The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table

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The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858), an utterly distinctive, landmark work of American nonfiction prose, was born out of the brilliant talk at a series of Boston dinner meetings. These 1857 dinners brought together a constellation of the most eminent representatives of the sudden mid-nineteenth-century "renaissance" of New England literature and culture—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Lothrop Motley, among others—to discuss the founding of an ambitious new journal. Finally Lowell agreed to serve as editor if Holmes would sign on as the magazine's first regular contributor, and the result was the formation of the Atlantic Monthly—an enduring and extremely influential organ for the development and promotion of American thought and writing that would serve as the nation's prime intellectual forum for many decades to come. Marking Boston's dominant position in the mid-century cultural landscape and speaking for a distinctive New England vision, the magazine nonetheless became an unavoidable point of reference for writers and thinkers in every region of the country. The Atlantic's godfather, Dr. Holmes, gave it its name and then also contributed the "breakfast-table" essay feature in each issue, beginning with the twelve monthly installments of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table for 1857–1858. The feature became a huge overnight sensation, captivating a broad readership that assured the new journal's success. For while in these early years the Atlantic was the main publishing venue for many of the now canonical literary figures of the New England school—Emerson, Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Greenleaf Whittier as well as Holmes and Lowell—it was clear that the "Autocrat" was the journal's main attraction; the Atlantic's stance and tone was from the first defined by and identified with the breakfast-table papers of Dr. Holmes. These enormously popular columns that both recorded and shaped the talk of the town for a large public also transformed Holmes's life—giving the dilettante doctor-writer his sobriquet, the "Autocrat," and making him a household name both in England and in the United States for more than a century.


A tiny, hyperactive, and hyper-loquacious bundle of energy, Dr. Holmes (not to be confused with his son, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.) wanted to play all the parts. His life (1809–1894) spanned most of the nineteenth century, and for much of that time he was recognized by his contemporaries as a national character, even a national institution. Preeminent in American medicine as well as in American literature, he was somehow able to combine the stances of grave scientist and light humorist, sage and jester, traditionalist and progressive, voice of reason and confirmed ironist. Crusading all his life against emerging specialization, the generalist Holmes produced lectures, essays, and poems that placed him at the center of national debates in a surprising range of fields: theology, psychology, and natural science as well as medicine and literature.

The mid-century's best-known doctor, Holmes was one of the fathers of modern American medicine. A professor at and dean of the Harvard Medical School and a major advocate of the revolutionary shift to Parisian "clinical" methods in North America, Holmes addressed and educated his countrymen as the leading spokesman for the medical field at a crucial transitional period in its development. He had studied in Paris and was a key promoter of the "clinical" revolution that mainly worked to clear away the errors and myths of earlier heroic medicine. But he was also associated with many major developments—germ theory, antisepsis, anesthesia, and speculation about the therapeutic uses of doctor-patient dialogue, bedside manner, and humor—that would later lead beyond the impasse of the clinical method's "therapeutic nihilism," making possible key advances in twentieth-century medical treatment. As did Sigmund Freud, Holmes moved in his career from neuro-physiological approaches to verbal and psychological ones, finally developing an experimental, conversational model for diagnosis and therapy that influenced contemporary American psychologists and is still suggestive to medical explorers today.

At the same time, Holmes earned a preeminent place among American literary figures for his work in a variety of verbal forms—from poetry, prose, and public speaking to what was perhaps his main expressive mode: witty, interactive social conversation. In an era that placed a special value on spoken expression and modes of oral performance, Holmes was much in demand as a traveling public speaker, emerging as the most celebrated after-dinner toastmaster and versifier in his day. He was also one of the trailblazers in opening up the lyceum lecture circuit at mid-century, becoming in that venue both widely popular as one of the first comic lecturers and widely controversial as a proselytizing, scientific voice of reason. Then, with his bustling social life centered around verbal exchanges in drawing rooms, salons, boardinghouses, and elite clubs, he came to be widely celebrated as the most brilliant conversationalist in America's "Age of Conversation." In this role Holmes was a presiding figure at Boston's renowned Saturday Club—where his sense of talk defined the verbal environment for those important monthly conversation meetings that brought together authors such as Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, Henry James Sr., and Richard Henry Dana Jr.; scientists such as Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray; and historians and scholars such as Francis Parkman, Charles Eliot Norton, William Prescott, and Motley, along with many other prominent figures in business, politics, law, science, literature, and intellectual life.

