Points of view/Books that have Hindered Me


So many grateful and impetuous spirits have recently come forward to tell to an approving world how they have been benefited by their early reading, and by their wisely chosen favorites in literature, that the trustful listener begins to think, against his own rueful experience, that all books must be pleasant and profitable companions. Those who have honored us with confidence in this matter seem to have found their letters, as Sir Thomas Browne found his religion, "all pure profit." Edward E. Hale, for instance, has been "helped" by every imaginable writer, from Marcus Aurelius to the amiable authoress of "The Wide, Wide World." Moncure D. Conway acknowledges his obligations to an infinite variety of sources. William T. Harris has been happy enough to seize instinctively upon those works which aroused his "latent energies to industry and self-activity;" and Edward Eggleston has gathered intellectual sustenance from the most unexpected quarters,—the Rollo Books, and Lindley Murray's Reader. Only Andrew Lang and Augustus Jessop are disposed, with an untimely levity, to confess that they have read for amusement rather than for self-instruction, and that they have not found it so easily attainable.

Now when a man tells us that he has been really "helped" by certain books, we naturally conclude that the condition reached by their assistance is, in some measure, gratifying to himself; and, by the same token, I am disposed to argue that my own unsatisfactory development may be the result of less discreetly selected reading,—reading for which, in many cases, I was wholly irresponsible. I notice particularly that several persons who have been helped acknowledge a very pleasing debt of gratitude to their early spelling-books, to Webster's Elementary, and to those modest volumes which first imparted to them the mysteries of the alphabet. It was not so with me. I learned my letters, at the cost of infinite tribulation, out of a horrible little book called "Reading Without Tears," which I trust has long since been banished from all Christian nurseries. It was a brown book, and had on its cover a deceptive picture of two stout and unclothed Cupids holding the volume open between them, and making an ostentatious pretense of enjoyment. Young as I was, I grew cynical over that title and that picture, for the torrents of tears that I shed blotted them both daily from my sight. It might have been possible for Cupids, who needed no wardrobes and sat comfortably on clouds, to like such lessons, but for an ordinary little girl in frock and pinafore they were simply heart-breaking. Had it only been my good fortune to be born twenty years later, spelling would have been left out of my early discipline, and I should have found congenial occupation in sticking pins or punching mysterious bits of clay at a kindergarten. But when I was young, the world was still sadly unenlightened in those matters; the plain duty of every child was to learn how to read; and the more hopelessly dull I showed myself to be, the more imperative became the need of forcing some information into me,—information which I received as responsively as does a Strasbourg goose its daily share of provender. For two bitter years I had for my constant companion that hated reader, which began with such isolated statements as "Ann has a cat," and ended with a dismal story about a little African boy named Sam; Mr. Rider Haggard not having then instructed us as to what truly remarkable titles little African boys enjoy. If, to this day, I am disposed to underrate the advantages of education, and to think but poorly of compulsory school-laws and the march of mind, it is because of the unhappy nature of my own early experiences.

