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Who has made the deepest and most permanent record of English history? A dramatic poet, by laying, in the events of that history, the foundation upon which the splendid structures of his imagination have been reared. What writer has traced the path of Christian duty, for the greatest number of millions ? Bunyan, by a romantic tale, in which he personified piety, and the difficulties and trials with which she has to contend. How many thousands, who could not have been reached by other means, have followed, with deep interest, the wanderings of Christian, over the craggy rocks, and through the dark vallies ;—now encountering the fierce assaults of Apollyon, and now sinking under the savage tyranny of the giant Despair. What is the masterpiece, so far as success may be considered a criterion, of the literature of childhood ? A story of romantic adventure on a solitary island, with whose wild details every boy and girl, who can read the English language, is familiar. We cannot indeed ever ascertain, what number of copies of any standard English work have been circulated ; but it is probable, that no other four could be found, whose united readers would make so great a throng, as the collected multitudes, who have made themselves acquainted with Paradise Lost, The Plays of Shakespeare, The Pilgrim's Progress, and Robinson Crusoe.
It would however be very unsafe to infer, from the extensive circulation which some popular works of fiction have received, that fictitious writing has, on the whole, exerted a wider influence than true. A narrative of facts, by an early historian, may be rewritten and remodelled by a succeeding one; it may be incorporated with other accounts, and thus be handed down, by a series of writers, from generation to generation, while the original record, and the man who made it, are alike forgotten. A story, however, or a description which genius has conceived and written, can seldom be altered but to be spoiled. So long as it remains in the world of literature at all, it must remain under its own name and its original form. The rise of new nations and new languages, may make translations necessary; but even this is almost always fatal. There are very few works of
. imagination that can survive it. If such works live at all, they must live unchanged. If incomplete, they must continue unfinished; if wrong, unaltered. No blemish can be removed, no deficiency supplied; but they must remain forever untouched by any hand, but the one that formed them.
While then a successful work of the imagination is sacred, all other writings are, as it were, common literary property ; and they form a mass, in which each individual production is soon lost. A new treatise on intellectual philosophy necessarily supersedes the old, if it is equal to it in execution.
Hume drove preceding historians from the shelves of popular libraries, and must in his turn give way; and the experimentalist, who takes the lead in science in one century, lives only in the biographical dictionary in the next. On such subjects, books necessarily form a succession, the latter production drawing sustenance from the former, and destroying them as a return. While, on the other hand, works of imagination and taste, if genius has once breathed life into them, live forever. Succeeding efforts can only make additions, not substitutes. It thus happens, that while individual writings of this class possess a more lasting and extensive celebrity, the whole class, probably, exert less control over the public mind, than the books whose field is sober truth.
There is something in the very constitution of the human mind, which places it, to a great extent, beyond the reach of cold abstractions. It demands vivid pictures; it is allured to virtue, and deterred from vice, by seeing them in living and acting reality. No writer, or speaker, who has attempted to act upon mind, ever practised more fully, on a recognition of this, than our Saviour. There is the parable of the Prodigal Son, which has, perhaps, had as much influence upon mind, as any other composition of equal length, that ever was written ; how entirely does its moral power depend upon its being a minute and circumstantial narrative! true to nature; true in sentiment; but indebted, for the imagery in which this sentiment is clothed, to an imagination as fertile as any human mind was ever gifted with, though subdued and chastened, and consecrated to the noblest end.
It is interesting to observe, how large a part of the Bible is minute circumstantial narrative and dialogue ; and this characteristic, has probably been one of the strongest means of awakening and sustaining the interest in it, which has spread this volume so extensively in the world. This, in a very great degree, gives it its moral power. This procures for it a hearing, in a thousand cases, where cold abstractions never could be uttered, and gives it an influence, which the most eloquent essays or orations never could secure. It is so with modern books. Miss Edgeworth's works have, probably, had more real influence on the cause of family education, within the last twenty years, than all others together. It is because they introduce the reader, at once, whether parent or child, to the fireside. Bad government stands out distinctly to view, in all its deformity. We see its measures, we hear its conversation, we witness its melancholy results. On the other hand, we have, painted with equal clearness and truth, a personification of good management and instruction. The mother who follows the history of Frank, cannot but be influenced by it, very strongly and permanently, in the education of her family ; while the same principles expressed in a didactic form, would command only cold assent.
