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Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table

By Oliver Wendell Holmes


1858, 1891, 1902

[ILLUSTRATION: Introduction half-title]

OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, one of the most vigorous and versatile of American essayists, as well as a poet of true insight and deep sympathy, was born at Cambridge, Mass., August 29th, 1809, his father, the Rev. Abdiel Holmes, being a Congregational clergyman of varied gifts and sincere piety. After passing through the customary grades of preparatory scholastic training, at the age of sixteen the boy was found sufficiently advanced to be entered at Harvard College. During four busy years he pursued his studies at that noted seat of learning, finally graduating in 1829. To law he first turned his attention, but after a short experience of its tangled tortuosities, he abandoned the idea of following it as a profession, and threw himself with zest into the study of medicine, in which he took the degree of M.D. in 1836.

After two or three years spent in general practice as a physician he became Professor of Anatomy and Pbysiology in Dartmouth College. Feeling, however, that he was still in need of further insight and experience before he could become a successful medical lecturer, he resigned his chair, and resumed general practice in Boston. His outstanding ability and wide culture speedily attracted notice. He made many friends among the intellectual section of the community and played a prominent part in the social and literary life of the Transatlantic Athens. By his marriage in 1840 to Miss Amelia Lee Jackson, a lady of much beauty and of many accomplishments, he still further identified himself with the best social circles in Boston, and his house became the meeting-place of all that was best in the life of the city. To various newspapers and periodicals he had for years been contributing poems, essays and sketches, all marked by virile judgment and masculine common sense, but relieved by the iridescent play of wit as subtle as it was sure, and by pathos as true as it was tender. He was therefore slowly but surely becoming known as a writer, the possibilities of whose genius were almost infinite. In 1847 he was appointed Professor of Anatomy at Harvard, a position he retained for thirty-five years. To Holmes, his life's chance came when the Atlantic Monthly was established in 1857, with Lowell as editor. In its columns the Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table began to appear, starting in the first number and running in serial form throughout the entire first year of the Journal's existence. Rarely if ever, have magazine articles attained such marvellous popularity. The keen psychologic insight, the catholicity and depth of human sympathy displayed in them, the genial humour and the sparkling wit, the spontaneity of the pathos and the lofty scorn of wrong and injustice, were unsurpassed by any productions that had yet appeared in Transatlantic literature. While manifesting many of the best qualities of the Essays of Elia, there was at the same time present in them an element to which Lamb never could lay claim, viz., a vein of the truest poetry. Some of the pieces in the Autocrat, such as the "Chambered Nautilus" and "The Last Blossom" are as perfect in sentiment and rhythm as anything in nineteenth century literature.

The Autocrat was followed by the Professor at the Breakfast-Table in 1858-59, but while the thought is more profound and the evidences of intellectual strength more unmistakable, the style is harder and the wit more forced. We miss the quaint charm and the glorious spontaneity of the first volume. The Poet at the Breakfast-Table did not appear until 1872. Though the poetical side of the author's nature was intended here to have full play, and though there is the same sparkle of style and the same quaint turns of thought and expression as in the other volumes, both theme and treatment are of a graver and more impersonal character than in the Autocrat and the Professor. The books, however, constitute a trilogy of rare value, wherein we ascend from Nature, through man, up to Nature's God.

The life of Dr Holmes was most uneventful, and may be said to be summed up in the dates of the apppearance of his works. True he interested himself in the Abolition of Slavery and warmly espoused the cause of the Northern States in the great Civil War. Some of the finest patriotic verse written during that stirring time came from the pen of Dr Holmes. Along with John Greenleaf Whittier and the other Abolitionist bards of the Anti-Slavery struggle he did yeoman service in the cause of freedom.

Dr Holmes was anxious to excel in fiction, but his experiments in that line of literary effort, can in no case be said to have achieved more than a succès d'estime. Elsie Venner (1859) is a study of the development of hereditary qualities, but despite the presence of many beautiful passages, it is not pleasant reading as a whole. The Guardian Angel (1867) though lacking the imaginative power of its predecessor is altogether a more attractive book, describing as it does with rare artistic touch and treatment, the characteristics of New England men, manners and local scenery. In A Mortal Antipathy (1886) he gave a sort of autobiographic record of his life's experiences, interspersed with comments, pointed and pithy, on topics arising out of the narrative.

