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The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 7/The Autocrat Gives a Breakfast to the Public

 

THE AUTOCRAT GIVES A BREAKFAST TO THE PUBLIC.


Before my friend the Professor takes his place at our old table, where, Providence permitting, he means to wish you all a happy New Year on or about the First of January next, I wish you to do me the favor of being my guests at the table which you see spread before you.

This table is a very long one. Legs in every Atlantic and inland city,—legs in California and Oregon,—legs on the shores of 'Quoddy and of Lake Pontchartrain,—legs everywhere, like a millipede or a banian-tree.

The schoolmistress that was,—and is,—(there are her little scholars at the side-table.)—shall pour out coffee or tea for you as you like.

Sit down and make yourselves comfortable.—A teaspoon, my dear, for Minnesota.—Sacramento's cup is out.

Bridget has become a thought, and serves us a great deal faster than the sticky lightning of the submarine par vagum, as the Professor calls it.—Pepper for Kansas, Bridget.—A sandwich for Cincinnati.—Rolls and sardines for Washington.—A bit of the Cape Ann turkey for Boston.—South Carolina prefers dark meat.—Fifty thousand glasses of eau sucrée at once, and the rest simultaneously.—Now give us the nude mahogany, that we may talk over it.—Bridget becomes as a mighty wind and peels off the immeasurable table-cloth as a northwester strips off the leafy damask from the autumn woods.

[At this point of the entertainment the Reporter of the "Oceanic Miscellany" was introduced, and to his fluent and indefatigable pen we owe the further account of the proceedings.—Editors of the "Oceanic Miscellany."]

—The liberal and untiring editors of the "Oceanic Miscellany" commissioned their special reporter to be present at the Great Breakfast given by the personage known as the Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, furnishing him with one of the caput-mortuum tickets usually distributed on such occasions.

The tables groaned with the delicacies of the season, provided by the distinguished caterers whose names are familiar in our mouths as household words. After the usual contest for places,—a proceeding more honored in the breach than the observance,—the band discoursed sweet music. The creature comforts were then discussed, consisting of the various luxuries that flesh is heir to, together with fish and fowl, too numerous to mention. After the material banquet had cloyed the hungry edge of appetite, began the feast of reason and the flow of soul. As, take him for all in all, the bright particular star of the evening was the distinguished individual who played the part of mine host, we shall make no apology for confining our report to the


speech of the autocrat.

I think on the whole we have had a good time together, since we became acquainted. So many pleasant looks and words as have passed between us must mean something. For one person who speaks well or ill of us we may safely take it for granted that there are ten or a hundred, or an indefinite number, who feel in the same way, but are shy of talking.

Now the first effect of being kindly received is unquestionably a pleasing internal commotion, out of which arises a not less pleasing secondary sensation, which the unthinking vulgar call conceit, but which is in reality an increased consciousness of life, and a most important part of the mechanism by which a man is advertised of his ability to serve his fellows, and stirred up to use it.

In the present instance, the immediate effects of the warm general welcome received were the following demonstrations:—

1. The purchase of a glossy bell-crowned hat, which is worn a little inclined to one side, at the angle of self-reliance,—this being a very slight dip, as compared to the outrageous slant of country dandies and the insolent obliquity indulged in by a few unpleasantly conspicuous city-youth, who prove that "it takes three generations to make a gentleman."

2. A movement towards the acquisition of a pair of pantaloons with a stripe running down the leg; also of a slender canary-colored cane, to be carried as formerly in the time when Mr. Van Buren was President.—[A mild veto from the schoolmistress was interposed.]

3. A manifest increase of that monstraridigitativeness,—if you will permit the term,—which is so remarkable in literary men, that, if public opinion allowed it, some of them would like to wear a smart uniform, with an author's button, so that they might be known and hailed everywhere.

