The Autocrat and His Fellow-Boarders

A tribute to Dr. Holmes and his "Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table"

Dr. Holmes wrote of Emerson, "He delineates himself so perfectly in his various writings that the careful reader sees his nature just as it was in all its essentials, and has little more to learn than those human accidents which individualize him in time and space."

This was even more true of Dr. Holmes than of Emerson. In the title of the work which brought him fame he takes us into confidence: The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table; or Every Man his own Boswell.

To say that he was his own Boswell is to say that he was, by instinct, not an historian or a novelist or a systematic philosopher, but an essayist. Now, the great difficulty with the discursive essay lies in the fact that it encounters the social prejudice against the use of the first person singular. It is not considered good form for a man to talk much about himself. The essayist is not really more egotistic than the most reticent of his fellow citizens, but the first person singular is his stock in trade. If he is not allowed to say "I," his style stiffens into formalism. He is interested in the human mind, and likes to chronicle its queer goings on. He is curious about its inner working. Now, it happens that the only mind of which he is able to get an inside view is his own, and so he makes the most of it. He follows his mind about, taking notes of all its haps and mishaps. He is aware that it may not be the best intellect in the world, but it is all he has, and he ca! nnot help becoming attached to it. A man's mind grows on acquaintance. For a person to be his own Boswell implies that he his own Dr. Johnson. Dr. Johnson must have enough opinions, obstinacies, and insights, to make the Boswellizing worth while. The natural history of a mental vacuum cannot be made interesting to the general reader.

For commercial purposes it is sometimes necessary to create an artificial person, called the corporation, to carry on business. In like manner, the essayist finds it convenient to create an artificial person to carry on the business of self-revelation. As the corporation is relieved of the necessity of having a soul, so the artificial literary character is without self-consciousness. He can say "I" as often as he pleases, without giving offense. If a narrow-minded person accuses the author of being egotistic, he can readily prove an alibi. If Elia should prove garrulous in proclaiming his whims, Mr. Charles Lamb could not be blamed. He was attending faithfully to his duties in the East India House.

Dr. Holmes was fortunate, not only in creating a character through which to put forth his private opinions, but also in providing that character with the proper environment. He was thus enabled not only to reveal himself, but also to reveal the society of which he formed a part.

Washington Irving's Geoffrey Crayon was only the English Mr. Spectator transplanted to America. The elderly man about town was more fitted for London than for the New York of that period. But Dr. Holmes hit upon a character and a situation distinctly American. Let Philosophy come down from the heights, and take up her abode in a Boston boarding-house. Let there be a nervous landlady anxious to please, and an opinionated old gentleman ready to be displeased, and a poet, and a philosopher, and a timid school-mistress, and a Divinity student who wants to know, and an angular female in black bombazine, and a young fellow named John who cares for none of these things. Then let these free-born American citizens be talked to by one of their fellow-boarders who has usurped the authority of speech.

The philosophical historian of the future may picture the New England of the middle of the nineteenth century under the symbolism of the Autocrat and his Boarding-House. You cannot understand one without the other. In Europe different streams of culture flow side by side without mingling. One man belongs to the world of art, another to the world of business, another to the world of politics. Each sphere has its well-recognized conventions.

Matthew Arnold voices the inherited ideal. It is that of one who, in the society which he has chosen, is not compelled to note "all the fever of some differing soul." In America, to note the fever of some differing soul is part of the fun. We like to use the clinical thermometer and take one another's temperature.

We do not think of ourselves as in an intellectual realm where every man's house is his castle. We are all boarders together. There are no gradations of rank, nobody sits below the salt. We listen to the Autocrat so long as we think he talks sense; and when he gets beyond our depth we push back our chairs somewhat noisily, and go about our business. The young fellow named John is one of the most important persons at the table. The Autocrat would think it his greatest triumph if he could make the slightest impression on that imperturbable individual.

The first sentence of the book strikes the keynote. "I was just going to say when I was interrupted." Here we have the American philosopher at his best. He is inured to interruptions. He is graciously permitted to discourse to his fellow citizens on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, but he must be mighty quick about it. He must know how to get in his words edgewise.

"Will you allow me to pursue this subject a little further?" asks the Autocrat. Then he adds meekly, "They didn't allow me." When he attempts to present a subject in systematic form: "Oh, oh," cried the young fellow they call John, "that's from one of your lectures."

For all his autocratic airs, there is no danger that he will be allowed to think of himself more highly than he ought to think. The boarders will take care to prevent such a calamity. All his sentimentalities and sublimities are at once subjected to the nipping air of the boarding-house.

When the Professor makes a profound statement, the "economically organized female in black bombazine" remarks acidly, "I don't think people who talk over, their victuals are likely to say anything great."

We must remember that the lady in black bombazine was a very important person in her day. And so was another boarder, known as the "Model of all the Virtues." We are made intimately acquainted with this excellent lady, though we are not told her name. "She was the natural product of a chilly climate and high culture.... There was no handle of weakness to hold her by. She was as unseizable except in her entirety as a billiard ball. On the broad terrestrial table where she had been knocked about, like all of us, by the cue of Fortune, she glanced from every human contact and caromed from one relation to another, and rebounded from the stuffed cushion of temptation with exact and perfect angular movements."

To get the full humor of the talk, one must always hear the audacities of the Autocrat answered by the rustle of the bombazine and the grieved resignation of the Model of all the Virtues. It was all so different from what they had been accustomed to. In the first part of nineteenth century a great wave of didactic literature swept over the English and American reading public. A large number of conscientious ladies and gentlemen simultaneously discovered that they could write improving books, and at once proceeded to do so. Their aim was to make the path of duty so absolutely plain that the wayfaring man, though a fool, could not err therein; and they succeeded. The wayfaring man who was more generously endowed had a hard time of it by reason the advice that was thrust upon him. The cult of the Obvious was at its height in the days when Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy was popularly supposed to be poetry, and Mr. G.P.R. James furnished the excitement of Romance without any of its imaginative perils. The idea was that everything had to be explained.

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