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Title: On the Vice of Novel Reading. - Being a brief in appeal, pointing out errors of the lower tribunal.
Author: Allison, Young Ewing, 1853-1932
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "On the Vice of Novel Reading. - Being a brief in appeal, pointing out errors of the lower tribunal." ***

by The Kentuckiana Digital Library)

Author's Private Copy.

                    On the Vice of Novel-Reading.


                   _ERRORS OF THE LOWER TRIBUNAL._

   _Paper Read Before the Western Association of Writers at Winona_

                   _Park, Indiana, June 29, 1897._

                         By YOUNG E. ALLISON.

                           LOUISVILLE. KY.:



       *       *       *       *       *

[Illustration: YOUNG E. ALLISON]


Ever since the Novel reached the stage of development where it was
demonstrated to be the most ingenious vehicle yet designed for
conveying the protean thought and fancy of man, there has stood in the
judgment book of Public Opinion the decree that novel-reading was a
vice. Of course, that judgment did not apply exclusively to the
reading of novels. It was a sort of supplementary decree in which the
name of this new invention was specifically added to the list of moral
beguilements against which that judgment had anciently stood. Poetry,
the Drama, even the virtuous History, had had their noses disjointed
by this tribunal. But their great age and the familiarity of their
presence had softened the decree in its enforcement. The Novel was a
young offender in aspect (though he had the nature and inheritance of
the other three), and was, besides, strong in masculinity and
virility. A certain sympathy thus sprung up for the three quaint old
ladies, as for old offenders whose persistence had won the wink of
toleration. They actually achieved a certain factitious respectability
in comparison with the fresher and more active dangers afforded by the
Novel. But the Novel was simply a combination of all three, more
flexible and adaptable. It, therefore, merely shares in the old
judgment directed against everything in literature--and in all the
arts--that displays the seductiveness of fancy or taste. The judgments
of public opinion have been consistently in the line of distrusting
and discrediting everything that appeared to be purely spiritual and
intellectual, and that could not at once be organized into a political
or religious institution or into a mechanical industry with the
prospect of large sales and quick profits.

Novel-reading is a vice, then, under this judgment, just as the
reading of all fictions, fancies, inventions, and romances in all
their forms, poetic, dramatic, and narrative. And if the reading is a
vice the writing of them, in all common sense, can be no less than
murder or arson. If it is a vice to devote time to the reading of
novels it must be a crime to professionally pander to and profit by
the vice. And if all this is true, what a wonderfully attractive
corner that must be in Hades where are old Homer and the ever young
Aristophanes, Sophocles and Æschylus, Dante, Virgil and Boccaccio,
Shakespeare and Moliere, Goethe and Hugo, Balzac and Thackeray, Scott
and Dumas, Dickens and that wonderful child of Bohemia, who lately lay
down to rest on Vailima mountain. Think of all these marvelous eons of
genius gathered together for their meet punishment! In one especially
warm corner, perhaps, Lope Felix de Vega, the most incorrigible of
all, slowly expiating upon some most ingeniously uncomfortable
gridiron the 1,160 volumes of crime and vice that are to be set down
against him in the indictment, if it be a true bill. We may wonder
whether the unknown authors of "Esther" and "The Song of Songs" and
the psychological novel of "Job" are there, too, where they properly
belong. It must be a great congress with these chief criminals as the
senators and a lower house made up of the most agreeably vicious souls
of earth, who, in their sojourn here, yielded for a moment to siren
voices. If everything in fiction--from the astonishing conspiracies
overthrown by "Old Sleuth" to the magnificent visions that old John
Milton saw, of incarnate ambition like a branded criminal driven out
before the radiant hosts of heaven--if all the fiction that makes up
the spirit of the novel is included in this _index expurgatorius_ of
eternity, then we may well have a doubt, my friends, whether hell can
hold us all.

