The eminent doctor, poet, and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., one of the magazine’s founders (it was Holmes who suggested the name The Atlantic), helped establish the magazine’s early popularity with his beloved series, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, about a fictional Boston boardinghouse where residents engaged in wide-ranging philosophical discussions and witty repartee. One of Holmes’s Autocrat characters even gave Boston its enduring nickname, “The Hub,” declaring, “[The] Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system. You couldn’t pry that out of a Boston man, if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar.”
Five months into the war, in “Bread and the Newspaper,” Holmes described the tense mood on the home front, marveling at how the nation’s burgeoning railroad networks were keeping the country in “perpetual intercommunication,” delivering “almost hourly paragraphs, laden with truth or falsehood as the case may be.”—Sage Stossel
|Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., in an albumen silver print made in 1880 (James Notman/National Portrait Gallery)|
We all know what the war fever is in our young men,—what a devouring passion it becomes in those whom it assails. Patriotism is the fire of it, no doubt, but this is fed with fuel of all sorts. The love of adventure, the contagion of example, the fear of losing the chance of participating in the great events of the time, the desire of personal distinction, all help to produce those singular transformations which we often witness, turning the most peaceful of our youth into the most ardent of our soldiers. But something of the same fever in a different form reaches a good many non-combatants, who have no thought of losing a drop of precious blood belonging to themselves or their families. Some of the symptoms we shall mention are almost universal; they are as plain in the people we meet everywhere as the marks of an influenza, when that is prevailing.
The first is a nervous restlessness of a very peculiar character. Men cannot think, or write, or attend to their ordinary business. They stroll up and down the streets, they saunter out upon the public places …
Another symptom of our excited condition is seen in the breaking up of old habits. The newspaper is as imperious as a Russian Ukase; it will be had, and it will be read. To this all else must give place. If we must go out at unusual hours to get it, we shall go, in spite of after-dinner nap or evening somnolence. If it finds us in company, it will not stand on ceremony, but cuts short the compliment and story by divine right of its telegraphic despatches.