Holmes's best writing developed out of his explorations of talk form. Print versions of the light, elegant occasional verse he had performed at banquets and public functions brought him his first wide recognition as an author, and he eventually produced some four hundred such works. But Holmes also became known as one of the Fireside Poets for a series of more serious poems memorized by generations of schoolchildren, including "Old Ironsides" (1830), which gave voice to early stirrings of nationalist fervor; "The Chambered Nautilus" (1858), a haunting meditation on intellectual progress; and "The Deacon's Masterpiece; or, The Wonderful 'OneHoss Shay'" (1858), a humorous romp that reduces Calvinist dogma to absurdity. Turning to prose fiction in later years, Holmes experimented with an early form of literary naturalism in a series of what he called "medicated novels": Elsie Venner (1861), The Guardian Angel (1867), and A Mortal Antipathy (1885). Combining his table-talk wit and personae with aspects of the clinical case history, these novels follow a series of anomalous life stories (involving multiple personalities, repetition compulsions, trauma-induced mental blocks, paralyzing erotic "antipathies," and so on) that pose severe problems of diagnosis for the central doctor/psychologist figures in the stories, raising questions about psychological and physiological determinism and generally challenging conventional thinking about the "normal."

But Holmes's works of written table talk are his most important and still vital verbal productions. After the 1857 Atlantic meetings with Lowell, when he shifted his primary focus from medicine to literature, Holmes drew upon all of his experiences in social talk at salons, clubs, and lyceums to launch himself seriously into writing with a series of humorous essays presented as multivoiced, interruptive conversations taking place among diverse characters gathered around a boardinghouse breakfast table: The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858), The Professor at the Breakfast-Table (1860), and The Poet at the Breakfast-Table (1872). By framing his "talk of the town" opinion column as a series of quasi-theatrical spoken dialogues and encounters, and including verse inter-ludes as well as some novelistic plotting in the relations between the speaking characters, Holmes transformed the English essay, giving it a new, dramatic, and dynamic rhetorical form.


Rooted in the table talk of the elite dinner clubs or common boardinghouses of nineteenth-century America, just as the early essays of Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele had been rooted in the coffeehouse discussions of eighteenth-century England, Holmes's essays were less a form for lyrical reflection or sequential argument than a social experiment, a verbal laboratory for studies of the volatile "associations" among diverse people and diverse ideas. Staging tea-table debates among a wide range of uncomprehending strangers speaking for divergent ideologies in divergent languages, Holmes presented his readers with a carnivalesque festival of verbal pyrotechnics and comic misunderstandings that also developed as a miniaturized, caricatural model of the national conversation in these troubled, divisive years just before the Civil War. These debates thus played out the rational and irrational forces shaping public opinion in this period and made possible some detached reflection on the explosive dynamics of the "public sphere" in mid-nineteenth-century America.

Just two years after Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself " (1855) had introduced his giant Self as a public site in which to gather up the nation's many languages, Holmes in the Autocrat introduced his giant Breakfast Table as the site for a potential utopian "conversation of the culture." Though different in so many ways, both Whitman and Holmes, in working to translate interactive social talk into written form, were responding to a felt need to try to counter the ominous breakdown in mid-century discussions and debates by building texts that could work as print simulacra of an ideal public sphere. This made it possible for readers to imagine themselves to be entering a national arena for dialogue—a dialogue that perhaps could only be realized through the mediation of a written, printed, fictional construct. In an increasingly privatized society, Holmes's print replicas of Saturday Club table talk were an instant sensation, generating a sense of loyal fellowship and intimacy among a huge and diverse readership. Isolated citizens and alienated writers would have been especially receptive to this verbal mode that seems to create its own community, picturing speakers and readers in a close social relation—conversing easily as members of the same family or of the same convivial club.

