- Oliver Wendell Holmes - Boston Brahmin [Biography]
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Outlines of English and American Literature
Oliver Wendell Holmes
by Long, William J.

It is a sad fate for a writer to be known as a humorist; nobody will take him seriously ever afterward. Even a book suffers from such a reputation, the famous Don Quixote for example, which we read as a type of extravagant humor but which is in reality a tragedy, since it portrays the disillusionment of a man who believed the world to be like his own heart, noble and chivalrous, and who found it filled with villainy. Because Holmes (who was essentially a moralist and a preacher) could not repress the bubbling wit that was part of his nature, our historians must set him down as a humorist and name the "One-Hoss Shay" as his most typical work. Yet his best poems are as pathetic as "The Last Leaf," as sentimental as "The Voiceless," as patriotic as "Old Ironsides," as worshipful as the "Hymn of Trust," as nobly didactic as "The Chambered Nautilus"; his novels are studies of the obscure problems of heredity, and his most characteristic prose work, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, is an original commentary on almost everything under the sun.

Evidently we prize a laugh above any other product of literature, and because there is a laugh or a smile hidden in many a work of Holmes he must still keep the place assigned to him as an "American" humorist. Even so, he is perhaps our most representative writer in this field; for he is as thoroughly American as a man can be, and his rare culture and kindness are in refreshing contrast to the crude horseplay or sensationalism that is unfortunately trumpeted abroad as New World humor.

A Placid Life

Though Holmes never wrote a formal autobiography he left a very good reflection of himself in his works, and it is in these alone that we become acquainted with him,--a genial, witty, observant, kind-hearted and pure-hearted man whom it is good to know.

He belonged to what he called "the Brahmin caste" of intellectual aristocrats (as described in his novel, Elsie Venner), for he came from an old New England family extending back to Anne Bradstreet and the governors of the Bay Colony. He was born in Cambridge; he was educated at Andover and Harvard; he spent his life in Boston, a city which satisfied him so completely that he called it "the hub of the solar system." Most ambitious writers like a large field with plenty of change or variety, but Holmes was content with a small and very select circle with himself at the center of it.

For his profession he chose medicine and studied it four years, the latter half of the time in Paris. At that period his foreign training was as rare in medicine as was Longfellow's in poetry. He practiced his profession in Boston and managed to make a success of it, though patients were a little doubtful of a doctor who wrote poetry and who opened his office with the remark that "small fevers" would be "gratefully received." Also he was for thirty-five years professor of anatomy at the Harvard Medical School. What with healing or teaching or learning, this doctor might have been very busy; but he seems to have found plenty of leisure for writing, and the inclination was always present. "Whoso has once tasted type" he said, "must indulge the taste to the end of his life."

The Writer

His literary work began at twenty-one, when he wrote "Old Ironsides" in protest against the order to dismantle the frigate Constitution, which had made naval history in the War of 1812. That first poem, which still rings triumphantly in our ears, accomplished two things: it saved the glorious old warship, and it gave Holmes a hold on public attention which he never afterward lost. During the next twenty-five years he wrote poetry, and was so much in demand to furnish verses for special occasions that he was a kind of poet-laureate of his college and city. He was almost fifty when the Atlantic Monthly was projected and Lowell demanded, as a condition of his editorship, that Holmes be engaged as the first contributor. Feeling in the mood for talk, as he commonly did, Holmes responded with The Autocrat. Thereafter he wrote chiefly in prose, making his greatest effort in fiction but winning more readers by his table talk in the form of essays. His last volume, Over the Teacups, appeared when he was past eighty years old.

Pet Prejudices

We have spoken of the genial quality of Holmes as revealed in his work, but we would hardly be just to him did we fail to note his pet prejudices, his suspicion of reformers, his scorn of homeopathic doctors, his violent antipathy to Calvinism. Though he had been brought up in the Calvinistic faith (his father was an old-style clergyman), he seemed to delight in clubbing or satirizing or slinging stones at it. The very mildest he could do was to refer to "yon whey-faced brother" to express his opinion of those who still clung to puritanic doctrines. Curiously enough, he still honored his father and was proud of his godly ancestors, who were all stanch Puritans. The explanation is, of course, that Holmes never understood theology, not for a moment; he only disliked it, and was consequently sure that it must be wrong and that somebody ought to put an end to it. In later years he mellowed somewhat. One cannot truthfully say that he overcame his prejudice, but he understood men better and was inclined to include even reformers and Calvinists in what he called "the larger humanity into which I was born so long ago."

Works of Holmes

In the field of "occasional" poetry, written to celebrate births, dedications, feasts and festivals of every kind, Holmes has never had a peer among his countrymen. He would have made a perfect poet-laureate, for he seemed to rise to every occasion and have on his lips the right word to express the feeling of the moment, whether of patriotism or sympathy or sociability. In such happy poems as "The Boys," "Bill and Jo," "All Here" and nearly forty others written for his class reunions he reflects the spirit of college men who gather annually to live the "good old days" over again. [Footnote: It may add a bit of interest to these poems if we remember that among the members of the Class of '29 was Samuel Smith, author of "America," a poem that now appeals to a larger audience than the class poet ever dreamed of.] He wrote also some seventy other poems for special occasions, the quality of which may be judged from "Old Ironsides," "Under the Violets," "Grandmother's Story" and numerous appreciations of Lowell, Burns, Bryant, Whittier and other well-known poets.

