[Scraps for Youth] “Booth and Bad Literature” (from The Youth’s Companion, May 11, 1865; p. 74)
In the foul stroke that laid low the honored head of our late president we witness the force and emphasis of a stage-actor’s education superadded to the morals of slavery. Crime is fearful enough when its blame is chargeable to a bad enterprise, and can be distributed among a million men, but it grows more fearful when a single villain leaps ahead of his class and concentrates all their wickedness into one enormity of his own.
The education of John Wilkes Booth had fitted him to act the part of murderer of our President. It had familiarized him with every species of tragedy till a murder meant nothing more to him than a move on a checker-board.
It had accustomed him, through considerable success in ranting his tragic learning on the stage, to expect applause for adroitly acting the parts of cutthroat and traitor. It had qualified him for all the preliminary and actual details of a capital crime—how to plan it, how to do it, and how to escape its consequences—and finally, it had fired him with a silly and wicked ambition to make himself a hero by killing a great and good man; add the fact that he was brought up with Southern principles, and you have all the conditions of the murder.
The horrible details are already familiar to the readers. The unparalleled hardihood, and coolness, and success of that high crime strike us with astonishment. But the assassin’s education explains the whole.
Does any young man feel as if he would like to be educated to do as daringly and dexterously as did Booth? Let him keep on, then, reading the bloody tales of the weekly story papers, or the flashy, ten cent, yellow-covered literature sold in almost every book store. He will soon learn how to be a hero of the approved romantic type. But, young friend, if you have any regard for your character, your future standing in society, the credit of your families, your own peace and the welfare of your souls, let such reading alone! Why should you suffer yourself to trace hour after hour the foul workings of human revenge, jealousy, malice and corruption, because some writer has woven them into intoxicating fiction? God has better pastime for you; better literature than that for your leisure hours. There is no aliment for the mind in that reading. Rather never read a printed line. Such material stimulates only the bad in your nature.
We know the difference between offal-fed meat and meat fed on solid corn. The first ill-grained, washy and deleterious, the second substantial and healthy. Mind fed on offal follows the same law as meat. Victims of this intellectual and moral debasement are seen dawdling through society in every city and town, communicating poison to all who touch them. They are found in every low resort where the slang of vice is spoken; gaping about play-houses, and taking the lead in street riots. The penitentiary and the insane hospital harvest every year some of the avails of this literary garbage. Avoid it, young men and women, as you would the plague; as you would murder and treason!