“Vicious Novels: The Cause of Their Increase,” by F. C. W. (from The Mother’s Magazine, December 1845; pp. 374-379)
“And authors hear at length one general cry,
Tickle and entertain us, or we die.”
And attentive observor of men and things cannot fail to perceive, that the great and almost the sole object at which many even good people aim, seems to be entertainment. We have sometimes thought that this fondness was, in a measure, characteristic of the age in which we live. This tendency exhibits itself in various ways. Miss A. hears a sermon from the Rev. Mr. B. She is a member of an evangelical
church, an intelligent lady, and sustains the reputation of a consistent, spiritually-minded Christian. She returns from the house where God has written his holy name, to her home. Some one of the family inquires of her what she thinks of the discourse to which she has been listening?
“Oh,” says she, perhaps with enthusiasm, “I don’t know when I have been so well entertained; I do think Mr. B. is a most interesting preacher.” And this she regards as the highest enconium she can bestow upon this messenger from the King of heaven—he is an entertaining speaker—she has been greatly interested!
A book is recommended to a virtuous young man—a professed disciple of Christ, perhaps, and a teacher in the Sabbath-school. He is told that the book was dictated by a pure-minded man, that it is appropriately and forcibly expressed, that an air of holiness pervades the whole, and that its tendency is to sanctify the soul, and prepare it for heaven. “But is it interesting?” the young man inquires—that is, does it possess the thrilling interest of a modern Cliff-street novel? So great is the rage for entertainment. If the book recommended does not possess this quality, the youth condemns it as unworthy of his attention.
This morbid anxiety for something tragically interesting, is especially manifested by the same class of persons, in respect to all those works of taste which are candidates for their favor. In this department, they must have something very pathetic, very wonderful, very affecting. Here the cry becomes more earnest and importunate—
“Tickle and entertain us, or we die.”
An author, whether in poetry or in prose, who does not torture his readers on a rack of excitement, is dull and stupid. He must be sentimental; his figures must be bold and startling; the warp and woof of the author’s entire fabric must be thrilling in the last degree; he must speak of
—“Most disastrous chances;
Of moving accidents, by blood and field;
Of hair-breadth ’scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach;”
and if there be a generous admixture of romantic love, in combination with a little murder and suicide, all the better; for then these wonder-hunting readers can give vent to sundry sentimental sighs and tears, which else might never find egress.
This is a serious defect in good men and women, though for a moment we have lightly treated it. It is a serious defect. The standard, by which these individuals judge of the merits of literary productions, is evidently grounded on the assumption, as an axiom, a first principle, that our vocation in this world is to amuse ourselves. Is this true? Is it the great end and aim of our Creator and Governor in our education here, to furnish material for our pleasureable entertainment? Should it be the uppermost, all-absorbing desire of a rational mind, on the way to the judgment seat, to derive the greatest amount of pleasure and amusement? Is this world, then, (our only state of probation) intended for a theatre—a play-house—an opera—where a succession of scenes of dramatic interest are to be constantly enacted for our pastime? We have greatly mistaken the end for which God designs us to live, if it be not as far removed from this, as the east is from the west; and to us it seems passing strange that any professed disciple of the holy Immanuel should so forget the object they have in view, as to turn aside after a novel, whose sole recommendation is, that it abounds in incident, and is highly entertaining.
We are no advocate for the productions of a dull and prosy author. We know of many that have attempted to instruct, edify and benefit the world, with very good motives, too, who have not the faculty of keeping the world awake. We do not plead that these men be read and studied. The point to which our animadversions tend, is, that there are other and higher motives in selecting works of taste, than those which are drawn from the desire of being amused. We claim that the Christian cannot be guiltless, when he sacrifices the instruction and ennobling, the pure and the holy, for the exciting and thrilling, the base and defiled.
We contend that the first question with a good man or woman in regard to a work of taste, should not be, “Is it interesting?” but “can it, on the whole, be read with profit, intellectual or moral, or both?” and if it cannot be so read, that man or woman has no business with the book, let it be ever so full of interest—we use the word in its restricted, technical sense.
We repeat the assertion with which we began. There is a great, we fear a growing desire, on the part of a multitude of men and women of moral principle, and too many professed Christians, to be entertained, at whatever expense; and this desire is especially prominent in canvassing works of taste. Now it is just here that we are to look for the cause of the alarming multiplication of impure and poisonous novels. It is not so much because bad men will write them and publish them. Authors of a stamp capable of producing the novel we reprobate, could work by the line and plummet of virtue and strict morality. They have no principle about their labors. They give such a shape to their literary creations as we, the people, demand. It is their occupation to write; by it they get their bread. They manufacture what we will read and pay for. They do not make the taste; they only conform to it.
We know of an editor, an unprincipled man, who endeavored to support himself by conducting a respectable, virtuous, every way excellent periodical. His object was, of course, to make money. He looked to the public to sustain him. But the public did not sustain him. The enterprise failed. There was not incident enough connected with it. The editor took the hint; for such men “are wiser in their generation than the children of light.” He changed his course entirely. Instead of fettering his genius with stern rules of chastity, and truth, and morality, he threw overboard the whole sisterhood. He, in effect, told those to whom he was looking for patronage, “If you want a vile, slanderous, despicable paper, you shall have it. If you prefer vice, to virtue, I can please you. If you like obscenity, billingsgate,
profaneness, and disgusting details of police reports, you shall have them.” And he launched his new bark, spread his sails to the popular breeze, hoisted black colors, and took in a plentiful cargo of filthy goods, mostly contraband. The editor was eminently successful, and has been ever since. Thousands, who would have nothing to do with his genuine wares, buy the spurious. We are not aware that any one complains that this periodical has not enough of incident about it now. Moral men and women, and even professors of religion, to their shame be it said, are its constant patrons, because it is so “entertaining,” and parents admit it into their dwellings for their children to read! Now the editor of this periodical is an unprincipled man, and we are not advocating the innocence of the course he has taken to ensure a support. We only cite the case as an illustration of the fact, that the reading community form the taste, and that men of no principle often bring into the world bad books and magazines and periodicals, because the people will have them, and because they will not pay for a purer literature.
One of the most depraved and unprincipled men, whose literary efforts have found favor in this age, and whose province it has been to cater for the worst of human passions—Edward Bulwer—has produced several very creditable performances. But he neither immortalized his name or filled his purse with them. Indeed, no one ever hears of one of these unexceptional works,—“England and the English,” for instance—while “Falkland” and “Eugene Aram,” the morals of which are imported direct from the bottomless pit, and bear the image and superscription of the arch apostate, are applauded all over Christendom. Bulwer ascertained what was popular, and he wrote accordingly. He made his books conform to the prevailing taste; and so do most authors of equal judgment and shrewdness, who have no more virtue or religion to trouble them than Bulwer possesses. They provide for the people what the people like and will pay for.
If, then, the issue of unsanctified, corrupting novels is ever
arrested, it will be owing mainly to a purer taste on the part of the novel-reading community. The seat of the mischief is there. If respectable men and women, if virtuous people, known as the disciples of Christ, patronize these impure works, and commend them to others, we have little reason to hope that the sources of the turbid streams will ever be dried up.