It is a curious exercise for persons immersed in writing and study as
an occupation, and possessing a catholic tolerance for all
occupations, to hark back to the time when they were still within the
jurisdiction of the world that acts but does not study. In all the
average towns, hamlets and country-sides of the world human nature
beats with exactly the same pulse. If a change come, it comes slowly
and it changes all together, so that all are still alike. In the small
towns novel-reading has been considered about as contemptuously as
playing the fiddle, though admitted to be less dangerous than family
card-playing. It was estimated that a novel-reader was confirming his
indolence, and in danger of coming to the poor-house; a fiddler was
prophesied to get into jail for vagrancy or larceny; while a
card-player had entered a path that might lead as far as the gallows
and comprehend all the crimes. This opinion still largely exists in
towns and country-sides. We find it maintaining itself even in large
cities, among all sorts of very good people, even among the most
exceptional men of business, of the professions and of the pulpits.
Novel-reading, as a mental vice, according to this opinion, may be
compared with opium-eating as a moral vice. It is thought to enervate
and corrupt by means of a luxurious excitement, purely fictitious and

At an annual meeting of members of the public library of a large city,
the librarian read the aggregate number of calls for books of each
class during the year. Let us assume that there were calls for 65,000
works of fiction, 5,000 of history and biography, 2,000 of science and
philosophy, and, say, 75 of theology. One of the trustees, who had
pretentions as to responsibility for the public conscience that would
have dwarfed the pyramid of Cheops, arose and appealed to the members
to suggest a plan for counteracting the deplorable tendency of the
times to the reading of fiction. It did not occur to anybody to
recommend the abolition of the printing press, and so a discussion
began. One of the most distinguished and scholarly ministers and
educators of the world, who was a member, came to the rescue of the
Novel. He said, in substance, that the large majority of the men and
women in the world were laborers for the bread they ate, and it was
his opinion that when such persons were resting after the day's toil,
indulging their leisure, it was impossible to expect them to read
works on theology and the abstruse sciences, while it was natural for
them to seek amusement in novels and romances. He thought reading
novels was much better than idle gossip, or loitering in saloons or in
the streets. His remarks were received with great applause, and this
declaration of his liberality of opinion was widely commented upon.

But is there any real liberality in considering the reading of novels
as only just a better use of one's leisure than gossiping, guzzling in
saloons or wandering idly about the streets?

The idea that novel-reading has no value except as a relaxation and
amusement is born of the same dense and narrow ignorance which
concludes that alcoholic drinks and wine serve no real purpose but to
promote drunkenness and wife-beating; that opium promotes only
luxurious debauchery, and that all the elegant, graceful and beautiful
ceremonies and customs of society are invented merely to amuse and
gratify the vain selfishness of the rich.

The most curious aspect of novel-reading, considered as a vice, is
that the great majority of those indulging in it, like those who
indulge in drinking, gambling and other vices, are themselves willing
to admit that it is indefensible if less perilous than other vices.
They excuse it, just as the distinguished minister did, as an
amusement so harmless, as compared with other vices, that you may
indulge it and yet skirt hell-fire by a margin of a million miles.
Some hypocrites conceal and deny the indulgence like your secret
toper; others apologize for not indulging when they are in the company
of notorious but pleasing offenders, as the hypocrite feigns
benevolence. Every one of you doubtless has in mind the amiable man of
business--maybe your tailor, your broker, your banker, your lawyer,
your grocer--who cultivates your good opinion, and for the sake of the
customer in you tolerates lightly the doubtfulness of your employment.
He will even introduce the subject of books as a respectful and
diplomatic concession to your heresies--much as all of us humor
lunatics amiably and curiously, by broaching the subject of their
delusions. He is tolerant because of fat success; his income is large,
he spends it in a fine house, full of costly adornments, of which he
has no knowledge except in the measure of cost and the correctness of
their usage; he has equipages, and gives dinners and sits securely in
Abraham's bosom of society. He pays you the deferential compliment of
asking what books you are reading. It maybe you are just out of the
profound philosophical complexities and pathetic problems of "Les
Miserables." Perhaps you have immersed yourself again in the paradoxes
of "Vanity Fair," or have been pumping up the flabby tires of your
better nature with the fresh air of "David Copperfield." It is
possible that "Tess of the Durbervilles," or "A Window in Thrums" has
been newly received, and has been enlightening your mind and
conscience as to your relations to the world about you. Whatever it
has been, you suggest the fact.

"It is a novel?" He replies doubtfully:

"Certainly," you respond with enthusiasm. "A masterpiece."

"Well," protests the amiable Philistine, "I have--so little time--for
_amusing_ myself, you know. My daughter, now, she is a great
novel-reader. She buys a great many novels. Last year I read a book
called "The Greatness of Our Country." It is a wonderful book. It said
in that book that the United States could support a population of
400,000,000. I had no idea of that before. I asked Prof. So and So
about it and he said why not: that China had 400,000,000 people. It is
surprising what we learn from books," etc., etc., etc.