4. An undeniable aggravation of the natural tendency to caress and cosset such products of the writer's literary industry as have met with special favor. This is shown by a willingness to repeat any given stanza, a line of which is referred to, and a readiness to listen to even exaggerated eulogy with a twinkling stillness of feature and inclination of the titillated ear to the operator, such as the Mexican Peccary is said to show when its dorsal surface is gently and continuously irritated with the pointed extremity of a reed or of a magnolia-branch. What other people think well of, we certainly have a right to like, ourselves.

All this self-exaltation, which some folks make so much scandal of, is the most natural thing in the world when one gets an over-dose of fair words. The more I reflect upon it, the more I am convinced that it is well for a man to think too highly of himself while he is in the working state. Sydney Smith could discover no relation between Modesty and Merit, excepting that they both began with an M. Considered simply as a machine out of which work is to be got, the wheels of intellect run best when they are kept well oiled by the public and the publisher.

Therefore, my friends, if any of you have uttered words of kindness, of flattery, of extreme over-praise, even, let me thank you for it. Criticism with praise in it is azotized food; it makes muscle; to expect a man to write without it is like giving nothing but hay to a roadster and expecting to get ten miles an hour out of him. A young fellow cannot be asked to go on making love forever, if he does not get a smile now and then to keep hope alive. The truth is, Bridget would have whisked off the table-cloth and given notice of quitting, and the whole establishment would have gone to pieces at the end of No. 1, if you had not looked so very good-natured about it that it was impossible to give up such amiable acquaintance.

The above acknowledgments and personal revelations are preliminary to the following more general statement, which will show how they must be qualified.

Every man of sense has two ways of looking at himself. The first is an everyday working view, in which he makes the most of his gifts and accomplishments. It is the superficial stratum in which praise and blame find their sphere of action,—the region of comparisons,—the habitat where envy and jealousy are to be looked for, if they have not been weeded out and flung into the compost-heap of dead vices, with which, if we understand moral husbandry, we fertilize our living virtues. It is quite foolish to abuse this thin upper layer of our mental soil. The grasses do not strike their roots deep in towards the centre, like the oaks, but they are the more useful and necessary vegetable of the two. The cheap, but perpetual activities of life grow out of this upper stratum of our being. How silly to try to be wiser than Providence! Don't tell me about the vain illusions of self-love. There is nothing so real in this world as Illusion. All other things may desert a man, but this fair angel never leaves him. She holds a star a billion miles over a baby's head, and laughs to see him clawing and batting himself as he tries to reach it. She glides before the hoary sinner down the path which leads to the inexorable gate, jingling the keys of heaven at her girdle.

Underneath this surface-soil lies another stratum of thought, where the tap-roots of the larger mental growths penetrate and find their nourishment. Out of this comes heroism in all its shapes; here the enterprises that overshadow half the planet, when full grown, lie, tender, in their cotyledons. Here there is neither praise nor blame, nothing but a passionless self-estimate, quite as willing to undervalue as to rate too highly. The less clay and straw the task-master has given his servant, the smaller the tale of bricks he will be required to furnish. Many a man not remarkable for conceit has shuddered as some effort or accident has revealed to him a depth of power of which he never thought himself the possessor and broken his peace with the fatal words, "Sleep no more!"

This deeper self-appreciation is a slow and gradual process. At first, a child thinks he can do everything. I remember when I thought I could lift a house, if I would only try hard enough. So I began with the hind wheel of a heavy old family-coach, built like that in which my Lady Bountiful carried little King Pippin, if you happen to remember the illustrations of that story. I lifted with all my might, and the planet pulled down with all its might. The planet beat. After that, my ideas of the difference between my will and my muscular force were more accurately defined. Then came the illusion, that I could, of course, "lick," "serve out," or "polish off," various small boys who had been or might be obnoxious to me. The event of the different "set-tos" to which, this hypothesis led not uniformly confirming it, another limitation of my possibilities was the consequence. In this way I groped along into a knowledge of my physical relations to the organic and inorganic universe.