But Holmes's breakfast table is far from a model of easy cultural coherence. "I was just going to say, when I was interrupted . . ."—the famous first phrase in the first installment of the Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table—focuses our attention on the talk element most fundamental to his vision of conversational form: the dynamic moment of "interruption" that allows one speaker to take the floor from another and so makes possible constant changes of voice, tone, and topic. Even the title of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table foregrounds a sense of conversation as an ongoing struggle between urges to "autocratic" monologism and periodic bursts of revolutionary interruption; here the classic image of totalizing Old World authority—the autocrat—meets the era's prime symbol of democratic decentralization: the American boardinghouse or hotel. And the cap is that even in this reduced realm—of just one small table—no autocrat can hold much sway. At every turn in Holmes's table talk, the efforts of any figure of moral authority—whether the bluntly opinionated Autocrat, the Professor, the Master, or, in the 1880s, the Dictator—to monopolize the conversation, to define its terms or its tastes, to impose Robert's Rules of Order on its debates, or in any way to assert an ominously integrative centralizing power, will always soon be unsettled by explosive outbursts from the Babel of surrounding boardinghouse voices. Miming a sort of perpetual revolution, these conversations give the floor to a succession of "carnival kings"—not only to the title characters but also to the many more minor players speaking for the positions and experiences of diverse classes, genders, ages, regions, specialized professions, political factions, educational backgrounds, and so on. Each develops his or her own hobbyhorse in an over-elaborate personal prose, only to be quickly mocked and dethroned by the rabble constantly waiting on the fringes to interrupt.


While the Autocrat may then reflect a strongly felt desire for some unifying authority, it also speaks forcefully for antebellum America's central ambivalence to such authority. For Holmes the literary conversation does not operate simply as a tour de force of cultural centralization, with a Boston Brahmin from the metropolis, through his definition of "civility," subtly controlling and judging all peripheral languages. Rather, the conversation opens up as an arena of carnivalesque vocal diversity and of sometimes explosive struggles for power. Instead of epitomizing a monolithic vision of the mid-century cultural ideal—serving as the port of entry guiding readers into a newly prescribed "parlor culture"—conversation for Holmes is built upon dialogical breaks, changes in voice and perspective, that take one out of the limits of one's provincial language and home, forcing recognition of the multiplicity of cultures and also serving as a site for possible meetings between these cultures.

In the "Three Johns" passage that opens the third installment of Holmes's Autocrat papers, the Autocrat takes the everyday experience of social talk as the basis for a groundbreaking and influential vision of the self as a conversation formed out of multiple voices and diverse personalities. In the carnivalesque atmosphere of this interruptive table talk, though, serious psychological speculation mixes with raucous low humor as breakfast-table speakers fight for their share of the conversational pie.

It is not easy, at the best, for two persons talking together to make the most of each other's thoughts, there are so many of them.

[The company looked as if they wanted an explanation.]

When John and Thomas, for instance, are talking together, it is natural enough that among the six there should be more or less confusion and misapprehension.

[Our landlady turned pale;—no doubt she thought there was a screw loose in my intellects,—and that involved the probable loss of a boarder. . . . Everybody looked up; I believe the old gentleman opposite was afraid I should seize the carving-knife; at any rate, he slid it to one side, as it were carelessly.]

I think, I said, that I can make it plain to Benjamin Franklin here, that there are at least six personalities distinctly to be recognized as taking part in that dialogue between John and Thomas.

Three Johns:

  1. The real John; known only to his Maker.
  2. John's ideal John; never the real one, and often very unlike him.
  3. Thomas's ideal John; never the real John, nor John's John, but often very unlike either.

