Looking Backward From 2000 to 1887 HTML version

Chapter 19
In the course of an early morning constitutional I visited Charlestown. Among the
changes, too numerous to attempt to indicate, which mark the lapse of a century in that
quarter, I particularly noted the total disappearance of the old state prison.
"That went before my day, but I remember hearing about it," said Dr. Leete, when I
alluded to the fact at the breakfast table. "We have no jails nowadays. All cases of
atavism are treated in the hospitals."
"Of atavism!" I exclaimed, staring.
"Why, yes," replied Dr. Leete. "The idea of dealing punitively with those unfortunates
was given up at least fifty years ago, and I think more."
"I don't quite understand you," I said. "Atavism in my day was a word applied to the
cases of persons in whom some trait of a remote ancestor recurred in a noticeable
manner. Am I to understand that crime is nowadays looked upon as the recurrence of an
ancestral trait?"
"I beg your pardon," said Dr. Leete with a smile half humorous, half deprecating, "but
since you have so explicitly asked the question, I am forced to say that the fact is
precisely that."
After what I had already learned of the moral contrasts between the nineteenth and the
twentieth centuries, it was doubtless absurd in me to begin to develop sensitiveness on
the subject, and probably if Dr. Leete had not spoken with that apologetic air and Mrs.
Leete and Edith shown a corresponding embarrassment, I should not have flushed, as I
was conscious I did.
"I was not in much danger of being vain of my generation before," I said; "but, really--"
"This is your generation, Mr. West," interposed Edith. "It is the one in which you are
living, you know, and it is only because we are alive now that we call it ours."
"Thank you. I will try to think of it so," I said, and as my eyes met hers their expression
quite cured my senseless sensitiveness. "After all," I said, with a laugh, "I was brought up
a Calvinist, and ought not to be startled to hear crime spoken of as an ancestral trait."
"In point of fact," said Dr. Leete, "our use of the word is no reflection at all on your
generation, if, begging Edith's pardon, we may call it yours, so far as seeming to imply
that we think ourselves, apart from our circumstances, better than you were. In your day
fully nineteen twentieths of the crime, using the word broadly to include all sorts of
misdemeanors, resulted from the inequality in the possessions of individuals; want
tempted the poor, lust of greater gains, or the desire to preserve former gains, tempted the