Thomas Jefferson Defends Fiction

 

As a writer and reader of fiction, I am always excited to defend the genre of fiction against those who consider it to be useless.  I know, personally, how extremely important the lessons, examples and friendships in fictional stories can be to readers.  Little did I know that Thomas Jefferson believed this as well!  I was just looking over some of his letters for a college paper, and this one in particular caught my attention.  It’s one of the best defenses of fiction that I’ve ever read, and I just had to share it with you! (Original spelling and grammar is included in the letter.)

 

To Robert Skipwith

Monticello, August 3, 1771

“A little attention however to the nature of the human mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant.  That they are pleasant when well written every person feels who reads.  But wherein is its utility asks the reverend sage, big with the notion that nothing can be useful but the learned lumber of Greek and Roman reading with which his head is stored?

I answer, everything is useful which contributes to fix the principles and practices of virtue.  When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also.  On the contrary, when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity, and conceive an abhorrence of vice.

Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously. We never reflect whether the story we read be truth or fiction. If the painting be lively, and a tolerable picture of nature, we are thrown into a reverie, from which if we awaken it is the fault of the writer. I appeal to every reader of feeling and sentiment whether the fictitious murther of Duncan by Macbeth in Shakespeare does not excite in him as great a horror of villany, as the real one of Henry IV. by Ravaillac as related by Davila? And whether the fidelity of Nelson and generosity of Blandford in Marmontel do not dilate his breast and elevate his sentiments as much as any similar incident which real history can furnish? Does he not in fact feel himself a better man while reading them, and privately covenant to copy the fair example?

We neither know nor care whether Lawrence Sterne really went to France, whether he was there accosted by the Franciscan, at first rebuked him unkindly, and then gave him a peace offering: or whether the whole be not fiction. In either case we equally are sorrowful at the rebuke, and secretly resolve we will never do so: we are pleased with the subsequent atonement, and view with emulation a soul candidly acknowleging it’s fault and making a just reparation.

Considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life. Of those recorded by historians few incidents have been attended with such circumstances as to excite in any high degree this sympathetic emotion of virtue. We are therefore wisely framed to be as warmly interested for a fictitious as for a real personage. The field of imagination is thus laid open to our use and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that ever were written.”

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10 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson Defends Fiction

  1. I am grateful for the quotation, which is new to me, as is Jefferson’s approbation of fiction. When he wrote to Skipwith in 1771, the novel was in its infancy, but arguably the greatest English novelist was about to be born, Jane Austen in 1775. Janeites will know where I am going, but I must quote her own opinion of novels:

    …Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding–joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such
    effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens–there seems almost a general wish ofdecrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader–I seldom look into novels–Do not imagine that I often read novels–It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss–?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge
    of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. — Northanger Abbey, end of Chapter 5.

    Hope this wasn’t too lengthy!

    • What a fantastic quote! Northanger Abbey is the only Austen book that I haven’t read yet. In fact, I am planning on starting it within the next week or two – and now I want to read it even more! No, it definitely wasn’t too lengthy; you can’t ever get a good quote long enough to suit me. 🙂

  2. Hi Victoria – I loved this post – you have brought so many authors, and ideas, to me recently, and I ‘m better educated for it! Makes a good point for GOOD homeschooling, doesn’t it! I must admit, it’s also a bit depressing to read how very well Mr. Jefferson expressed himself, in comparison to most folks of today! I think many students your age would find it very hard to read this essay of his, as well as many of the books you read and love. Keep up the good work! Love, Grandma

  3. Loved reading here! (I’ve been exploring your site here and plan to visit regularly. 🙂 ) The Jefferson quote is excellent. Somehow, there’s a magic in good story that can shape and change us right down to the core. I help with my siblings’ home-education and (in history) we primarily use (whenever possible) classic literature/historical fiction. I’ve been exploring the idea of story a lot (as I’ve been helping over the last couple years) and using it seems to make a ton of sense, especially as, big picture-wise, I’ve come to see how God, first and foremost communicates to and shapes us through story-the great overarching story of creation and sin and redemption played out in history with the coming of the Prince, the Dragonslayer at the very center. If you don’t mind another quote :-), here’s one from Michael D. O’Brien. I don’t agree with everything he says all the time, but this quote about history is one of my favorites, “…always a new story, but really a very old story. It sounds simple: A king made a beautiful kingdom, and he filled it with creatures whom he loved. A dragon crept out of the darkness and sought to devour an entire world. A brave man faced him, and the dragon slew the man. And the man was God, but nobody knew that until the Man came back to life. Then He took the weapon with which the dragon killed Him, and He battled the dragon. The dragon hated the Cross and feared the way the Man changed it into a thing that could defeat him and his legions. God is the maker of this one great story, which contains all the billions of lesser stories, and He will decide how the tale ends. This story really happened, and parts of it are still happening and some of the most terrific parts are still to come.” …Good, is it not?

    • Thanks so much, Heidi! I’m delighted that you like my blog! I’ve enjoyed others’ blogs so much that it’s always a joy to hear when mine is enjoyed as well. 🙂 You’re absolutely right! The reason that the method of story is so valuable, instructive, and like you said, magical, is because good stories are always based off of God’s great, overarching story. That quote from O’Brien was fabulous. It’s so true! N.D. Wilson (one of my favorite writers) has LOTS to say on this subject as well. Have you ever read any of his books?

      • Yes! Not much of his fiction (my brother’s read all of the Hundred Cupboards and Ashtown Burials series), but I really like his Notes from The Tilt-A-Whirl. I still need to read his latest, Death by Living. (I don’t know if this rings a bell at all), but we go to a CREC church in Missouri, and whenever one of his books comes out pretty soon it’s headline news. 🙂 I also really like (most of) Wordsmithy by Doug Wilson. It’s funny and memorable and helpful. Have you seen that?

        (Btw, as I’m typing, I’m looking at your sidebar and I just love those author pictures! Tolkien particularly just makes me want to smile with happiness.)

        • Notes from the Tilt A Whirl is fantastic, as is Death by Living! That one’s a must-read. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never heard of CREC church – is that linked to the Wilson family? Wordsmithy sounds good – is it a book or a website? I need to check it out! (And I’m so glad that you like my sidebar! :D)

          • Okay, I’ll now definitely need to read Death by Living! (We have it, I just need to actually add it to the pile in my room. 😉 ). And yes (sort-of) on the CREC (which stands for the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches). I guess it’s kind of a denomination (but we don’t generally think of it that way) tied together by general doctrinal/theological agreement and liturgy (though there’s a good amount of variation in that). There are churches in about 35 states and a number of sister churches overseas (eastern Europe/Russia, southern Asia, and Japan) and Canada. If you’re interested, there’s an official site at: crechurches.org. Douglas Wilson pastors one of the Idaho churches, so that’s the Wilson connection. Oh, and Wordsmithy is a book…and definitely worth checking out! I should order it again from the library. 🙂

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