Wednesday, September 19, 2018

"Moral Poison": The Evils of Reading Novels, 1864

Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Susan reporting,

Loretta and I have written so many posts for this blog over the years - nearly a decade's worth! - that we've forgotten a good many of them. Fortunately, our readers haven't. This one surfaced yesterday on Twitter (thank you, Lucy Paquette), and I thought it deserved another appearance here as I wallow through deadline-itis.

In an earlier post, I shared an 18thc warning against women reading romances. By 1860, those who worried about everyone else's reading habits had expanded their concerns, including all novels read not only by women, but by men as well. Apparently novels were dangerous.

The warnings below come from a religious tract published in New York in 1864. A Pastor's Jottings; or, Striking Scenes during a Ministry of Thirty-Five Years was printed anonymously because, as the prefatory note explains, the author "could thus write with more freedom." That same note assures us that "the statements of this volume are all literally true."

Among the many things (this book is nearly 350 pages long) that distress this unknown pastor, novels - that "moral poison" - are right there at the top of the list: "The minds of novel readers are intoxicated, their rest is broken, their health shattered, and their prospect of usefulness blighted."

But he doesn't want us simply to take his word for it. Apparently even novels by Charles Dickens are suspect, and he quotes the famous educator Dr. Thomas Arnold of Rugby School fame to prove it:

Childishness in boys even of good ability seems to be a growing fault; and I do not know what to ascribe it, except to the great number of exciting books of amusement, like Pickwick, Nickleby, Bentley's Magazine, etc...that leave [a boy] totally palled, not only for his regular work, but for literature of all sorts.

Nor are women exempt from the terrible influences of novel-reading. In fact (remember, this is all LITERALLY TRUE), according to the pastor, women suffer even more:

Listen to the evidence given by a physician in Massachusetts: 'I have seen a young lady with her table loaded with volumes of fictitious trash, poring day after day and night after night over highly wrought scenes and skillfully portrayed pictures of romance, until her cheeks grew pale, her eyes became wild and restless, and her mind wandered and was lost – the light of intelligence passed behind a cloud, and her soul was forever benighted. She was insane, incurably insane from reading novels.'

But insanity is only the beginning:

Not very long since, a double suicide was a young married couple from Ohio, who were clearly proved to be led to ruin and death by these most pernicious books....Police officers too in London and some of our own large cities, have given mournful evidence of the results of some of these novels when dramatized and performed on the stage, as leading to burglaries and murder.

Suicide, madness, burglaries, and murder! As an unrepentant novelist, I clearly have much to answer for. While for obvious reasons, I don't want you to see the error of your ways, but if you'd like to read more of the Unnamed Pastor's edifying work, here's the link to his book, available to read for free via Google Books.

Thanks to Clive Thompson, who shared quotes from A Pastor's Jottings on Twitter.

Above: The Pink Domino; print made by William Henry Mote after Frank Stone, c1833-1835. The British Museum.


Unknown said...

"Pastor Jottings" was evidently as inured to the irony of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey as he was quick to blame the evils of society on its latest invention. Though 1864 is quite late in the day to apportion blame as regards the novel.

Regencyresearcher said...

The good Pastor has it wrong. Novels don't lead to insanity but has kept a great many from it. Reading has saved my sanity many times as a single mother of 3 teens.
As to suicides-- that was passee. After the Sorrows of Werther came out in late 18th century, several young men committed suicide like Werther Most readers don't go that far. I think that preacher has been reading the HEROINE.

Cynthia Lambert said...

What a killjoy. There is always someone who is so personally locked down that they cannot bear it if another human enjoys himself. He must have been a barrel of laughs to his friends. He had a shriveled soul. Imagine going to church every Sunday to listen to that sourpuss. How depressing. I bet he got moved around a lot because he could shrink a flock like nobody's business.

Anna said...

Even Louisa May Alcott, writer of novels, criticizes the reading of certain types of novels... French romance novels are too racy, popular adventure novels corrupt boys...and she wrote sensational romance novels to make money! "Eight Cousins", "Rose in Bloom", and "An Old-fashioned Girl" are some of her especially moralizing stories that critique novels of certain types.

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