D. R. Thomason, 1831
Works of fiction are peculiarly influential. The imagination is one of the most active and powerful faculties of the human mind, and, consequently, on the manner in which it is directed and controlled, the structure of character will, in an important degree, depend. The rapid and excursive flights of imagination through the regions of thought, and the avidity with which it seizes and appropriates the objects of its taste, render it an active agent in collecting those ideas, sentiments and feelings, which form the fabric of intellectual and moral character.
The activity and capacity of the imagination are sufficiently revealed, by the eagerness with which the productions of the poet and novelist are, by all classes of readers, perused, and the almost unbounded number of volumes of this description, which are annually issuing from the press.
That an indiscriminate perusal of novels is deeply mischievous, everyone admits; at the same time it must be conceded, that, under certain restrictions, some of these productions may be perused without injury, and indeed with a measure of advantage. To assign suitable limits is, doubtless, a somewhat delicate and difficult task. The effort, however, is important; for should it prove successful, a danger of considerable magnitude will be avoided. The youthful mind will be taught to form its judgment, and to fix its decision respecting the forbidden indulgence. To place an unqualified interdict on all novels will hardly be found, as some suppose, an error on the safe side. In the estimation of a young person, possessing an ordinary degree of intelligence and spirit of inquiry, it will be difficult to exonerate from the charge of ignorance or undue severity, the sentiment, that all novels must be forbidden because some are injurious. He will scarcely fail to treat the opinion with secret disapprobation, if not with open contempt.
The self-confidence, which is almost inseparable from youthful inexperience, will induce him to embrace the first opportunity of overstepping the line, which he imagines absurd prejudice or timid caution has drawn, and to tread in the forbidden path, where, if dangers abound, they will employ his sagacity to discover, and his wisdom to avoid.
Some of the generally admitted evils attending an indiscriminate perusal of novels require examination. The fact is too notorious to require proof—that many of these productions possess a direct immoral tendency. Erroneous and dangerous sentiments, unchaste associations, and polluting images, are presented in a form, which disguises them only to render them the more insidious, fascinating and fatal. Like the foe, who in the garb of a friend, gains admittance into a besieged citadel, they effect an entrance into the unsuspecting heart, which—but for their treachery, might have remained secure both in purity and virtue. Could many such productions, which are generally deemed harmless, undergo a process of accurate analysis, it may with confidence be asserted, that some of their fondest admirers would be startled by a view of the deadly ingredients of which they are composed.
It is impossible for language to convey the indignation which every virtuous mind will cherish against the authors of such productions. If the wretch is the image of horror and execration, who prowls in midnight darkness along the lonely way, in search of the foe, whom rivalry, insult, or crime, has made the object of murderous hate, what feelings must be directed against these moral assassins, who, for paltry gain, or from barbarous wantonness, steal unsuspected on the fair form of virtue, and make a deadly pass at the heart of purity and innocence?
To the youth whose eye may meet these pages, the words of friendly and affectionate admonition are addressed. As he values virtue, peace, and character; as he holds sacred and dear the interests of his moral being and immortal destiny—let him not lay hands on these pernicious volumes! As he would dread to recline on a bed of roses where scorpions have made their nest, let him not yield his heart to their guilty fascinations; let him not suffer an inexperienced and ardent imagination to follow in their flowery path amid images of unhallowed delight!
Purity of thought and feeling, let it be remembered, is the first element of virtue; and escape from the slightest degree of contamination, should be an object of constant and supreme solicitude. Of all the evils which constitute the bane of virtue and happiness—a polluted imagination is the most to be dreaded. By its efforts a fascination is given to guilty pleasure, and a power to invite and seduce, when reason and conscience have united to pronounce their loudest warnings of peril and death.
It is this faculty which multiplies, to an infinite degree, incentives to unhallowed passion, and creates, with a fearful omnipotence, an endless succession of new and ever-varied forms of allurement.