His work in verse is by no means so inconsiderable in bulk as one might suppose. Much of it having been issued without name or mark identifying it as his--for, as in the case of Scott, the dread Nemesis of professional expediency always seemed to haunt him--the case often happened that readers were not aware, until after the lapse of years, that poems, endeared to them by the consecration of long-time association, were actually from the pen of the versatile Professor of Harvard. In addition to the early volume of poems published anonymously in 1836, the following works appeared at the dates stated, Songs in Many Keys (1862), Songs of Many Seasons (1875), The Iron Gate (1880), Before the Curfew (1888).

Over and above his fiction and the three great volumes of Breakfast Table Essays, he was the author of sundry other works in prose which have had a prolonged and merited popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, to wit, Currents and Counter-Currents (1861); Soundings from the Atlantic (1864); Border-lines of Knowledge (1864); Mechanism in Thought and Morals (1871); Memoir of Motley (1879); Life of Emerson (1885); Our Hundred Days in Europe (1887).

Dr Holmes was a man of brilliant conversational gifts--one of the most notable of that noted circle which composed the "Saturday Club" in Boston--Longfellow, Emerson, Lowell, Whittier, Thoreau, Bayard Taylor, etc., etc., and which was wont to meet in the "back parlour" of that "historic" publisher, James T. Fields. With all these and many others, Holmes lived on terms of affectionate regard and comradeship. As a professor and lecturer in medical science, he was loved and venerated by all who were his students, because nothing was esteemed too great a trouble by him, provided he could cause difficulties to disappear. For thirty-five years he retained this chair, but retired in 1882, when he felt the frailties of age telling upon him. For twelve years he enjoyed his well-earned rest at Cambridge, U.S.A., surrounded by his relatives and friends and regarded with affectionate esteem by lovers of letters in both hemispheres. At length the great end came to him, but softly and suddenly, as though bringing with it the benediction of eternal peace. He passed quietly away, sitting in his accustomed chair in his library, at Cambridge, 7th October 1894.

Of that remarkable group of American men-of-letters who were his contemporaries, Holmes was perhaps the most brilliantly versatile. Though he had his limitations, yet his powers were marvellously varied. if he could not lay claim to the dulcet rhythms and deftness of workmanship of Longfellow, to the lofty spiritual intensity, fervid as the zeal of some inspired Hebrew prophet distinguishing the work of Whittier, to the incisive satire and sardonic Teufelsdröeck-like sarcasm of Lowell when lashing the evils associated with slavery, Holmes nevertheless had, both in prose and verse, a note peculiar to himself and radically distinct from them all.

He had the enviable gift of pithy exposition as applied to popular science, whereby in a few words of his limpid pellucid English he could render the mysteries of physiology, botany and chemistry, intelligible, even to readers the most obtuse. Master of a delightfully easy yet polished style, abounding in aphorisms bearing the mint-stamp of his own strong intellect, and in nuggets of thought almost axiomatic in their truth, he knew well how to relieve the tension of prolonged argument with these brilliant scintillations of his wit, which glittered and sparkled like the facets of a well-cut diamond. His pathos was never mawkish, his indignation never forced. Out of the depths of his own conviction he always spoke, and he had the happy gift of knowing when a cause could best be served by brilliant flashes--of silence!

He will go down to posterity in his inimitable "Breakfast Table" series, as the greatest of American Essayists, as the Elia of Transatlantic letters, who with a skill, little, if at all inferior to the immortal creator of "Sarah Battle," "Bridget Elia," and "Dream Children," has limned for us new types of character which will live with us and be loved by us while the language lasts--to wit, the dictatorial but delightful "Autocrat," the self-opinionated Professor, the charming Schoolmistress, the bewitching Iris, the Divinity Student hide-bound in creeds, the "Young Man John," the "Kohi-noor," "The Model of the Virtues," " The Poor Relation," and the tragic pathos of "The Little Deformed Gentleman." They are almost Shakespearian in their clear-cut vividness of outline, almost flesh-and-blood reality in the "humanness" of their sayings and doings. It is the height of art to conceal art, and it is Holmes's peculiar glory that he induces us to go on living with his characters from day to day, in forgetfulness of the fact that they are not men and women of like feelings and affections to ourselves, but only such stuff as dreams are made on.