Sunday, May 24, 2009

Note to Novel Readers: "If Any Harm Results, Stop at Once!"

It is generally assumed that the Culture Wars in the United States began in the Sixties. They did. In the 1860s.

"Licentious literature, which under cunning disguise or with fearless effrontery, circulates among us, defying all decency, sapping the morals of all classes, is doing Satan's work with most mischievous energy. That obscene books and prints are published, imported, and sold in our cities and through the country, is a fact which we are all familiar with…it is easy to estimate their evil potency…Bishop Bayley, in a late charge, gave very timely warning of this important theme. He well says: 'If we are bound by every principle of our religion to avoid bad company, we are equally bound to avoid bad books - for of all evil, corrupting company, the worst is a bad book. There can be no doubt that the most pernicious influences at work in the world at this moment come from bad books and bad newspapers. The yellow-covered literature, as it is called, is a pestilence compared with yellow fever and cholera and smallpox are as nothing, and yet there is no quarantine against it. Never take a book in your hands which you would not be seen reading. Avoid not only all notoriously immoral books and papers; but avoid also all those miserable sensational magazines and novels and illustrated papers which are so profusely scattered around on every side. The demand which exists for such garbage speaks badly for the moral sense and intellectual training of those who read them'

"… Startling disclosures have been recently made in New York. A gentleman of the city [probably New York Society for the Prevention of Vice founder Anthony Comstock] became apprised of the fact that systematic agencies were at work for the circulation of lascivious books and pictures…the business was large, many men and women engaged in it…The extent to which the press is used in the publication of romance and fiction, and of books which, if they do not corrupt the heart, do little but to dwarf the mind and give perverted and false views of life - of its duties and responsibilities, transcends any means at our command to ascertain…In nothing perhaps is the taste of our people so lamentably demoralized as in respect to our reading matter…Similar remarks will probably appear not the less just if applied to general literature. Of two thousand writers in our land, one-half are writers of fiction - a large proportion, indeed, devote themselves to the mere amusement of a people. For most of these writers aim at nothing higher - any many of them aim at something vastly lower. They make a well-told story a decoy to inoculate a large mass of mind with a moral poison more fatal than death."

The preceding screed is found in a giant economy-size box of moral detergent in book form, The God of This World; The Footprints of Satan by Rev. Hollis Read - amongst the many Jerry Falwell/Pat Robertson-types of bygone days - one of 1872's great works of uplifting social commentary. (We are pleased to learn that women in 1872 were a) working, and b) working in the porn trade). But don't think for a minute that smut via Satan is the root of all evil. The Right Rev. Read continues:

"Perhaps yet the more dangerous prostitution of the press is met in those sly, insidious characteristically satanic productions which under the guise of Liberalism sap the foundations of evangelical religion" (Read, Rev. Hollis. The God of this World: The Footprints of Satan, Toronto, Maclear, 1875, pp 195, 280-283, (first Canadian edition). First edition, NY, 1872).

The "satanic" publications of Liberal Progressivism were certainly calling into question bedrock assumptions about social and moral rights and wrongs but the activities of the Free Love communes of the period, such as Oneida in New York, went beyond questions, they TNT'd the bedrock long before the sexual "revolution" of the 1960s.

The entertainment business was also lending a nefarious hand to Satan in his quest to debase American culture. Former actress turned woman's rights lecturer Olive Logan, in her 1869 book Apropos Of Women And Theatres (NY, Carlton, 1869) devotes two chapters to decrying the "coarse rage which [has] spread in our theatres, until it [has] come to be a ruling force in them," to wit: About The Leg Business, detailing the exposure of women's legs on the boards, and About Nudity In The Theatre, discussing the post-Civil War phenomenon of women appearing onstage scantily clad. (Interestingly, Logan makes one of the first references in a general circulation book to "a new theatrical term in use among 'professionals' which embraces all sorts of performances in its comprehensiveness, to wit: The Show Business.").

The Women's Rights movement in 19th century America was, suffice it to say, largely infused with a strong streak of Victorianism. Fortunately, not all of Logan's sisters in the struggle were as puritanical as she was. Logan was attacked in the Press, by fellow professionals in "The Show Business," and by many sisters in the Feminist movement for her moral rigor at the expense of increased employment, opportunity and independence for women.

Here's a bit of vintage literary criticism found in a description from the table of contents of 1869's Popular Amusements by Rev. J.T. Crane (Cincinnati, Hitchcock and Walden, 1869):

Novels and Novel-Reading

Definition of a Novel - A Vice of the Age - FOUR MAXIMS:
1. No Fiction if Little Leisure
2. Only the Best
3. Fiction to be but Small Part
4. If any Harm results, Stop at Once!

1. Wastes Time
2. Injures the Intellect
3. Unfits for Real Life
4. Creates Overgrowth of the Passions
5. Produces Mental Intoxication
6. Lessens the Horror of Crime and Wrong
7. Wars with all Piety, Disciplinary Rule.

Presumably due to space limitations, Rev. Crane left out "causes dandruff, eczema, psoriasis. halitosis, and the vapors."

If you’re anything like me you know that Rev. Crane's seven dire consequences noted above have proven to be true and that for us there is no salvation. Sic transit gloria liber, friends, and along with novels there goes the parade of us to hell. 

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