Story type: Essay
It is difficult enough to keep the world straight without the interposition of fiction. But the conduct of the novelists and the painters makes the task of the conservators of society doubly perplexing. Neither the writers nor the artists have a due sense of the responsibilities of their creations. The trouble appears to arise from the imitativeness of the race. Nature herself seems readily to fall into imitation. It was noticed by the friends of nature that when the peculiar coal-tar colors were discovered, the same faded, aesthetic, and sometimes sickly colors began to appear in the ornamental flower-beds and masses of foliage plants. It was hardly fancy that the flowers took the colors of the ribbons and stuffs of the looms, and that the same instant nature and art were sicklied o’er with the same pale hues of fashion. If this relation of nature and art is too subtle for comprehension, there is nothing fanciful in the influence of the characters in fiction upon social manners and morals. To convince ourselves of this, we do not need to recall the effect of Werther, of Childe Harold, and of Don Juan, and the imitation of their sentimentality, misanthropy, and adventure, down to the copying of the rakishness of the loosely-knotted necktie and the broad turn-over collar. In our own generation the heroes and heroines of fiction begin to appear in real life, in dress and manner, while they are still warm from the press. The popular heroine appears on the street in a hundred imitations as soon as the popular mind apprehends her traits in the story. We did not know the type of woman in the poems of the aesthetic school and on the canvas of Rossetti–the red-haired, wide-eyed child of passion and emotion, in lank clothes, enmeshed in spider-webs –but so quickly was she multiplied in real life that she seemed to have stepped from the book and the frame, ready-made, into the street and the drawing-room. And there is nothing wonderful about this. It is a truism to say that the genuine creations in fiction take their places in general apprehension with historical characters, and sometimes they live more vividly on the printed page and on canvas than the others in their pale, contradictory, and incomplete lives. The characters of history we seldom agree about, and are always reconstructing on new information; but the characters of fiction are subject to no such vicissitudes.
The importance of this matter is hardly yet perceived. Indeed, it is unreasonable that it should be, when parents, as a rule, have so slight a feeling of responsibility for the sort of children they bring into the world. In the coming scientific age this may be changed, and society may visit upon a grandmother the sins of her grandchildren, recognizing her responsibility to the very end of the line. But it is not strange that in the apathy on this subject the novelists should be careless and inconsiderate as to the characters they produce, either as ideals or examples. They know that the bad example is more likely to be copied than to be shunned, and that the low ideal, being easy to, follow, is more likely to be imitated than the high ideal. But the novelists have too little sense of responsibility in this respect, probably from an inadequate conception of their power. Perhaps the most harmful sinners are not those who send into the world of fiction the positively wicked and immoral, but those who make current the dull, the commonplace, and the socially vulgar. For most readers the wicked character is repellant; but the commonplace raises less protest, and is soon deemed harmless, while it is most demoralizing. An underbred book–that is, a book in which the underbred characters are the natural outcome of the author’s own, mind and apprehension of life–is worse than any possible epidemic; for while the epidemic may kill a number of useless or vulgar people, the book will make a great number. The keen observer must have noticed the increasing number of commonplace, undiscriminating people of low intellectual taste in the United States. These are to a degree the result of the feeble, underbred literature (so called) that is most hawked about, and most accessible, by cost and exposure, to the greater number of people. It is easy to distinguish the young ladies–many of them beautifully dressed, and handsome on first acquaintance–who have been bred on this kind of book. They are betrayed by their speech, their taste, their manners. Yet there is a marked public insensibility about this. We all admit that the scrawny young woman, anaemic and physically undeveloped, has not had proper nourishing food: But we seldom think that the mentally-vulgar girl, poverty-stricken in ideas, has been starved by a thin course of diet on anaemic books. The girls are not to blame if they are as vapid and uninteresting as the ideal girls they have been associating with in the books they have read. The responsibility is with the novelist and the writer of stories, the chief characteristic of which is vulgar commonplace.
Probably when the Great Assize is held one of the questions asked will be, “Did you, in America, ever write stories for children?” What a quaking of knees there will be! For there will stand the victims of this sort of literature, who began in their tender years to enfeeble their minds with the wishy-washy flood of commonplace prepared for them by dull writers and commercial publishers, and continued on in those so-called domestic stories (as if domestic meant idiotic) until their minds were diluted to that degree that they could not act upon anything that offered the least resistance. Beginning with the pepsinized books, they must continue with them, and the dull appetite by-and-by must be stimulated with a spice of vulgarity or a little pepper of impropriety. And fortunately for their nourishment in this kind, the dullest writers can be indecent.
Unfortunately the world is so ordered that the person of the feeblest constitution can communicate a contagious disease. And these people, bred on this pabulum, in turn make books. If one, it is now admitted, can do nothing else in this world, he can write, and so the evil widens and widens. No art is required, nor any selection, nor any ideality, only capacity for increasing the vacuous commonplace in life. A princess born may have this, or the leader of cotillons. Yet in the judgment the responsibility will rest upon the writers who set the copy.