From The Wit and Humor of America, edited by Marshall P. Wilder, Volume IV, New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls and Company, 1911; pp. 753-759.
THE AUTOCRAT OF THE BREAKFAST-TABLE
BY OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
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. A severe-looking person, who wears a Spanish cloak and a sad cheek, fluted by the passions of the melodrama, whom I understand to be the professional ruffian of the neighboring theater, alluded, with a certain lifting of the brow, drawing down of the corners of the mouth, and somewhat rasping voce di petti, to Falstaff’s nine men in buckram. 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, 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.
1. The real John; known only to his Maker.
2. John’s ideal John; never the real one, and often
Three Johns very unlike him.
3.Thomas’s ideal John; never the real John, nor
John’s John, but often very unlike either.
1. The real Thomas.
Three Thomases 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. Let us suppose the real John to be old, dull and ill-looking. But as the Higher Powers have not conferred on men the gift of seeing themselves in the true light, John very possibly conceives himself to be youthful, witty, and fascinating, and talks from the point of view of this ideal. Thomas, again believes him to be an artful rogue, we will say; therefore he is so far as Thomas’s attitude in the conversation is concerned, an artful rogue, though really simple and stupid. The same conditions apply to the three Thomases. 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 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 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.]754
“OUR SUMATRA CORRESPONDENCE.
“This island is now the property of the Stamford family, — having been won, it is said, in a raffle, by Sir —— Stamford, during the stock-gambling mania of the South-Sea Scheme. The history of this gentleman may be found in an interesting series of questions (unfortunately not yet answered) contained in the “Notes and Queries.” This island is entirely surrounded by the ocean, which here contains a large amount of saline substance, crystallizing in cubes remarkable for their symmetry, and frequently displays on its surface, during calm weather, the rainbow tints of the celebrated South-Sea bubbles. The summers are oppressively hot, and the winters very probably cold; but this fact cannot be ascertained precisely, as, for some peculiar reason, the mercury in these latitudes never shrinks, as in more northern regions, and thus the thermometer is rendered useless in winter.
“The principal vegetable productions of the island are the pepper-tree and the breadfruit-tree. Pepper being very abundantly produced, a benevolent society was organized in London during the last century for supplying the natives with vinegar and oysters, as an addition to that delightful condiment. [Note received from Dr. D. P.] It is said, however, that, as the oysters were of the kind called natives in England, the natives of Sumatra, in obedience to a natural instinct, refused to touch them, and confined themselves entirely to the crew of the vessel in which they were brought over. This information was received from one of the oldest inhabitants, a native himself, and exceedingly fond of missionaries. He is said also to be very skilful in the cuisine peculiar to the island.
“During the season of gathering the pepper, the persons 75 employed are subject to various incommodities, the chief of which is violent and long-continued sternutation, or sneezing. Such is the vehemence of these attacks that the unfortunate subjects of them are often driven backward for great distances at immense speed, on the well-known principle of the æolipile. Not being able to see where they are going, these poor creatures dash themselves to pieces against the rocks or are precipitated over the cliffs, and thus many valuable lives are lost annually. As, during the whole pepper harvest, they feed exclusively on this stimulant, they become exceedingly irritable. The smallest injury is resented with ungovernable rage. A young man suffering from the pepper-fever, as it is called, cudgeled another most severely for appropriating a superannuated relative of trifling value, and was only pacified by having a present made him of a pig of that peculiar species of swine called the Peccavi by the Catholic Jews, who, it is well known, abstain from swine’s flesh in imitation of the Mahometan Buddhists.
