The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table

The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table


That every articulately-speaking human being has in him stuff for ONE novel in three volumes duodecimo has long been with me a cherished belief.It has been maintained, on the other hand, that many persons cannot write more than one novel, - that all after that are likely to be failures.- Life is so much more tremendous a thing in its heights and depths than any transcript of it can be, that all records of human experience are as so many bound HERBARIAto the innumerable glowing, glistening, rustling, breathing, fragrance-laden, poison-sucking, life-giving, death-distilling leaves and flowers of the forest and the prairies.All we can do with books of human experience is to make them alive again with something borrowed from our own lives.We can make a book alive for us just in proportion to its resemblance in essence or in form to our own experience.Now an author's first novel is naturally drawn, to a great extent, from his personal experiences; that is, is a literal copy of nature under various slight disguises.But the moment the author gets out of his personality, he must have the creative power, as well as the narrative art and the sentiment, in order to tell a living story; and this is rare.

Besides, there is great danger that a man's first life-story shall clean him out, so to speak, of his best thoughts.Most lives, though their stream is loaded with sand and turbid with alluvial waste, drop a few golden grains of wisdom as they flow along.

Oftentimes a single CRADLING gets them all, and after that the poor man's labor is only rewarded by mud and worn pebbles.All which proves that I, as an individual of the human family, could write one novel or story at any rate, if I would.

- Why don't I, then? - Well, there are several reasons against it.

In the first place, I should tell all my secrets, and I maintain that verse is the proper medium for such revelations.Rhythm and rhyme and the harmonies of musical language, the play of fancy, the fire of imagination, the flashes of passion, so hide the nakedness of a heart laid open, that hardly any confession, transfigured in the luminous halo of poetry, is reproached as self-exposure.Abeauty shows herself under the chandeliers, protected by the glitter of her diamonds, with such a broad snowdrift of white arms and shoulders laid bare, that, were she unadorned and in plain calico, she would be unendurable - in the opinion of the ladies.

Again, I am terribly afraid I should show up all my friends.Ishould like to know if all story-tellers do not do this? Now I am afraid all my friends would not bear showing up very well; for they have an average share of the common weakness of humanity, which Iam pretty certain would come out.Of all that have told stories among us there is hardly one I can recall who has not drawn too faithfully some living portrait that might better have been spared.

Once more, I have sometimes thought it possible I might be too dull to write such a story as I should wish to write.

And finally, I think it very likely I SHALL write a story one of these days.Don't be surprised at any time, if you see me coming out with "The Schoolmistress," or "The Old Gentleman Opposite."[OUR schoolmistress and OUR old gentleman that sits opposite had left the table before I said this.] I want my glory for writing the same discounted now, on the spot, if you please.I will write when I get ready.How many people live on the reputation of the reputation they might have made!

- I saw you smiled when I spoke about the possibility of my being too dull to write a good story.I don't pretend to know what you meant by it, but I take occasion to make a remark which may hereafter prove of value to some among you.- When one of us who has been led by native vanity or senseless flattery to think himself or herself possessed of talent arrives at the full and final conclusion that he or she is really dull, it is one of the most tranquillizing and blessed convictions that can enter a mortal's mind.All our failures, our shortcomings, our strange disappointments in the effect of our efforts are lifted from our bruised shoulders, and fall, like Christian's pack, at the feet of that Omnipotence which has seen fit to deny us the pleasant gift of high intelligence, - with which one look may overflow us in some wider sphere of being.

- How sweetly and honestly one said to me the other day, "I hate books!" A gentleman, - singularly free from affectations, - not learned, of course, but of perfect breeding, which is often so much better than learning, - by no means dull, in the sense of knowledge of the world and society, but certainly not clever either in the arts or sciences, - his company is pleasing to all who know him.Idid not recognize in him inferiority of literary taste half so distinctly as I did simplicity of character and fearless acknowledgment of his inaptitude for scholarship.In fact, I think there are a great many gentlemen and others, who read with a mark to keep their place, that really "hate books," but never had the wit to find it out, or the manliness to own it.[ENTRE NOUS, Ialways read with a mark.]

We get into a way of thinking as if what we call an "intellectual man" was, as a matter of course, made up of nine-tenths, or thereabouts, of book-learning, and one-tenth himself.But even if he is actually so compounded, he need not read much.Society is a strong solution of books.It draws the virtue out of what is best worth reading, as hot water draws the strength of tea-leaves.If Iwere a prince, I would hire or buy a private literary tea-pot, in which I would steep all the leaves of new books that promised well.

Oliver Wendell Holmes