Having at last struggled into some acquaintanceship with print, the next book to which I can trace a moral downfall is "Sandford and Merton," left on the nursery shelves by an elder brother, and read many times, not because I especially liked it, but because I had so little to choose from. Those were not days when a glut of juvenile literature had produced a corresponding indifference, and a spirit of languid hypercriticism. The few volumes we possessed, even those of a severely didactic order, were read and re-read, until we knew them well by heart. Now up to a certain age I was, as all healthy children are, essentially democratic, with a decided preference for low company, and a secret affinity for the least desirable little girls in the neighborhood. But "Sandford and Merton" wrought a pitiable change. I do not think I ever went so far as to dislike the Rev. Mr. Barlow after the very cordial and hearty fashion in which Dickens disliked him, and I know I should have been scandalized by Mr. Burnand's cheerful mockery; but, pondering over the matter with the stolid gravity of a child, I reached some highly unsatisfactory conclusions. It did not seem to me then, and it does not seem to me now, exactly fair in the estimable clergyman to have refused the board which Mr. Merton was anxious to pay, and then have reproached poor Tommy so coldly with eating the bread of dependence; neither did it seem worth while for a wealthy little boy to spend his time in doing—very inefficiently, I am sure—the work of an undergardener. Harry's contempt for riches, and his supreme satisfaction with a piece of bread for dinner, struck me as overdrawn; Tommy's mishaps were more numerous than need be, even if he did have the misfortune to be a gentleman's son; and the complacency with which Mr. Barlow permitted him to give away a whole suit of clothes—clothes which, according to my childish system of ethics, belonged, not to him, but to his mother—contrasted but poorly with the anxiety manifested by the reverend mentor over his own pitiful loaf of bread. Altogether, "Sandford and Merton" affected me the wrong way; and for the first time my soul revolted from the pretentious virtues of honest poverty. It is to the malign influence of that tale that I owe my sneaking preference for the drones and butterflies of earth. I do not now believe that men are born equal; I do not love universal suffrage; I mistrust all popular agitators, all intrusive legislation, all philanthropic fads, all friends of the people and benefactors of their race. I cannot even sympathize with the noble theory that every man and woman should do their share of the world's work; I would gladly shirk my own if I could. And this lamentable, unworthy view of life and its responsibilities is due to the subtle poison instilled into my youthful mind by the too strenuous counter-teaching of "Sandford and Merton."

A third pitfall was dug for my unwary feet when, as a school-girl of fifteen, I read, sorely against my will, Milton's "Areopagitica." I believe this is a work highly esteemed by critics, and I have even heard people in private life, who might say what they pleased without scandal, speak quite enthusiastically of its manly spirit and sonorous rhetoric. Perhaps they had the privilege of reading it skippingly to themselves, and not as I did, aloud, paragraph after paragraph, each weighted with mighty sentences, cumbrous, involved, majestic, and, so far as my narrow comprehension went, almost unintelligible. Never can I forget the aspect of those pages, bristling all over with mysterious allusions to unknown people and places, and with an armed phalanx of Greek and Roman names which were presumably familiar to my instructed mind, but which were really dug out bodily from my Classical Dictionary, at the cost of much time and temper. I have counted in one paragraph, and that a moderately short one, forty-five of these stumbling-blocks, ranging all the way from the "libertine school of Cyrene," about which I knew nothing, to the no less libertine songs of Naso, about which I know nothing now. Neither was it easy to trace the exact connection between the question at issue, "the freedom of unlicenc'd printing," and such far-off matters as the gods of Egypt and the comedies of Plautus, Isaiah's prophecies and the Carthaginian councils. Erudition, like a bloodhound, is a charming thing when held firmly in leash, but it is not so attractive when turned loose upon a defenseless and unerudite public. Lady Harriet Ashburton used to say that, when Macaulay talked, she was not only inundated with learning, but she positively stood in the slops. In reading Milton, I waded knee-deep, utterly out of my element, and deeply resentful of the experience. The liberty of the press was, to my American notions, so much a matter of course, that the only way I could account for the continued withholding of so commonplace a privilege was by supposing that some unwary members of Parliament read the "Areopagitica," and were forthwith hardened into tyranny forever. I own I felt a savage glee in reflecting that Lords and Commons had received this oppressive bit of literature in the same aggrieved spirit that I had myself, and that its immediate result was to put incautious patriots in a more ticklish position than before. If truth now seems to me a sadly overrated virtue; if plain-speaking is sure to affront me; if the vigorous personalities of the journalist and the amiable indecencies of the novel-writer vex my illiberal soul, and if the superficial precautions of a paternal government appear estimable in my eyes, to what can I trace this alien and unprogressive attitude, if not to the "Areopagitica," and its adverse influence over my rebellious and suffering girlhood?

