Saturday, June 30, 2007

Book Review: "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table"

Oliver Wendell Holmes' The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table was first published serially in The Atlantic Monthly in 1857, and in book form a year later. It is less a novel than a collection of short, idiosyncratic musings disguised as breakfast-table discussions (lectures might be a more accurate description) between the eponymous autocrat and his (semi-captive) audience - the other boarders at his lodging-house in Boston.

Since there's not really much plot to discuss, I thought I'd pick out a few portions of the book that either struck me as interesting or made me laugh. Holmes' wit remains sharp, but I suspect some references and allusions have been lost, dulled by the changes a century and a half have wrought in the American psyche. Nonetheless, there is much to enjoy in this little book.

The autocrat dislikes puns and wordplay (except, of course, when he wants to employ such tactics himself). "A pun," he writes, "does not commonly justify a blow in return. But if a blow were to be given for such cause, and death ensued, the jury would be judges both of the facts and of the pun, and might, if the latter were of an aggravated character, return a verdict of justifiable homicide."

Holmes develops the concept of a "literary tea-pot," sort of a reading intern:
"Society is a strong solution of books. It draws the virtue out of what is best worth reading, as hot water draws the strength of tea-leaves. If I were a prince, I would hire or buy a private literary tea-pot, in which I would steep all the leaves of new books that promised well. ... You understand me; I would have a person whose sole business should be to read day and night, and talk to me whenever I wanted him to. I know the man I would have: a quick-witted, out-spoken, incisive fellow; knows history, or at any rate has a shelf full of books about it, which he can use handily, and the same of all useful arts and sciences; knows all the common plots of plays and novels, and the stock company of characters that are continually coming in on new costume; can give you a criticism of an octavo in an epithet and a wink, and you can depend on it; cares for nobody except for the virtue there is in what he says; delights in taking off big wigs and professional gowns, and in the disembalming and unbandaging of all literary mummies. ... In short, he is one of those men that know everything except how to make a living."

The musings seldom tend toward natural history, but Holmes' disquisition on elm trees in the tenth chapter is one of the sections I like most of all. It helped, perhaps, that I read this section just a few hours after discovering a survivor elm on Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge - a tree that possibly (if only barely) might have been a young sapling when Holmes himself walked those very streets.

Likewise, the essays only rarely refer to actual contemporary events, but Holmes does take to task those engaged in the wholesale rearrangement of Boston's cemeteries for the sake of symmetry: "... the upright stones have been shuffled about like chessman, and nothing short of the Day of Judgment will tell whose dust lies beneath any of those records, meant by affection to mark one small spot as sacred to some cherished memory. Shame! shame! shame! - that is all I can say. ... epitaphs were never famous for truth, but the old reproach of "Here lies" never had such a wholesale illustration as in these outraged burial-places, where the stone does lie above and the bones do not lie beneath."

An example of nineteenth century literary Boston brahminism at its finest, Holmes' jottings have retained most of their punch; Autocrat can still amuse, provoke, and chide its reader today, just as it did 150 years ago.