The Autocrat and His Fellow-Boarders

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

The Autocrat was asked by one the boarders whether he didn't "read up" for his talks at the breakfast-table. "No, that is the last thing I would do. Talk about subjects that have been lonq in your mind. Knowledge and timber shouldn't be used till they have been long seasoned."

It is the impression of seasoned thought which comes as we read sentences which embody the results of a long experience. The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table was not easy to write; no good book is. The writer who is unusually fluent should take warning from the instructions which accompany his fountain-pen: "When this pen flows too freely it is a sign that it is nearly empty and should be filled."

In the maturity of his powers, Dr. Holmes jotted down his thoughts. The thoughts themselves had been long in mind. "The idea, of a man's interviewing himself is rather odd, to be sure," says the Poet to the prosaic boarders. "But then it is what we all of are doing all the time. I talk half the time to find out my own thoughts, as a schoolboy turns his pockets inside out to see what is in them. . . . It is a queer place, that receptacle a man fetches his talk out of. The library comparison doesn't exactly hit it. You stow away some idea and don't want it, say, for ten years. When it turns up at last, it has got so jammed and crushed out of shape by the other ideas packed with it, that it is no more like what it was than a raisin is like grape on the vine, or a fig from a drum like one hanging on the tree. Then again some kinds of thoughts breed in the dark of one's mind like the blind fishes in the Mammoth Cave. We can't see them, and they can't see us; but sooner or lat! er the daylight gets in, and we find that some cold, fishy little negative has been spawning all over our beliefs, and the brood of blind questions it has given birth to are burrowing round and under, and butting their blunt noses against the pillars of faith we thought the whole world might rest on. And then again some of our old beliefs are dying out every year, and others feed on them and grow fat, or get poisoned as the case may be."

It is convenient for purposes of quotation to ignore the transparent fiction by which the "Autocrat" of the first series gives way to the "Professor," and then to the "Poet." Dr. Holmes the Professor of Anatomy and Dr. Holmes the Poet were the same person. The Autocrat might change his title as the years passed by, but he could not change his identity.

Dr. Holmes, in the preface to The Professor at the Breakfast-Table, disarms criticism by suggesting a falling off in interest. "The first juice that runs of itself from the grapes comes from the heart of the fruit, and tastes of the pulp only; when the grapes are squeezed in the press the flow betrays the flavor of the skin. If there is any freshness in the original idea of the work, if there is any individuality in the method or style of a new author, or of an old author on a new track, it will have lost much of its first effect when repeated."

Evidently the majority of readers have taken this view, for the Autocrat is read by many who have slight acquaintance with the Poet or the Professor. But though there may have been a loss in freshnesss, there was a gain in substance.

Dr. Holmes stood aloof from many of the "reforms" of his day. Yet he too was "a soldier in the battle for the liberation of humanity." In The Professor at the Breakfast-Table there are keen thrusts against theological dogmatism and bigotry. No wonder that the book was for a time in danger of being placed on the Protestant Index Expurgatorius. There was often consternation at the breakfast-table, and much shaking of heads. "It was undeniable that on several occasions the Little Gentleman had expressed himself with a good deal of freedom on a class of subjects which, according to the Divinity Student, he had no right to form an opinion upon." And the Professor himself was no better.

Dr. Holmes lived to see the battle for religious toleration won, at least in the community in which he lived, and says of the once startling opinions of the Professor, "That which was once an irritant may now act as an anodyne, and the reader may nod over pages which, when they were first written, would have worked him into a paroxysm of protest and denunciation."

But it is in The Poet at the Breakfast-Table that Dr. Holmes is fighting a battle which is still on. As he was an enemy of Bigotry, so he was an enemy of Pedantry. Born in the same year with Darwin, he felt the change which was taking place in the ideals and methods of education. The old classical culture was giving way to the new discipline of science. As a scientific man, he sympathized with the new methods. But he perceived that, as there was a pedantry of classical scholarship, so there was developing a scientific pedantry, which was equally hostile to any generous and joyous intellectual life.

In the preface to his last edition, he says: "We have only to look over the list of the Faculties and teachers in our Universities to see the subdivision carried out as never before. The movement is irresistible; it brings with it exactness, exhaustive knowledge, a narrow but complete self-satisfaction, with such accompanying faults as pedantry and the kind of partial blindness which belongs to intellectual myopia."

One may go far before he finds anything more delicious than the conversations between the Scarabee, who knew only about beetles, and "the old Master," to whom all the world was interesting. "I would not give much to hear what the Scarabee says about the old Master, for he does not pretend to form a judgment of anything but beetles, but I should like to hear what the Master has to say about the Scarabee." What the Master had to say was: "These specialists are the coral insects that build up a reef. By and by it will be an island, and for aught we know may grow into a continent. But I don't want to be a coral insect myself. . . . I am a little afraid that science is breeding us down too fast into coral insects."

Here we have stated the problem which the new education is facing. How may we gain the results which come from highly specialized effort, without losing the breadth and freedom of a liberal education? We must have specialists, but we must recognize the occupational diseases to which they are liable, and we must find some way by which they may be saved from them.

The old Master's division of the intellectual world is worth our careful consideration. There are "one-story intellects, two-story intellects, three-story intellects with skylights. All fact-collectors, who have no aim beyond their facts, are one-story men. Two-story men compare, reason, generalize, using the labors of the fact-collectors as well as their own. Three-story men idealize, imagine, predict; their best illumination comes from above through the skylight."

Dr. Holmes was pleading the same cause to which Wordsworth was devoted, the union of Science and Poetry in a newer and higher type of culture. If there is to be fullness of life there must be the cultivation of

The glorious habit by which sense is made
Subservient still to moral purposes,
Auxiliar to divine. That change shall clothe
The naked spirit, ceasing to deplore
The burden of existence. Science then
Shall be a precious visitant; and then,
And only then, be worthy of her name;
For then her heart shall kindle, her dull eye,
Dull and inanimate, no more shall hang
Chained to its object in brute slavery;
But taught with patient interest to watch
The processes of things, and serve the cause
Of order and distinctness, not for this
Shall it forget that its most noble use,
Its most illustrious province, must be found
In furnishing clear guidance, a support
Not treacherous to the mind's excursive power.

Amid the clatter of the dishes, this was the doctrine that was insisted upon at the Boston boardinghouse. Be sure of your fact, define it well. But, after all, a fact is but the starting-point. It is not the goal. The great thing is the mind's "excursive power." Dr. Holmes's, excursions were not so long as that of Wordsworth, but they were more varied, and how many unexpectedly interesting things he saw! Those who like to go a-thinking will always be glad that Dr. Holmes was obliging enough to be his own Boswell.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In