Solitude forms no safeguard; virtuous love withers beneath the infection; every association is contaminated, and mingles with the surrounding elements of corruption. The soul, polluted in every thought, and debased in every faculty, is bound down to sense, and rendered the slave of lust, never more to be unloosed until that sense and that lust shall themselves be bound in the stronger bonds of death and the grave; and then, with all its defilement, "the spirit shall return to God who gave it," and learn, in the purity of his nature, the turpitude of its guilt, and in the frowns of his anger, the consummation of its misery.
Many novels, also, whose design and tendency are by no means obviously and directly inimical to virtue, will, on the score of moral effect, be found exceptionable. In too many instances there is evidently a study rather to gratify than to instruct, to color a picture than to point a moral, and to stimulate the imagination than to cherish virtue or strengthen principle. Like the productions of the drama, they exhibit virtue and vice in other than their native attire, and give to both a coloring which is not their own. Their appropriate attributes have been exchanged, and their forms so modified, as to destroy the powerful contrast which they naturally present. Their respective colors, instead of standing in strong relief, have, like the hues of the rainbow, been inseparably blended. In most novels characters are so drawn as to exclude the class of excellencies which unequivocally designate genuine virtue, and are farthest removed from any of the qualities of vice. On the other hand, those attributes of virtue which, from their nature, admit into connection with themselves some of the specious qualities of human infirmity, are constantly exhibited.
The most superficial observer can scarcely have failed to remark, that the class of virtues which, in consequence of their inseparable connection with the religion of the New Testament, have been designated Christian virtues, seem to be of no service to the novelist in modeling his characters. Of heathen virtues only, he appears to be able to avail himself. Meekness, humility, forbearance, self-denial, and other virtues of this order, to which the New Testament gives so decided a pre-eminence, cannot, it would appear, be advantageously embodied in a hero of fiction. With the improper passions of the human heart, these qualities have no affinity; they cannot be so modified as to be inwrought with those traits of character which at once excite and indulge the reader. Other virtues admit this purpose. Some of their qualities, or at least their semblance, can be transferred to the secretly cherished infirmities of human character. Under the name of magnanimity may appear pride; under that of honor, revenge; and under that of tender passion, criminal desire.
On the youthful mind, where the affections are lively, and the sympathies strong, the faculty of moral discrimination imperfectly formed, and the virtuous principle immature, the injurious influence of these specious representations exceeds calculation. They must necessarily tend to weaken the feelings, which virtue and vice ought to inspire; to confound distinctions between them, which it is of the highest importance to preserve; to bewilder the moral traveler in his path, and seduce him to aberration and ruin. No correct observer will doubt, that the influence of such productions on youthful character materially assists to form the strong and settled aversion to the morality of the New Testament, which so many discover. Accustomed to admire and worship the gaudy form, which idolatrous hands have set up to represent the goddess of truth, it is no wonder that they should be repelled by the holier aspect of the real divinity, and refuse her their homage and service.
Admitting, even, that the selection is strictly judicious, the youthful reader is by no means free from danger in the perusal of works of fiction. A taste for novel-reading is fraught with many evils. Its indulgence will consume more time than young people can afford for this employment. Early life is the favorable period for storing the mind with useful knowledge, enlarging the intellectual capacity, and forming the character. To acquire solid attainments, should, with all young people—be an object of chief regard. Novel-reading serves the purpose only of mental recreation, or at best, effects the embellishment of character. Materials for the structure itself should be first procured; those for its decoration may be sought at leisure. Beauty, without stability, is both weakness and folly.
A disinclination, moreover, for the pursuits of solid literature, is the infallible consequence of an undue predilection for this class of reading. An weakness of intellect is produced. The youthful mind, thus nursed on imagination's lap, may indeed grow into grace and beauty—but its masculine character will be lost. From an unfortunate preponderance of imagination, many a mind, gifted by nature with the requisites for successful and honorable advance in the path of science, has received that volatile character, which has ever hindered its success. Imagination's visions have absorbed the attention due to sober reason, and fiction has engrossed the time, which ought to have been employed in the discovery of truth.
