The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

At one point in the recounting of his breakfast-table experiences, the Autocrat observes that, since medieval times, the reputation of Aristotle had passed through two stages and is just entering its third. First came the period of idolization, when everything attributed to the Greek sage was accepted not only as scientifically sound but as absolute and ultimate truth. Then came the period of critical examination, the stage at which his scientific inaccuracies were discovered and consequently all his ideas belittled and discredited. Finally, there was the third stage, the enlightened period when the scientific inaccuracies were excused, being viewed in historical perspective as unavoidable, and the value of his philosophical insights restored.

On a smaller time scale, the reputation of Oliver Wendell Holmes, along with that of his Cambridge-Boston group (as opposed to the Concord group), had gone through the first two of these stages but showed no signs, as yet, of entering the third. Although few, and certainly never Holmes himself, believe that Boston is the hub of the universe, Harvard Yard and the eastern end of Beacon Street (including the first eight doors on Arlington Street so as to take in the offices of the Atlantic Monthly) had been for more than half a century regarded as the dual nerve center, the cerebrum and cerebellum, as it were, of American culture. A Cambridge-born Harvard professor of anatomy, a member of the Saturday Club, a resident of Beacon Street, Holmes does not merely share in such regard, he helps to create it. It is he, in fact, who coined the term “The Hub.” (The original statement, however, as it appears in chapter 6 of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, is made not by a Bostonian but by an outlander who remarks, “Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system.”) As lecturer, poet, novelist, biographer, and, most of all, perhaps, as the author of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table and, later, The Professor at the Breakfast-Table (1860) and The Poet at the Breakfast-Table (1872), Holmes helps to establish in the public mind a concept of Bostonian wit, sensibility, and culture.

Gradually—not suddenly as did the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay in chapter 11 of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table—the reputations of many of the New England writers become autumnal and dry, and a season of critical neglect sets in before the situation reverses itself again. Nathaniel Hawthorne is resurrected by the New Critics; the cautiously radical Ralph Waldo Emerson is turned into a spokesman for the Neoconservatives; and Henry David Thoreau, in conformist times, becomes a pet of nonconformists. The Concordians thus enter their third stage, but this does not happen with the Cambridge-Bostonians. Granted, their poetry is a mixture of neoclassic moralizing and a nostalgic and academic romanticism, but it should be remembered that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has a gift for storytelling, that Robert Lowell is a sprightly satirist, and that Holmes possesses wit, urbanity, a background of knowledge, and a tolerant, all-encompassing view of life, the like of which has not appeared in English letters on either side of the Atlantic since his death.

It can be argued that in regard to Holmes such qualities do not produce the reputation but are deduced from it, that the alleged wit and urbanity are really provincial smugness, and that what passes for a tolerant and total worldview is in reality a carefully cultivated dilettantism. Such arguments have been made, but they neglect both the facts provided by history and the literary evidence provided by The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. The facts show that Holmes is learned in both science and humane letters and that he is one of the foremost advocates of technological progress in the nineteenth century United States. One English critic said that Holmes, rather than Emerson, deserves the title the “American Montaigne.”

It is on an objective reading of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table that the case for Holmes must finally rest. The work appeared originally in the first twelve issues of the Atlantic Monthly (1857-1858) and was directly afterward published in book...

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The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Dowling, William C. Oliver Wendell Holmes in Paris: Medicine, Theology, and “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.” Durham: University of New Hampshire Press, 2006. Dowling describes how Holmes’s experiences as a medical student in Paris provided the material for The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table and the two other books in the Breakfast-Table trilogy.

Gibian, Peter. Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Culture of Conversation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Examines Holmes’s role in creating and analyzing a new form of conversation, or “table-talk,” that became popular in nineteenth century America.

Grenander, M. E. “Doctors and Humanists: Transactional Analysis and Two Views of Man.” Journal of American Culture 3, no. 3 (Fall, 1980): 470-479. Contends that Holmes paved the way for transactional analysis theory, for in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table he discussed the factors considered—consciously and subconsciously—by two people when they speak to each other.

Hoyt, Edwin P. The Improper Bostonian: Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: William Morrow, 1979. Chapter 16 describes Holmes’s relationship with James Russell Lowell, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and other notable Boston literati. Explains the appeal of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table to educated readers and delineates Holmes’s literary prominence.

Small, Miriam Rossiter. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Twayne, 1962. Chapter 3, “The Breakfast-Table Series,” discusses the style and theme of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table and obliquely compares it to Holmes’s succeeding works. Small asserts that readers of the essays derive pleasure from recognizing experience, thought, and emotions as they are couched in Holmes’s apt and winning style.

Tilton, Eleanor M. Amiable Autocrat: A Biography of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Henry Schuman, 1947. Reports the contemporary reception of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table and traces the essays from their serialized appearance to their publication in book form.

Weinstein, Michael A. The Imaginative Prose of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006. Weinstein analyzes The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table and Holmes’s other prose works to trace the writer’s development over the course of his lifetime. Weinstein refutes other critics who have dismissed Holmes as a dilettante, arguing that Holmes was a serious writer whose works displayed a deep understanding of the American national character.