The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table

The Professor in His Boat

23 October 2020

By John Schoonover

This illustration by Howard Pyle appeared in the second volume of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s Autocrat series published in 1882. In this pretense of various intellectual conversations and musings at a boarding house with an unnamed Professor, Holmes comments on, in both prose and poetry, a plethora of subjects relevant to the times, including rowing. The following are his thoughts, somewhat edited.

He begins with the sentence: “Now let us look at the conditions of rowing”…. Later he continues “Our boat, then is something of the shape of a pickerel, as you look down at his back, he is lying in the sunshine just where the sharp edge of the water cuts in among the lily pads. It is a giant pod, as one may say, – tight everywhere, except in a little place in the middle, where you sit….. Here you are then, afloat with a body a rod and a half long, with arms, or wings, as you may choose to call them, stretching more than twenty feet from tip to tip… This, in sober earnest, is the nearest approach to flying as man as ever made or perhaps ever will……. I dare not publicly name the rare joys, the infinite delights, that intoxicate me on some sweet June morning, when the river and bay are smooth as a sheet of beryl-green silk, and I run along ripping it up with my knife-edged shell of a boat, the rent closing after me like those wounds of angels which Milton tells of”.

Left: Howard Pyle; right: Oliver Wendell Holmes

Those poetic last “joys” are the envy of many scullers who experience that euphoric moment during a solitary row upon whatever water they float. This would have impressed Howard Pyle, America’s preeminent illustrator, author and mentor, who taught close to 140 students, men and women, at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia and at his studios in Wilmington, Delaware. Pyle’s faithful artistic adaptation of Holmes words plays homage to Pyle’s remarkable ability to embellish the text. Painting “en grisaille”, bereft of any colors, Pyle projects the radiant stillness described by Holmes, as the Professor pauses quietly amongst the lily pads. In all, Pyle rendered 28 illustrations for the Autocrat. Many can be found in the Delaware Art Museum. Others occasionally come on the market, as did The Professor in His Boat recently, but has sold.

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