The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table

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The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table
Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table.jpg
Author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Country United States
Language English
Genre Essays
Publication date
Pages 271

The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858) is a collection of essays written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. The essays were originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1857 and 1858 before being collected in book form. The author had written two essays with the same name which were published in the earlier The New-England Magazine in November 1831 and February 1832, which are alluded to in a mention of an "interruption" at the start of the very first essay.


The essays take the form of a chiefly one-sided dialogue between the unnamed Author and the other residents of a New England boarding house who are known only by their profession, location at the table or other defining characteristics. The topics discussed range from an essay on the unexpected benefits of old age to the finest place to site a dwelling and comments on the nature of conversation itself. The tone of the book is distinctly Yankee and takes a seriocomic approach to the subject matter.

As befits Holmes' reputation as one of America's finest poets, each essay typically ends with a poem on the theme of the essay. There are also poems ostensibly written by the fictional disputants scattered throughout.

Publication history[edit]

Holmes first published The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table in book form in 1858.

In 1830, Holmes moved out of his childhood home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and stayed in a boardinghouse in Boston while attending the city's medical college.[1] During this time, he wrote two essays detailing life at his boardinghouse. They were published under the title "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table" in November 1831 and February 1832 in the New England Magazine[2] Years later, Holmes was instrumental in establishing The Atlantic Monthly in 1856, even providing the magazine's title.[3] For its first issue, Holmes published new versions of his prior essays based on fictionalized breakfast table talk and including poetry, stories, jokes and songs.[4] These essays were not collected in book form until 1858.[5]

The Breakfast-Table Series[edit]

In addition to Autocrat, there are two further volumes in the series drawing on later essays along similar themes. The first sequel, The Professor of the Breakfast-Table, was published in 1859. Its second sequel, The Poet at the Breakfast-Table, was published much later in 1872.[6] The fifteen-year gap between the original Breakfast-Table book allowed a very different tone in the final installment of the series. More mellow and nostalgic than its predecessor, Holmes wrote of it: "As people grow older... they come at length to live so much in memory that they often think with a kind of pleasure of losing their dearest possessions. Nothing can be so perfect while we possess it as it will seem when remembered".[7]

Critical response[edit]

The inclusion of Holmes's re-worked essays in The Atlantic Monthly in 1857 helped secure that magazine's early success and was well received by critics and readers alike.[8] In book form, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table sold ten thousand copies in only three days.[9] It has become Holmes's most enduring work.[5]

Image gallery[edit]

Illustrations by Augustus Hoppin in 1858 edition (Phillips, Sampson Co.)


  1. ^ Hoyt, Edwin Palmer. The Improper Bostonian: Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Morrow, 1979: 47. ISBN 0-688-03429-2
  2. ^ Hoyt, Edwin Palmer. The Improper Bostonian: Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Morrow, 1979: 48. ISBN 0-688-03429-2
  3. ^ Broaddus, Dorothy C. Genteel Rhetoric: Writing High Culture in Nineteenth-Century Boston. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina, 1999: 46. ISBN 1-57003-244-0.
  4. ^ Novick, Sheldon M. Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989: 19. ISBN 0-316-61325-8.
  5. ^ a b Sullivan, Wilson. New England Men of Letters. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972: 237. ISBN 0-02-788680-8.
  6. ^ Westbrook, Perry D. A Literary History of New England. Philadelphia: Lehigh University Press, 1988: 181. ISBN 978-0-934223-02-7
  7. ^ Hoyt, Edwin Palmer. The Improper Bostonian: Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Morrow, 1979: 237. ISBN 0-688-03429-2
  8. ^ Tilton, Eleanor M. Amiable Autocrat: a Biography of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: H. Schuman, 1947: 236.
  9. ^ Hoyt, Edwin Palmer. The Improper Bostonian: Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Morrow, 1979: 193. ISBN 0-688-03429-2

Further reading[edit]

  • Autocrat of the breakfast-table (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, Co., 1858). Google books Printed by H.O. Houghton & Co. Illustrations by Augustus Hoppin.

External links[edit]