This man has got one bald statistical suggestion in his head out of a
book that is made to sell on trains. He recognizes it. It recalls
dimly mathematics which he was taught at school. It is a concrete
suggestion; it requires no effort to understand or remember. It is so
wonderful to him that he has no time to amuse himself with the heart
allegories and the practical questions of the condition of those
possible 400,000,000 as revealed in "Les Miserables." His daughter
will do that and he buys for her novels, bicycles, gloves and
chocolates with equal fond readiness to humor what he considers whims
pardonable in children.

       *       *       *       *       *

The idea that novel-reading is a harmless and mere amusement expresses
fully the judgment that it is a vice, an encourager of indolence.
There may be two reasons for the judgment, one existing in the novel
itself, the other in the tribunal. Let us first consider the nature of
the tribunal.

The supreme constituted authority--not only of affairs in this life
but in the ordering of all the future existences that man has
conceived--is Public Opinion. Public opinion is the decree of human
nature determined in impenetrable secrecy, enforced with ceremonious
and bewildering circumlocution. It is thus double-natured. The
organized public opinion that we see, hear, feel and obey is the
costumed officialism of human nature, through ages of custom charged
with enforcing upon individuals the demands of the many. The other is
that tacit and nearly always unconscious understanding among men and
women, which binds them in mysterious cohesion through a belief in or
a dread of something that they can not understand, because they can
not feel it with their hands, control it with their strength or
disturb it with their threats. The myriads of mankind in this secret
tribunal are silent because they are ignorant of speech. They are dull
of brain and low in nervous organization, so that perception with them
is a cerebral agony and even feeling responds only to the shock of
actual physical suffering. Organized public opinion, when compared
with this unnameable and resistless silent force of human instinct is
like a small body of the police in the presence of a vast sullen mob.
If the mob is determined and throws capable leaders forward, the
police either desert to the mob or disappear. If the mob does not
understand itself and produces no leaders the police rule it. It is
fair to speak of this tacit common instinct as ignorant, because the
world always has been shared between Ignorance and his twin brother,
Indolence. Knowledge is the rarest coin that circulates among men. No
one can accumulate knowledge unless he possesses the broad catholicity
of purpose to labor ceaselessly for truth, to accept it from
whatsoever source it comes, in whatsoever guise, with whatsoever
message it brings him, and to abide whatsoever results may follow. If
he expects an angel and a devil comes, it is still the truth he is
seeing, it is still knowledge he is gaining. The genius of
knowledge-seeking was glorified in that obscure German chemist who,
experimenting upon himself with a new solution into which a fatal
wrong ingredient had entered, cried in the agony of death to his
assistant: "Note my symptoms carefully and make an autopsy--I am sure
it is a new poison we have liberated!" If the vast majority of men
shrink from and evade irksome labor with their muscles--even though
life and comfort depend upon it--a still vaster majority shirk the
disciplined toil and tension of the mind, which, if it have real
purpose, makes little of the only rewards that spur men to muscular

The men who have really thought and labored and struggled for the
abstract jewel of truth, and to beautify and make happy the world we
live in, are, to the masses of indolent, ignorant, selfish human
beings that have swarmed through the ages, as parasites upon some huge
animal. The mass of humanity, considered as a whole, separated from
these restless and stinging parasites, observed through the
perspective of history, tradition and science, resembles nothing so
much as some monstrous dull-brained and gloomy animal, alternately
dozing and raging through the centuries, now as if stupefied in its
own bulk or then as if furious with the madness of brute power. In
fact, though mankind have achieved the dignity of a history that fills
the thoughtful with wonder, yet as a mass they are filled with as much
violence, injustice, ruthlessness and selfishness as if it were but
yesterday they had emerged from the primitive struggles with wild
beasts, the tangled forests, the trackless mountains, and the pitiless
elements, and yet stood flushed with savage exultation but dull with
physical weariness. In that vast human bulk that sprawls over every
continent, the primitive ferocity still exists, veiled perhaps under
familiar livery and uniform, but untamed by centuries of training. It
is this gloomy mass, saturated with superstitious cowardice, savage
with the selfish instinct of greed, or dull with the languor of gorged
and exhausted passion, that deliberates not in words or thought, but
in some impenetrable free-masonry of instinct like that which beggars
illustrate when they silently display their deformities and
mutilations as the most eloquent appeals. This gloomy mass is at once
the instigator and the instrument of mortal destiny. Individuals may
escape for a time, but they must eventually fall or lift the mass to
meet them.