As these youthful reminiscences are of too mournful a nature to be profitably prolonged, I will add only two more to the list of books which have hindered my moral and intellectual development. When I was seventeen, I read, at the earnest solicitation of some well-meaning friends, "The Heir of Redclyffe," and my carefully guarded theories of life shivered and broke before the baneful lesson it conveyed. Brought up on a comfortable and wholesome diet of Miss Edgeworth's pleasant stories, I had unconsciously absorbed the genial doctrine that virtue is its own reward, and that additional rewards are sure to be forthcoming; that happiness awaits the good and affable little girl, and that well-merited misfortunes dog the footsteps of her who inclines to evil ways. I trusted implicitly to those shadowy mills where the impartial gods grind out our just deserts; and the admirable songs in "Patience" about Gentle Jane and Teasing Tom inadequately express the rigidity of my views and the boundless nature of my confidence. "The Heir of Redclyffe" destroyed, at once and forever, this cheerful delusion, and with it a powerful stimulus to rectitude. Here are Sir Guy Morville and poor little Amy, both of them virtuous to a degree which would have put Miss Edgeworth's most exemplary characters to the blush; yet Guy, after being bullied and badgered through the greater part of his short life, dies of the very fever which should properly have carried off Philip; and Amy, besides being left widowed and heart-broken, gives birth to a daughter instead of a son, and so forfeits the inheritance of Redclyffe. On the other hand, Philip, the most intolerable of prigs and mischief-makers, whose cruel suspicions play havoc with the happiness of everybody in the story, and whose obstinate folly brings about the final disaster,—Philip, who is little better than his cousin's murderer, succeeds to the estate, marries that very stilted and unpleasant young person, Laura (who is after all a world too good for him), and is left in a blaze of glory, a wealthy, honored, and distinguished man. It is true that Miss Yonge, whose conscience must have pricked her a little at bringing about this unwarranted and unjustifiable conclusion, would have us believe that he was sorry for his misbehavior, and that his regret was sufficient to equalize the perfidious scales of justice; but even at seventeen I was not guileless enough to credit the lasting quality of Philip's contrition. A very few years would suffice to reconcile him to Guy's death, and to convince him that his own succession was a mere survival of the fittest, an admirable intervention on the part of Destiny to remedy her former blunders, and exalt him to his proper station in the world. But to me this triumph of guilt meant the downfall of my early creed, the destruction of my most cherished convictions. Never again might I look forward with hopeful heart to the inevitably righting of all wrong things; never again might I trust with old-time confidence to the final readjustment of a closing chapter. Even Emerson's essay on "Compensation" has failed to restore to me the full measure of all that I lost through the "The Heir of Redclyffe."

The last work to injure me seriously as a girl, and to root up the good seed sown in long years of righteous education, was "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which I read from cover to cover with the innocent credulity of youth; and, when I had finished, the awful conviction forced itself upon me that the thirteenth amendment was a ghastly error, and that the war had been fought in vain. Slavery, which had seemed to me before undeviatingly wicked, now shone in a new and alluring light. All things must be judged by their results, and if the result of slavery was to produce a race so infinitely superior to common humanity; if it bred strong, capable, self-restrained men like George, beautiful, courageous, tender-hearted women like Eliza, visions of innocent loveliness like Emmeline; marvels of acute intelligence like Gassy, children of surpassing precocity and charm like little Harry, mothers and wives of patient, simple goodness like Aunt Chloe, and, finally, models of all known chivalry and virtue like Uncle Tom himself,—then slavery was the most ennobling institution in the world, and we had committed a grievous crime in degrading a whole heroic race to our narrower, viler level. It was but too apparent, even to my immature mind, that the negroes whom I knew, or knew about, were very little better than white people; that they shared in all the manifold failings of humanity, and were not marked by any higher intelligence than their Caucasian neighbors. Even in the matters of physical beauty and mechanical ingenuity there had plainly been some degeneracy, some falling off from the high standard of old slavery days. Reluctantly I concluded that what had seemed so right had all been wrong indeed, and that the only people who stood pre-eminent for virtue, intellect, and nobility had been destroyed by our rash act, had sunk under the enervating influence of freedom to a range of lower feeling, to baser aspirations and content. It was the greatest shock of all, and the last.

I will pursue the subject no further. Those who read these simple statements may not, I fear, find them as edifying or as stimulating as the happier recollections of more favored souls; but it is barely possible that they may see in them the unvarnished reflection of some of their own youthful experiences.