A taste for novel-reading has a tendency, also, to unfit the mind for the ordinary duties and pleasures of life. A love of the fictitious is produced. This disposition is the fruitful source both of failure and disappointment. The imagination, thus improperly excited, will be frequently employed in identifying its own future history with those felicitous events which the novelist furnishes; hope, at length, embraces them, reason herself, forgetting that they are unreal, affords them a place in her sober calculations, and, when the false vision disappears, all the regrets of rational disappointment are experienced.
Nor must the amount of this evil be estimated merely by the temporary suffering which is thus occasioned. Disappointment, in whatever way it is occasioned, is the bane of exertion. If the youthful mind is so far led astray by the representations of its imagination, as to believe that the pleasing incidents which it contemplates, may actually occur in its own history, the danger is considerable, that the first palpable proof of the absurdity of its hopes will paralyze its exertions, and induce a despondency proportioned to its unwarrantable expectations.
The history of the unhappy Rousseau supplies a striking illustration of these remarks. "I cherished for myself," says he, "the situations which had interested me in my reading. I recalled them, varied them, and so appropriated them, until I became one of the people whom I imagined—until I saw myself in the situation most agreeable to my taste—until, in fine, the fictitious state into which I came, caused me to forget my real condition with which I was so discontented. This love of imaginary objects, and this facility of occupying myself, occasioned me disgust of all that surrounded me, and formed that taste for solitude which I retain to this day. The impossibility of finding real beings adapted to my taste, threw me into a chimerical world, and seeing nothing of positive existence, which was worthy of my dreams, I cherished it in the imagined world, which my creative imagination very soon peopled with beings adapted to my taste. Forgetting altogether the human race, I created for myself a society of perfect celestial creatures—as well by their virtues, as by their beauty—of friends sure, tender, faithful, such as I have never found them on earth. I took such delight thus to hover in this imperial abode, among the charming objects by which I was surrounded, that I passed there hours and days without number; and losing the recollection of everything else, hardly had I eaten a hasty morsel, than I longed to escape, and run to find my bower. If, when about to go into the enchanting world, I saw arrive any unfortunate mortals, who came to retain me on earth, I could neither moderate nor conceal my ill-humor, and being no more master of myself, I gave them a reception so crude, that it might justly be called brutal. Thus was increased my reputation for misanthropy, by the very means, which would have acquired me an opposite character, had I been better known."
Such an excitement of the imagination, as the constant perusal of novels produces, has a tendency also to weaken the sympathies which are necessary to active benevolence. Among the numerous victims of suffering, which interaction with society would bring before such an individual, how few would be found, whose character and history presented a picture half so interesting, as that which fiction is accustomed to exhibit! What sympathies would be felt with yonder suppliant, whose tattered garb and emaciated form bespeak him to be "misery's child," indeed—but in whose humble mein, and broken tale of common-place woe, there is nothing to identify him with a hero of romance?
Few people, it is apprehended, who have imbibed an excessive fondness for fiction, would not be prepared to acknowledge, that the tendency of such a taste—is to a morbid sensibility, which disqualifies for the active duties of benevolence. Sympathies of the most exquisite kind, it is true, have been awakened—but only by such objects as have excited them uselessly. Benevolent feeling has flowed, not through the cultivated soil, where thousands might benefit by the stream—but through the barren waste, where freshness and verdure never appear, to reward its munificence. How often has it happened, that while the young and amiable heart has been wrought up to tenderness, over a tale of fictitious woe, the neighboring abode of real distress has remained unvisited; and poverty, and sickness unnoticed as worthy, neither of sympathy nor aid; and even when some suffering form of humanity has presented itself for pity and support, that sensitive heart has felt only disgust, and, like the priest in the parable, has "passed by on the other side," leaving to grosser feelings the task of the good Samaritan, to "bind up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine!"
