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ON THE UTILITY OF PERIODICAL LITERATURE.
"Talk Logic with acquaintance that you have,
Taming of the Shrew. Nor more necessary is the courtesy of ceremony, upon the first presentation of a stranger to a new society, than is the wholesome ceremony of introduction, upon the first appearance of a new candidate for literary favor. It is true, that, upon either occasion, there may be a portion of inward coquetry, and a more than fair share of mental satisfaction in the mind of each, that he is worthy of all the laud and praise which may fall to his share, though neither will show so much want of tact, as to appropriate the compliments which good-breeding is ever ready to bestow. Yet is this ceremony of great utility to both, as well as to society in general. For in the first case, the stranger feels himself called upon to use his best exertions, in order to make good impressions on those around him, and to do credit to the friends who have brought him into the circle; and the latter feels himself pledged to substantiate, to the best of his ability, the pretensions he has asserted, and the claims which he prefers to public favor.
Here, however, the similitude ends ;-for the world has no right to call upon a stranger to make himself amiable, agreeable, or useful. People may discountenance that which they do not approve,-but they cannot affect him as a free agent. The literary man is very differently situated; he has, himself, stepped forth and courted notoriety, and he is bound to satisfy the general query. He cannot be ignorant that it is in obscurity only, if any where, there is freedom from assault; that, from such a state he voluntarily emerges; he offers himself as a mark for every shaft that may be fairly and openly levelled at him, and he must abide the issue without flinching. VOL. I.
On the other hand, the world has a right to inquire, -particularly in the present state of literature, and when periodicals of such various classes and pretensions are ushered continually to the public view,-what can have induced or encouraged a fresh candidate to enter the arena, or what benefit can ensue to any party, from travelling in a path beaten hard and trackless by so many feet, and where the fruit on all sides is already gathered so carefully? Is there anything, in the species of literature here brought to notice, that can do more than beguile an hour of relaxation; or if even there be, is the happy discovery of additional benefits only now effected? Are mankind to derive advantages, or to find amusements, of a superior nature to those, which have yet fallen to their lot, and is this to prove the honored vehicle for their dissemination ? Has the new adventurer had the becoming fear before his eyes, of possible failure in his enterprise, and of falling—as thousands before him have fallen-into the abyss of things-into blank oblivion ;-or has the demon of conceit possessed him, and excited him to expose the poverty of his soul? In short, to what does the work pretend, and how are its pretensions to be supported ?
Not only does all this fall within the scope of a reasonable inquiry, as concerning one party, but the other is bound to give a full and satisfactory reply to it; and in doing so, it will not be sufficient to prove care, industry, or even skill in the execution, unless to these can be added utility in the design. All the world now profess to be Utilitarians; recreation itself must have information to recommend it; and, in the intellectual state of society at which we have arrived, it becomes a duty imperative on the literary caterer, not only to dress and serve up his viands with propriety and taste, but to select also such as shall be at once attractive and wholesome, so that, whilst they refresh, they may likewise strengthen the recipient. The answer, therefore, to such an inquiry, is of no small difficulty, and to make it complete and satisfactory, it will be well to consider the nature of periodical literature, and the effects which it is capable of producing on the state of mankind.
Near the middle of the nineteenth century, we may venture to assert that there are few things which have a more direct tendency to enlighten the general mind, and to refine the sentiments of the general community, than the species of literature which is known under the title of Periodical. Its use is of a peculiar nature; consisting, not so much, in the quantity of information which it directly communicates upon any given subject, though even that is incidentally both extensive and important as in awakening, by the general views which it takes of a great variety of subjects, a salutary curiosity and desire, which can only be satisfied by continual additions to the knowledge already possessed ; and, by pointing out, in most cases, the sources from whence such additional knowledge may be derived. From its very title, implying a great diversity of subject-matter, and from its form, showing the necessity either of condensation, or of outline, in treating upon important facts; yet, on either ground, affording points of rest to general readers, whose attention will not bear to be too long on the stretch, and supplying heads or hints for further consideration, to such as desire to search inore thoroughly.