A man must be very stupid indeed, if, by the time he is fully ripened, he does not know tolerably well what his physical powers are. His weight, his height, his general development, his constitutional force, his good or ill looks, he has had time to find out; and he is a fool, if he does not carry a reasonable consciousness of these conditions with him always. It is a little harder with the mind; but some qualities are generally estimated fairly enough by their owners. Thus, a man may be trusted when he says he has a good or a bad memory. Not so of his opinion of his own judgment or imagination. It is only by a very slow process that he finds out how much or how little of those qualities he possesses. But it is one of the blessed privileges of growing older, that we come to have a much clearer sense of what we can do and what we cannot, and settle down to our work quietly, knowing what our tools are and what we have to do with them.

Therefore, my friends, if I should at any time put on any airs on the strength of your good-natured treatment, please to remember that these are only the growth of that thin upper stratum of character I was telling you of. I conceive that the fact of a man's coming out in a book or two, even supposing them to have a success such as I should never think of, is to the sum total of that man's life and character as the bed of tulips and hyacinths you may see in spring, at the feet of the "Great Elm," on our Boston Common, is to the solemn old tree itself. The serene, strong life, reaching deep underground and high overhead, robed itself in April and disrobed itself in October when the Common was a cow-pasture, and observes the same seasons now that the old tree is belted with an iron girdle and finds its feet covered with flowers. Alas! my friends, the fence and the tulips are painfully suggestive. Authorship is an iron girdle, and the blossoms of flattery that are scattered at its feet are useful to it only as their culture keeps the soil open to the sun and rain. No man can please the reading public ever so little without being too highly commended for it in the heat of the moment; and so, if he thinks of starting again for the prize of public approbation, he finds himself heavily handicapped, and perhaps weighted down, simply because he has made good running for some former stakes.

I don't like the position of my friend the Professor. I consider him fully as good a man as myself.—I have, you know, often referred to him and quoted him, and sometimes got so mixed up with him, that, like the Schildbürgers at their town-meeting, I was puzzled to disentangle my own legs from his, when I wanted to stand up by myself, they were got into such a snarl together.—But I don't like the position of my friend the Professor.

The first thing, of course, when he opens his mouth, will be to compare him with his predecessor. Now, if he has the least tact in the world, he will begin dull, so as to leave a wide margin for improvement. You may be perfectly certain that he can talk and write just as well as I can; but you don't think, surely, that he is going to begin where I left off. Not unless we are to have a wedding in the first number;—and you are not sure whether or not there is to be any wedding at all while the Professor holds my seat at the table.

But I will tell you one thing,—if you sit a year or so at a long table, you will see what life is. Christenings, weddings, funerals,—these are the three legs it stands on; and you have a chance to see them all in a twelvemonth, if the table is really a long one. I don't doubt the Professor will have something to tell besides his opinions and fancies; and if you like a book of thoughts with occasional incidents, as well as a book of incidents with occasional thoughts, why, I see no reason why you should not accept this talk of the Professor's as kindly as if it had a fancy name and called itself a novel.

Life may be divided into two periods,—the hours of taking food, and the intervals between them,—or, technically, into the alimentary and the non-alimentary portions of existence. Now our social being is so intensified during the first of these periods, that whoso should write the history of a man's breakfasts or dinners or suppers would give a perfect picture of his most important social qualities, conditions, and actions, and might omit the non-alimentary portion of his life altogether from consideration. Thus I trust that the breakfasts of which you have had some records have given you a pretty clear idea, not only of myself, but of those more interesting friends and fellow-boarders of mine to whom I have introduced you, and with some of whom, in company with certain new acquaintances, my friend the Professor will keep you in relation during the following year. So you see that over the new table-cloth which is going to be spread there may very possibly be a new drama of life enacted; but all that, if it should be so, is incidental and by the way;—for what the Professor wishes particularly to do, and means to do, is to talk about life and men and things and books and thoughts; but if there should be anything better than talk occurring before his eyes, either at the small world of the breakfast-table or in the greater world without, he holds himself at liberty to relate it or discourse upon it.

