Continental Breakfasts: Oliver Wendell Holmes and the American Literary Consciousness


Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

So.  How to start a blog about reading?

I mentioned, in the About page, that I live in a small town, not far – but far enough – from a big city. Culture here exists more in the abstract than the concrete: it takes an effort (a commute, that is) to discover and engage with something besides a local art exhibition or school play or book signing. It’s not that people in this area are not “cultured,” or that they have to be as such; most don’t and still manage to make a decent living, without giving much public voice or time to creative pursuits.

It does, however, make the bookshelf in my room seem more like an island than a lending library. The shelves are always open, filled with books that I have looked at to varying degrees – some from cover to cover, others with faded bookmarks to show where I gave up, still others whose spines are the only features I recognize. All of them made it into my hands; few have made it into the hands of others.

This is partly why I wanted to start this project. My dream, which is less a dream than a delusion of grandeur, is to look for – or create – a borderless community that takes pride and pleasure (and maybe some prejudice) in reading, writing, and learning. Call it a book club, a literary forum, whatever you’d like: I guess what I imagine this blog becoming is a vehicle to get people to read and to talk about what they read, how they read, why they read.

Which makes Oliver Wendell Holmes one of the best authors to begin talking about.

“Oliver Wendell Holmes” is a name that associates in American historical consciousness with two figures: the father (1809-1894), an accomplished practitioner of medicine and an erudite scholar, and his son (1841-1935), one of the most notable Justices of the Supreme Court. Both men were born and raised at a crucial stage in American history which witnessed among other factors the rise and decline of cultural capital in Boston, the birth and endurance of Jacksonian democracy, and the territorial expansion and increasing sectionalism of the country. In this post, Holmes Sr. is the man whom I will refer to from this point forward, usually by the name “Holmes” or his (painful?) acronym OWH.

You can read a great deal more about OWH by looking him up through the usual means (Eleanor Tilton wrote a remarkably comprehensive biography of the man), but what surprised me the most about his life was that…he ever existed. His son was a figure I’d come across once or twice in high school history classes, but the well-educated and supremely talented father never showed up in any discussions about American literature or culture. That was until I took an English seminar focused entirely on Holmes and his major work, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, earlier this spring. By the time I finished the course, I became enthralled – and in a way, cheated.

First, the book. The Autocrat is a collection of prose essays that OWH wrote and published separately in The Atlantic Monthly (a journal he himself founded; it’s now The Atlantic) in 1857 and 1858. The essays are written as a running “dialogue” between the “Autocrat” – a learned, gregarious, keenly observant narrator and purveyor of wit and wisdom – and various guests at the boarding house in which he resides, including a “divinity student,” professor, gentleman, and school-mistress, among others. Holmes’ essays were wildly popular in his time – the collection sold 10,000 copies in three days and spawned two (less successful) sequels, The Professor… and The Poet… – yet as far as I can tell they are rarely touched upon in schools and undergraduate courses, let alone public discussions of American literature.

It’s a shame, too, because Holmes is a fantastically gifted writer, and his Autocrat’s powers of observation speak not only to the domains of classical learning and conduct, but also to the most fundamental rhythms of everyday life.  Here’s just one example, in which the Autocrat describes the pleasures and benefits of rowing:

Here you are, then, afloat…with arms, or wings, as you may choose to call them, stretching more than twenty feet from tip to tip; every volition of yours extending as perfectly into them as if your spinal cord ran down the centre strip of your boat, and the nerves of your arms tingled as far as the broad blades of your oars,—oars of spruce, balanced, leathered, and ringed under your own special direction.  This, in sober earnest, is the nearest approach to flying that man has ever made or perhaps ever will make.  As the hawk sails without flapping his pinions, so you drift with the tide when you will, in the most luxurious form of locomotion indulged to an embodied spirit.  But if your blood wants rousing, turn round that stake in the river, which you see a mile from here….It is in the boat, then, that man finds the largest extension of his volitional and muscular existence; and yet he may tax both of them so slightly, in that most delicious of exercises, that he shall mentally write his sermon, or his poem, or recall the remarks he has made in company and put them in form for the public, as well as in his easy-chair.