The most profound philosophers and most patient students know as
little of this silent, gloomy human force as geographers know of the
archipelagoes of the Antarctic. The philosopher begins with pure
reason and expands it; the student delves into the records of other
students; in unfathomable depths below both are the myriads who eat,
drink, sleep and seek their prey as their primitive parents once did
when they disputed carcasses with the beasts of the forests.

It is this gloomy, savage force that has made the contemplative soul
of spiritual inquiry writhe under the startling contradictions of
history. When this force has been aroused with fear it has snarled and
roared defiance; when it has been enraged by opposition or the lash of
mastership it has cooled its ferocity in the blood of countless wars,
pillages and sacrifices; when satiated or pleased it has grunted with
pleasure or relaxed itself in orgies so gross and unspeakable that
modern history, with instinctive decency, has kept the story of them
veiled behind dead languages. This gloomy, savage force has always
been the same whether mastered or mastering. When some daring and
cunning genius of its own nature has cowed it, as the Alexanders,
Cæsars and Napoleons have done, it has marched out to slaughter and be
slaughtered with a sullen pride in the daring that this mightier
ferocity has put upon it. When it has mastered its Drusus, its
Domitian, its Nero, its Vespasian and its Louis XVI, it has indulged
in wanton excesses of rage and destruction until, spent with
exhaustion, a new master has arisen to tie it up like a whipped dog.
It was this gloomy and savage force that crowded into the greatest
tribunal of all history, and yelled with discordant and frenzied rage
into the very face of the noblest and gentlest incarnation of
spiritual light that ever spent its brief moment on earth: "Crucify
_Him_! Release unto us Barabbas, _the Thief_." It was this savage
force, serving all masters with equal ferocious zeal, that Theodosius
turned against the Serapion at Alexandria, in the name of
Christianity, to blot out of existence the inestimable treasures of
knowledge and literature that had been accumulated by centuries of

At all times this gloomy force has been more wantonly cruel than wild
beasts. Man has been epigrammatically described as a reasoning animal,
a laughing animal, a constructive animal and even as "an animal that
gets drunk;" but the truest description is that he is the cruel and
rapacious animal. The greatest student of the jungle, who has written
of the beasts of the forest with the intuition of genius, has given us
this formula:

    "Now this is the Law of the Jungle--as old and as true as the sky,
     And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall
         break it must die:

           *       *       *       *

    "Ye may kill for yourselves and your mates and your cubs, as they need
         and ye can,
     But kill not for pleasure of killing, and seven times never kill man."

You may spend the remainder of your life attacking that formula of
animal nature if you please, but you will find it at last still truth.
Man kills not only the beasts, but his own species for pleasure, or in
sheer wantonness of cruelty. He loves killing as an exercise; he loves
it as a spectacle; he loves it as the origin of his greatest emotion.
When that there is merely a brutish criminal to be hanged, human
beings crowd the converging roads to the spectacle as centuries ago
they crowded to the Colosseum. And it is to be recorded to the credit
of wild beasts that no traveler ever yet came upon a battlefield that
they had strewn with the dead bodies of their own kind.

Lest it be contended that this is a psychological portrait of the mass
of mankind caricatured by bitter cynicism, let us examine the aspect
of its physiology. The whole brain of an average Caucasian makes up
fifty ounces of the 140 pounds weight of his body. There are thus 137
pounds of fleshly necessity to three pounds of intellectual
possibility--forty-six parts of heavy dough to one part of leaven. The
difference in the brain weight of races, and which decides the
question of intellectual superiority, is about two ounces. The
difference in the brain weight of individuals of the same race,
indicating mental superiority is about two ounces. Now as the brains
of individuals of all races must in proportion be equally occupied
with the execution of those functions which we call instinct and those
acts that may be called merely automobile (since they are the results
of training and constant imitation, and have utterly no relation to
intellectuality or mental initiative), it may be fairly assumed that
the spiritual essence of races and individuals exists in a little
grayish pulp-like lump of brain weighing two ounces out of an average
bodily weight of 140 pounds. In the mass of humanity, then, there is
one part possible to flower into the noble perceptions of spiritual
and intellectual life, to 1,120 parts of dull, uniform, automatic

