When reason and conscience are a man's true guides to what he undertakes, and he acts strictly in obedience to them, he has little to fear from what the unthinking may say. You cannot, I hold, mistake a man intent only on doing good. You may differ with him on the means he calls to his aid; but having formed a distinct plan, and carried it out in obedience to truth and right, it will be difficult to impugn the sincerity of his motives. For myself, I care not what weapon a man choose, so long as he wield it effectively, and in the cause of humanity and justice. We are a sensitive nation, prone to pass great moral evils over in silence rather than expose them boldly, or trace them to their true sources. I am not indifferent to the duty every writer owes to public opinion, nor the penalties he incurs in running counter to it. But fear of public opinion, it seems to me, has been productive of much evil, inasmuch as it prefers to let crime exist rather than engage in reforms. Taking this view of the matter, I hold fear of public opinion to be an evil much to be deplored. It aids in keeping out of sight that which should be exposed to public view, and is satisfied to pass unheeded the greatest of moral evils. Most writers touch these great moral evils with a timidity that amounts to fear, and in describing crimes of the greatest magnitude, do it so daintily as to divest their arguments of all force. The public cannot reasonably be expected to apply a remedy for an evil, unless the cause as well as the effect be exposed truthfully to its view. It is the knowledge of their existence and the magnitude of their influence upon society, which no false delicacy should keep out of sight, that nerves the good and generous to action. I am aware that in exciting this action, great care should be taken lest the young and weak-minded become fascinated with the gilding of the machinery called to the writer's aid. It is urged by many good people, who take somewhat narrow views of this subject, that in dealing with the mysteries of crime vice should only be described as an ugly dame with most repulsive features. I differ with those persons. It would be a violation of the truth to paint her thus, and few would read of her in such an unsightly dress. These persons do not, I think, take a sufficiently clear view of the grades into which the vicious of our community are divided, and their different modes of living. They found their opinions solely on the moral and physical condition of the most wretched and abject class, whose sufferings they would have us hold up to public view, a warning to those who stand hesitating on the brink between virtue and vice. I hold it better to expose the allurements first, and then paint vice in her natural colors—a dame so gay and fascinating that it is difficult not to become enamored of her. The ugly and repulsive dame would have few followers, and no need of writers to caution the unwary against her snares. And I cannot forget, that truth always carries the more forcible lesson. But we must paint the road to vice as well as the castle, if we would give effect to our warning. That road is too frequently strewn with the brightest of flowers, the thorns only discovering themselves when the sweetness of the flowers has departed. I have chosen, then, to describe things as they are. You, reader, must be the judge whether I have put too much gilding on the decorations.
I confess that the subject of this work was not congenial to my feelings. I love to deal with the bright and cheerful of life; to leave the dark and sorrowful to those whose love for them is stronger than mine. Nor am I insensible to the liabilities incurred by a writer who, having found favor with the public, ventures upon so delicate and hazardous an undertaking. It matters not how carefully and discreetly he perform the task, there will always be persons enough to question his sincerity and cast suspicion upon his motives. What, I have already been asked, was my motive for writing such a book as this? Why did I descend into the repulsive haunts of the wretched and the gilded palaces of the vicious for the material of a novel? My answer is in my book.
New York, January 1st, 1861.