Monday, August 29, 2016

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table—Not Just the Justice’s Dad

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Despite his many accomplishments, Oliver Wendell Homes, Sr. is best remembered today as the father of the great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., he of the impressive mustachio and beneficiary of a bestselling fictionalized biography and an even more fanciful MGM movie.  The father, who evidently did not engage a good press agent, would probably have been both proud and amused.
The famous son, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The senior Holmes was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 29, 1809. Like his nearly exactly contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson he was the son of noted liberal minister and a descendent of poet Anne Bradstreet.  Unlike Emerson, he felt no call to the ministry.   
Instead he studied medicine at Harvard and launched a highly successful practice.  The high regard for his professional abilities was demonstrated when he was appointed Harvard’s chair of anatomy and physiology
Holmes’ intellect, however, was broader than the sciences.  He was a revered wit and wide ranging conversationalist. He pursued literature as a second career.  In 1857 he co-founded The Atlantic Monthly with James Russell Lowell.  His literary output was marked by amazing versatility.  A collection of his humorous essays The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table was published to great success in 1858.  Among his contributions to the American language was Boston Brahmins to describe the largely Unitarian elite like himself who dominated the Hub City both culturally and politically
Holmes' hugely popular book of humorous essays, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.

He also wrote novels, which were popular in their day but are now largely forgotten and scholarly biography.  Holmes’ biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1885 is a classic of the genre.

Over his long life he frequently contributed poetry to newspapers and journals, which led to his greatest public acclaim.  His work ranged from the whimsical, The Deacon’s Masterpiece or the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay, to transcendental musings, The Chambered Nautilus, to the unabashedly patriotic, Old Ironsides.  The latter poem was credited with saving the famous frigate U.S.S. Constitution from the scrap yard.  It floats today in Boston Harbor, a tribute to the power of Holmes’s words
Holmes died on October 7, 1894 in Boston at the age 84.
He is best remembered  for Old Ironsides, but his wit is best displayed in another poem.  Note that decades before the local color writers supposedly invented it, Holmes was capturing the old New England accent and attitude of Massachusetts villages
An illustration from a popular edition of The Deacon's Wonderful on Hoss Shay

The Deacon’s Masterpiece or the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay
Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,
That was built in such a logical way
It ran a hundred years to a day,
And then of a sudden it — ah, but stay,
I’ll tell you what happened without delay,
Scaring the parson into fits,
Frightening people out of their wits, –
Have you ever heard of that, I say?

Seventeen hundred and fifty-five.
Georgius Secundus was then alive, –
Snuffy old drone from the German hive.
That was the year when Lisbon-town
Saw the earth open and gulp her down,
And Braddock’s army was done so brown,
Left without a scalp to its crown.
It was on that terrible Earthquake-day
That the Deacon finished the one-hoss shay.

Now in building of shaises, I tell you what,
There is always a weakest spot, –
In hub, tire, felloe, in spring or thill,
In pannel or crossbar, or floor, or sill,
In screw, bolt, throughbrace, — lurking still,
Find it somewhere you must and will, –
Above or below, or within or without, –
And that’s the reason, beyond a doubt,
That a chaise breaks down, but doesn’t wear out.

But the Deacon swore (as deacons do,
With an “I dew vum,” or an I tell yeou”)
He would build one shay to beat the taown
‘n’ the keounty ‘n’ all the kentry raoun’;
It should be so built that it couldn’ break daown:
“Fer,” said the Deacon, “’t's mighty plain
Thut the weakes’ place mus’ stan’ the strain;
‘n’ the way t’ fix it, uz I maintain, is only jest
‘T’ make that place uz strong uz the rest.”

So the Deacon inquired of the village folk
Where he could find the strongest oak,
That couldn’t be split nor bent nor broke, –
That was for spokes and floor and sills;
He sent for lancewood to make the thills;
The crossbars were ash, from the the straightest trees
The pannels of whitewood, that cuts like cheese,
But lasts like iron for things like these;

The hubs of logs from the “Settler’s ellum,” –
Last of its timber, — they couldn’t sell ‘em,
Never no axe had seen their chips,
And the wedges flew from between their lips,
Their blunt ends frizzled like celery-tips;
Step and prop-iron, bolt and screw,
Spring, tire, axle, and linchpin too,
Steel of the finest, bright and blue;
Throughbrace bison-skin, thick and wide;
Boot, top, dasher, from tough old hide
Found in the pit when the tanner died.
That was the way he “put her through,”
“There!” said the Deacon, “naow she’ll dew!”

Do! I tell you, I rather guess
She was a wonder, and nothing less!
Colts grew horses, beards turned gray,
Deacon and deaconess dropped away,
Children and grandchildren — where were they?
But there stood the stout old one-hoss shay
As fresh as on Lisbon-earthquake-day!

EIGHTEEN HUNDRED; — it came and found
The Deacon’s masterpiece strong and sound.
Eighteen hindred increased by ten; –
“Hahnsum kerridge” they called it then.
Eighteen hundred and twenty came; –
Running as usual; much the same.
Thirty and forty at last arive,
And then come fifty and FIFTY-FIVE.

Little of of all we value here
Wakes on the morn of its hundredth year
Without both feeling and looking queer.
In fact, there’s nothing that keeps its youth,
So far as I know, but a tree and truth.
(This is a moral that runs at large;
Take it. — You’re welcome. — No extra charge.)

FIRST OF NOVEMBER, — the Earthquake-day, –
There are traces of age in the one-hoss shay,
A general flavor of mild decay,
But nothing local, as one may say.
There couldn’t be, — for the Deacon’s art
Had made it so like in every part
That there wasn’t a chance for one to start.

For the wheels were just as strong as the thills
And the floor was just as strong as the sills,
And the panels just as strong as the floor,
And the whippletree neither less or more,
And the back-crossbar as strong as the fore,
And the spring and axle and hub encore.
And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt
In another hour it will be worn out!

First of November, fifty-five!
This morning the parson takes a drive.
Now, small boys get out of the way!
Here comes the wonderful one-hoss shay,
Drawn by a rat-tailed, ewe-necked bay.

"Huddup!" said the parson. — Off went they.
The parson was working his Sunday’s text, –
Had got to fifthly, and stopped perplexed
At what the — Moses — was coming next.
All at once the horse stood still,
Close by the meet’n'-house on the hill.
First a shiver, and then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a spill, –
And the parson was sitting upon a rock,
At half past nine by the meet’n'-house clock, –
Just the hour of the earthquake shock!

What do you think the parson found,
When he got up and stared around?
The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once, –
All at once, and nothing first, –
Just as bubbles do when they burst.

End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is logic. That’s all I say.

—Oliver Wendell Holmes
Note:  Adapted from the Biographical Notes accompanying my reader’s theater piece Four Hundred Years of Unitarian and Universalist Biography—From John Milton to Sylvia Plath.

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