23 Pages

Letter XXIX: Friday, January 25, 1850

Pursuing the subject still further, we shall fmd that the cause of the vagrant's wandering through the country - and, indeed, through life - purposeless, objectless, and unprincipled, in the literal and strict meaning of the term, lies mainly in the defective state of our educational institutions; for the vagrants, as a class, it should be remembered, are not "uneducated." We teach a lad reading, writing and arithmetic, and believe that in so doing we are developing the moral functions of his nature, whereas it is often this very ability to read merely - that is to say, to read without the least moral perception - which becomes the instrument of the youth's depravity. The "Jack Sheppard" of Mr. Harrison Ainsworth is borrowed from the circulating library, and read aloud at the low lodginghouses in the evening by those who have a little education, to their companions who have none; and because the thief is there furbished up into the hero - because the author has tricked him out with a certain brute insensibility to danger, made "noble blood flow in his veins,'' and tinselled him over with all kinds of showy sentimentality -the poor boys who listen, unable to see through the trumpery deception, are led to look up to the paltry thief as an object of admiration, and to make his conduct the beauideal of their lives. Of all books, perhaps none has ever had so baneful an effect upon the young mind, taste, and principles as this. None, has ever done more to degrade literature to the level of the lowest licentiousness or to stamp the author and the teacher as guilty of pandering to the most depraved propensities. Had Mr. Ainsworth been with me, and seen how he had vitiated the thoughts and pursuits of hundreds of mere boys - had he heard the names of the creatures of his morbid fancy given to youths at an age when they needed the best and truest counsellors - had he seen these poor little wretches, as I have seen them, grin with delight at receiving the degrading titles of "Blueskin," "Dick Turpin," and "Jack Sheppard" - he would, I am sure, ever rue the day which led him to paint the most abandoned and degraded of our race as the most noble of human beings. What wonder, then, that-taught either in no school at all, or else in that meretricious one which makes crime a glory, and dresses up vice as virtue -these poor lads should be unprincipled in every act they do -that they should be either literally actuated by no principles at all, or else frred with the basest motives and purposes gathered from books which distort highway robbery into an act of noble enterprise, and dignify murder as justifiable homicide.