The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table

by Oliver Wendell Holmes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1738

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 form. Its plan is simple: The Autocrat lives in a Beacon Hill boarding house; the essays are characterized as somewhat condensed reports, interlarded with the Autocrat’s comments, of the conversations that take place each morning at the breakfast table around which a heterogeneous collection of boarders gathers. Each occasionally has a say but collectively their main purpose is to provide a sounding board for the wit and philosophizing of the Autocrat. There is conversation, but mostly there is monologue. The varied responses of the boarders allow Holmes’s wit to play over a wide range of subjects, to jump easily from point to point, and to juxtapose ideas that have no apparent relevance.

The result may seem chaotic at first. The bubbling cleverness runs along easily enough but apparently to no particular place. The topics of the first chapter are, for example, in order of appearance: the algebraic classification of minds; the value of mutual admiration societies; the meaninglessness of brute fact; the typing of various kinds of speakers; the dangers of specialized learning; an attack on the use of puns (Holmes deplores the use of them here but cannot always resist them, as when he speaks of the landlady’s economically minded poor relation as standing by her guns, “ready to repel boarders”); the poverty of pure logic as opposed to common sense; the foibles of young poets; the superiority of men of family over self-made men, “other things being equal” (Holmes’s italics); and the rendering of a pair of poems. Holmes makes each of these points interesting, but there seems to be little connection between one and another. Gradually, however, it becomes evident that certain ideas recur; certain themes are announced and dropped but then repeated later with variations, and there are psychological connections in the apparently chance juxtapositions of ideas. The entirety develops in a geometric, not in an arithmetic, progression.

Holmes was a Bostonian, a Victorian American, and it has been said that his sympathies lay with the eighteenth century and that he was at heart a Neo-Johnsonian. If, however, his conscious affinities turned back one hundred years, his unconscious ones turned back even further. Andrew Lang noted “a fleeting resemblance to Sir Thomas Browne” based on “a community of professional studies,” but this similarity between Holmes and the author of Religio Medici (written 1635; published 1642) and Hydriotaphia, Urne-Burial (1658) is not explained simply by the fact that both were medical men. Holmes possessed the divided sensibility found also in the metaphysical school; and Browne, it is now acknowledged, was a metaphysical poet writing in prose. This division in Holmes, which is obscured by his neoclassical pose, is often neglected.

Holmes was divided along a different axis than was Browne, for he lived under different conditions. The religious division results from the fact that though Holmes had disavowed the Puritanism of his fathers, he never completely lost the scars of his youthful indoctrination. More important, perhaps, at least as far as its reflection in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table is concerned, is his divided allegiance between Brahminism on the one hand, which for him stands for all the deeply rooted elements of the good life, and on the other science, which means technology and with it the unleashing of forces, both human and mechanical, that would destroy Brahminism. The division could not exercise itself in Holmes’s poetry because the moralizing-romantic tradition is too binding. However, when Holmes has at his disposal a form free from restrictions with which he can experiment as he wishes, the essay, he is able to express his divided sensibility through the use of what closely resembles metaphysical techniques.

These techniques include the juxtaposition of topics, which is reflected most extremely in chapter 9. Here, anticipating the much later reflection of the metaphysical, Holmes presents a series of childhood reminiscences, the stuff of poems: Many times I have come bearing flowers such as my garden grew; but now I offer you this poor, brown, homely growth, you may cast it away as worthless. And yet—and yet—it is something better than flowers; it is a seed-capsule.

There is also the shift in prose style from the colloquial or scientific to the lofty and poetic, a device that hearkens back to the style of Browne. Most important, however, are the similitudes, the similes, metaphors, and extended analogies, which abound in The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. What is important here is that they are functional, not decorative; they are the very fabric of the work. Holmes uses them to bring into focus the two parts of his divided world. Science and beauty stand for the two parts of the central dichotomy, representing Holmes’s own two alter egos as the professor and the poet, and they play their dual parts in all the analogies: We get beautiful effects from wit—all the prismatic colors—but never the object as it is in fair daylight. A pun, which is a kind of wit, is a different and much shallower trick in mental optics; throwing the shadows of two objects so that one overlies the other. Poetry uses the rainbow tints for special effects, but always keeps its essential object in the purest white light of truth.

Through the interplay of these two conflicting worlds and by means of analogy and opposition of character, Holmes brings out the themes of the work. They appear as questions, not as answers, for awareness of the divided world permits no dogmatic assertions. He asks what love is and what beauty is; how human communication and expression are achieved; what, after all, is really important; and how can that be found—whether it is by sculling beneath the bridges of the Charles, searching for seed capsules of poetry in one’s memory, or counting the rings of an elm that stood when Shakespeare was a boy.

To bring out these questions in a meaningful way is a decided literary achievement. The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table is not an entirely great literary work. Holmes does not maintain his metaphysical detachment, he becomes too concerned with his characters, and in the end he reduces the Autocrat and the Schoolmistress into the principal figures of a rather sentimental romance. These are weaknesses, but with respect to the strengths demonstrated in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table Holmes deserves to have his reputation advanced to the third stage.

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