What chance has this solitary microbe of spiritual and intellectual
light against the swarming bacteria of animalism? That single microbe
is merely a possibility. It may be mutilated, it may be dwarfed, it
may fail from weakness, it may be corrupted. It is discouraging to
think how few have grown into strong life through all the perils of

Under these circumstances it is but natural that even the small
proportion of mankind endowed with the divine possibilities conferred
by two ounces of brain, should be contaminated with many of the
corruptions from below. Of those who seem to be concerned with
spiritual perceptions there is a vast number mere charlatans and
pretenders who, like the ingenious Japanese, are content to make
cunning imitations of the real things adapted to sell to the best
advantage. They patter the formulas of religion, of science, of art
and morals, and ostentatiously display themselves in the costume of
intellectuality to flatter, cajole and mystify the gloomy ignorance of
their fellows.

This is the select officialism of the secret human nature, its
recognized and authorized police--the constituted authorities of
Public Opinion. It is among these that we should find the
possibilities of development much increased. What do we find? That the
solitary microbe merely begins its struggle here. It dare not destroy
its swarming enemies since upon their continued existence its own life
depends. It must regulate, control and direct them if it would live
and develop, or with cowardly cunning compromise the struggle at the
outset and become a servant where it seems to command. This is the
first terrace-step of superiority peopled by those who can understand
others above them and interpret to the mass below.

The microbe that might have become glorious ounces of brain has been
content to become merely a little wart of pulp which finds expression
in skill and quickness and more of coveted leisure. There is the next
higher terrace and another and another, until finally it becomes a
pyramid, ever more fragile and symmetrical, the apex of which is a
delicate spire, where the purest intellects are elevated to an ever
increasing height in ever decreasing numbers, until in the dizzy
altitude above the groveling base below they are wrapped little by
little in the cold solitude of incarnate genius burning like suns with
their own essence. It is so far up that the eyes deceive and men
dispute who it is that stands at the top, but, whoever he may be, he
has carried by the force of strength, determination and patient will
the whole swarm of his evil bacteria with him. They swarm through
every terrace below, increasing in force as the pyramid enlarges
downward. It is the pyramidal bulk of human nature with its finest
brain, true to anatomic principles, at the top. That radiance at the
summit is the delight and the aspiration of all below. As it rises as
slowly as growth of a coral reef it increases the courage of those
below in proportion as they are near.

But the whole bulk is alive with the bacteria of animalism, under
increasing control as it rises, still with the ferocity, rapacity and
selfish passions of the gloomy mass at the bottom and forever in
revolt. Is this not proved by history, written and unwritten? Is it
not proved by the ghastly secrets of individual introspection that men
never reveal or admit to others; secrets guarded by a system of
conventions so impenetrable and vast that to attempt to personalize it
in the sneaking figure of Hypocrisy would be as absurd as to try to
enlarge the significance of an ivory chessman by setting it up on a
lady's jewel box and naming it Moloch. All men feel how much of them
is brute and how much is reason; but it is the unimpartable secret of
human society whose betrayal has been rendered impossible by universal
denials in advance, enacted in to what we call criminal laws, under
which admissions are denied by the brand of proportionate infamies, to
demonstrate that the traitor who has acted or spoken has not put into
expression the secrets of the mass. Great armies and constabularies
are kept to commit upon a large scale the murders and violence which,
when committed upon a small scale, they punish.

