“The Autocrat of the Modern Breakfast-Table: Showing Just How Far Oliver Wendell Holmes Would Get Today” (E30)

  • Originally printed: Vanity Fair, December 1917
  • First reprinted in: Never Reprinted
  • Original Byline: Brighton Perry


Another early Benchley effort published under the Brighton Perry moniker (an alter-ego necessitated by Vanity Fair’s official policy of one-item-per-issue for its writers). Here, the author imagines the fate of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s Yankee Sage figure when transplanted from his Mid-Victorian boarding house to an analogous establishment during the go-go war year of 1917. Despite every intention of imposing his brand of pseudo-philosophical monologue upon the new century, the Autocrat finds himself, not deposed, but rather lost in a dissonant swarm of similarly single-minded speakers sloughing their own half-baked thoughts all over the morning meal.

Doing his level best to elevate the conversation by seizing upon the various bits of chaff for thought offered by his media-conspiracy, inflation, and alcohol-addled tablemates, the Autocrat is thwarted time and time again by some new eruption from another untoward quarter. Finally, the commuter train and the telephone clear the room, leaving him alone with thoughts that a new generation (Autocrats all!) doesn’t even have the attention span to ignore.

Favourite Moment:
“How often that is the case in this life,” I began again. “The man who has influence, wields it, and the man who has no influence, has none to wield. There used to be an old proverb that whoever ate of the tree of the magnesia-berry—”

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