1882, Nashville – The Nashville Daily American contained a rare editorial decrying “trashy literature” and it deleterious effects upon the moral and social behavior of juvenile boys. Such ten-cent reading material was considered a clear and present danger that would lead youths to a life of depraved crime and dissipated ruin. According to the editorial:
WHAT THE BOYS READ.
The Glorification of Crime and the Depraving of Youth.
The Trashy Effects which Daily Corrupt the Morals of the Young.
Among all the fruitful causes of frightful depravity of today among the boys and youths of our country there is none more potent than the trashy literature which floods the country and which is supplied by ever newsstand in every city to feed the morbid appetite of it votaries. The reading of it is not an exception, but a rule, and the boys of parents able to furnish better mental food are the more addicted to it, because they possess the greater means to procure it. In this day of cheap reading, when almost all the finest specimens of modern and older fiction can be procured at such a low cost, there is no reason why every family where there are boys cannot be furnished with healthful, wholesome reading. When ten cents will buy a work that our fathers could only procure at twenty times the cost, there is no excuse for the extensive circulation of the vile trash published by New York firms, whose sole object must be to deprave human nature by the publication of the worst “rot” that could be imagined.
It may be said that this stuff is cheap, but it is not cheap; it is printed on the coarsest, dirtiest papier and illustrated with the coarsest pictures. In all this line of papers “for boys and young gentlemen” there is never published a story the hero of which is respectable, and never printed a picture that is not full of grossest caricatures and deformity.
The hero is always young and noted for finding out in some sneaking manner the vile sins of his father, the rascality of his employer, by which he gets money and enjoys unheard-of privileges as a sort of blackmail. None of these boys follow any respectable business or any honorable occupation. They are young pirates, ruffians and blacklegs, and their careers are written with the devilish ear that lures the young and silly reader of them into emulating their deeds. Parents are always harsh and unjust, schools are prison houses of cruelty and the teachers are invariably tyrants who have no affection whatever for the boys and rarely a single redeeming trait of character, unless he sides with the boys, runs away with them from school and becomes a vagabond, wandering over the world, dead-beating his way in impossible manners, thrashing out hordes of banditti and entire tribes of Indians by the most remarkable methods.
Outlawry is glorified and murder forms so large a part of these stories that it is no wonder that some such cases occur as that of the boy of fourteen who was lynched for cold-blooded assassination a few days ago in Minnesota. Emulation of the characters in the trashy stories he had been reading he assigned as the reason of his deed. How many homes are daily saddened and how many lives blighted and ruined, how many fond hopes crushed, but the results of reading the infamous publications of such firms as those referred to. As said above, these papers are not cheap, for the same amount of money would buy a larger quantity of reading mater, well primed and calculated to improve instead of vitiating the taste. Take the “libraries.” These villainous publications contain sixteen pages of vile printing, and are sold for a nickel. The standard “libraries,” published by reputable firms, are larger in page, and ten cents buys one containing forty or even sixty or more pages. The embrace history, biography travel and adventure, scientific subjects, wit, humor, poetry, fiction – every class of literature. The contents of the others can be judged from their titles, samples of which, copied from the supplies of the stand of a Nashville newsdealer, are here given. Note the elegance of the titles: “Snoozer, the Boy Sharp;” “Evil Eye, the King of the Cattle Thieves;” Capt. Apollo, the Kingpin of Bowie, or Flash o’ Lightning’s Feud;” “One-eyed Sim;” “Hawkeye Henry;” “Deadly Eye;” “Faro Frank;” “Old Frosty;” “Vagabond Jo;” “The Boy Bedouins;” “The Boy Demon;” “The Boy Pards;” ‘Roving Jo, or the History of a Young Border Ruffian;” “Jack Hoyle, the Young Speculator, or the Road to Fortune;” “Sassy Sam, or a Bootblack’s Voyage Around the World;” “Daddy Brush, Taken in and Done For;” “The Red Headed League.”
These are fair samples of the whole lot. They can be seen on any news-stand, by anyone who imagines them gotten up for use in this article. The stories themselves are fairly gotten up to the titles. The titles give in every instance the heroes of the stories. From a single page in one of these stories are taken the following choice expressions, which indicate the style of conversation adopted:
“Shut up; yar too fresh; go take salt;” “You arn’t [sic] game;” “That’s what I warble; yes, yer bet I weaken’” “Give me another taste of the sucker.” “Joe learned of an old rooster, a naturalist.” “Yer a snide.” “I’m stuffed; full as a goat.” “Be gob [sic] I wud I wur a Nihilist.” There are plenty more, but surely that is enough. And the sub-title of the sheet is, “An Entertaining and Instructive Journal for American Youths!”
Ridiculous as all this may appear, it is a serious matter. Nothing but evil can possibly come of it. All sorts of crimes are condoned or justified, and the boys are quick to take the lesson. Newsdealers say that the boys who buy these things have to be watched all the time, and in spite of the closest watching, they still manage to steal them. Two or three days ago an American reporter was standing on the Maxwell House corner, when a boy, coming down Church street with two of these papers, met a companion on the corner, who asked: “Did you get it?” “You bet.” “What racket?” “Oh, the same old lay; one in the other.” “He’ll tumble to that and jump you; every other fellow has got on to that lay, and fag you.” These boys were both of good family. Yet, one of these lads, depraved by the mental pabulum he stooped to steal, boasted of the act.
Can it be remedied? may well be asked, and may well be doubted: After a youth arrives at the age when he has sense enough to see the falsity and the lowness of this stuff, there is no danger of his picking up a taste for it. But the young who begin reading it are depraved before they acquire sense enough to stop it, and turn out young vagabonds and loafers, familiar with all the ways of crime.
The only remedy in which there is any hope is in more attention by parents to what their children are reading. Those who can read will read, and it is easy to direct the taste to a proper channel. With so many cheap and elegant publications as there are now seen on the stalls of newsdealers, there is no excuse for any family where there are children, being without good reading matter. Unless the parents take it in hand there is little hope of correcting the rapid spread of vicious reading and the crime that necessarily accompanies this increase. They must give it serious attention, not spasmodically, but continued, until there is some perceptible improvement; until cheek and effrontery are not looked upon by their boys as energy and independence; until indecency and the low dialect of rowdies and roughs do not pass for wit; until every paper that seeks to inflame the basest passions of human nature, to glorify crime and outlawry is forced to suspend, and when popular opinion will not suffer the purchase of a paper from the same counter where these villainous, poisonous and depraved periodicals are exposed for sale. Since there can be no law for their suppression, popular opinion must take the matter in hand. The traffic can be suppressed in this way, and the sooner it is done the fewer of the boys of this city and of this country will be sent to destruction by the perusal of this corrupting and debasing trash.
 Research has not revealed news of any such lynching.
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