Three Thomases:

  1. The real Thomas.
  2. Thomas's ideal Thomas.
  3. John's ideal Thomas.

Only one of the three Johns is taxed; only one can be weighed on a platform-balance; but the other two are just as important in the conversation. . . . It follows, that, until a man can be found who knows himself as his Maker knows him, or who sees himself as others see him, there must be at least six persons engaged in every dialogue between the two. Of these, the least important, philosophically speaking, is the one that we have called the real person. No wonder two disputants often get angry, when there are six of them talking and listening all at the same time.

[A very unphilosophical application of the above remarks was made by a young fellow answering to the name of John, who sits near me at the table. A certain basket of peaches, a rare vegetable, little known to boarding-houses, was on its way to me viâ this unlettered Johannes. He appropriated the three that remained in the basket, remarking that there was just one apiece for him. I convinced him that his practical inference was hasty and illogical, but in the mean time he had eaten the peaches.]

Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, in Writings, 1:52–54.

Many of Holmes's dialogues turn on the question of provincialism. To be sure, his Autocrat often speaks as the epitome of regional chauvinism—giving Boston its still current title as "hub" of the universe and (in remarks further elaborated in Elsie Venner) naming and defining the "Brahmin caste" of intellectuals so often associated with that New England center. But the turns of talk at the breakfast table finally explode that impulse, working to break down the barriers of atomistic individualism, social hierarchy, or local pride. Finally, then, the Autocrat embodied for many readers not localism but widely shared national aspirations to sociability, civility, and a cosmopolitan openness. Always the contrarian working in dialogic opposition to dominant trends in the era of the common man, the Autocrat advocates metropolitan urbanity in the face of contemporary ruralism; defends the intellectual as a counter to pragmatic business values; celebrates clubs and talk groups ("Mutual Admiration Societies") as the foundations of a vital culture; and playfully mocks the very idea of the "self-made" man.

Of course a main target of the talk at Holmes's table is the dogma of the Calvinist Church. The humor figures in the boardinghouse erupt with a levity meant to explode the grave truths of the orthodox fathers. The militant voices of scientific rationality at Holmes's table, hailing the rise of man in a modern era, lecture about the need to demolish an irrationalist Calvinist stress on the fall of man that is seen to permeate American culture, blocking emotional growth, intellectual progress, and spiritual development. And in philosophy and psychology, as in theology, Holmes's speakers see the tendency of their talk as working not only to break up monological or monolithic notions of a single truth but also to challenge our conceptions of a singular selfhood. Both the Autocrat and the Professor often point to their own experiences of social conversation—slips of the tongue, repetition compulsions, unconscious plagiarism, déjàvu, and so on—as case studies provoking speculation about the power of subconscious associations to shape or direct streams of thought in what Holmes called "the underground workshop" of the mind, and raising unsettling questions about the role of mechanism or automatism in thought and morals. The famous "Three Johns" passage that opens the third Autocrat paper takes off playfully from another scene of talk to define all mental process as an internal conversation—introducing a notion of multiple personality, or of multivoiced and multilayered consciousness, that would influence Holmes's student William James and later theorists in the "Boston School" of speculative psychology.

Overall, then, Holmes's talk-based works complicate our stereotyped vision of Victorian America as dominated by a settled culture of complacent optimism, leaving us with a very different sense of the spirit of the age and of its genteel culture. Developing out of a continual alternation between opposing voices, which means that every question opens into a multiplicity of possible responses in a process that unsettles fixed standards and involves an almost pathological avoidance of direct statements or conclusions, the multivoiced table-talk writings that made Holmes a major cultural spokesman can be seen as representative expressions of the profound anxieties and indecisions of an "age of uncertainty."

See alsoThe Atlantic Monthly;Fireside Poets; Health and Medicine; Humor; Satire, Burlesque, and Parody


Primary Work

Holmes, Oliver Wendell. The Writings of Oliver WendellHolmes. 13 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1891.

Secondary Works

Gibian, Peter. Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Culture ofConversation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Tilton, Eleanor M. Amiable Autocrat: A Biography of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Schuman, 1947.

Peter Gibian