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.

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.

A Scotch Presbyterian of the seventeenth century, named Baillie, wrote a study of the English Puritans at the time when many were crossing to New England. "They are a people inclinable to singularities, their humor is to differ from all the world, and shortly from themselves." It was this hereditary humor, somewhat stimulated by the keen winds off Massachusetts Bay, that furnished Dr. Holmes with his best material.

"I value a man," says the Autocrat, "mainly for his primary relations with truth, as I understand truth."

Such an assertion of independent judgment could not fail to awaken other independent boarders to opposition.

"The old gentleman who sits opposite got his hand up, as a pointer lifts his foot, at the expression 'his relations with truth as he understands truth,' and when I had done, sniffed audibly and said I talked like a Transcendentalist. For his part, common sense was good enough for him.

"'Precisely so,' I replied, 'common sense as you understand it.'"

It was a discussion which had been carried on without interruption since the days when old Mr. Blackstone settled on the peninsula at the mouth of the Charles in order to get into primary relations with truth as he understood truth, and had his peace disturbed by the influx of people from Salem who came with the intention of getting into primary relations with truth as they understood it.

In Sunday preachments, in Thursday lectures, in councils and town meetings, in lecture-halls and drawing-rooms, the quest has been kept up. Mrs. Anne Hutchinson here got into primary relations with truth as she understood truth, and so did Margaret Fuller, and so has Mrs. Eddy.

Never has any one who had done this lacked followers in the good old town, and never has such an one lacked candid critics. So long as there is a keen delight in the give-and-take, the thrust and counter-thrust of opinion, that "state of mind" that is Boston will be recognized.

It was a state of mind that was particularly acute in those days when Lowell wrote of Theodore Parker and his co-religionists,—

I know they all went
For a general union of total dissent:
He went a step farther; without cough or hem
He frankly avowed he believed not in them;
And, before he could be jumbled up or prevented,
From their orthodox kind of dissent he dissented.

Laurence Sterne, in Tristram Shandy, gives the secret of his own method of writing. "In course," said Yorick, "in a tone two parts jest and one part earnest." Dr. Holmes used these ingredients, but the proportions were reversed. Usually there are two parts earnest and one part jest. The earnest was always the earnest of the man of science, and of the keen physician. Much of his wit is of the nature of a quick diagnosis. We are moral hypochondriacs, going about with long faces imagining that we are suffering from a complication of formidable diseases. The little doctor looks us over and tells us what is the matter with us. The incongruity between what we thought was the matter and what is the matter, makes us smile. It is as if a man thought he had committed the unpardonable sin, and was told that the real sin that has produced his bad feelings was committed by his cook.

Here is a bit of social diagnosis: "There are persons who no sooner come within sight of you than they begin to smile in a way that conveys the idea that they are thinking about themselves, and that they are thinking, too, that you are thinking that they are thinking about themselves."

We are made to see that the troublesome complaint which we usually speak of as self-consciousness is not so simple as we had thought. It is a complication of disorders. It is not merely a consciousness of one's self. It is the consciousness of other people's consciousness that makes the trouble. All of which is amusing because it is true.

"'There is no power I envy so much,' said the Divinity Student, 'as that of seeing analogies. I don't understand how it is that some minds are constantly coupling thoughts or objects that seem not in the least related to each other, until all at once they are put in a certain light, and you wonder that you did not always see that they were as like as a pair of twins. It appears to me a sort of miraculous gift.'"

Now, to the Autocrat it was not a miraculous gift at all. To couple ideas into a train of thought was, as easy for him as it is for a railroad man to couple cars. But the connections which he saw were not like the analogies of the homilist, they were like the connection which the physician recognizes between the symptom and the disease: this thing means that.

That there is any likeness between an awkward visitor and a ship is not evident, till it is pointed out; after that it seems inevitable.

"Don't you know how hard it is for some people to get out of a room after their visit is really over. They want to be off, and you want them to be off, but they don't know how to manage it. One would think they had been built in your parlor, and were waiting to be launched."

Then follows the suggestion as to the best way of launching them. "I have contrived a sort of ceremonial inclined plane for such visitors, which being lubricated with certain smooth phrases, I back them down, metaphorically speaking, stern-foremost into their native element, the great ocean of out-of-doors."

Whoever has felt himself thus being launched recognizes the accuracy of the figure of speech.

Even the most confirmed dogmatist must get a glimpse of the meaning of "the relativity of knowledge," and the difference between opinion and truth, when the Professor at the Breakfast-Table explains it to him. "Do you know that every man has a religious belief peculiar to himself. Smith is always a Smithite. He takes exactly Smith's-worth of knowledge, Smith's-worth of truth, of beauty, of divinity. And Brown has from time immemorial been trying to burn him, to excommunicate him, to anonymous-article him, because he did not take in Brown's-worth of knowledge, truth, beauty, divinity. He cannot do it any more than a pint-pot can hold a quart, or a quart-pot be filled by a pint. Iron is essentially the same everywhere and always; but sulphate of iron is never the same as carbonate of iron. Truth is invariable, but the Smithate of Truth must always differ from the Brownate of Truth."

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."

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.