Fiction is fascinating to just about everyone. Readers enjoy the stories (and occasionally griping about what happens); writers enjoy the attention (and occasionally bashing each other’s efforts); and critics and social reformers enjoy explaining to everyone what it all means. Or, sometimes, what it should mean, for fiction often seems as if it should be “good for something”: presenting a model of living for readers to follow, or stretching the intellect in some way.
It seemed that way to nineteenth-century social critics, too. Some wanted to reform the novel for artistic reasons; some wanted to reform the novel for social reasons. And some just wanted to reform the reformers. To those concerned about 19th-century American society, fiction often seemed dangerous. It seduced readers into filling their brains with useless fiction instead of useful nonfiction. Most distressing, it could lead readers down the wrong moral path—even leading them to sin, themselves.
Here you’ll find various essays on novels and novelists, from 19th-century American magazines for adults and for children. Many of the major themes are represented here, especially the ever-fascinating subject of the dangers of fiction. It’s a collection I add to as I find more pieces.
Pieces on fiction for children also warned readers about the dangers of literature.
“The Waverly Novels” (Connecticut Mirror, 1824) humorously recounts the effect of Sir Walter Scott’s novels on an unsuspecting family.
“Female Resources for Writing” by “P. P.” (Boston Lyceum, 1827) offers guidance for female writers, who, the condescending author points out, excel in delineating character—perfect for a nation “wanting in incident for novel writers”.
“Devouring Books” (American Annals of Education, 1835) decries the “mental gluttony” that leads to over-reading, which has dismal effects on the reader.
“The Reading of Young Ladies” (American Magazine of Useful Knowledge, 1836) reminds those who have graduated from school that their education is not complete—and that it won’t be unless they avoid works which “serve only to gratify the imagination.”
“Confessions of a Novel Reader” by “A.” (Southern Literary Messenger, 1839) reads like a parody of temperance fiction, as a man’s life spirals downward because of his addiction to novels.
“Novel Writers and Publishers” by M. M. Backus (Christian Parlor Magazine, 1844) warns against “the habitual use of the stimulus of fiction,” which has astonishing effects on the human psyche.
“Moral Poisons: The Antidote” (1845), by F. C. W., is a two-part piece published in The Mother’s Magazine which offers “antidotes” to “a great portion of the light literature of the day.” “F. C. W.” was probably Francis Chandler Woodworth, editor of Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet
“Gossip of the Month” of May 1847 (Democratic Review) takes issue with those “pious indigents” wanting to reform American society: anti-dancing, they were also anti-fiction and may have made many hearers anti-religion.
“Novel Reading” (The Western Gem, 1853) equates sensational fiction with alcohol, calling it “the beverage of Romance, blasting soul and body.”
“Novels, Their Meaning and Mission” (Putnam’s Monthly, 1854) meanders through the subject of novels, including history, musings on the word “novel,” a classification, and an explanation of why they’re not as dangerous as they were.
“Novels and Novel-Reading,” by the Rev. J. T. Crane (1869), rings the usual chimes on the dangers of “improper reading” and advocates “total abstinence from novel-reading,” in a chapter from Popular Amusements. Crane would come to the attention of later generations as the father of novelist Stephen Crane.