The field of truth is wide enough, and there is variety and interest enough in its details ; but the difficulty is, they are inaccessible. Truth would be far more interesting than fiction, if it could be, when written, equally minute and free. But it cannot be. There are very few writers who are capable of tracing the lineaments of a moral picture, so as to preserve its expression, and gain for it an influence and an ascendancy over human hearts; and of these few, none are likely to be willing to exhibit, in such a way, themselves or their friends. Every person who has much intercourse with society, is acquainted with tragic stories which have thrown a gloom over the circle in which he moves, and which, if minutely and freely related, with the genius with which imaginary sorrows are often described, would excite the deepest interest, and teach, emphatically, the most solemn lessons. But such stories cannot be told. The circle in which they occur, feel, in mournful silence, the deep interest they excite; but no one has a right to invade the sacredness of private suffering and sorrow, to teach the world any lesson which such an exposure might afford.
Faithful posthumous biography, would be the nearest approach to the kind of writing most calculated to interest and influence mankind. But what biography is faithful ? What character was ever thus really brought out to the light ? None; and none can be. Besides, the changes and the actions of a whole life, are to be dispatched in a few hundred pages, and we consequently receive little but general
statements, which make scarcely any impression, and from which very little is to be learned but simple matters of historical fact. If, then, precept is to any great extent to be illustrated and enforced by example, the imagination must assist in the work. But under what restrictions ?
A slight analysis, will enable us to distinguish three degrees of fiction, or rather three respects, in which the character of a work, for truth or fiction, is to be regarded. They relate to the incidents narrated—the pictures of life and manners which are drawn--and the sentiments which the general current of the book inculcates. A book may be fictitious altogether, in the details of its narrative and dialogue, and yet true to nature in its characters and scenes, and true to the principles of virtue and religion in its sentiments. On the other hand, the fiction of a work may be confined to the two last of these particulars, that is, the facts narrated may be true, but they may be so presented by the writer, as to exhibit false views of the scenes in which they occurred; and its pages may be filled with all that is poisonous and corrupting in sentiment, and bewildering in error. Many a military narrative would fall under this condemnation. The battles described were really fought, and the victories really won, but the disgusting and shocking details are concealed, or invested, by means of the language which exhibits them, with an altogether deceptive character. The interest of united and regulated action, by hundreds of thousands, and the sublimity of danger, predominate altogether in the description, while the reality would present nothing but universal confusion, misery and horror.
The Pilgrim's Progress is fictitious in the first and second of the particulars we have enumerated, and true only in the last. It narrates incidents and conversations which never occurred, and the scene which it presents is a picture of human life, which never could have had an original ; but its sentiments are true. In the parables of our Saviour, on the other hand, the scene is generally laid in human life as it is, so that they are fictitious only in the actual incidents described.
Now in considering the question, “whether fiction can safely be employed as a vehicle of truth,” and if so, how far, and with what restrictions, these several points must be carefully distinguished, for the injurious effects which result from this species of writing, spring, perhaps exclusively, from the second and third kinds of fiction we have alluded to. Imaginary incidents and conversations, if they present no false views of life, and breathe no corrupt or improper sentiments, can certainly do no injury. Evil results, follow
, only where false or falsely colored pictures are presented to the eye, alluring the reader away from the world of reality, to the romantic and unearthly regions it creates, and unfitting him for the sober duties and enjoyments of his actual station, by the fascination of scenes into which he never can enter ; or where false opinions and corrupt principles are instilled into the mind, through the example or the sentiments of some vicious but fascinating hero.
We may arrange the fictitious works which are professedly designed to enforce moral and religious truth, and now acting, most extensively, on the public mind, under the following heads.
1. Stories for children, the scenes of which are laid in real life. Miss Edgeworth's, and Mrs. Opie's, and Mrs. Sherwood's works may be taken as specimens. The greatness of the influence exerted by such works on childhood, can be conceived only by those who had free access, in early life, to such stories as “ The Barring Out,” “Forgive and Forget,” and “Black Giles, the Poacher." Miss Edgeworth has been extensively condemned by Christian parents, for totally excluding religion from her pages. She has chosen for her work, the cultivation of the moral virtues alone, and this work, it is admitted that she has most successfully performed. She takes the ground that an author has a right to choose her subject, and if she treats what she thus chooses, in an effectual and proper manner, she ought not to be condemned for not discussing what she never professed to discuss. To this it can only be replied, that there may be cases where two subjects are so indissolubly connected, that silence on the one, is inconsistent with fidelity to the other. Whether this is the case with the cultivation of moral virtue, and the enforcement of religious obligation, is a difficult question to decide. It would seem, however, that any parent who should read “Frank,” and allow his children to read it, would not hesitate in regard to its tendencies, whatever his opinions in the abstract may be.
Some of the writings of this class, are designed, expressly, as illustrations of religious truth, though in many such cases the religious advice and instruction on the one hand, and the