The Autocrat and His Fellow-Boarders

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

"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.

When most of his characters are in the direst extremities in the Bastille, Mr. James begins a new chapter thus: "Having now left the woodman as unhappy as we could wish, and De Blenau very little better off than he was before, we must proceed with Pauline, and see what we can do with her in the same way. It has already been said that in the hurry of her flight she struck her foot against a stone and fell. This is an unpleasant accident all times, and more especially when one is running away."

While the romancer was so careful that the reader should understand what happened and why, the moralist was even more apprehensive in regard to his charges. In any second-hand store you find the shelves still cluttered up with didactic little books published anywhere from 1820 to 1860, called "Guides" or "Aids" to one thing or another. They were intended to make everything perfectly intelligible to the intellectually dependent classes. The Laborer's Guide, the Young Lady's Aid, The Parents' Assistant, the Afflicted Man's Companion, were highly esteemed by persons who liked to have a book to tell them to go in when it rained. When I came across the Saloon-Keeper's Companion I felt sure that it belonged to this period, and so it did. Even the poor saloon-keeper was not allowed to take anything for granted.

To persons brought up on the Bombazine school of literature, Dr. Holmes's style was very perplexing. Instead of presenting an assortment of ready-made thoughts, each placed decently on the counter with the mark-down price in plain figures, he allowed the reader to look into his mind and see how he did his thinking. He described to the bewildered boardinghouse the exciting mental processes.

"Every event which a man would master must be mounted on the run, and no man ever caught the reins of a thought except as it galloped by him. The mind as it moves among thoughts or events is like a circus-rider whirling about with a great troop of horses. He can mount a fact or an idea, and guide it more or less completely, but he cannot stop it. He can stride two or three thoughts at once, but he cannot break their steady walk, trot, or gallop. He can only take his foot from the saddle of one thought and put it into that of another. What is the saddle of a thought? Why, a word, of course."

This sounds like what in these days we call the New Psychology. But to many of the boarders the act of thinking in public seemed indecorous. They were shocked at the idea of the mind making an object of itself, skipping about from one subject to another, like a circus-rider. In the most esteemed literature of the day, this never happened. A thought was never, allowed to go abroad unless chaperoned by an elderly and perfectly reliable Moral.

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