What is the record of the officialism of public opinion? There has
been nothing so abhorrent and cruel, so sordid, mean, frivolous,
indecent or insane, that the representative fashion and respectability
of some splendid civilization has not justified, approved and
sustained it. It has licensed every wanton passion of the body. It has
even indulged, contemptuously at times, those individuals inspired
through the mysterious selection of immortal genius to safeguard the
slender flame of spiritual light and life. But those indulged have
always been made to feel that they were secure only as long as their
performances excited jaded appetites as a novelty. If dwarfs and
monstrosities staled; if dancing girls palled; if gladiators wearied;
if there were no new games invented--then bring in a poet or
artist--some queer fellow who had discovered something that he called
truth or beauty, and let him amuse. But if he does not amuse, or if he
wear out his welcome, away with him. In the history of our own
civilization, as our ideals go, there was one divine incarnation of
spiritual and intellectual life that struggled through the tears,
blood and dirt of existence without one stain upon the purity of his
nature. This essence was a beacon light that has shone steadily
through nearly two thousand years. And Him the officialism of human
nature, in exaltation of savage contempt, nailed upon a cross, and set
up for an ominous warning to the whole world. It had already marked
the noble Socrates, and, like Cleopatra to her slave, handed him a cup
of poison. It was afterward to compel Gallileo to swallow in shame and
agony his testimony to unalterable truth. Even in this year, under the
title of a great church, it has, with pitiless persistence, forced a
great student and educator, not to deny a historical fact that he had
discovered, but to humbly regret its promulgation. As if the
concealment of a truth for your advantage in moral controversy were
not a greater crime than the concealment of a murderer for pay!
Whenever this officialism has concluded to amuse itself with spiritual
inquiries in the name of religious controversies, it has conducted
them with fire and the sword, with thumbscrews and the boot, and all
manner of ingenious ferocity.

The officialism of public opinion has always been ready to serve the
demands of the base nature below. It was the great lawgiver, Lycurgus,
who taught Spartan youths the commercial economy of theft and the
virtue and advantage of lying. It was not only when Rome was in decay,
but when she was at the zenith of glory from the first Brutus to
Octavius, when Cæsar, Cicero, Seneca, Horace, and the Plinys lived at
the seat of the knowledge, wealth, art and power of the world, that
women crowded the colosseums to feast their senses upon the ferocity
of tigers and give the death signal to the gladiator who charmed by
his fatal skill. It was while Shakespeare lived that English gentlemen
and mothers apprenticed their sons to the trade of piracy. In our own
century and country we have seen Abraham Lincoln, the liberator,
himself, enlist under the flag of official public opinion to strike a
blow in the extermination of red Indians who had committed the
unpardonable crime of owning their own land whereon we are assembled

The fashions of lust and cruelty may change with the amusements they
permit, but officialism promotes all with zeal. At present we laugh at
Mesmer and study hypnotism; at present we sneer at the incarnations of
Vishnu and inquire into Theosophy; at present we condemn the
sacrificial "great custom" of King Prempeh and order our killings by
twelve men and the sheriff and by elaborate machinery; at present we
shudder at the sports of Commodus and wait breathlessly upon bulletins
from Carson City. Those who scouted the fetiches of Dahomey have
waited on their knees in the Cathedral at Naples for the liquefaction
of the blood of St. Januarius, or crawled in agony of hope to the
saving pool at Lourdes. There have been those melted to tenderest
compassion at the sight of a wounded dog or an overdriven horse, who
have yet owned human slaves and contended that it was right, even if
harsh, to sell a mother and her child from one auction block to
different owners. There have been those so wounded by the shortcomings
of their neighbors that they have organized white-capped bands of
virtue to wipe out immorality in the cleansing blood of murder. A man
may reject the miracle of Jonah and yet see an airship.

       *       *       *       *       *

Now this is the tribunal that has handed down the judgment that
novel-reading is a vice. Is it not a most natural, just and honest
opinion? Could such a tribunal properly pronounce any other? Is it not
such a judgment in fact as vindicates the integrity of the court,
while it crowns the culprit with glory? In expressing the idea that
the reading of novels is only an amusement--to be taken up when there
is nothing else to do--your average grocer, tailor, lawyer, or what
not, has but spoken to you the world's judgment. In fact there are
countless readers of novels who have grown up in this atmosphere of
conviction that novels are meant only to amuse. They are so habituated
to the idea that novels, to them, are valueless--mere sentimental
unrealities or spiced narratives of heated invention--so that they go
through the treasure houses of genius without ever hearing the
soft-voiced persuasion of knowledge or seeing the marvelous, vivid
panorama of human life, illustrating its aspirations, sorrows,
struggles, triumphs and failures. Such readers, convinced in advance
that everything in a novel is fictitious, because the personages
discussed are fictitious in name, never dream that study of the
conduct of these personages may be useful to influence their own
manners, conduct, morals or sympathies. Indeed, some of them are so
confident of the unreality of novels that when they are confronted
with their own counterparts in fictitious personality they feel a
certain sense of humiliation as of being convicted of eccentricity, of
an unlikeness to actual persons, which must be concealed as branding
them "fit to be put into a novel." To such persons novel-reading is a
vice, because it is an indolent excitement, a mental opium-eating; the
useless butting--against an unscalable wall--of brains intended to be
fully occupied in developing those parts of the nervous and muscular
systems that find their highest application in vigorous devotion to
the washboard or the laying of gas pipes down.

