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Oliver Wendell Holmes, The deacon’s masterpiece: Or the wonderful “one-hoss-shay” (Review)

October 23, 2016
Oliver Wendell Holmes 1879

C1879, By Armstrong & Co. (Boston, Mass.), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Oliver Wendell Holmes is one of those wonderful names that, once you hear it, you can’t really forget it – at least, I can’t. But, the thing is, I often hear wonderful names of people who’ve “done things” without actually knowing what they’ve done. Oliver Wendell Holmes is one of these, and so when he popped up in the Library of America’s Story of the Week series a few months ago I made a note to check it out. The story – actually a narrative poem – has the title heading this post, with the additional subtitle, “A logical story”.

Holmes Sr – his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, became a Supreme Court judge – was one of those multi-talented men. Wikipedia says that he was a “physician, poet, professor, lecturer, and author” and that “his peers acclaimed him as one of the best writers of the day.” His friends included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which helps me put him into perspective. He was a medical reformer, and was dean of the Harvard Medical School. Indeed, Wikipedia reports that “his essay on puerperal fever has been deemed ‘the most important contribution made in America to the advancement of medicine'”. With this focus on medicine, there was a big gap between his early published writings in early to mid 1830s and his return to writing in the late 1850s, but he returned to it with vigour, so much so that, as Wikipedia says, he is now best known as “a humorist and poet”.

So now let’s get to the post’s topic. He returned to writing around the age of 50, encouraged by a friend to become a founding contributor to a new magazine, The Atlantic Monthly. He wrote a monthly column reviving his earlier creation, Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. LOA’s notes describe the column:

each piece is written as a table conversation monopolized by the unnamed Autocrat, with interruptions (including poetry, stories, and jokes) from other residents—including the Professor, the Landlady’s Daughter, the Schoolmistress, the Poet, the Old Gentleman, the Divinity-Student, “the young fellow called John,” and others. The new and improved “Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table” appeared in the debut issue of The Atlantic (November 1857) and immediately became the most popular feature in a magazine that boasted works by such celebrities as Emerson, Whittier, and Longfellow.

The eleventh column is the one the LOA published as their story of the week. It describes a “one-horse chaise” (the “one-hoss shay”) that is built to last. The poem became so popular, apparently, that it was published separately in 1892 as an illustrated book.

As the story goes, a deacon builds a one-hoss shay “in such a logical way” to ensure it would not break down. He uses the very best of materials – “the strongest oak/that couldn’t be split or bent or broke” – and makes sure there is no weak spot. The shay lasts for a hundred years:

Colts grew horses, beards turned grey,
Deacon and deaconess dropped away,
Children and grandchildren–where were they?
But there stood the stout old one-hoss-shay
As fresh as on Lisbon earthquake-day!

Built, then, on the day of the Lisbon earthquake, 1 November 1755, it breaks down while being ridden by the current parson on 1 November 1855:

How it went to pieces, all at once,–
All at once, and nothing first,–
Just as bubbles do when they first.

It is a delightful read in terms of tone, voice and rhyme. I particularly love that the rhyming pattern varies, which helps keep it fresh and the reader interested, and prevents it, I think, from reading like doggerel.

Conceptually, though, it’s also interesting: this idea that you could logically work out how to build something that won’t break. You find, as Holmes describes in his introduction to the illustrated edition, “what point any particular mechanism is likely to give way” and make sure that part/point doesn’t. Then you “find the next vulnerable place, and so on”, until you arrive “logically at the perfect result attained by the deacon”.

LOA describes the work as a “semi-farcical ode to Yankee ingenuity and New World rationality”, but also says it’s been seen “as an allegory on the demise of Calvinism”. LOA also says that “the poem’s fame was such that one-hoss shay became a term used in economics and statistics, designating ‘a capital asset that exhibits neither input decay nor output decay during its lifetime’.” However, in terms of economics, I can’t help thinking about his image of what “bubbles do when they burst”.

Describing his old age, and the fact that his friends – like Emerson, Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne – predeceased him, he apparently said “I feel like my own survivor … We were on deck together as we began the voyage of life … Then the craft which held us began going to pieces.” I wonder if in saying this he thought about his “one-hoss shay”!

Oliver Wendell Holmes
“The deacon’s masterpiece: Or the wonderful ‘one-hoss-shay’”
First published: The Atlantic Monthly, September 1858.
Available: Online at the Library of America

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2016 11:49 pm

    My family had gigs and buggies and drays but I never heard of a “shay” till this year (in DHL, the boy in the bush). More to the point, I haven’t read Holmes, but don’t you think that C19th English has a rhythm, a structure that modern English lacks?

    • October 24, 2016 12:01 am

      I guess it does, but I suppose every era has its sound? Perhaps to us boomerang [LATER: ‘boomers’ I meant] with our literary education those rhythms are appealing?

      • October 24, 2016 8:27 am

        Are you suggesting it was all that reciting of The Man from Snowy River. I don’t think I did The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck, but may have done A Host of Golden Daffodils.
        (I like the idea of being part of the baby boomerang generation!)

        • October 24, 2016 8:40 am

          Oh darn it, Bill. Auto correct strikes again. I need to watch more carefully. (Haha auto correct on this comment had “dam it” but that may not have sounded very polite!)

  2. October 24, 2016 10:04 am

    I’ve been packing up some of The Spouse’s family memorabilia, and came across a great sheaf of poems from the Indefatigable Grandparent. I suspect that turning a hand to poetry was something that many educated people did in the days before entertainment was ‘approved’ for the evening hours. Not all of them, I can testify, did it with talent equal to Oliver Wendell Holmes (Snr)!

    • October 24, 2016 11:14 am

      Haha, Lisa, no I expect not. But what an interesting reflection re people spending their time “in the olden days”. Makes sense.

      I guess we are in that age of packing up family memorabilia aren’t we.

      • ian darling permalink
        October 24, 2016 7:58 pm

        Oliver Wendell Holmes is one of those authors you can find in tattered condition in dusty corners of used bookstores – this post suggests that he is a writer worth taking a look at!

        • October 24, 2016 10:29 pm

          Love that description, Ian. Yes he is one of those. But, I see from this little taster that he would be well worth checking out a little more.

  3. October 25, 2016 4:53 am

    I knew he was a good friend of Emerson’s and I have read bits of letters but never any of his more creative work. Sounds like an entertaining poem/story!

    • October 25, 2016 8:27 am

      It’s a great story/poem Stefanie. And he was clearly a fascinating man moving in very interesting circles. I looked at the photo of him for a long time. It seems to show an intelligent man, but one with a quiet twinkle in his eyes.

  4. February 3, 2017 1:59 pm

    Holmes also writes in The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, slang is the blank check of intellectual bankruptcy

    • February 3, 2017 4:15 pm

      Thanks twhite48. I think The autocrat of the breakfast table is a collection of some of the Atlantic Monthly pieces?

      • February 4, 2017 1:49 am

        That explains it! I have known the book and the poem One Horse Shay for 50 years but did not know how it came about, the author as if pontificating at the breakfast table. One Horse Shay is a general metaphor and an engineering prescription for optimum design in the allocation of weight and material in a structure such as an aircraft fuselage. A recruiter for Boeing told me that to work as a structural engineer there I would only need to know MC/I, P/A and the meaning of One Horse Shay. https://everythingiknowaboutthatilearnedfrommysleddogs.wordpress.com/2016/02/18/more-sled-building-boo-boos/

        • February 4, 2017 8:38 am

          Well I didn’t know that twhite48, thanks … Adds another interesting dimension, doesn’t it.

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