Now, to be deeply conversant in classic or scientific learning, requires continual study and painful investigation; besides which the mind of each individual must be occupied in the investigation of few subjects only: for experience has shown, that there are but few minds competent to the grasp of a great variety of information. The labor also, of such inquiries as are essential to the true character of a man of letters, is found to be intense to a degree greatly beyond that of any bodily exertions, and far more exhausting to the system. In fact, those only, to whom the acquisition of literary knowledge is on its own account attractive, are sufficiently incited to persevere in its pursuit. Nay, it is notorious that, even with such an incentive, too many are true but for a time, and after moderate acquirements will sit down-not contented—but mentally exhausted.
Philosophical and literary inquiries indeed, the instructors as well as the students in the public seminaries, -all those, in short, who are distinguished as the Illuminati of society, possess not only the moral courage, but also the anxious wish, to pore over the contents of prodigious tomes, and long treatises, on the various branches of literature, science, or art, which are given to the world, according to the varied taste or pursuit of each individual; but, with the exception of such persons, how few among the great family of the world can endure the formidable appearance of such an object as an abstruse volume, or a book dedicated to one subject only, in which mere amusement has no share, without shrinking! Or if their resolution should be screwed so high as to produce a determination to wade through such a matter, how coldly and indifferently do they bend their faculties to the task? With what difficulty do they condemn themselves to a severe examination of any subject, probably dry and uninteresting in its details, however important in its objects? The mind that has not been schooled to this rigid abstraction by a systematic course of education, and by early and constant habits of mental self-government, is apt to recoil from such engagement; and if the will be free, and the agent be altogether exempt from the necessity of pursuing such an investigation, he will, in all probability fly the occupation in disgust. Among the great mass of society it will not be going too far to affirm, that works of pure amusement are the only works of extended length which meet with persevering attention; and, although we hear on all sides of “the reading world,” and “the reading public”-it is to be feared that to dissipate rather than to improve the hours, is the principal object. But modern novelists insert “sketches of society," "characteristic sketches," "historical sketches," "satirical, political, theological, &c. &c. sketches,” and thus, though the passion of the million be only for the fable, the narrative, the incidents, the catastrophe-or at best confining themselves to that which pleases the imagination, without pressing heavily on the judgment, they
"Lay the flattering unction to their souls,” that they are adding prodigiously to their knowledge and wisdom, and that in all this they are still Utilitarians.
In fact, the operations of the body and of the mind,-of physical and of moral conduct, are observed to keep upon a continual parallel; and it must be evident that, in both cases, an invariable discipline must be enforced, if we hope for beneficial results either to ourselves or to the community. Voluntary labor however, in either case, is seldom incurred, and then only by such as reflection has previously and deeply convinced of its advantages.
With regard to physical exertions, we hear it constantly asserted, with
equal gravity and truth, that labor is actually necessary to human health and happiness; that Divine Providence has made it an indispensable obligation in our nature; that the poor must labor for food, and the rich for an appetite; that, without it, the earth would soon cease to produce her increase, and population itself would decline; that “chaos would come again,” and famine and destruction stalk over the earth. All very sound philosophy, this, in the abstract; but apply it to practice, and each person will remove the onus from himself, and prove its truth as applied to his neighbor. In short, it too frequently happens, that where affluence gives leisure, leisure produces indolence; and, worse than all, indolence produces reasons for inaction. Thus is disease and debility produced and disseminated, to the general injury of society.
Even such is the history of mental exertion; mankind will endeavor to acquire wisdom and knowledge, as the means of procuring riches, honors, or advancement in station, Some few will do so for fame. All this is based in self. But how few are they who seek wisdom for herself alone! How few contemplate the glories of creation, the wonders of science, the fascinations of literature and the arts, with a view to increase their thankfulness to the “Giver of all good and perfect gifts,” to the increase of His glory, or to the pure and earnest desire of contributing to the welfare of their fellow-men! How apt are the learned, themselves, to talk of the labors of science, and of the halcyon days for which they all hope, when they shall be enabled to repose themselves in "lettered ease!" How anxiously do the greater part of them look for the hour, when they may relax from their labors and enjoy their “otium cum dignitate !"
