator, is at this time about to rush upon our unhappy country.

And yet I do not believe we ought to yield ourselves to despondency, in this matter. If those who hold the reigns of power in press, and pulpit, will exert the power they possess, we may yet be saved. More than even this, as has been already intimated, an agent so potent to curse, may yet be made to bless still more widely.

Let a stern but honest and impartial criticism be applied to every new production of the kind alluded to, as it emerges into being. Let the religious periodicals of the land in particular, send forth, in thunder tones, if necessary, their anathemas against evey attempt to put forward, in impudence, pictures of an immoral and injurious tendency. In general, however, a war will not be necessary. The still small voice, will, it is believed, prove quite sufficient.

Most of the public errors, in this particular, are the result of ignorance, or at least of thoughtlessness. Ignorance, I know, may be criminal, and thoughtlessness usually is so, more or less; still I cannot but think that for the far greater part, both these require the hand and tongue of a criticism which is mild and gentle.

Let me give an example of what I mean by a gentle criticism of this sort. If it should not instruct, it will at the least inform of my meaning.

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p. 79

One of the best books for children and families with which I am acquainted—a book which I use daily, or almost daily, among my own children—has, for its first picture, a scene whose morality is slightly questionable. I allude to the representation of a venerable old gentleman with a pipe in his mouth, smoking.

Now no intelligent friend of temperance, at the present day, would be likely to go so far as to portray a scene which would extend the very evils his heart deplores. In picturing a venerable friend, who, despite all the light shed on this subject, still used the decantor or the demijohn, the latter would, in all probability, be omitted.

Yet here, in the foreground of the first picture of one of the best books of one of our first writers for families and schools, we find this vulgar presentation of a tobacco-pipe. Should it be so? Will the writer himself, upon reflection, justify it? Is he not bound to inculcate, by all sorts of teaching, especially this most efficient sort, whatsoever is in its tendency ‘pure, lovely, and of good report,’ and to discourage every thing which is of a contrary tendency?

I grant, most cheerfully, that such a picture as this in a newspaper, (for adults,) or an almanac, or a novel, might not deserve notice, or at least a notice which should border at all upon severity. First, because these writings are not expected—at least, not yet required—by the public sentiment, to guard the avenues to immorality. Secondly, because most of them are ignorant, or at least purblind to moral beauty; and not a few of them have their moral perception dimmed by their vices. But when we find the wisest and best of men giving countenance even to a slight departure from the loveliness of virtue and purity, a word of remonstrance should be given.

If these hints should lead the author and publishers to make a slight change in the little work alluded to, and prove the precursor of abler criticisms in a department where criticism is so much needed, at the same time that they aid the maternal readers of this journal, they will fully accomplish the purpose of the writer.

Hartford, Ct., March, 1845.

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