Preface

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.


Yet it was not only their witty exuberance that won the Breakfast Table books a loyal readership. Throughout his literary career Holmes would get letters—"I have thanked . . . thousands," he says in a late preface, "and many thousands of these kind correspondents."— expressing deep gratitude for the spiritual comfort they had given readers. So, for instance, from Birmingham, England, one Ernest T. Phipson, who had come across the trilogy when "in a state of great depression": "your books were . . . the source of incalculable enjoyment and delight." It must be pleasing to an author, remarked Phipson, to know that "thousands of men and women in all parts of the world . . . are lastingly the better and the happier for what he has written."

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."


In such letters we glimpse the uneasy stirrings of what we have learned to recognize as Victorian religious anxiety, a deep misery of mind or spirit less psychological—what we should today call clinical depression—than existential: a lived experience of the bleak sense of meaninglessness that sets in when one has awakened to find oneself living in a blind physical universe utterly oblivious to mind or spirit or imagination.

The story of its origins in the nineteenth-century triumph of the physical sciences—Lyell's Principles of Geology or Darwin's Origin of Species, along with such manifestos as Comte's Cours de philosophie positive—is 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 women—and to a great many men too."


The source of St. Beuve's anguish is less science as such than the doctrines of scientific materialism that had been proclaimed in the later eighteenth century in works like Holbach's Système de la nature. These same materialist doctrines are what the philosopher Henry Sidgewick would have in mind in speaking, in St. Beuve's own time, of "atheistic science," meaning something purely neutral and descriptive, a simple recognition that the universe brought into view in Newton's Principia in the seventeenth century seemed every day more obviously to be nothing more than a blind whirl of matter governed by purely physical laws.

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 preoccupations—art, religion, morality, logic, mathematics, philosophy, even scientific theories themselves—as 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."


This is the background against which Oliver Wendell Holmes's Paris medical studies in the early 1830s assume so crucial an importance, not simply for an understanding of the Breakfast Table series but of Victorian intellectual culture as a whole. For the clinical studies into which Holmes entered at the École de Médecine had their origin in precisely the sort of scientific materialism associ- ated with eighteenth-century philosophes like Helvetius and Holbach, and, perhaps most significantly, with La Mettrie's L'homme machine—‘man as a machine'—written by a physician who had studied at Leyden with the famous Boerhaave.

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.


The problem posed by Holmes's studies at the École de Médecine turns on an apparent paradox. Holmes arrived in Paris at a moment when Lyell's Principles of Geology had only recently appeared, counterposing to the Biblical account of Creation a compelling and disturbing argument in favor of millions of years of evolutionary time. Having absorbed the lessons of his Paris teachers, as well as those suggested by visits to the zoological exhibits at the Jardin des Plantes— human and primate skeletons ranged side by side in museum cabinets, silently pointing to what already seemed to many thoughtful observers an obvious conclusion—Holmes would return from Paris with a lifelong allegiance to the views later to be associated in the popular mind with works like Chamber's Vestiges of Creation and Darwin's Origin of Species.

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 paradox—Holmes 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 writer—based on the vis medicatrix naturae and what I shall be calling Holmes' metaphysics of consciousness—began 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. . . .

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Oliver Wendell Holmes in Paris