It appears then, that knowledge is seldom laboriously sought for her own sake only. Yet, knowledge is useful to all mankind. This is an universally admitted fact. Every species of active exertion and enterprise in this busy world has its basis in some theory; and, if we except the lowest and most grovelling of mankind, there are none but what have some degree of desire to know the theory upon which operation is built. That degree is generally found to rise in intensity and propriety, in proportion to the affluence, and comparative refinement in the habits, of the parties; and though the great bulk of society do not lay claim to the character of men of letters, yet, there is a prevailing desire through every grade, to acquire information and useful knowledge; arising from a sense of the now generally admitted truth, that knowledge is power.
If, therefore, elaborate treatises and dry disquisitions are so repulsive to the general taste, we have two questions for consideration, of no slight importance to our moral cultivation. First, what is the most useful knowledge for the great mass of society? And, secondly, what is the most probable and satisfactory method of spreading it abroad? All cannot have the advantages of academical discipline and nourishment,-all cannot be devoted to learning and philosophy in after-life. The avocations and duties of human beings are as manifold as the innumerable links in the chain of human existence. How multifarious are the engagements which occupy the public cares! How numerous are the classes--beside those whose duties are professedly of a grave and abstruse nature-who are of equal importance in the great body of society! Persons whose employments are as necessary towards the well-being of the whole, as are those
of the erudite bodies who, by a proper sense of deference, have been placed in the foreground of these considerations. The merchant, the soldier, the mariner, the agriculturist, the artisan, the laborer, are all essential to the public weal; and, in truth, mankind could not endure to have any of these distinctions annihilated. In that beautiful though complicated edifice called society, how admirably do the various pieces fit and dove-tail together! Not a part could be withdrawn from the whole, without causing an unsightly and distressing gap; not an atom could be deranged or disabled, without shaking the lofty fabric to its base.
Yet how small a portion of the human family are the professors of divinity, law, philosophy, physic, and abstract literature, -as compared with the numbers that form its remaining descriptions! Still the latter, though they may not have had the same advantages, in the cultivation of letters and science at the seats of learning, have, nevertheless, intellect capable of the greatest expansion, hearts susceptible of the most delicate sensations, and feelings capable of the utmost refinement. Surely such hearts, minds, and feelings, are not to be left altogether uncultivated or neglected, merely because they cannot receive, or have not received, the regular scientifical preparation! Surely such beings are not to remain dependent or passive in all that relates to the operations of the mind, nor to be left without that portion of polish and improvement which is attainable by all, and which in the secret soul is wished by all-because they have not graduated! It would be appalling to think that the pursuits of literature, the refinements of thought, the excursions of fancy, the accuracy of demonstration-are to be interdicted from the approach of all but the happy few, whose inclinations and circumstances have led them into the groves of the academy; and that the bulk of our fellow-citizens, including thousands and thousands of valuable members of society, should find the book of knowledge to them a sealed book, unless it be read within the walls of a college!
The PERIODICAL publication offers the assistance which would be rejected in any other form. To the reader who has no other object in the perusal than that of learning how to square his life and actions to the rules of morality, integrity, and upright conduct,-a, moral essay, if written by a faithful observer of human nature, who is at the same time capable of making judicious reflections and applications, will be always acceptable. From the compendious form it will not be likely to weary the attention ;-from the terse style in which it should ever be clothed, it will generally prove attractive;--and from its cessation and recurrence at stated intervals, it will afford seasonable time for consideration, yet allowing opportunity to relax from earnest thought. How many are there, who, though they would shrink from the bare idea of entering upon the investigation of the human mind as a theory ;-to whom the powerful but abstruse considerations of a Locke, a Stewart, or a Reid, would be irksome if not unintelligible ;-or worse still, who would frequently conclude those splendid effusions to be but the dreams of schoolmen-would find beauties in a practical discussion of any one principle, where the observations are all drawn from without, and the labor of mental analization is spared or unknown.
There is another branch in periodical collections which may be suitable to the moralist, no less than to the classical or the general reader,-namely, the department of Poetry. Eternal shame be to the man, who shall dis