“The bread-tree grows abundantly. Its branches are well known to Europe and America under the familiar name of macaroni. The smaller twigs are called vermicelli. They have a decided animal flavor, as may be observed in the soups containing them. Macaroni, being tubular, is the favorite habitat of a very dangerous insect, which is rendered peculiarly ferocious by being boiled. The government of the island, therefore, never allows a stick of it to be exported without being accompanied by a piston with which its cavity may at any time be thoroughly swept out. These are commonly lost or stolen before the macaroni arrives among us. It therefore always contains many of these insects, which, however, generally die of old age in the shops, so that accidents from this source are comparatively rare.757
“The fruit of the bread-tree consists principally of hot rolls. The buttered-muffin variety is supposed to be a hybrid with a cocoanut palm, the cream found on the milk of the cocoanut exuding from the hybrid in the shape of butter, just as the ripe fruit is splitting, so as to fit it for the tea-table, where it is commonly served up with cold —”
—There, — I don’t want to read any more of it. You see that many of these statements are highly improbable. No, I shall not mention the paper. — No, neither of them wrote it, though it reminds me of the style of these popular writers. I think the fellow that wrote it must have been reading some of their stories, and got them mixed up with his history and geography. I don’t suppose he lies; he sells it to the editor, who knows how many squares off “Sumatra” is. The editor, who sells it to the public — by the way, the papers have been very civil — haven’t they? — to the — the — what d’ye all it? — “Northern Magazine,” — isn’t it? — got up by some of these Come-outers, down East, as an organ for their local peculiarities.
It is a very dangerous thing for a literary man to indulge his love for the ridiculous. People laugh with him just so long as he amuses them; but if he attempts to be serious, they must still have their laugh, and so they laugh at him. There is in addition, however, a deeper reason for this than would at first appear. Do you know that you feel a little superior to every man who makes you laugh, whether by making faces or verses? Are you aware that you have a pleasant sense of patronizing him, when you condescend so far as to let him turn somersets, literal or literary, for your royal delight? Now if a man can only be allowed to stand on a dais, or raised platform, and look down on his neighbor who is exerting his talent 758 for him, oh, it is all right! — first-rate performance! — and all the rest of the fine phrases. But if all at once the performer asks the gentleman to come upon the floor, and, stepping upon the platform, begins to talk down at him, — ah, that wasn’t in the program!
I have never forgotten what happened when Sydney Smith — who, as everybody knows, was an exceedingly sensible man, and a gentleman, every inch of him — ventured to preach a sermon on the Duties of Royalty. The “Quarterly,” “so savage and tartly,” came down upon him in the most contemptuous style, as “a joker of jokes,” a “diner-out of the first water,” in one of his own phrases; sneering at him, insulting him, as nothing but a toady of a court, sneaking behind the anonymous, would ever have been mean enough to do to a man of his position and genius, or to any decent person even. — If I were giving advice to a young fellow of talent, with two or three facets to his mind, I would tell him by all means to keep his wit in the background until after he had made a reputation by his more solid qualities. And so to an actor: Hamlet first, and Bob Logic afterward, if you like; but don’t think, as they say poor Liston used to, that people will be ready to allow that you can do anything great with Macbeth’s dagger after flourishing about with Paul Pry’s umbrella. Do you know, too, that the majority of men look upon all who challenge their attention, — for a while, at least, — as beggars, and nuisances? They always try to get off as cheaply as they can; and the cheapest of all things they can give a literary man — pardon the forlorn pleasantry! — is the funny-bone. That is all very well so far as it goes, but satisfies no man, and makes a good many angry, as I told you on a former occasion.
Oh, indeed, no! — I am not ashamed to make you laugh, occasionally. I think I could read you something 759 I have in my desk that would probably make you smile. Perhaps I will read it one of these days, if you are patient with me when I am sentimental and reflective; not just now. The ludicrous has its place in the universe; it is not a human invention, but one of the Divine ideas, illustrated in the practical jokes as kittens and monkeys long before Aristophanes or Shakespeare. How curious it is that we always consider solemnity and the absence of all gay surprises and encounter of wits as essential to the idea of the future life of those whom we thus deprive of half their faculties and then called blessed! There are not a few who, even in this life, seem to be preparing themselves for that smileless eternity to which they look forward, by banishing all gaiety from their hearts and all joyousness from their countenance. I meet one such in the street not unfrequently, a person of intelligence and education, but who gives me (and all that he passes) such a rayless and chilling look of recognition, — something as if he were one of Heaven’s assessors, come down to “doom” every acquaintance he met, — that I have sometimes begun to sneeze on the spot, and gone home with a violent cold, dating from that instant. I don’t doubt he would cut his kitten’s tail off, if he caught her playing with it. Please tell me, who taught her to play with it?”