What a different result is achieved by the reader who knows the secret
that imagination is the soul of thought, that taste is the power of
truth and that the abstractions produced by imagination and taste
dealing with fact to convert it to fiction, or carefully assembling
fiction to convert it to fact, have been the stars that have lighted
up the night of human history. By the light of these in their varying
forms man discovered Religion, Philosophy, Science, Government and the
possibility of orderly Liberty. To such a reader the novel comprehends
all human society, its customs and secrets. The untraveled man may sit
in his library and become as familiar with the world as with his
native town; the diffident student may mingle familiarly in the
society of courts; the bashful girl may learn the most engaging
manners; the slow may learn the trick of wit; the rich may learn
sympathy for the poor; the weak may be warned against the pitfalls of
temptation and every one may there survey himself in every aspect,
subjected to discussion and exhibition under various disguises and
under various circumstances; and, if he have courage and the desire,
he can decide what he thinks of himself and the possibilities of
improving the opinion in the light of full knowledge of the subject.

The Novel has come as the solvent of all literary art. In its
possibilities all the essentials of other literary forms are
combined and conveyed without injury. Professedly not History, it
performs all its wonders in the guise of History and adds a light and
a human interest to chronicle that gives increased value. We do not
get sympathetic and human knowledge of England from History, but from
Scott, Thackeray and her splendid historical novelists. We do not turn
to Guizot and Thiers for any knowledge of French history except its
stated public facts, its documents with royal seals and its verified
dates and details--it is to Dumas, Merimee, Balzac that all but the
professional students of history go. We do not seek in the rapid
sketches of Gibbon for the story of Nero, but in the pages of "Quo
Vadis." Where do we find the breathing history of Spain except in the
countless novels that its picturesque subjects have suggested? I would
scorn to underestimate the profound and substantial value that the
great muse of History has conferred upon the world. In all literature
she deservedly ranks first in dignity, power and usefulness; but who
will say that at her court the Prime Minister is not the Novel, which
by its lightness, grace and address has popularized history all over
the world?

While the Novel has none of the guise of poetry, yet it has its every
essence, neglecting only form and rhyme. In the Novel you may find the
measure, the accent and the figures of the whole range of poetry, and
a capacity for inspiring enthusiasm and emulation quite as great as
poetry unjoined to the divine enchantress, Music.

Plainly not Drama, yet what is more dramatic than the Novel? In the
miracle of its pages you find theater, scenery, actors, audience and
author. You may sit at your ease in your library chair and command the
services of the most innumerable company of comedians, tragedians,
lovers, ladies, buffoons, soubrettes and pantomimists that the world
ever knew. How many novels have been turned into dramas, how few
dramas have been successfully expanded into novels!

Thus the Novel, while it is not History nor Poetry nor the Drama, is a
combination of all. And it possesses more than this. Its lightness
enables it to tell the history of the commonest peasant--a subject
that History disdained until the Novel bent to the task. Its
flexibility makes it possible to write the history of types and
classes; its capacity enables it to convey science, to teach morals,
to illuminate the abstract difficulties of every philosophy, to utter
the despairing human protests stifled elsewhere, and to embrace every
purpose for which words were created and human aspirations were
kindled. That it has lent itself to base uses is true. How could it
escape the contamination that has smirched every other art? And, as in
every other art, that which is base and false in fiction soon dies of
its own inherent weakness and is forgotten. But decade by decade the
Novel grows more powerful, more noble, and more adaptable to the
spiritual uses of man. The time will come when the Novel will stand on
the book-shelves with history, the philosophies and the sciences, as
of equal honor and use--necessary to complete the education of every
scholar; yet even then there will probably be a tribunal to pronounce
it to be, if not a vice, at least of doubtful utility.

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*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "On the Vice of Novel Reading. - Being a brief in appeal, pointing out errors of the lower tribunal." ***

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