The first number of The Atlantic Monthly appeared in Boston in November, 1857. The new magazine was the voice of a New England literary culture previously heard only faintly and sporadically in such periodicals as The Monthly Anthology and The North American Review. Now it was as though, some magic spell having suddenly been broken, it was being permitted to speak in its full strength. By common consent, the single most engaging voice in its pages was that of Oliver Wendell Holmes, a contributor in whom could already be recognized "one of the most brilliant and versatile conversationalists of modern time the Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, one who invented a new kind in literature,' a combination of poetry, psychical introspection, and practical philosophy, irradiated by delicate wit, gay humor, and irresistible drollery." "The reader of the Atlantic," said Francis H. Underwood, "always turned to the Autocrat' first."
Cover: Oliver Wendell Holmes delivering his epochal paper "On the Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever" to the Boston Society for Medical Improvement
Throughout the early years of The Atlantic, and then after the Civil War in its resumption in The Poet at the Breakfast Table, Holmes's breakfast table series would remain the monthly favorite of Atlantic readers.
From Eastbourne, England, Winifred Parnell: "There are not many great modern authors whose works are calculated to make young people feel happy and hopeful." From Edinburgh, Patrick J. Stirling Boyd, thanking Holmes for his "healthy and invigorating thoughts": "as I approached the end, I carefully portioned out the pages, as one would deal out the last handful of bread in a famished city." Or, from America, Laura Brownell Collier, sending to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a copy of a letter written to her by his father when she was a student at Vassar: "The Autocrat,' Professor' and Poet' were my joy. It seemed as if their author could understand and answer my troubled questionings."
The story of its origins in the nineteenth-century triumph of the physical sciencesLyell's Principles of Geology or Darwin's Origin of Species, along with such manifestos as Comte's Cours de philosophie positiveis a twice told tale. It has seldom been more memorably expressed than by St. Beuve in a passage Holmes copied into one of his notebooks: "Groan over it or not, as we may, Faith has disappeared. Science, let people say what they will, has destroyed it. It is absolutely impossible for vigorous, sensible minds, conversant with history, armed with criticism, studious of the natural sciences, any longer to believe in old stories and old Bibles. So let us men and women cease to be children as soon as possible; this will be a hard task to a great many womenand to a great many men too."
Yet the consequences for religious believers were devastating. Victorian "atheistic science" seemed to leave as the only rational alternative to religious belief an uncompromising materialism that explained away human consciousness and its customary preoccupationsart, religion, morality, logic, mathematics, philosophy, even scientific theories themselvesas mere epiphenomena of matter in its endless combinations. It was this materialism that weighed like a nightmare, as Thomas Henry Huxley sombrely remarked, on many of the best minds of the nineteenth century: "The advancing tide of matter threatens to drown their souls; the tightening grasp of law impedes their freedom; they are alarmed lest man's moral nature be debased by the increase of his wisdom."
By the time Holmes arrived in Paris, the notion of medicine as a pursuit solidly grounded in the achievements of modern physics and chemistry was well established. Medicine, the Paris clinical researcher J.B. Bouillaud could declare in 1836, has now "definitively constituted itself on the same bases as the other physical sciences, and . . . will have the right from now on to figure among the exact sciences." In such pro- nouncements we hear insistent echoes of La Mettrie's conception of the human body as a physical system answering to the same laws as the rest of the physical universe.
As an author, Holmes would declare that "Parisian" allegiance in such works as Mechanism in Thought and Morals. As a teacher, he would do so by constantly reminding his Harvard medical students that the doctor who comes to the bedside, no matter how religious he may personally be, is solely concerned with the anatomico-pathological basis of disease, that "no doctrine of prayer or special providence is to be his excuse for not looking straight at secondary causes." Yet for all his unwavering allegiance to "atheistic science"this is the apparent paradoxHolmes would never forsake an essentially theological perspective on the problem of human existence.
The solution to the
paradox is that Holmes's own studies at the École de Médecine
would suggest to him that atheism was only one possible conclusion
among others that could be just as legitimately drawn from the
new scientific materialism. The alternative view to which he
would then commit himself as a writerbased on the vis
medicatrix naturae and what I shall be calling Holmes' metaphysics
of consciousnessbegan in the new conception of diagnosis
and disease that originated in Xavier Bichat's brilliant researches
in tissue pathology at the Hôtel Dieu in Paris, which rendered
instantly obsolete the older humoral conception of disease that
had dominated medicine from the time of Hippocrates and Galen
to the end of the eighteenth century. . . .