The early formation of the habits of active benevolence is of incalculable importance, and that which checks the growth of this principle, or gives to it a morbid character, must be considered a serious evil. "That philanthropy is of little avail—which exhausts itself in aspirations after the happiness of our fellow creatures, without its assuming a tangible and practical character. General expressions of regret at misfortunes, are easily enunciated by people who would not, themselves, have encountered the slightest trouble towards their mitigation. We have thousands of sentimentalists of this school—thousands who discourse most eloquently on the privations of the deaf and dumb, and yet not one of them with sincere zeal.
It would be doing, however, signal injustice to human nature, were we to suppose, that the quality of benevolence is so rare, and necessarily barren in its fruits, in the majority of mankind. There is certainly no small difference in the degree with which men are originally endowed with this sentiment; but, making all fine allowances for these varieties, we are constrained to admit, that the cause of its imperfect display in the progress of life, is deficient early cultivation. The sentiments, to be useful to their possessor, and profitable to society, must be put in action, and their beauties and benefits can only be taught by showing them in action. We can learn geometry and mathematics, and the elements, at least, of most of the sciences—by conventional methods, which are only appreciated by the intellect. But an exclusive appeal to the intellect, in morals and religion, is responded to by the most wretched sophisms.
Charity cannot be taught like a science, nor valued by weights and figures. It ought not to be inculcated by appeals to vanity, nor associated with motives which, though seemingly congenial, are really foreign and inadmissible. When a young person, at the suggestion, or by the command of his parent, relieves a poor and squalid being, a return is too often made, in terms of unmeasured flattery, and numerous benedictions and prophesyings of future worth. From this time, vanity becomes, in this young person, the exciter to charity; and he is led, also, to entertain, by the contrast with the other's suffering and poverty, exaggerated notions of his own importance and worth. But if, in place of coldly giving alms to the passing beggar, the child is taken to the dwelling of this unfortunate being, and made a witness of the state of his miserable hovel—his lack of fuel and bed-clothes—and the hunger, and half nudity of his little ones, an entirely different class of emotions is excited from those brought into play, in the first case. The sight of all these things naturally creates, in the juvenile visiter, a painful impression—pity for the sufferers. Now is the moment to point out the means of relief, and to show him, that, by giving clothes and food, he confers comfort; and if he is persuaded to give away his pocket-money, in order to enable the poor creatures to purchase food for the morrow, and other obvious necessaries; the first lesson of charity is made complete. Here, the evident pleasure given to others, more than soothes—it gratifies his feelings, and is a requital for the self-denial in parting from money, with which, perhaps, the little visiter had previously determined to purchase a toy, or some other means of amusement. Succeeding visits will enable him to see and learn how far the misery of the poor man is kept up by bodily infirmity, and disability to work, or is the result of idleness and bad habits. If it is discovered that drunkenness is at the root of the evil, the young person who has acted as almoner, will be more forcibly impressed with the enormities of this vice, than by the most eloquent dissuasives by his father. Even in after years, he will not be misled as to its true nature, if he should see, at the festive table, a man of wit and genius rapidly drowning his faculties in wine, and who, by the time that he has succeeded in amusing and instructing the company, has thoroughly imbued himself with the spirit of future melancholy and final ruin. The youthful observer will learn, that however much wealth and luxurious refinements may modify the display of vice—its nature is not changed, nor the penalty for its commission materially prolonged or mitigated.
