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Oliver Wendell Holmes
III.
by Howells, William Dean


He seemed not to mind, however, climbing to the little apartment we had in Boston when we came there in 1866, and he made this call upon us in due form, bringing Mrs. Holmes with him as if to accent the recognition socially. We were then incredibly young, much younger than I find people ever are nowadays, and in the consciousness of our youth we felt, to the last exquisite value of the fact, what it was to have the Autocrat come to see us; and I believe he was not displeased to perceive this; he liked to know that you felt his quality in every way. That first winter, however, I did not see him often, and in the spring we went to live in Cambridge, and thereafter I met him chiefly at Longfellow's, or when I came in to dine at the Fieldses', in Boston. It was at certain meetings of the Dante Club, when Longfellow read aloud his translation for criticism, and there was supper later, that one saw the doctor; and his voice was heard at the supper rather than at the criticism, for he was no Italianate. He always seemed to like a certain turn of the talk toward the mystical, but with space for the feet on a firm ground of fact this side of the shadows; when it came to going over among them, and laying hold of them with the band of faith, as if they were substance, he was not of the excursion. It is well known how fervent, I cannot say devout, a spiritualist Longfellow's brother-in-law, Appleton, was; and when he was at the table too, it took all the poet's delicate skill to keep him and the Autocrat from involving themselves in a cataclysmal controversy upon the matter of manifestations. With Doctor Holmes the inquiry was inquiry, to the last, I believe, and the burden of proof was left to the ghosts and their friends. His attitude was strictly scientific; he denied nothing, but he expected the supernatural to be at least as convincing as the natural.

There was a time in his history when the popular ignorance classed him with those who were once rudely called infidels; but the world has since gone so fast and so far that the mind he was of concerning religious belief would now be thought religious by a good half of the religious world. It is true that he had and always kept a grudge against the ancestral Calvinism which afflicted his youth; and he was through all rises and lapses of opinion essentially Unitarian; but of the honest belief of any one, I am sure he never felt or spoke otherwise than most tolerantly, most tenderly. As often as he spoke of religion, and his talk tended to it very often, I never heard an irreligious word from him, far less a scoff or sneer at religion; and I am certain that this was not merely because he would have thought it bad taste, though undoubtedly he would have thought it bad taste; I think it annoyed, it hurt him, to be counted among the iconoclasts, and he would have been profoundly grieved if he could have known how widely this false notion of him once prevailed. It can do no harm at this late day to impart from the secrets of the publishing house the fact that a supposed infidelity in the tone of his story The Guardian Angel cost the Atlantic Monthly many subscribers. Now the tone of that story would not be thought even mildly agnostic, I fancy; and long before his death the author had outlived the error concerning him.

It was not the best of his stories, by any means, and it would not be too harsh to say that it was the poorest. His novels all belonged to an order of romance which was as distinctly his own as the form of dramatized essay which he invented in the Autocrat. If he did not think poorly of them, he certainly did not think too proudly, and I heard him quote with relish the phrase of a lady who had spoken of them to him as his " medicated novels." That, indeed, was perhaps what they were; a faint, faint odor of the pharmacopoeia clung to their pages; their magic was scientific. He knew this better than any one else, of course, and if any one had said it in his turn he would hardly have minded it. But what he did mind was the persistent misinterpretation of his intention in certain quarters where he thought he had the right to respectful criticism in stead of the succession of sneers that greeted the successive numbers of his story; and it was no secret that he felt the persecution keenly. Perhaps he thought that he had already reached that time in his literary life when he was a fact rather than a question, and when reasons and not feelings must have to do with his acceptance or rejection. But he had to live many years yet before he reached this state. When he did reach it, happily a good while before his death, I do not believe any man ever enjoyed the like condition more. He loved to feel himself out of the fight, with much work before him still, but with nothing that could provoke ill-will in his activities. He loved at all times to take himself objectively, if I may so express my sense of a mental attitude that misled many. As I have said before, he was universally interested, and he studied the universe from himself. I do not know how one is to study it otherwise; the impersonal has really no existence; but with all his subtlety and depth he was of a make so simple, of a spirit so naive, that he could not practise the feints some use to conceal that interest in self which, after all, every one knows is only concealed. He frankly and joyously made himself the starting-point in all his inquest of the hearts and minds of other men, but so far from singling himself out in this, and standing apart in it, there never was any one who was more eagerly and gladly your fellow-being in the things of the soul.

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