Even if you have never rowed out onto the water, Holmes’ imagery and figurative language create so many parallel levels of understanding – all taken from characteristic “American” symbols (the hawk; the sermon; the poem; the easy-chair) – that it’s hard not to feel the same sensations a rower would.  Indeed, that is the Autocrat’s argument: the body becomes the boat, the arms assume the spruce oars, “balanced, leathered, and ringed under your own special attention.” That he moves in a single stroke (with both pen and oars) between air and water to capture the motion and emotion of rowing is even more remarkable, lending a well-practiced rhythm a literal out-of-body and out-of-mind experience.

Here’s another passage, this one discussing the nature of personal relationships using the language of doors and keys:

—Every person’s feelings have a front-door and a side-door by which they may be entered.  The front-door is on the street.  Some keep it always open; some keep it latched; some, locked; some, bolted,—with a chain that will let you peep in, but not get in; and some nail it up, so that nothing can pass its threshold.  This front-door leads into a passage which opens into an ante-room, and this into the inferior apartments.  The side-door opens at once into the sacred chambers….

Be very careful to whom you trust one of these keys of the side-door.  The fact of possessing one renders those even who are dear to you very terrible at times.  You can keep the world out from your front-door, or receive visitors only when you are ready for them; but those of your own flesh and blood, or of certain grades of intimacy, can come in at the side-door, if they will, at any hour and in any mood.  Some of them have a scale of your whole nervous system, and can play all the gamut of your sensibilities in semitones,—touching the naked nerve-pulps as a pianist strikes the keys of his instrument…..No stranger can get a great many notes of torture out of a human soul; it takes one that knows it well,—parent, child, brother, sister, intimate.  Be very careful to whom you give a side-door key; too many have them already.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a more pertinent metaphor for emotional privacy than the Autocrat’s basic, yet profoundly resonant construct here.  Even with our current furore over (inter)national surveillance and personal liberties, the lock-and-key imagery remains extremely pertinent (we’ve only replaced doors with “screens;” the keys still pop up in the language of codes and passwords).  Even without that controversy, Holmes manages to encapsulate a profound truth of human experience within an accessible set of images – not just the doors and locks but also the instruments(!), the “notes of torture” we can play off of our closest relations if we dare.  That is a literal and figurative observation of the highest order.

So what? Why wax lyrical about a work that has all but disappeared from our national literary consciousness, and about a man whose existence and erudition – extraordinary as they were – are rarely, if ever, mentioned in serious discussions of the American experience?

Because in a tragically ironic way, both Holmes and the Autocrat were two of the most important entities to give birth to an American literary consciousness, one that could challenge (and hold its own) against the standard-bearers of English, French, and classical Western traditions.  A lifelong resident of Boston and a frequent visitor (as student, and later medical professor) of Paris, Holmes exerted his cultural influence alongside his now-more-widely-known contemporaries: Hawthorne, Emerson, Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell, among others.  All of these men, collectively known as the “Saturday Club,” fostered a collaborative culture of discussion, investigation, and creativity influenced as much by their educations (Holmes and several of his peers went to Harvard) as by the lack of the culture they witnessed in mid-century.  Through publications such as the Autocrat and submissions to the Atlantic Monthly, Holmes and his contemporaries planted a consciousness that they hoped would resonate with both the long- and newly-settled Americans who moved deeper and deeper into the frontier, into the new landscape.  Judging by those initial sales figures for the Autocrat alone, it seems there were plenty of people who felt that they, too, had found a voice that spoke to their lives and desires.

Which takes us back to the present, to the bookshelf in my room, titles gathering varying degrees of dust atop the pages.  Given the impact a well-occupied breakfast table once had on the American cultural consciousness, it’s hard not to wonder what kinds of worlds other books might open before our eyes.

Thanks in particular to William C. Dowling, whose extraordinary scholarship in and general enthusiasm for literature played no small part in getting me to write this.

About csquaredetc

I'm a graduate student in English at the University of Pennsylvania (or "Penn" for short). My most prolific writing is on The Hong Kong Project, a blog about my former experience as an exchange student:
This entry was posted in Books, Prose and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Continental Breakfasts: Oliver Wendell Holmes and the American Literary Consciousness

  1. Pingback: Bookmarks: 11/24 – 12/15 | Shelf Reflections

  2. Pingback: Wandering Among “Towery Cities” and “Branchy Towers” | Shelf Reflections

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s