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The author of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table was born at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Harvard Commencement Day, August 29, 1809. After a preliminary training at the Cambridgeport Academy(where he had for schoolmates Margaret Fuller and Richard Henry Dana) Holmes completed his college preparation at Phillips Academy, Andover, entered Harvard in the class of 1829, and in due time was graduated.
He had, or thought he had, an inclination to carry the 'green bag,' and to this end spent a year at the Dane (now Harvard) Law School, in Cambridge. He soon discovered a greater inclination towards medicine and entered the private medical school of Doctor James Jackson, in Boston. In 1833 he became a student at the École de Médecine in Paris, and during two busy winters heard the lectures of Broussais, Andral, Louis, and other teachers.
In 1836 he began the practice of medicine in Boston. During the two following years he competed for and won four of the Boylston Prizes. Enthusiastic in his profession, he found the life of a general practitioner not to his liking, and when, in 1838, the professorship of anatomy and physiology at Dartmouth College was offered him, he was ‘mightily pleased.' He held the position for two years (1839-40); residence at Hanover was required for three months of each year.
Some time before going to Hanover, Holmes
was writing to his friend Phineas Barnes, congratulating him on having entered into the beatific 'state of duality,' and wishing himself in like case. "I have flirted and written poetry long enough,' he said, “and I feel that I am growing domestic "and tabby-ish. On June 15, 1840, he married Miss Amelia Jackson, a daughter of Judge Charles Jackson of Boston. She was a young woman of rare endowments. 'Every estimable and attractive ‘quality of mind and character seemed to be hers.''
In 1847 Holmes was appointed Parkman professor of anatomy and physiology in the Harvard Medical School. The multifarious extra cares involved led him to say that in those early days he occupied not a chair in the college but a settee. He held the position for thirty-five consecutive years.
The reputation which Holmes began early to build up through his writings was partly literary, partly scientific, partly a compound of both. Lovers of well-turned and witty verse knew him through his Poems (1836) and his metrical essays, Urania (1846) and Astræa (1850). The public, always solicitous about its health, heard or read the two lectures on Homæopathy and its kindred Delusions (1842). Physicians made his acquaintance through the Boylston Prize Dissertations (1836–37), and the Essay on the Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever (1843).
J. T. Morse, Jr.
Fame came to Holmes in 1857 when he began printing in the newly founded ‘Atlantic Monthly' a series of papers entitled The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. Reprinted as a book, it at once took its proper place as an American classic, and now after forty-eight years its popularity seems in no degree lessened.
The following list contains the principal works upon which Holmes's reputation as a man of letters rests. A full bibliography must be consulted if one would know the extent of his literary and scientific activity: The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, 1858; The Professor at the BreakfastTable, 1860; Currents and Counter-Currents, with Other Addresses, 1861; Elsie Venner, 1861; Songs in Many Keys, 1862 ; Soundings from the Atlantic, 1864; The Guardian Angel, 1867; The Poet at the Breakfast-Table, 1872; Songs of Many Seasons, 1875; Memoir of John Lothrop Motley, 1879; The Iron Gate and Other Poems, 1880; Pages from an Old Volume of Life, 1883; A Mortal Antipatby, 1885; Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1885; Our Hundred Days in Europe, 1887; Before the Curfew and Other Poems, 1888; Over the Teacups, 1891.
Holmes's life was without marked incident. His work at the Medical School, his public lectures, social engagements, the normal and agreeable responsibilities of home and society, filled the measure of his days. The visit to England in 1886, when he was made a D. C. L. by Oxford, a Litt. D.
by Cambridge, and an LL. D. by Edinburgh, was something like apotheosis, if the term be not too extravagant.
He endured the evils consequent on old age with philosophic composure, and it became at the last a matter of scientific curiosity with him to see how long he could maintain life. He was spared a tedious illness, and died an almost painless death on October 7, 1894.
AMONG the Autocrat's' distinguishing traits was humanity. He has recorded the feeling of 'awe'stricken sympathy' at first sight of the white faces of the sick in the hospital wards. The dreadful 'scenes in the operating theatre-for this was 'before the days of ether—were a great shock to 'my sensibilities.' His nerves hardened in time, but he was always keenly alive to human suffering. There is a note of contempt in his reference to Lisfranc, the surgeon, who 'regretted the splendid 'guardsmen of the Empire because they had such magnificent thighs to amputate.'
It was once said of Holmes that he was difficult to catch unless he were wanted for some kind act.
He lost no opportunity to give happiness. In old
age when flattery was tedious, and blindness imminent, and the autograph hunter had become a burden, he patiently wrote his name and transcribed stanzas of 'Dorothy Qi' or 'The Last Leaf' for admirers from all parts of the earth. This was the smallest tax on his good nature. For years he had been expected to act as counsel and sometimes as literary agent for all the minor poets of America. Many of these innocents conceived Holmes as automatically issuing certificates to the virtue of their work. He was always kind and invariably plain-spoken. To the author of an epic he wrote: 'I cannot conscientiously advise you 'to print your poem; it will be an expense to you, and the gain to your reputation will not be an equivalent.'
Holmes believed in the humanizing influences of good blood, social position, and wealth. It was no small matter, he thought, to have a descent from men who had played their parts acceptably in the drama of life. He preferred the man with the 'family portraits' to the man with the "
twenty'cent daguerreotype' unless he had reason to believe that the latter was the better man of the two. His amusing poem, ‘Contentment,' is not a jest, but a plain statement of his philosophy.
Open-minded in literary and scientific matters, he was delightfully conservative about places. He respected the country and loved the town. A city man, he was also a man of one city. He