"By making them spectators of the varied scenes of human misery, whether it proceed from poverty, disease, the infirmities of old age, or sudden bereavements of any kind—the young acquire a knowledge of the needs of their fellow-creatures; and thus familiarized with the causes of suffering, and their benevolence adequately excited, they are able to devise, not only means of relief in the present case—but measures of prevention against the occurrence of similar ills. It may, in fine, we think, be laid down as an axiom in practical charity, that, for a man to discharge his duty to the distressed, in mind, body, or estate—he must have served an apprenticeship, not of personal suffering—but of observation and familiarity with scenes of distress. He ought, in fact, to acquire that kind of experience demanded for giving efficiency to philanthropy, which a physician finds to be essential for enabling him to relieve the bodily ailments of his fellow-men. Both ought to be familiar with symptoms, and able to distinguish the accidental from the characteristic; both ought to have observed well the causes, and both with manly frankness, tempered with discretion, point out the means of relief. An mere theorist in charity, is nearly as reprehensible a being as an mere theorist in medicine. It is true, the former can plead, with more plausibility, his good motives—but his blunders are not the less harmful. Ignorance of the causes of the misery of his fellow-citizens, which are not evident within his own contracted circle, furnish the only allowable excuse of him who sneers at every scheme for bettering the condition of mankind, the projectors and supporters of which, may have neglected to propitiate his vanity, by giving him place and office among themselves. Let parents take their children with them in their visits of mercy, and make the latter, on occasions, their almoners, and they will have the double delignt of more effectually solacing the miserable, and of nurturing the seeds of charity and benevolence, in the young visiter, into a rich harvest of good works, in the mature man. They will contribute greatly, by such means, to prevent disease, and render unnecessary the visits of the physician, always commanded, it is true, by even the most wretched; but, in the nature of things, not always productive of the hoped-for cure."
But the most serious evil attending a taste for novel-reading, consists in its tendency to convey false and dangerous sentiments and feelings, in reference to the moral character of human existence. The present state is one of moral trial. It is a scene of spiritual conflict, the result of which is infinitely interesting. Immortal honors reward the victor, and eternal infamy awaits the vanquished. With this condition of our being, everything around us corresponds. The vicissitudes of life, its transitions of prosperous and adverse events, the singular, and apparently incongruous mixture of pleasure and pain, of anxiety and repose, of sorrow and joy—are all tending, under the superintendence of a moral Governor, to make the virtuous more virtuous, and their ultimate happiness secure, complete, and durable. The part of wisdom, therefore, is to direct our views towards this felicitous consummation, and to identify with it our best expectations and wishes.
Everyone who is familiar with novels is aware, that their effect is to produce a class of feelings inimical to this object. Not only do they confine the views to the present sphere of being, and create an undue degree of interest in its transitory and unsatisfactory objects—but they invest the realities of life with a false coloring, and convert a scene of eventful duty, into a theater of artificial splendor, high-wrought incident, and ideal felicity. Can familiarity with such representations have any other effect on the youthful reader, than that of lowering his aims, misguiding his judgment, inflaming his passions, causing him to identify his chief good with the precarious and delusory honors and pleasures of a passing existence, and leading him on, through toil and weariness, to faded joys, disappointed hopes, and final wretchedness?
That these are the evils attending an inordinate indulgence in this species of gratification, too many witnesses can vouch. How many hearts, once warm with wishes, beating happily with hope, and braced by confidence to manly and honorable exertion, now lie chilled and blighted in disappointment, chagrin and disgust—by means of those romantic hopes, unearthly visions, and over-wrought sensibilities—to which novels and romances have given birth! The canker-worm preys on the root of enjoyment, robs the heart of its peace and its gladness, the spirits of their buoyancy, the eye of its light and its loveliness, the cheek of its bloom, and the whole frame of its freshness and vigor. Disappointment, incurred only by extravagant expectations, vanished hopes, which have disappeared only because they were too bright to be real, have sunk into despondency—a heart, which no future success could inspire with confidence, and no amount of praise awaken into hope.
But the intimation has been given, that, under certain restrictions, some novels may be harmlessly and profitably perused. An explanation is necessary. The imagination, injurious as are its operations under improper control, when correctly disciplined, contributes, in no inferior degree, to the improvement of character, and the advance of happiness. The virtues of the heart are favorably modified by this faculty. A well-regulated imagination heightens benevolent feeling. That in the exercise of benevolence there is exquisite pleasure, none but those who are destitute of this virtue, will be disposed to deny. In proportion to this pleasure, desire for the cultivation of the virtue will be increased. Imagination contributes to this object.
