THE AMERICAN MONTAIGNE.
IT must be pleasant for a man to make an afternoon call upon a nation, and find himself welcomed as a friend ; and that pleasure will certainly fall to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes
in his visit to this country. No literary American—unless it be Mr. Lowell, and we should not except even him—occupies pre- cisely the same place as Dr. Holmes in Englishmen's regard. They have the feeling for him which they had for Charles Lamb, Charles Dickens, and John Leech, in which admiration somehow blends into and is indistinguishable from affectionateness. Of the thousands who have read Dr. Holmes's productions, and the tens of thousands who have heard them read aloud, there is not one who would not be pleased if he heard of his pleasure, or grieved to be told authentically that he was in any suffering or heartache. With the majority, of course, his reputation is only that of a humoristic poet, who has made them laugh with the genuine, childlike enjoyment which now-a- days is begotten in grown Englishmen only of what a Scotch- man would call " wiselike " fun. It has happened by an odd accident to Dr. Holmes to enjoy in England a kind of popu- larity—profitless popularity, we fear, and yet not profitless if the kindly favour of a nation profits any one—such as is given only to the writer of a successful comedy, or the composer of a pleasant tune. Some years ago, all the world started penny- readings for the enjoyment and education of the ignorant, all the world sought for things wisely humorous to read aloud, and all the world leaped with a spring upon "The One-Horse Shay." It was found that all audiences, no matter how refined or how ignorant, without reference to occupation, and with no regard to age, understood that quaintly perfect joke, com.
prehended its dialect—which is, indeed, like an exaggeration or- caricature of the dialect of our own London suburbs, where, also,
they pronounce road "reaowd"—and were tickled beyond control by the predicament of that perplexed minister perched on the
pulverised relics of his chaise. It was those verses, of which their author probably thought nothing, and which, indeed, but for a certain separateness in their humour, suggesting, as humour so seldom does, that the writer smiles as he writes, are in themselves not much, which made Dr. Holmes's English fortune, and sent the cultivated in thousands to read " The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table," and to recognise in a moment, with a delight which, if he could but know it, would be better payment to Dr. Holmes than any niche in.
the temple of fame, an American Montaigne, a cool, wise speculator on the phenomena of life, in whom a pleasant humour only flavours and makes appetising keen insight and deep reflection. The humour was remarkable, for, like almost all humour which has permanently charmed English.
men, it was free from satire, yet bit deep, having in it that universality which is the note of the best humour of Shake- speare; but it was used not for itself, but only as a mordant_for thought, or occasionally to make grave thought seem lighter. Take, for instance, perhaps the best-known passage of "The Autocrat :"—
" I think, I said, I can make it plain to Benjamin Franklin here, that there are six personalities distinctly to be recognised 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 Three Johns. often 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.
a. 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, deli, 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 con- ceives 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 va this un- lettered Johannes. He appropriated the three that remained in the basket, remarking that there was jest one a-piece for him. I con- vinced him that his practical inference was hasty and illogical, but in the meantime be had eaten the peaches."1" The jest there, which, simple and obvious as it is, yet com- pletes the argument by asserting John's unity after all, is clearly intended to prevent the wisdom of the thought from seeming heavy; and the little book is full of such passages, which we read with involuntary and most pleasurable laughter, yet with a feeling that we have gained either in wisdom or in that knowledge which is the equivalent of long personal experience. Or take, merely because we have opened upon it, this more serious reverie on the cause of suicidal mania, and of the passion for drink when it is, as often happens, especially after great misfortune, developed suddenly :— " If we could only get at them, as we lie on our pillows and count the dead beats of thought after thought and image after image jar- ring through the overtired organ ! Will nobody block those wheels, uncouple that pinion, cut the string that holds those weights, blow up the infernal machine with gunpowder ? What a passion comes over us sometimes for silence and rest !—that this dreadful mechanism, unwinding the endless tapestry of time, embroidered with spectral figures of life and death, could have but one brief holiday ! Who can wonder that men swing themselves off from beams in hempen lassos ? —that they jump off from parapets into the swift and gurgling waters beneath ?—that they take counsel of the grim friend who has bat to utter his one peremptory monosyllable and the restless machine is shivered as a vase that is dashed upon a marble floor ? Under that building which we pass every day there are strong dungeons, where neither hook, nor bar, nor bed-cord, nor drinking- vessel, from which a sharp fragment may be shattered, shall by any chance be seen. There is nothing for it, when the brain is on fire with the whirling of its wheels, but to spring against the stone wall and silence them with one crash. Ab, they remembered that—the kind city fathers—and the walls are nicely padded, so that one can take such exorcise as he likes without damaging himself on the very plain and serviceable upholstery. If anybody would only contrive some kind of a lever that one could thrust in among the works of this horrid automaton and check them, or alter their rate of going, what would the world give for the discovery ?--From half a dime to a dime, according to the style of the place and the quality of the liquor —said the young fellow whom they call John."
We are writing a mere word of welcome to Dr. Holmes, and not a review of his books, and shall, therefore, say nothing of the wealth of witty and wise aphorisms which lies scattered through his writings, or of the marvellous skill with which he clothes ordinary characters in flesh and blood, and makes us sympathise with them as friends. We do not care about his super-ordinary characters, rather wearying of Iris and " the little gentle- man," regarding Helen, the teacher, as impossible, bracketing Bernard Langdon with Nicholas Nickleby as badly dressed lay-figures, and watching Elsie Venner as we might any other monstrosity ; but only Dickens ever surpassed Dr. Holmes in describing subordinate characters, the keeper of the boarding-house and "the old gentleman" in the "Autocrat," the Deacon and the Colonel, the " Principal of the Institoot," and above all, the Yankee "hired man," Abel Stebbins, in "Elsie Venner." We wish, however, as Dr. Holmes calls himself at once Poet, Professor, and Philosopher, to say a word upon the philosophy which runs in a steady stream through all his writings, and the drift of which is frequently mistaken. A vague idea, or beginning of an idea, which we trace, or fancy we trace, in all books of true American flavour, an idea that matter and spirit are more closely related than we habitually believe, becomes in Dr. Holmes's writings a clearly defined system of thought. He is not in the least a Materialist, still less a Determinist, holding, indeed, we should say, the old idea that the watch of itself proves the watchmaker ; but he has learned in his profession to recognise the force of tendencies, hereditary or other, and of circumstances, such as early poverty or the like, till he believes that free will, though perfect within its function, is limited in its range, and is even liable, in extreme cases, to be temporarily suspended.