I suppose the Professor will receive a good many letters, as I did, containing suggestions, counsel, and articles in prose and verse for publication. He desires me to state that he is very happy to hear from known and unknown friends, provided they will not mistake him for an editor, and will not be offended if their communications are not made the subject of individual notice. There may be times when, having nothing to say, he will be very glad to print somebody's note or copy of verses; I don't think it very likely; for life, is short, and the world is brimful, and rammed down hard, with strange things worth seeing and telling, and Mr. Worcester's great Quarto Dictionary is soon coming out, crammed with all manner of words to talk with,—so that the Professor will probably find little room, except for an answer to a question now and then, or the acknowledgment of some hint he may have thought worth taking.

 

———The speaker shut himself off like a gas-burner at this point, and the company soon dispersed. I sauntered down to the landlady's, and obtained from her the following production from the papers left by the gentleman, whose pen, ranging from grave to gay, from lively to severe, has held the mirror up to Nature, and given the form and pressure of his thoughts and feelings for the benefit of the numerous and constantly-increasing multitudes of readers of the "Oceanic Miscellany," a journal which has done and is doing so much for the gratification and improvement of the masses.

 

A Poem from the Autocrat's Lose Papers.

[I find the following note written in pencil on the MSS.—Reporter Oc. Misc.]

This is a true story. Avis, Avise, or Avice, (they pronounce it Arris,) is a real breathing person. Her home is not more than an hour and a half's space from the palaces of the great ladies who might like to look at her. They may see her and the little black girl she gave herself to, body and soul, when nobody else could bear the sight of her infirmity,—leaving home at noon, or even after breakfast, and coming back in season to undress for the evening's party.

 

AVIS.

 

I may not rightly call thy name,—
Alas! thy forehead never knew
The kiss that happier children claim,
Nor glistened with baptismal dew.

Daughter of want and wrong and woe,
I saw thee with thy sister-band,
Snatched from the whirlpool's narrowing flow
By Mercy's strong yet trembling hand.

—"Avis!"—With Saxon eye and cheek,
At once a woman and a child,
The saint uncrowned I came to seek
Drew near to greet us,—spoke and smiled.

God gave that sweet sad smile she wore
All wrong to shame, all souls to win,—
A heavenly sunbeam sent before
Her footsteps through a world of sin.

—"And who is Avis?"—Hear the tale
The calm-voiced matrons gravely tell,—
The story known through all the vale
Where Avis and her sisters dwell.

With the lost children running wild,
Strayed from the hand of human care,
They find one little refuse child
Left helpless in its poisoned lair.

The primal mark is on her face,—
The chattel-stamp,—the pariah-stain
That follows still her hunted race,—
The curse without the crime of Cain.

How shall our smooth-turned phrase relate
The little suffering outcast's ail?
Not Lazarus at the rich man's gate
So turned the rose-wreathed revellers pale.

Ah, veil the living death from sight
That wounds our beauty-loving eye!
The children turn in selfish fright,
The white-lipped nurses hurry by.

Take her, dread Angel! Break in love
This bruised reed and make it thine!—
No voice descended from above,
But Avis answered, "She is mine."

The task that dainty menials spurn
The fair young girl has made her own;
Her heart shall teach, her hand shall learn
The toils, the duties yet unknown.

So Love and Death in lingering strife
Stand face to face from day to day,
Still battling for the spoil of Life
While the slow seasons creep away.

Love conquers Death; the prize is won;
See to her joyous bosom pressed
The dusky daughter of the sun,—
The bronze against the marble breast!

Her task is done; no voice divine
Has crowned her deed with saintly fame;
No eye can see the aureole shine
That rings her brow with heavenly flame.

Yet what has holy page more sweet,
Or what had woman's love more fair
When Mary clasped her Saviour's feet
With flowing eyes and streaming hair?

Meek child of sorrow, walk unknown.
The Angel of that earthly throng,
And let thine image live alone
To hallow this unstudied song!

 

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.