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The Guardian Angel   By: (1809-1894)

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By Oliver Wendell Holmes


"A new Preface" is, I find, promised with my story. If there are any among my readers who loved Aesop's Fables chiefly on account of the Moral appended, they will perhaps be pleased to turn backward and learn what I have to say here.

This tale forms a natural sequence to a former one, which some may remember, entitled "Elsie Venner." Like that, it is intended for two classes of readers, of which the smaller one includes the readers of the "Morals" in Aesop and of this Preface.

The first of the two stories based itself upon an experiment which some thought cruel, even on paper. It imagined an alien element introduced into the blood of a human being before that being saw the light. It showed a human nature developing itself in conflict with the ophidian characteristics and instincts impressed upon it during the pre natal period. Whether anything like this ever happened, or was possible, mattered little: it enabled me, at any rate, to suggest the limitations of human responsibility in a simple and effective way.

The story which follows comes more nearly within the range of common experience. The successive development of inherited bodily aspects and habitudes is well known to all who have lived long enough to see families grow up under their own eyes. The same thing happens, but less obviously to common observation, in the mental and moral nature. There is something frightful in the way in which not only characteristic qualities, but particular manifestations of them, are repeated from generation to generation. Jonathan Edwards the younger tells the story of a brutal wretch in New Haven who was abusing his father, when the old man cried out, "Don't drag me any further, for I did n't drag my father beyond this tree." [The original version of this often repeated story may be found in Aristotle's Ethics, Book 7th, Chapter 7th.] I have attempted to show the successive evolution of some inherited qualities in the character of Myrtle Hazard, not so obtrusively as to disturb the narrative, but plainly enough to be kept in sight by the small class of preface readers.

If I called these two stories Studies of the Reflex Function in its higher sphere, I should frighten away all but the professors and the learned ladies. If I should proclaim that they were protests against the scholastic tendency to shift the total responsibility of all human action from the Infinite to the finite, I might alarm the jealousy of the cabinet keepers of our doctrinal museums. By saying nothing about it, the large majority of those whom my book reaches, not being preface readers, will never suspect anything to harm them beyond the simple facts of the narrative.

Should any professional alarmist choose to confound the doctrine of limited responsibility with that which denies the existence of any self determining power, he may be presumed to belong to the class of intellectual half breeds, of which we have many representatives in our new country, wearing the garb of civilization, and even the gown of scholarship. If we cannot follow the automatic machinery of nature into the mental and moral world, where it plays its part as much as in the bodily functions, without being accused of laying "all that we are evil in to a divine thrusting on," we had better return at once to our old demonology, and reinstate the Leader of the Lower House in his time honored prerogatives.

As fiction sometimes seems stranger than truth, a few words may be needed here to make some of my characters and statements appear probable. The long pending question involving a property which had become in the mean time of immense value finds its parallel in the great De Haro land case, decided in the Supreme Court while this story was in progress (May 14th, 1867). The experiment of breaking the child's will by imprisonment and fasting is borrowed from a famous incident, happening long before the case lately before one of the courts of a neighboring Commonwealth, where a little girl was beaten to death because she would not say her prayers... Continue reading book >>

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