Of the many evil influences operating to remove or lay waste correct principles, to deprave the taste, and to enervate the mind, there are perhaps few more insidious and more effective than that of pernicious reading. Society is flooded with publications which in different ways are producing these deleterious results. Some poison the minds of the readers by the infidel or demoralizing principles they inculcate; others inflame the passions and weaken the restraints of virtue, by the manner in which the degrading sins and atrocious crimes of every-day life are delineated and glossed over; while in a still larger class, the writers task their imaginations to invent fictitious characters and scenes, which they strive to depict in language the most piquant and attractive; or taking a groundwork of isolated facts, weave them into biographies or histories with all the licentious falsehood of romance.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to estimate correctly the influence that the reading of works of the latter description exerts upon the minds of those who indulge in it, especially of the young, and those of immature judgment; disinclining them to submit to have their thoughts, their words and their actions, brought within the restraint and under the government of Truth. It is not merely the evil resulting from having the relations and duties of life, presented in such works in a false and unnatural light, making those of them which we may be called on to fulfil every day, to appear insipid and distasteful, but at the same time that the imagination is unduly excited, and the feelings overwrought by the seductive fiction, the perception of unvarnished truth is obscured, the capacity to discriminate between the false and the true is enfeebled, and consequently the judgment becomes weakened or perverted, and easily betrayed into error. Thus not only a disrelish for real, every-day life, and a disinclination to peruse works of a solid instructive character are produced, but led away by the excitement produced by the high wrought scenes, and dazzled with the false coloring in which acts and characters are painted by the pencil of romance, the novel reader is almost unconsciously landed in a situation where he is incapacitated for deciding, how or what, things really are; and instances have repeatedly occurred, in which, from this very cause, reason has tottered from her throne, and the poor victim lost all power of self-control.
It is in consequence of the evils thus resulting from novel reading, that many pious persons of almost every denomination, have warned and protested against them; and the Society of Friends has felt it of such serious importance, as to introduce its decided testimony against them into its discipline. Thus when treating of books, the Discipline says: "It is earnestly recommended to every member of our religious Society, that they discourage and suppress the reading of plays, romances, novels, or other pernicious books; and printers and booksellers in profession with us, are cautioned against printing, binding or selling such books, as it is a practice so inconsistent with the purity of the Christian religion." In view of these things, is it not incumbent upon parents and guardians, seriously to consider, how far the multitude of story-books now so profusely supplied for children, and which we see in most of our parlours and nurseries, may have the effect of creating and fostering a taste for novel reading, that may be difficult to eradicate or reform, and in after life may lead to what are considered grosser departures from the testimonies of Truth!
But our present object is to notice, what we fear is a very general departure from the testimony of the Society against novel reading, exemplified by the manner in which so many of our members act, and express themselves as feeling at liberty to admit into their families for perusal, the most popular romance of the day. We allude to "Uncle Tom's Cabin." It would be difficult, we think, upon any other subject than the exciting one of slavery, for so many of our members—many of them plain, and desiring to be considered consistent with their profession—to be caught by, and themselves to urge arguments, which, when stripped of verbiage, amount to little if anything more, than that the end justifies the means.