Man with Dr. Holmes is free, but be cannot jump upon his own shadow, or get rid of the presence of any other environment. He remains responsible for meanness even if he was born on a "lean streak " of country ; but if he was so born, he will have a tendency to meanness to keep down, of which he can no more be wholly rid than of the shadow before mentioned. If, on the other hand, all circumstances predispose him to generosity of temperament, generosity, we mean, in the broad sense, the grand advantage of that temperament will be his without his own exertion. Dr. Holmes is perpetually dinning this truth into his readers, both when he is most serious and when he is wild with spirits. In the account of Colonel Sprowle's supper-party, for instance, which would be as farcical as any chapter in Albert Smith but for the thoughts embedded in the jesting, he says :- "' A little good wine won't hurt anybody,' said the Deacon. Plenty,—plenty,—plenty. There !' He bad not withdrawn his glass, while the Colonel was pouring, for fear it should spill ; and now it was running over.—It is very odd how all a man's philosophy and theology are at the mercy of a few drops of a fluid wbioh the chemists say consists of nothing but C 4, 0 2, H 6. The Deacon's theology fell off several points towards latitudinarianism in the course of the next ten minutes. He had a deep inward sense that everything was as it should be, human nature included. The little accidents of humanity, known collectively to moralists as sin, looked very venial to his growing sense of universal brotherhood and benevo- lence. It will all come right,' the Deacon said to himself,--' I feel a joyful conviction that everything is for the best. I am favoured with a blessed peace of mind, and a very precious season of good feelin' toward my fellow-creturs.' A lusty young fellow bappened•to make a quick step backward just at that instant, and pat his heel, with his weight on top of it, upon the Deacon's toes. Aigh ! What the d' d' didos are y' abaout with them great buffs o' yearn ?' said the Deacon, with an expression upon his features not exactly tbab of peace and good-will to man. The lusty young fellow apologised ; but the Deacon's face did not come right, and his theology backed round several points in the direction of total depravity."
And a few pages further on he gives us this striking sketch :— " The Doctor's hired man had not the manners of a French valet. He was grave and taciturn for the most part, he never bowed and rarely smiled, bat was always at work in the daytime and always reading in the evening. He was hostler, and did all the housework that a man could properly do, would go to the door or 'tend table,' bought the provisions for the family—in short, did almost everything for them but get their clothing. There was no office in a per- fectly appointed household, from that of steward down to that of stable-boy, which he did not cheerfully assume. His round of work not consuming all his energies, be must needs cultivate the Doctor's garden, which be kept in one perpetual bloom, from 'the blowing of the first crocus to the fading of the last dahlia. This garden was Abel's poem. Its half-dozen beds were so many cantos. Nature crowded them for him with imagery such as no Laureate could copy in the cold mosaic of language. The rhythm of alter- nating dawn and sunset, the strophe and antistrophe still percepthole through all the sudden shifts of our dithyrambic seasons and echoed in corresponding floral harmonies, made melody in the soul of Abel, the plain serving-man. It softened his whole otherwise rigid aspect. He worshipped God according to the strict way of bis fathers; but a florist's Puritanism is always coloured by the petals of his flowers,— and Nature never shows him a black corolla."
Dr. Holmes does not mean that theology is an illusion and man the creature of circumstances, but that man is so con- stituted, that even his theology is affected by circumstances, as every man who ever wrote a sermon in bad weather will sorrow- fully acknowledge to be true. It was to develop this idea that he wrote that extraordinary romance, " Elsie Venner," which, so many people find to be unpleasant. It had to be unpleasant, for Dr. Holmes wished to use as the most powerful illustration of his theory, the possibility of an influence from outside—the bite of a snake while the mother was pregnant—causing con- genital, and for a time irresistible, impulses in the child, modifying and spoiling an entire life, influences so much stronger than-the will, that till released from their bondage by the near approach of death, and the consequent suspension of all material- in- fluence, Elsie was never really free. The book was at once denounced as Materialist; but no one who reads it attentively will doubt that Dr. Holmes believed the will, when sane, to be free, the soul to be independent of its surroundings, and -the body to contain a spirit which can be imprisoned, but not die. The temptation which besets the artist may have induced him, has induced him, even on his own hypothesis, to exaggerate Elsie's slavery ; but the total drift is unmis- takeable. Dr. Holmes's deductions from his theory are, first, the wisdom of an almost limitless tolerance for human beings as for immortals bound during the short time we see them in cramping fetters ; and, secondly, Universalism, the soul regaining with its release from the conditions of earth the character, or the possibility of acquiring the character, which the Creator meant it to possess. The theory has its dangerous side, but its result with Dr. Holmes, as we once heard a very young critic say, is to make him the " friendliest of all philo- sophers," and the most genial of the thinkers who fully admit that, whether original sin is true or not, man sins and must be cleaned. He wants the Devil to be heard at the bar, he says, not that he may plead that sin is sinless, but that the prosecutor may know what the temptation to sin is, and so waste no blow in air.