The Autocrat and His Fellow-Boarders

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

When one has begun to state his political or theological opinions in terms of chemistry, and is able to grasp the idea of a Smithate of truth, he is on good terms with Dr. Holmes. He may go on to apply the same methods to literary criticism. "I suppose that a man's mind does in time form a neutral salt with the elements of the universe for which it has special elective affinities. In fact, I look upon a library as a kind of mental chemist's shop filled with the crystals of all forms and hues which have come from the union of individual thought with local circumstances or universal principles. When a man has worked out his special affinities in this way, there is an end of his genius as a real solvent. No more effervescence and hissing tumult as he pours his sharp thought on the world's biting alkaline un-beliefs."

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."

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