Among poems of more general interest the best is "The Chambered Nautilus," which some read for its fine moral lesson and others for its beautiful symbolism or almost perfect workmanship. Others that deserve to be remembered are "The Last Leaf" (Lincoln's favorite), "Nearing the Snow Line," "Meeting of the Alumni," "Questions and Answers" and "The Voiceless,"--none great poems but all good and very well worth the reading.

Humorous Poems

"The Deacon's Masterpiece, or the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay" is the most popular of the humorous poems. Many readers enjoy this excellent skit without thinking what the author meant by calling it "a logical story." It is, in fact, the best pebble that he hurled from his sling against his bÍte noire; for the old "shay" which went to pieces all at once was a symbol of Calvinistic theology. That theology was called an iron chain of logic, every link so perfectly forged that it could not be broken at any point. Even so was the "shay" built, unbreakable in every single part; but when the deacon finds himself sprawling and dumfounded in the road beside the wrecked masterpiece the poet concludes:

  End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
  Logic is logic. That's all I say.

Other typical verses of the same kind are "The Height of the Ridiculous," "Daily Trials," "The Comet" and "Contentment." In the last-named poem Holmes may have been poking fun at the Brook Farmers and other enthusiasts who were preaching the simple life. Poets and preachers of this gospel in every age are apt to insist that to find simplicity one must return to nature or the farm, or else camp in the woods and eat huckleberries, as Thoreau did; but Holmes remembered that some people must live in the city, while others incomprehensibly prefer to do so, and wrote his "Contentment" to express their idea of the simple life:

  Little I ask; my wants are few;
    I only wish a hut of stone
  (A very plain brown stone will do)
    That I may call my own;
  And close at hand is such a one,
  In yonder street that fronts the sun.

  I care not much for gold or land;
    Give me a mortgage here and there,
  Some good bank-stock, some note of hand,
    Or trifling railroad share.
  I only ask that Fortune send
  A little more than I shall spend.

The Autocrat

The most readable of the prose works is The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858), a series of monologues in which Holmes, who was called the best talker of his age, transferred his talk in a very charming way to paper. As the book professes to record the conversation at the table of a certain Boston boarding-house, it has no particular subject; the author rambles pleasantly from one topic to another, illuminating each by his wisdom or humor or sympathy. Other books of the same series are The Professor at the Breakfast Table, The Poet at the Breakfast Table and Over the Teacups. Most critics consider The Autocrat the best and The Poet second best of the series; but there is a tender vein of sentiment and reminiscence in the final volume which is very attractive to older readers.

The slight story element in the breakfast-table books probably led Holmes to fiction, and he straightway produced three novels, Elsie Venner, The Guardian Angel and A Mortal Antipathy. These are studies of heredity, of the physical element in morals, of the influence of mind over matter and other subjects more suitable for essays than for fiction; but a few mature readers who care less for a story than for an observation or theory of life will find The Guardian Angel an interesting novel. And some will surely prize Elsie Venner for its pictures of New England life, its description of boarding school or evening party or social hierarchy, at a time when many a New England family had traditions to which it held as firmly and almost as proudly as any European court.

The Quality of Holmes

The intensely personal quality of the works just mentioned is their most striking characteristic; for Holmes always looks at a subject with his own eyes, and measures its effect on the reader by a previous effect produced upon himself. "If I like this," he says in substance, "why, you must like it too; if it strikes me as absurd, you cannot take any other attitude; for are we not both human and therefore just alike?" It never occurred to Holmes that anybody could differ with him and still be normal; those who ventured to do so found the Doctor looking keenly at them to discover their symptoms. In an ordinary egoist or politician or theologian this would be insufferable; but strange to say it is one of the charms of Holmes, who is so witty and pleasant-spoken that we can enjoy his dogmatism without the bother of objecting to it. In one of his books he hints that talking to certain persons is like trying to pet a squirrel; if you are wise, you will not imitate that frisky little beast but assume the purring-kitten attitude while listening to the Autocrat.

First-Hand Impressions

Another interesting quality of Holmes is what we may call his rationalism, his habit of taking nothing for granted, of judging every matter by observation rather than by tradition or sentiment or imagination; and herein he is in marked contrast with Longfellow and other romantic writers of the period. We shall enjoy him better if we remember his bent of mind. As a boy he was fond of tools and machinery; as a man he was interested in photography, safety razors, inventions of every kind; as a physician he rebelled against drugs (then believed to have almost magical powers, and imposed on suffering stomachs in horrible doses) and observed his patients closely to discover what mentally ailed them; and as boy or man or physician he cared very little for books but a great deal for his own observation of life. Hence there is always a surprise in reading Holmes, which comes partly from his flashes of wit but more largely from his independent way of looking at things and recording his first-hand impressions. His Autocrat especially is a treasure and ranks with Thoreau's Walden among the most original books of American literature.


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