The productions of the novelist illustrate this position. The picture of distress is here finished, and the reader is informed, not only of the fact, and the cause of the misery he contemplates—but also of the sentiments and feelings of the sufferer in reference to his situation. In ordinary life we see only the naked outline, and the impression is consequently slight. But, by the aid of imagination, we supply the incidents lacking. Suppose two individuals; the one possessing an active imagination, and the other deficient in that faculty. An object of distress presents itself to them. Both are benevolent, and contribute to the needs of the sufferer. The one, who is destitute of of imagination, feels pleasure in having done good—and here the pleasure terminates. The other by and easy and delightful effort of the imagination, pictures to himself, the probable scene of the object of charity, and entering his home of wretchedness, and presenting to the raptured scene of the partners of his poverty, the blessing of his benevolence. He will see, with the eye of his imagination, the smile of joy, and the tear of gratitude mingled on every face; and as he contemplates the picture, so exquisite and touching, he will experience, in a degree to which his phlegmatic companion is utterly a stranger, "the luxury of doing good."
I have been often inclined to think," says Mr. Professor Stewart, "that the apparent coldness and selfishness of mankind may be traced, in a great measure, to the lack of imagination. In the case of misfortunes, which happen to ourselves, or to our near connections, this power is not necessary to make us acquainted with our situation, so that we feel of necessity the corresponding emotions. But without the exercise of a lively imagination, it is impossible for a man to comprehend completely the situation of his neighbor, or to have any idea of a great part of the distress which exists in the world. If we feel, therefore, more for ourselves, than for others, the difference is to be ascribed, at least partly, to this—that in the former case, the facts, which are the foundation of our feeling, are more fully before us, than they can be in the latter."
On the same principle, the imagination subserves the interests of friendship. This faculty affords to the mind an increased susceptibility of attachment. It will be frequently employed in inventing circumstances and incidents, such as serve to exhibit the best virtues of the object beloved, and to develop, in every varied and attractive form, the admired traits of its character. Thus, amid the monotony of every-day incidents, and common-place life, where the same qualities of excellence, modified by no changing scenes, or altered circumstances, would almost cease to appear excellencies, from their very uniformity, all the attachment, which new admiration and fresh delight can elicit, is preserved in tenderness and vigor. The desire of the mind for novelty renders the imagination eminently subservient to personal happiness. The contemplation of present objects, and reflection on those which are passed, cannot be long satisfactorily indulged. The field of visible realities, however extensive, varied and rich—is too limited for the soul's unwearied flight and boundless curiosity. The aid of imagination, therefore, is engaged, which, with a hand as potent as ingenious, forms a new creation, on whose enchanting scenery the eye reposes with delight—scenery which soon loses its beauty indeed—but loses it only in the rival charms of a newer landscape.
The mind not only seeks novelty—but it loves perfection. In real life, there is the perpetual intervention of circumstances, which interrupt a succession of agreeable incidents; and the benevolent Author of existence seems to have provided, among other sources of relief, the power to call off the mind from a state of real imperfection, to the ideal perfections which itself has created. The ills of life are often complicated and severe, and it is the part of wisdom, as much lawfully to avoid them—as to meet them with fortitude, when they cannot be escaped. He is at once to be envied and imitated, who has learned to forget his present sufferings in the anticipation of supposable felicity—who, while gazing on the lovely form of imaginary happiness, can smile away the tear which sorrow has shed; and, when real existence presents, throughout the dreary scene, no object on which hope may fix, with delight—her regards can rise, on imagination's wing, above the dark and troubled horizon, and dwell undisturbed amid brightness, beauty, and repose.
The individual, indeed, who is placed below the mediocrity of mental state—whose life has been exclusively occupied in the undisturbed pursuits of sensible objects—who has hardly known an imaginary need—can experience but little of the pleasures of imagination. But, ask the unhappy exile, who has endured the dissolution of every tie of social tenderness, and is destined to long exile and total solitude—ask him, what are the blessings of imagination? He can tell how often, like a ministerial angel of mercy, it has visited his lonely retreat, chased away the gloom of his dreariness, illumined, with its radiant presence, his listless eye, conducted him back, as it were, to the scene of his dearest enjoyments, there to experience for a moment, all the raptures of a real return, and all the ecstasies of recovered possession.