Slavery is felt by us all to be a system of such exceeding wrong, our sympathies for its poor victims are kept so constantly
aroused, and the desire to see it swept away is so urgent, that great numbers seem prepared for the employment of almost any
means that proposes to effect the coveted object, and are deluded by their wishes into the belief,
that this hereditary, deep-rooted, and long-established evil, is to fall under the blows inflicted by a well-told story; and
therefore, sinful as they profess novel writing and novel reading to be in the abstract, yet being designed in this particular
case to effect so great a good, they consider themselves altogether justified in sanctioning and applauding them both. So
completely has this hallucination (for we can consider it nothing else) betrayed some of the members of our religious Society
into a disregard for what has heretofore been considered an important Christian testimony that we find the following paragraph,
among several of a highly eulogistic character, in the last number of "The British Friend." Speaking of the anti-slavery
movement in Great Britain—that at no period has the feeling of the country been raised to such a pitch as at the present moment—it
says: "Beyond all question the feeling to which we have above alluded, has been produced by the publication and unprecedented
perusal of the extraordinary production of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a name which will be chronicled among the most conspicuous
benefactors of the human race," &c. Now, as the only thing alluded to as having placed her among the most conspicuous benefactors of the human race, is writing the novel called Uncle Tom's Cabin; a work which, however graphically it may describe events,
such as have or do occur in our slaveholding States, is nevertheless confessedly a fiction from beginning to end; so woven
and coloured, as to rouse the passions of those who think slavery a great wrong, and perhaps also of those who feel it a great
burden, but think it no sin, we must entirely dissent from the sentiment advanced, that such a work constitutes a ground for
classing its author among the benefactors of mankind; and at the same time we wish to put our members on their guard against
lowering our testimony to the Truth, by countenancing the reading or spreading of any such publications. If the proposed
end will justify the means, or if this fiction is so productive of unmixed good; now that it has
been dramatized, why may not our members upon the same plea, resort to the theatres, to have their feelings against slavery roused to the highest pitch by witnessing its scenes enacted before their eyes?
In regard to the effect upon slavery likely to be produced by the work itself, we confess that we have no faith in the benefit which its admirers appear to anticipate from its world-wide dissemination. We are incredulous as to any slaveholder being induced to liberate his slaves by reading a description of scenes, with which we suppose it to be the author's intention to represent him as being familiar throughout his life; especially if that description is so coloured as to hold him up for the detestation of mankind, because of the position he occupies; and we are equally unbelieving as to its prompting any who are opposed to slavery, to the pursuit of those calm, judicious measures, which have their origin exclusively in Truth, and are the only ones that are blessed with success. On the contrary, we fear it will aggravate the feelings of resentment and defiance, that prevent a large portion of slaveholders from viewing slavery and the condition in which that institution has placed them, in its true light; while it will stimulate multitudes whose feelings are inflamed by its recitals, to a repetition of uncalled-for and indiscreet attacks on everything they consider connected with slavery and slaveholders—such attacks as, within the last twenty years, have done far more, as we fully believe, to retard the progress of emancipation in this country, than to promote it.
After all that is or can be said of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," is it anything more than a work of imagination? and though it may be so ably executed, as to kindle up the passions or goad one to obey their impulse, yet like all its kindred fictions, must not its absorbing interest unsettle and vitiate the judgment? and will not reaction succeed to the excitement called forth, and the tone of moral feeling, in the ordinary course of cause and effect, be rather depressed than maintained or exalted by it? Slavery, as we will know, is a system of incalculable evil to our country, and we long to see the day when it shall no longer exist within our borders; but its removal can only be effected by the slaveholders themselves. They are living under a system which we fully believe to be the result of a corruption of principles and of manners, but which has prevailed among them from generation to generation, during a long succession of years. The just views of right and wrong which led our forefathers, of their own free will, to give up the slaves they held—by which act we have been freed from the trial whether we would hold or part with them—are not yet recognized by our Southern brethren as interfering with the connection between the master and his bondsman; and therefore whatever disturbs the existing relations, is viewed by most of them as lessening the bands that hold society together, and destroying the safety and comfort of the domestic circle. These are very erroneous views, and often give rise to very unchristian feelings. But there they are; implanted by education, and strengthened by the whole influence of southern society; and it is folly to suppose they can be changed or overcome by a work of fiction, however ingenious or well wrought it may be. To combat these errors, and to assist in removing this great evil, those who are out of their immediate influence, must address the hearts and understandings of their brethren involved in them, in the authority of Truth and in the spirit of Christian love. Thus only can they hope to be instrumental in securing their cool and candid consideration of the momentous subject of emancipating their slaves, from which their passions, their supposed duties, their mistaken interests and necessities, now turn them away.