The Autocrat and His Fellow-Boarders

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

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.

When the Autocrat presented a new thought to the Breakfast-Table, "'I don't believe one word of what you are saying,' spoke up the angular female in black bombazine."

Dr. Holmes has been called provincial. This is high praise for one who aspires to be his own Boswell. Said Dr. Johnson, "He who is tired of London is tired of life."—"Why, Sir, Fleet Street has a very animated appearance, but I think the full tide of human existence is at Charing Cross."

An interesting personality is always interested in the place where he happens to be. Dr. Holmes found his Fleet Street and Charing Cross within easy walking distance. All the specimens of human nature he needed for his study could be found on Boston Common. Boston was not so big as London, nor so old, but it was sufficient for his active mind.

In that most delightful of nature books, Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne, the good rector says of the range of hills that ran through the parish which was his world, "Though I have travelled the Sussex Downs upwards of thirty years, yet I still investigate that chain of majestic mountains with fresh admiration year by year, and think I see new beauties every time I traverse it."

The globe-trotter smiles superciliously when he is told that these majestic mountains rise to the height of five hundred feet. But the globe-trotter may well ask himself whether he has really seen as much of the world as Gilbert White saw in his thirty years' travels through the length and breadth of the Parish of Selbourne.

When "the jaunty young fellow who had come in with the young fellow they call John" made his famous remark about the Bostonian belief that "Boston State House is the hub of the solar system," the Autocrat accepted it good-naturedly. "Sir, said I, I am gratified at your remark. It expresses with vivacity that which I have sometimes heard uttered with malignant dullness. The satire of the remark is essentially true of Boston—and of all other considerable or inconsiderable places with which I have had the privilege of being acquainted.

"I have been about lecturing, you know, and have found the following propositions true of all of them:—

"I. The axis of the earth strikes visibly through the centre of each and every one of them.

"II. If more than fifty years have elapsed since its foundation, it is affectionately known as the good old town of (whatever its name may happen to be).

"III. Every collection of its inhabitants that comes together to listen to a stranger is invariably declared to be a remarkably intelligent audience.

"IV. The climate of the place is particularly favorable to longevity.

"V. It contains several persons of vast talents little known to the world.

"Boston is just like other places of its size, only perhaps, considering its excellent fish market, paid fire department, superior monthly publications and correct habit of spelling the English language, it has some right to look down on the mob of cities."

That was in 1857. Since then the fish markets and fire departments and monthly magazines of other cities have improved, and nobody pretends any longer, to know what is the correct way of spelling the English language. All the offensive Bostonian claims to superiority have passed away.

In the Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table we have many glimpses of the intelligent and right-minded, but somewhat self-conscious Boston of the Transcendental period. Dr. Holmes's wit was a safety match which struck fire on the prepared surface of the box in which it came. Boston was the box.

The peculiarities which he found most amusing were those which he himself shared. There is indeed an old prudential maxim to the effect that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. This ill-natured saying takes for granted that we should all enjoy smashing our neighbors' glass if we could in sure the safety of our own.. Dr. Holmes was of a different disposition. His satire like his charity, began at home. He was quite proud of the glass house in which he lived, and at the same time he enjoyed throwing stones. If he broke a wind now and then, it was a satisfaction, think that it was his own. No one valued more highly the intellectual characteristics of Boston, but he also saw the amusing side of the local virtues. You may have watched the prestidigitateur plunge his hand into a bowl of burning ether, and hold it aloft like a blazing torch. There was a film of moisture sufficient protect the hand from the thin flame. So Dr. Holmes's satire played around the! New England Conscience and did not the least harm to it.

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