The great Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney has been mentioned a number of times on this site. It is a very telling indication of our times that such a visionary man is so little known, and usually slandered when mentioned at all. You can find the entire collection of his written works at the Dabney Archive, all of which are well worth reading. However, such a massive undertaking can be a bit overwhelming, and so on Sundays I will post bite-sized excerpts from Dabney’s works, with perhaps a little bit of my own commentary. This will be done in hopes of promoting wider readership for this great man. You can find links to all the previous “Dabney on Sunday” posts at the bottom of this post.
The following excerpt is taken from Dabney’s article which appeared in The Watchman and Observer (Richmond, Va., 1849), entitled “On Dangerous Reading.”
As it is always my wish to attain directness and practical utility in what I have to say, I will explain that, under the name of dangerous books, I mean now to attack particularly the usual kinds of fictitious narratives, novels, impure sentimental poetry, and biographies, whether accurate or not, of criminal and degraded characters. It is supposed that these are the sources from which present danger to my readers is most to be feared. Books professedly teaching error in religion, morals, or social concerns, are of course evil and dangerous. But they are open enemies. They are not usually surrounded with peculiar fascinations when set forth in the didactic form; they will not gain much favor with those who read the Watchman and Observer, who may be presumed to respect and believe a sounder system. I would aim rather at covert and insidious enemies, which profess only to amuse while they destroy; which say, “Am I not in sport,” while they “scatter firebrands, arrows, and death.”
Against all the usual kinds of fictitious histories, whether in prose or verse, and dramatic representations, there are two great objections, even though they be allowed to be pure, free from criminal traits and pictures, and free from false principles—
1. To do what they profess to do, to give a correct picture of human life and character in a fictitious narrative, is extremely difficult. To paint the springs of conduct and the passions in their causes and effects, to draw correctly the results in the life proceeding from dispositions in the heart, requires a high wisdom and experience very rarely possessed. It is the attribute of a favored few, whose knowledge of men and things springs from a sound philosophy, has been cultivated by large and varied experience of life, and is guided by a powerful understanding. How vain to expect this rare historic wisdom, only attained in part by one or two in the lapse of centuries—such as a Shakespeare and a Scott—in the pert, shallow, dreaming babblers, whose frothy inventions deluge the country! The inexperienced young person who observes the air of simplicity, nature, and ease, that marks the works of the great masters of historic and imaginative literature, may imagine that it is easy to imitate them, and to paint from the fancy scenes as natural as theirs. But it is only ignorance that causes such a supposition. The very ease and naturalness of the narrative shows the exquisite finish and perfection of the work. It is this very ease, simplicity and naturalness that are forever beyond the reach of mediocrity, and are attainable by genius alone. The ignorant stonecutter, looking at some model of classic beauty from a master’s chisel, may imagine that surely he could make a statue like that, so utterly free from exaggeration and point, so exactly like a real man or woman. But his idea only shows his utter ignorance of the sculptor’s art. He dreams not that the harmony and truth to nature, the absence of exaggeration, and the softened unity and propriety of the statue are just the qualities which it is most difficult to produce—just the qualities which the master alone can produce.
Thus, also, to draw an imaginary man, like nature in his feelings and his conduct, is the hardest task of literary genius, although the picture, when finished, may seem so simple and easy. It is an exploit utterly beyond the reach of our herd of novelists. I fearlessly assert that, even though their intentions and principles were pure, and their scenes undefiled by pictures of vice, the views of human life and of the human heart which they give would not be true to nature, but unnatural, exaggerated and absurd. They do not truly paint the springs of human conduct and feeling. The men and women who flaunt on their fantastic pages are not the men and women with whom the reader has to deal in real life. And he who suffers his views of life to be colored by such reading, as every novel and play-reader must to some extent, is destined to nothing but blunders, disappointments and disgusts, when he attempts to buffet with the hard realities of the world. His course must resemble that of the man who has never beheld visible objects except when distorted by a prism, and fringed with its fantastic hues, until he goes forth to travel through the world. Hence it is that we see so many young gentlemen and young ladies who have learned their views of life out of the delusive mirror of fiction disappointed of their hopes, disgusted with their experience of actual life, and professing what they imagine to be a picturesque sort of Byronic misanthrophy, which is in the eyes of all sensible people as contemptible as it is selfish.
The true history of the past, on the contrary, gives true and useful views of life, because they are painted from nature. There men are drawn as they really lived and acted. There the youth who would learn from an experience more cheaply purchased than his own, may look for instruction in the character of man, and the ways of the world in which he is to live. Let our readers resort to these wholesome pages, which instruct while they amuse. And especially must I commend those pictures of human life drawn by the finger of inspiration in the sacred Scriptures, as unerring in their accuracy and unequalled in their literary beauty, charming alike the unsophisticated taste of all classes, children and mature men, savages and cultivated masters of learning. The interest they inspire in all, and the inimitable freshness and simplicity of the narratives, contribute not a little to the evidence of the claim that their authors possessed more than human art.
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