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The autocrat of the breakfast-table Paperback – October 22, 2010


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About the Author

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841–1935) was an American jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932. Noted for his long service, his concise and pithy opinions, and his deference to the decisions of elected legislatures, he is one of the most widely cited United States Supreme Court justices in history, particularly for his "clear and present danger" majority opinion in the 1919 case of Schenck v. United States, and is one of the most influential American common law judges. Holmes retired from the Court at the age of 90, making him the oldest Justice in the Supreme Court's history. He also served as an Associate Justice and as Chief Justice on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts and was Weld Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School, of which he was an alumnus. Profoundly influenced by his experience fighting in the American Civil War, Holmes helped move American legal thinking away from formalism and towards legal realism, as summed up in his maxim: "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience." Holmes espoused a form of moral skepticism and opposed the doctrine of natural law, marking a significant shift in American jurisprudence. As he wrote in one of his most famous decisions, his dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919), he regarded the United States Constitution as "an experiment, as all life is an experiment" and believed that as a consequence "we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death." During his tenure on the Supreme Court, to which he was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, he supported efforts for economic regulation and advocated broad freedom of speech under the First Amendment. These positions as well as his distinctive personality and writing style made him a popular figure, especially with American progressives, despite his deep cynicism and disagreement with their politics. His jurisprudence influenced much subsequent American legal thinking, including judicial consensus supporting New Deal regulatory law, pragmatism, critical legal studies, and law and economics. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 406 pages
  • Publisher: Nabu Press (October 22, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1172568480
  • ISBN-13: 978-1172568482
  • Product Dimensions: 7.4 x 0.8 x 9.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

Customer Reviews

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37 of 37 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 27, 2002
Format: Paperback
The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table is a demonstration of New England civility in the 1850s. I believe it went through more than 50 editions by the end of the nineteenth century, so it must have been very widely read at one time. The book is packed with amazing observations. Holmes takes the time to wonder why the sense of smell is the quickest path to memory. He rails against puns in a way that is better than punning. He points out human flaws and praises examples of good living. Trees come alive, through prosaic description and poetic flights. Would you like to go back to the 1850s and have a conversation with a Boston intellectual? Here's your chance. There are many old copies of this book sitting around, but it's nice that it's come back into print (again).... (it's also a quiet love story, by the way)
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34 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Panopticonman on May 19, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Two oral practices flourished in antebellum America: the lecture (or sermon) and the conversation. Lectures, such as Emerson's "The American Scholar" and sermons, such as the abolitionist sermons of Henry Ward Beecher, are well-known examples of this era. But it was also known as the Golden Age of Conversation, and its greatest practitioner was generally agreed to be Oliver Wendell Holmes, Senior.
Holmes was considered an important American writer until the 1920s when he was excised from the American canon by the modernists. They depicted him as willfully provincial, and elitist. What those critics failed to understand was that the Autocrat is also a comic pose, and that Holmes is making sport of everyone, including elitists. Holmes' democratic view of conversation as an open, free-wheeling discourse where anyone could join the Autocrat at his table, as long as they enlivened the conversation, ran counter to the views of his more elitist friends in Boston's Saturday Club in Boston. Holmes loved to talk, and his love for talk made him a democrat, or perhaps a true republican.
His Autocrat is a many sided character: stern and foolish, admonitory and celebratory, a polymorph who will don any temporaty mask necessary to keep the conversation alive. Holmes' playful metaphorical imagination is also a revelation. His gift for translating complex ideas into homey metaphors, aphorisms, and similes is nothing short of miraculous. In the words of another seriously comic American whom I'm sure Holmes would have delighted in, the Autocrat "floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee."
The Autocrat of the Breakfast table begins "in media res," in the middle of a conversation, with the Autocrat attempting to set the rules for conversation at his table.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 10, 2001
Format: Hardcover
The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table is a demonstration of New England civility in the 1850s. I believe it went through more than 50 editions by the end of the nineteenth century, so it must have been very widely read at one time. The book is packed with amazing observations. Holmes takes the time to wonder why the sense of smell is the quickest path to memory. He rails against puns in a way that is better than punning. He points out human flaws and praises examples of good living. Trees come alive, through prosaic description and poetic flights. Would you like to go back to the 1850s and have a conversation with a Boston intellectual? Here's your chance. There are many old copies of this book sitting around, but it would be nice if it came back into print.... (it's also a quiet love story, by the way)
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By jdh122 on October 28, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a delightful little work. Comprising a series of articles published in the Atlantic Monthly in the 1850s, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table is a rambling but never disjointed first-person narrative of "conversations" between the narrator (the "Autocrat" from the title) and his fellow boarders in a Boston boarding house. I use the term "conversations" because the work is primarily monological, with the other boarders chiming in only infrequently to interrupt the Autocrat's musings and observations.

The Autocrat is learned and urbane. He speaks intelligently on a diverse array of topics, including the rules governing the art of conversation (including the "pun-question", which he dismisses as "verbicide"), horse racing, writing, deja vu, the superior ability of the olfactory sense in recalling old memories, old age or "senectitude", laughter, poetry, knowledge, the benefits of rowing, boxing, hats, trees and other topics. Interspersed throughout the work are collections of verse as well.

While not a page-turner, I found myself reasonably engaged throughout the work with two exceptions: (1) there are a couple of passages in French (I have no French), one of which is fairly long and (2) the budding and finally flowering romance at the end of the work I found to be rather dull reading and somewhat superfluous, given the nature of the work.

While reading this book I felt as though I had escaped from my overly-structured, hectic existence - and the collection of (often vulgar) characters that pass uninvited across the stage of my life - to become a part of the much simpler yet richer world of the Autocrat. Time slowed down. Reflection and conversation were the order of the day. I realized with regret that the deliberate reflection that nourishes a flow of ideas, and from which yet new ideas oft emerge, had at some point been demoted in my own life to the status of a luxury.
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