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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

On Fiction

By Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)

From a letter to Robert Skipwith, August 3d, 1771

I SAT down with the design of executing your request to form a catalogue of books to the amount of about £50 sterl., but could by no means satisfy myself with any partial choice I could make. Thinking therefore it might be agreeable to you, I have framed such a general collection as I think you would wish and might in time find convenient to procure. Out of this you will choose for yourself to the amount you mentioned for the present year, and may hereafter proceed in completing the whole. A view of the second column in this catalogue would, I suppose, extort a smile from the face of gravity. Peace to its wisdom! Let me not awaken it. 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 in the principles and practice 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 in 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. I appeal to every reader of feeling and sentiment, whether the fictitious murder of Duncan by Macbeth in Shakespeare does not excite in him as great a horror of villainy 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? 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. This is my idea of well-written romance, or tragedy, comedy, and epic poetry.