June 09, 2004

A soul candidly acknowleging it's fault

Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, say that she is "not a pedant, but a stickler", by which she means that "people who put an apostrophe in the wrong place ... deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave." Visiting Colonial Williamsburg, I've recently learned how lucky it was, for all concerned, that Ms. Truss was not living in Virginia in the last third of the 18th century

In 1771, Robert Skipwith, the brother of Thomas Jefferson's future wife, asked for "a catalogue of books to the amount of about 50 lib. sterl.". Jefferson, who had lost his family library in a fire in 1770, and had been busily building a new one, responded with a list of 148 titles in 379 volumes, costing several times the cited limit: "such a general collection as I think you would wish and might in time find convenient to procure. Out of this you will chuse for yourself to the amount you mentioned for the present year and may hereafter as shall be convenient proceed in completing the whole."

In the cover letter that Jefferson sent with his catalogue, he felt the need to excuse the inclusion of works of fiction, by arguing that

[w]e are ... 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.

In addressing this question, Jefferson uses the possessive form of it four times, twice spelled as "its" and twice spelled as "it's":

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 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 it's deformity, and conceive an abhorence 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.

I did notice the errant apostrophes, but did not find that they spoiled the sentiment. I was also easily able to get past the non-standard spelling of acknowledge. In fact, I'll acknowledge that I didn't even notice it until I saw it in the title of this entry, which I cut-and-pasted from the online html version of Jefferson's letter.

This does not seem to have been a commonplace spelling of the time, but just an idiosyncratic mistake by Jefferson, since the OED has:

1590 SHAKES. Com. Err. V. i. 322 Thou sham'st to acknowledge me in miserie.
1597 1 Hen. IV, III. ii. 111 Through all the Kingdomes that acknowledge Christ.
1611 BIBLE Wisd. xii. 27 They acknowledged him to be the true God, whome before they denyed to know. Prov. iii. 6 In all thy wayes acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy pathes.
1651 HOBBES Leviathan I. x. 43 He acknowledgeth the power which others acknowledge.
1762 GOLDSM. Cit. W. (1837) iv. 16 An Englishman is taught to acknowledge no other master than the laws which himself has contributed to enact.
1781 GIBBON Decl. & F. III. 65 The authority of Theodosius was cheerfully acknowledged by all the inhabitants of the Roman world.

If all this means that I'm not a stickler, but a pedant, so be it. I like to think that Jefferson would have taken the same view.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 9, 2004 08:11 AM