Ask the mariner the question, who, while an almost measureless ocean rolls between him and his native shore, still finds himself at home in thought, and, while winds and waves assail his fragile bark, has his heart entwined by a thousand lively and tender thoughts, the more lively and tender from the very distance which separates, and the danger which threatens.
Such is the relief which imagination is accustomed to afford to solitude and sorrow; and, next to the supreme consolations of true religion, there is, perhaps, no more efficient antidote for the ills of life, than that which an active and well-regulated imagination supplies. But why not except the qualification? For surely the most animating pleasures of religion itself are deduced from the power which the mind possesses, to picture its moral prospects of perfect and endless felicity. The pleasures which imagination affords are, indeed, unsubstantial and fleeting; but they are pleasures still, and they are innocent pleasures; they are like the soft and chastened lightning, which sports in the horizon of an autumnal sky, which is as beautiful as transient, and as harmless as beautiful.
So far, therefore, as works of fiction serve to cultivate the imagination, they possess considerable value. They will assist its creative powers, multiply its images, and correct and refine its conceptions. They will tend to produce that refinement of sentiment, delicacy of taste, elevation of feeling, and glow of affection, which form the polish of the heart, the finish of mental character, and the best elements of personal and social happiness.
In prescribing suitable limits for the perusal of works of this description, it is to be remarked, that young people cannot, with safety and advantage, be introduced to this department of literature, until they have arrived at the later stages of their education. The mind must be to a considerable extent cultivated, the judgment informed, the principles fixed, and the character matured—before a reader will be prepared to derive the advantages, which such productions are intended to communicate. At an earlier stage of mental culture, there cannot be properly in exercise the faculty of discrimination, which ought invariably to accompany such a pursuit. It will be understood, that, in the above remarks, the higher order of fiction is referred to. Such books as Robinson Crusoe, and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, may with advantage be put into the hands of a child as soon as he is able to read them. The excitement and stimulus which the infant mind will derive from such productions, is harmless in itself, and beneficial in its results.
Neither will the intellectual pleasures of this description of reading be enjoyed—if the plot is not understood, and the incidents are not followed with interest. The writer's descriptions and delineations should be studied, his sentiments tried, and his practical lessons received. No one, who is not, in a measure, qualified for the exercise of mind requisite to embrace this purpose, should be introduced into this department of literature. The mental constitution, also, should be consulted. Some minds are naturally imaginative and romantic. Young people of this temperament, should, with extreme caution, be allowed to read works of fiction. They ought to be limited to the most chaste and sober order of imaginative productions. They should read to correct, rather than to gratify their taste; and should study, in their author's productions, the imaginations of others, only with a view to regulate their own.
On the other hand, where there is obviously an opposite cast of mind—where the mental habit is phlegmatic, or has too great a tendency to abstract thought or dull calculation—the productions of fiction may, with important advantage, be perused. "A considerable vigor of imagination," observes Mr. Foster, "seems necessary in early life, to cause a generous expansion of the passions, by giving the most lively aspect to the objects by which they ought to be interested. There are some young people, who seem to have only the bare intellectual stamina of the human mind, without the addition of what is to give it life and sentiment. They give one an impression similar to that made by the leafless trees, which we see in winter, admirable for the distinct exhibition of their branches, and minute ramifications, so clearly defined on the sky—but destitute of all the green, soft luxury of foliage, which is requisite to make the perfect tree. And even the affections, existing in such minds, seem to have a bleak abode, something like those bare, deserted nests, which we have often seen in such trees."
It should be observed, moreover, that a small portion of time only, ought, in general, to be devoted to the reading of novels. Of the books, which form the companions of our studious hours, the proportion, which novels should sustain to those of an opposite class, should be very little. They should be regarded as the desert of the intellectual meal. The maxim is a good one—never allow the earlier portion of the day to be occupied in the perusal of novels. Such relaxation, at a time when the mind is naturally best prepared for serious pursuits, and vigorous exertions, cannot be indulged in without considerable injury.